New big game

Note: This essay was originally published in Paleo magazine

In the modern Paleo world we spend a lot of time talking about our heritage as hunters and gatherers. We like to imagine ourselves chasing down animals and picking out roots, nuts and berries for our daily fare. Much has changed in the modern world of course, but in spite of all the differences, our bodies are substantially the same as they’ve always been. Our genes, brains and senses still incline us towards gathering, tracking and hunting. We’re still hunter-gatherers by nature but today we hunt and gather some very different things. 

Sometimes we hunt and gather actual real-world objects like clothes and cars and houses. We go to great lengths to accumulate these objects, but much of the time we’re hunting and gathering symbols and abstractions, representations of the real world. Most notably, we track and hunt money, stocks, bonds, and other representations of wealth. But we also pursue certificates, degrees, credentials, trophies and Facebook “likes,” all of which are symbolic of our status and position. And of course, we hunt down data, facts and information, all of which promise to provide greater control and predictability over our world. 

This kind of hunting has its rewards but it also has a tragic downside that brings suffering to the body and the human experience. The problem is that we’ve taken the physicality out of hunting and gathering. Today’s hunt is cognitive, abstract and hyper-visual. Even worse, it’s almost completely independent of habitat and context. Our pursuit has become disconnected from the land itself and now, the lion’s share of our attention goes, not to the natural world or one another, but to the manipulation of bloodless and earthless shapes on a screen. It is no wonder that our bodies and spirits are suffering. It is no wonder that so few of us know anything about our natural surroundings. We are lost in the cloud, wandering a barren, sterile landscape of digits and algorithms. We are hunting ghosts.

In the process, we’ve sabotaged the circuitry of our brains. Under normal, evolutionary conditions, we feel a sense of pleasure in moving our bodies in pursuit of food, especially when we succeed. This satisfaction comes from ancient circuitry in our brains, circuitry that connects physical movement and striving with a sense of pleasure. Neuroscientist Kelly Lambert, author of Lifting Depression and The Lab Rat Chronicles, describes this as our “effort-based rewards system.” Under ancestral conditions, we go on long walkabouts, hunting and striving for an edible reward or we gather for hours on end, picking out small edibles here and there. But in either case, it’s physical labor. Our dopamine system goes into action as we anticipate the reward of fresh meat, nuts, roots or berries. We feel intense pleasure when we succeed, our physical efforts giving us a tangible and meaningful reward. This interplay between anticipation, physical engagement and reward keeps us healthy.

But today, we bypass the physicality of hunting and disrupt the effort-based reward circuit. Without physical striving, the system goes dormant and we become vulnerable to depression. Even if the numbers and symbols on the screen are favorable to our condition, the body isn’t really impressed. We’re left with a psychophysical vacuum, a hollow experience that fails to nourish our brains or our spirits. We swipe our credit and debit cards, press the “buy now” buttons and get a reward of sorts, but to the body, it means almost nothing. 

Of course, some of this abstracted, disembodied hunting is unavoidable. If we want to pay the rent, we’ve got to log some computer time, hunt some information and gather some abstractions. But if we’re going to stay sane and healthy, we’ve got to turn our attention and our efforts elsewhere. But if we can’t hunt real animals in authentic, ancestral conditions, what shall we pursue? 

The place to begin is with some real, tangible game, starting with authentic physical experience. We need to hunt and gather the sensations, experiences and relationships that feed our bodies and our spirits. Hunt the feeling of a sweating, striving body. Hunt the adversity and physical risk that comes with outdoor adventure. Hunt the feeling of a pounding heart and quivering muscles. Get your hands and feet into the act with gardening, cooking, woodworking, mountain climbing, massage and sex. 

But don’t stop there. Gather the experience of outdoor living: sunlight, terrain, plants and animals. Seek out authentic relationships. Hunt the immediacy of genuine face-to-face conversation with another human being. Gather new stories of success and resilience in the face of adversity.
In an age of sedentary work and living, we hunt physical experience. In an age of poisoned food supplies, we hunt new sources of healthy sustenance. In an age of ADHD, we hunt meaningful engagement and sustained, focused attention. In an age of environmental devastation, we hunt effective action for change and preservation. In an age of anxiety, stress and chaos, we hunt new narratives that show us how to live. Whatever you do, hunt something real, something big, something powerful and meaningful. It’s worth the chase.