Lisa Feldman Barrett is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University and author of How Emotions are Made. In a recent interview, she identified a necessary truth: “Your brain didn’t evolve for you to think and feel and see, it actually evolved for you to control your body.”
It’s a fact we too often neglect. We come to understand ourselves as conscious beings, imbued with depth of understanding and breadth of emotion that cannot be compared with any other species. And perhaps we are correct, but where do consciousness, insight, and emotion come from? They are born from the internal processes of our bodies.
We had motor systems before anything else. Professor Barrett notes that before our species had a cardiovascular system, an immune system, or any sensory systems at all, we could move. We had to. There was no poetry on the Precambrian planet. The complicated and impressive capacities of our brain evolved alongside our bodies – they are not separate, they grew as one complete unit, constantly adapting and enhancing to meet the demands of the environment. The was no mind-body connection, there was just us: we are both body and brain, inseparable since the first squirm of our species.
In light of this understanding, it is no surprise that when one exercises on a regular basis, connections in the brain strengthen and have the potential to expand. The opposite of that effect can be seen in the atrophy of an aging, more sedentary brain.
Active is good. Sedentary is bad. These obvious truths of biology have been neglected in the modern world.
“we are both body and brain, inseparable since the first squirm of our species.”
Schools too often ask students to sit down and be quiet. In other words, contradict their biological inclinations. Emotion regulation, delay-of-gratification, and other skills of cognitive control are essential, but there has to be a balance. A developmentally appropriate sit-move ratio seems logical, but an educational system designed to scale rarely considers such things.
To make matters worse, schools implicitly demand sleep-deprivation by creating structures which do not allow sufficient sleep opportunities, and work against circadian rhythms of adolescents (which differ from parents, teachers, and administrators). Sleep-deprived and sedentary, schools often allow small windows of opportunity for nutrition, and fill nearby vending machines and lunch-lines with preservative-laden “food” and snacks, contradicting the lessons they might have learned in health classrooms earlier that day.
If one is able to master the routine of poor nutrition, insufficient exercise, and regular sleep-deprivation, they might eventually get to go to college or get a job. The standard American workplace looks eerily similar to this system. A system which is undoubtedly limiting the potential of the American people.
Add to that the hockey-stick spike of technological advancement, which includes devices which constantly tug at the user’s attention, and we have created something unseen so far in the evolution of our species. Through a variety of physiological and psychological norms, we are undercutting our potential in ways we cannot possibly recognize.
“If you had to design an environment that would maximally stress the human nervous system, it would be this culture,” says Barrett. The worst environment for the human brain might be a slow simmering level of stress which never abates, as it is for some in the modern world.
Don’t worry, there’s hope.
If you are stuck in a self-degrading loop, recognize one thing: it’s not your fault. That is, until you understand the impact of your behavior. Once we recognize the value of our physiological wellness – going beyond standard notions of physical fitness to know our brains and bodies as one complete system – then we can begin to adapt our lifestyles accordingly. We can learn. We can adjust. We can educate.
Think back to your own education. Were you taught the true importance of sleep, that if you didn’t get a sufficient amount you’d likely have trouble concentrating, greater emotional reactivity, and make more errors at work? If not, you might also not realize that sleep deprivation leads to depression, heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. And if that is not alarming enough, consider that sleep deprivation is linked to the top two leading causes of death in adolescents: accidents (namely, car crashes) and suicide.
Neither brain nor body, when degraded through sleep-deprivation, can function well. It’s an obvious truth we often turn our backs to. If you didn’t know, now you know.
The next step is to make it a priority.
“We call it Bedrock. Solidify your foundation and build from there.”
Once you identify it as a priority, ask yourself a question, Does your Behavior match your Goal?
While it’s true that systems might not be optimized for the physical wellness of its participants, healthy habits are ultimately the decision of the individual. At the Good Athlete Project, we start with the basics: Eat, Move, Sleep. We call it Bedrock. Solidify your foundation and build from there.
Only once Bedrock (a constant progress) has found a healthy rhythm can we begin designing for optimal outcomes. For example, mindfulness has been gaining momentum in education as a tool to help students focus and regulate emotion. Many who practice mindfulness find it sufficiently rewarding. Barret clarifies that “Mindfulness buys you the capacity to easily shift the focus of your attention, which allows you to re-conceptualize easier. To predict better.” It seems to be a tool to enhance our ability to operate accurately within an immediate environment. It sounds like a valuable skill. Now try practicing mindfulness on three hours of sleep, or fueled by Cheetos and Mountain Dew – those positive effects are unattainable.
We should aim to be mindful, to be intentional. We should aim to understand stress – what it is and how to operate successfully in its presence. We cannot avoid it, but we can improve our ability to manage it. It is possible to “get your butterflies flying in formation,” says Professor Barrett, quoting a martial arts instructor who was impactful in her daughter’s life. Accurate assessment and subsequent reframing is a skill. It is a function of the mind, which is a product of the self.
So prioritize yourself. Start with the physical you. Then build.