Thursday, February 25, 2010

How Eating Made Us Social

I was reading an old (2006) magazine called The Sun a couple of days ago. (Great periodical, by the way.) There was an excerpt from Michael Pollan's "instant classic" The Omnivore's Dilemma. In that section, he explains the meaning of omnivore, and describes in lucid, economical language how the human diet has shaped and been shaped by what we are. He points out that we have evolved social eating in part because we are highly varied eaters. We have so many choices out there, we are also apt to make mistakes. The emergence of solitary eating is a fairly recent one in our evolution.
I got to thinking how solitary eating is not just a quirk of modern life - like multitasking or 24/7 accessibility - it is a kind of revolution in the history of the human diet. Never before have so many people thought it perfectly normal to consume food stuffs alone. Of course, many feel weird walking into a nice restaurant to sit alone, but they will eat on the run, eat at home, or eat in fast-food emporia all by their little selves - without batting an eye. In fact, all around them may be other people reading or listening to personal music devices while ingesting some of their daily nutrients (or what passes for them).
We are meant to be social creatures for many reasons: the difficulty of childbirth, the challenge of rearing children, the hazards of hunting, and so on. But something as apparently benign as eating is more dangerous than it initially appears. Kings used to employ royal tasters to ensure that whatever they ate wasn't laced with poison from their enemies. Similarly, we have always eaten together to maximize the opportunity for learning from the "tasters" around us. If brave cousin Thad ate that pretty red fruit he discovered, and then keeled over from stomach poisoning, then you knew not to eat that fruit yourself. It was never enough to depend on nature - your taste buds, nose, eyes, memory - to save you from illness or a gruesome death. We have had to use culture - cuisines (optimal food combinations), taboos, preferences, legends & lore - to instruct us what to eat, how and when. Not only did that lower the death-by-nasty-surprise rate, it raised the nutrition & enjoyment of what we consumed.
Solo dining tosses that adaptation out the window. It could be another reason for the epidemic of obesity. If you eat alone, you probably eat more - and enjoy less. Is it another reason loneliness shortens your life span?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Insidious Busyness

We all take for granted that our world runs at a fast pace. In fact, it accelerates every year. Technology is obsolete almost before a gizmo is out of its packaging. People are on the go 24/7. Private time is almost an anachronism, what with GPS chips in the near-ubiquitous cell phone (something I may end up acquiring later this year, after resisting all this time), and the concept of all-access work and personal relationships. These new issues of time and space are bound to have unforeseen (or, at least, unplanned-for) repercussions.
For one, being busy distorts one's sense of priority. I have seen this in many people I know. They are forced to be expeditious due to 10-hour workdays, child-care demands, commutes, etc. They schedule almost the entire 24-hour period down to the minute. Try getting these people to add another responsibility to their list. Or, try asking them to do anything: they will see it as an unfair drain on their time and attention. (Often it is attention that is the precious commodity, especially when some tasks consume almost no time at all - or consume time otherwise wasted.) They get resentful, stressed, even self-righteous.
Busy people like these (and not all have this attitude towards task management) will be the last to adopt voluntary measures for the betterment of the community. For example, they may resent having to separate their garbage into true waste, recyclables, and compost - because they are just too busy, damn it! In reality, the extra bother involved barely requires another minute or two per disposal act (if the appropriate bins are nearby, of course). The issue is not time, as I say, but attention. While being busy genuinely alters cognitive function, a significant measure of self-permission factors into it all. ("I am a BUSY PERSON. I have BETTER THINGS to do than sort trash!")
Okay, you say, so the guy doesn't want to sort trash. He's a CEO with 3 kids, for crying out loud. Fair enough. But one household sending all its trash to the landfill is multiplied many times over in a society that does not value social responibility enough to allow people time to think outside of their million little survival and pseudo-survival tactics. The insidiousness of busyness is not only the way it shrinks a day, precluding valuable time with children or aging parents, or just a good soak in the tub alone. It's the way it shrinks the circle of concern.
Many people neglect the planet at large: it's just too abstract to love. More are apt to donate money to disaster victims or buy Fair Trade items, for example, to help strangers in other lands. More yet will aid their compatriots, and many more deem their local community important. Of course, family tends to get the highest level of concern.
But make someone busy, and he's going to start shutting down what matters, one concentric circle at a time. Companies that take a pound of flesh from their employees - threatening them with lay offs if they don't do overtime, for example - may end up ruining their family life as well as their community participation. In today's economy, people are so grateful to work, they will sacrifice almost anything to stay employed.
As more and more companies feel entitled to overwork their people, this trend will go viral. Like loneliness, this becomes contagious. Indeed, it is a kind of isolation - that we are manipulated into creating ourselves.
If your mind tends towards conspiracy theories, it's easy to see this as intentional: divide and conquer works well under dictatorships, so why not here? Does being a democracy protect us from deliberate social fragmentation? I think not.
The upside of the economic slump may be (and I try to be optimistic) a reassessment of human values. It may not lead to an up-tick in recycling, but it could mean more parks crowded with families on week-ends, just being together - and seeing other families doing the same. Get enough of that going on - for almost no money - and we may see rebirth of the cohesive, politically active community.

Friday, February 5, 2010

More Work on Social Networks

As can be seen to the right, I follow wunderkind Jonah Lehrer's blog, The Frontal Cortex. Yesterday's post was The Isolated Mind. He cites an article on grief, in a recent New Yorker, by Megan O'Rouke (which I have yet to read). Both she and he discuss the increased atomization of human society - more and more focused on the individual instead of the group. We are both brains - neurological systems which process inner and outer stimuli - and parts of larger systems of other brains (our own species, mainly, but arguably the brains of other species as well). Any study or belief system that examines either the individual or the group, while disregarding the other, misses a vital aspect of the human experience. I like what Lehrer says about how current research and social trends ignore the connections that define us, choosing to see us isolated minds instead.
But we are not meant to be alone: The private events inside the brain depend, in larger part, on where we are and who we are with. It reminds me of something Nicholas Christakis, who studies human social networks along with James Fowler, recently told me: "The story of modern science is the story of studying ever smaller bits of nature, like atoms and neurons," he said. "But people aren't just the sum of their parts. I see this research as an attempt to put human beings back together again."