Easy Living – Good or Bad for Brain Fitness?

If you talked to a person from the 1950s about all the modern marvels we have today they’d likely drool at the mouth. What? You don’t have to get up to change the TV channel? You can reheat leftovers in 1 minute? You can access any information at any time without leaving your house? No way!Be Careful What You Ask ForBut are our lives really getting any easier? Do all these time saving devices allow us to work less? Well, sort of. It certainly takes less work to do any specific task. When I was in graduate school writing my thesis, I thought of the poor slobs who had to do that without the aid of a computer or the internet. It must have taken people an entire day to go to the library to find references that I can now get in 10 minutes (God bless Google). The trade-off is that we are expected to do a lot more tasks as part of our normal day.I was reading an interesting paper by Kelly Lambert recently that put some of this into perspective as it may relate to rates of depression in our modern society. Even with all our modern conveniences, high-end medical care and plethora of designer drugs, we have a huge mental health crisis. In fact, today mental health accounts for about 15% of disease burden worldwide. So why are we so unhappy?

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The Thrill is in the ChaseDr. Lambert argues that one factor in our overall societal unhappiness is the fact that we have it too easy, especially when it comes to feeding ourselves. Years gone by, dinner was more than a phone-call away. We actually had to track our food across the tundra and risk death by saber-toothed tigers or violent weather, in order to feed ourselves. Even if we were successful, we had to do it again the next day. As time drew on, we learned it was much easier to plant food in the ground. But this still required intensive labor and patience to bring our sowing efforts to the fruition of harvest.All of this effort made the reward that much more enjoyable. The magnitude of the reward may actually depend on the magnitude of the effort required to achieve it. Meaning the harder we have to work for something, the more we enjoy it when we are successful. Since successfully finding food is a major factor in our survival, and we used to work very hard to stay fed, we had ample opportunity for regular high intensity rewards.Appreciate What You HaveToday, however, we take for granted this major facet of our lives. Finding food does not require much effort at all, at least for most of the lucky people living in our society. Because we don’t need to put out effort, we don’t activate reward centers in our brains that our ancestors activated on a regular basis. We are essentially robbing ourselves of a major ‘happiness factor’, and this, argues Dr. Lambert, may be a problem. It may be that today’s lack of regular reward, due to lack of necessary effort, may be a factor in high rates of depression.

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Whether or not she is right, I don’t know. She provides many examples and scientific studies to back up her argument and I thought it was a very interesting point worthy of a post. In fact, I have two cats that seem to agree with her. They are not content just eating their chow out of a dish. Instead, they enjoy scooping out one nugget at a time, batting it across the kitchen floor and then pouncing on their prey before eating it.There’s not really much we can do about this unless you want to pull a Grizzly Adams and drop out of society, move to the hills and live off the land. Alternatively, you could do all your grocery shopping in full camouflage, crawling around on your belly through the frozen food aisle. Or, maybe we can be more appreciative of what we have and not take all our modern conveniences for granted.Reference: Lambert, K.G. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 30 (2006) 497’510Copyright (c) 2008 BrainFit For Life