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The Hunting Brain

Recognizing the Need to Feed Our Instincts

One could argue that hunting, in its broadest sense, is the most basic of human instincts. Our brains are hardwired from the beginning to find nourishment. The only greater need is that of oxygen! A baby ‘hunts’ for the breast minutes after birth, and from there a significant portion of a child’s education involves learning increasingly sophisticated ways of obtaining food. 

Humans created a distinction between hunting and gathering, but from the hungry brain’s perspective, this is arbitrary. Non-human omnivores, and humans through the vast majority of history, spend a huge amount of energy finding potential food, and then manipulating it in whatever way necessary to get it into their stomachs. Along the way, activities that deliver the largest volume of quality nutrition were naturally of more value to the brain. For millions of years, hunting and fishing were the only ways to obtain a large quantity of protein and fat at once, and so were assigned a large degree of evolutionary ‘cred’. 

This is the basis for the recent popularity of ‘hunter-gatherer’ and ‘caveman’ diets: a growing understanding that it may be a good idea to fuel our bodies the way they were designed to be fueled! This means more than composition of the fuel - it encompasses the way it’s obtained, and how/where it’s prepared/consumed. It follows that if our brains developed to hunt, food that we’ve hunted ourselves would be reinforcing to our brains in ways beyond the actual delivery of protein and fat. 

Along with increased interest in a hunter-gatherer diet is a small but significant resurgence in the popularity of hunting. As a psychiatrist, I’m increasingly convinced that just as we can only be physically strong by eating and moving in ways consistent with how we are ‘built’, we can only be mentally and emotionally balanced by thinking and behaving in ways consistent with how we are ‘wired.’There is often an enormous disconnect between what our brains have developed to do, and what we ask (or demand) them to do. If that disconnect becomes too great, or goes on too long, we suffer consequences: anxiety, depression, and self-destructive behaviors. 

Obviously, the idea is not to mimic too closely our ancestor’s behaviors (especially if we want to avoid incarceration), but to look at how those behaviors nourished their bodies and minds, and then figure out ways to accomplish the same goals while remaining…well, civilized. Hunters usually understand the benefits of obtaining their own food, even if they don’t routinely articulate them, even to themselves. Gardening (the other, always socially acceptable part of the hunter-gatherer duo) is widely regarded as nourishing to the body, mind, and soul. Even children are instinctively drawn to planting, nurturing, and consuming what they have grown. 

If you ask a gardener why they love the digging and watering and weeding, they’ll often say the same things a hunter would: “It’s basic and so satisfying”, or “It’s like meditation; I can forget my worries”, or “I love the idea of putting food on my own table.” Of course, the quality of food they raise is often much higher than what can be purchased at the grocery, but that alone isn’t enough to encourage most people to garden (there are easier ways to obtain quality produce). It’s the benefits to our minds and spirits that are the most important. It makes beautiful sense that something so beneficial to our physical health is also beneficial to our emotional well-being. 

Hunting is no different. In fact, it could be argued that hunting provides these benefits to an even higher degree. But because hunting isnt just dirty but also bloody; not just time-consuming but also violent; and not just harvesting but also killing; much of the population has decided it’s decidedly un-civilized. But here we’ve left our basic brains behind, forgetting that we’re just as hard-wired to hunt as we are to grow food; quite probably even more so.

So then, understanding the best way to keep our brains healthy seems to be a two-part process. The first step is understanding that ancestral, primitive parts of our brains are functioning much as they always have, and will impact our behaviors. The second is to realize that the more recent, highly developed parts of our brains are creative and resourceful, and should be used to choose appropriate behaviors that can simultaneously satisfy our more primitive urges, and attain complex goals we have regarding our work and relationships. 

Ignoring the first step often results in what psychiatrists call free-floating anxiety - the feeling that things aren’t right; that we aren’t right, but we aren’t sure why. Ignoring the conscious-choice step can result in anything from addiction (drugs, gambling, video games) to anger outbursts and violence. I see this in my psychiatric practice, and while each patient is different, there is often a common underlying theme - people don’t know why they have the desires they do, and assume that because their desires and emotions are largely automatic and instinctual, their behaviors and attitudes must be as well. This misses the critical characteristic of the healthy, mature adult: the recognition that they do have a large degree of control over behavior, attitude, and beliefs. 

If ignoring what our brains need causes anxiety and problematic behaviors, it follows that understanding those needs is a step toward insight and mindfulness. Choosing physical activities that are pro-social and healthy themselves - that also enable us to use our brains in ancestral ways - is a way to provide balance and simplicity to our overloaded minds. 

When our technical computer becomes glitchy with what seems like e-panic, we know that rebooting will allow it to calm down and function better. As it comes back online, it starts with the most basic functions; organizing itself to be ready for more complex tasks. Perhaps our bio-computers do this as well, and may be a reason we’re drawn to the natural world and “primitive” behaviors…to help us “reboot.” 

Knowing why we choose these activities expands the benefit to an exponential degree. We’re fortunate to live in a place and time when these behaviors are a choice rather than mandatory for survival. If we understand that our ancestors’ ability to hunt is a main reason our civilizations were able to form at all, then we’re able to reconsider the idea that hunting is uncivilized. When we choose to take animals with intention and integrity, we’re honoring that heritage, and rewarding our bodies, minds, and spirits in powerful, positive ways. 

Happy hunting…literally!

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