In the early ’90s zookeepers were becoming increasingly aware that their Polar Bears were suffering psychologically. Despite the fact that the bears had pools in which to swim, rocks to bask on or climb, and regular nutritious meals, the bears spent a lot of time in repetitive and seemingly obsessive behaviors, swimming endless figure eights, pacing in precise patterns, or obsessively grooming themselves to the point of baldness.
One hypothesis that zoologists developed was that polar bears are highly intelligent problem solvers, adapted to thrive in a large and complex range, an environment that zoo enclosures couldn’t come close to duplicating. Providing for most of the bear’s physical needs just short circuited their psychic drive to use their wits and memory, their physical prowess to solve these survival challenges on their own. Given their tremendous energy and motivation, having these needs provided for just left them bored and fretful. They became anxious, and developed self comforting behaviors.
The presence of mental and physical challenges in their lives had proven to be a cryptic feature of their selective environment, one to which they were elegantly adapted. Many selective features in animal environments are obvious, as are the adaptations that animal populations use to deal with these features. Polar bears live on the ice, they have developed brilliant white coats that provide near perfect camouflage, are thick enough to insulate them from the cold polar habitats, and are water repellent enough to allow them to swim for miles between ice floes in search of seals.
Less obvious, more cryptic, were the behavioral challenges posed by their world of ice and sea, but these challenges were just as real as the actual temperatures and habitats in which they made their living. Real also were the intellectual and psychic adaptations the bears had made in response. In similar fashion dogs, or rather the wolves from which they were domesticated, have used the social group, the pack, to solve the survival challenges of their environments. That behavioral adaptation, the constant presence of a social group, is a cryptic feature of the wolf’s selective environment.
Wolves developed sophisticated communication skills to coordinate their small groups, they developed social drives that not only let them tolerate close association with pack members but also made them strongly desire that association. These adaptations required dedicated brain architecture as well as cultural programming, the changes to their brains and psychological reward systems therein were just as physical, as real, as the changes to the polar bear’s coat. And like the bears, the wolf’s cousins, our domesticated dogs, suffer real mental consequences when removed from the cryptic environments to which they are adapted.
Many dogs who are left at home by themselves, who are deprived of their social groups for significant periods of time, develop behaviors that seem to mimic human mental illnesses; obsessive repetitive behaviors that can often be treated with human anti depression and anti anxiety drugs. And the question arises, if bears and dogs have cryptic environmental conditions and challenges that profoundly effect their mental health, can we assume that humans do too?
Like dogs, humans are intensely social animals, probably one reason our two tribes get along so well. Like dogs, humans have always lived in and, as a result, have become adapted to life in social groups. Our dogs seem able to transfer their psychic needs onto their human packs. They also seem to suffer psychological costs when removed from their human packs for too long. I suspect that there are similar psychic needs, similar cryptic environments to which the human social animal has become adapted. I suspect also that that like dogs, wolves, or polar bears, if our human enclosures fail to provide those environments we go a little crazy.
The key cryptic environment for humans has been the small, bonded social group. Many of the key features that distinguish homo sapiens would have been impossible to develop without the protection, specialization, and resource mastery made possible by social strategies. It takes a decade or two to train the big brains we get at birth to function as adults, it takes elderly adults long past their physical or reproductive prime to acquire and preserve the cultural knowledge that allows the small group to thrive. Both cases require assistance from adults of prime adult age. From the emergence of homo sapiens until the advent of the industrial revolution, solitary life simply wasn’t an option for most individuals.
The behaviors we call innate or instinctual come paired with reward circuitry in the brain. From the most basic drives for food, water and sex, to the “sophisticated” drives for exposure to art and music, we simply can’t enjoy an activity unless participation in that activity stimulates the production of and uptake in the brain of reward chemicals. Some of these behavior reinforcement loops are fairly well understood, the dopamine “hit” from eating or sex, the oxytocin rush from caring for our young or cuddling with a loved one. There are probably many others of which we are less aware, but what is certain is that behaviors key to health and survival will come with reward loops.
Two key behaviors, membership and participation in small bonded social groups, and intimate interaction with the natural world to secure resources, have been largely eliminated from our modern lives. An individual can now obtain food, water, shelter, even sex without ever interacting with another person or encountering a natural environment. Our single, life long social group has been fragmented into work groups, play groups, residence groups, worship groups; it’s possible to participate in all such groups necessary to modern life and yet have no overlapping members from group to group. It’s possible to be an anonymous person, to meet one anonymous person after another in our daily activities, an utter impossibility for most human history.
The workarounds that we employ to stimulate our neglected reward circuits are instructive. We watch television shows about taverns “where everybody knows your name”, or where extra familial groups of “Friends” face their daily life challenges together. We form alliances to sports teams, complete with “tribal” costumes and pre-game rituals. We garden, we fish, we hike or camp out, all powerfully rewarding though in nearly every case limited in time invested or relevance to obtaining our “daily bread”. And all too often we drink, drug, shop, eat, exercise, or a dozen other potentially abused reward chemical stimulators, to excess.
Zookeepers have had some limited success in providing enough challenges to their polar bears; duplicating the richness of experience the wild bears encounter in daily life is next to impossible. It’s possible that individual variations between bears leave some of them resilient enough to survive the deprivation. And obviously many humans adjust fairly well to their deprived enclosures. Many others though turn to chemical interventions, medical and otherwise, and some of those need more intense and accurate reconstructions of their missing cryptic environments, from churches to twelve step programs. One thing seems obvious to me, diagnosing depression or OCD or addiction as a “chemical imbalance” is like calling the failure of your car to run a “shortage of fuel”. Your car needs fuel to run of course, but there are numerous mechanical problems that can keep fuel from entering the cylinders and only one of them can be solved at the gas station.