New ideas percolate through social networks, which act as a filter (sometimes poorly) to determine if the idea is robust enough to work for a large number of people.
A famous quote by William Gibson:
The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.
That is, many ‘good ideas’ that are correct and will be widely adopted are already out there. For example, even back in 1992 a few people had smartphones. Of course, it was not always seen as interesting. It takes time for economies of scale or production, cultural acceptance, critical mass of use by others, distribution, marketing and advertising, etc. etc. to spread through the various networks. In fact, you can perhaps close your eyes and imagine these social networks growing and changing over time, with ideas passing through them, sort of like slow neuronal growth, or the spread of infection.
As human beings we live in a sea of networks – many kinds of social networks (trust, economic, knowledge, work-related, friendship, sex, sports, linguistic, academic, etc. etc.), infrastructure (communication, water, electricity, road, rail, bus, sidewalks, food distribution, waste disposal, and more), and biological (exposure to micro-organisms, interaction with animals or plants, genetic relationships, etc.), not forgetting that we ourselves (our bodies, and brains) are largely made up of networks as well. As humans who realize this, we begin to ask ourselves “wow, that’s complicated, how do I keep up with everything, and how do I do well in this environment?”.
Interestingly, at the same time as our daily conscious minds are overwhelmed by this overload of information and choices, we face increasing challenges to navigating them due to the effect of this lifestyle on our brains. Sitting, which much of this navigation can involve (I am sitting right now to write this) can very much increase risk of Type II diabetes, which is characterized by symptoms such as depression (perhaps in a feedback relationship, since depressed people might be less active, and less active people might develop depression), a larger waste line, fatigue, decreased brain plasticity, and many other problems.
Sitting seems to be the major cause. It is so important, I am putting it here: 🙂
(Getting up now to move around…
Oh cool!, I found a place I can stand and look out the window while using my computer!)
So, if we think of the social networks, we can think of this problem of type II diabetes appearing as red colored nodes or vertices (people) in the network. That is, many people are getting the problem because of the wide-spread use of computers, combined with the fact that many have easy access to food, and other reasons and ways to sit (automobiles, desk jobs, easier to use a smart-phone while sitting, sitting with friends who are sitting more because they are tired due to the above reasons, etc. etc.)
As an individual, counteracting all of this takes a focused effort, but it seems well worth it. That is, in this TED talk, it has been shown that obesity (and perhaps many other behavioral patterns, such as smoking) can ‘travel’ through social networks.
But, networks are hard to change. They have systematic properties and are made of many many connections, both between people, and in the brain. When you think about it, human beings spend a lifetime living inside of these networks, acquiring friends, learning languages, learning social behaviors, developing our brains to have certain emotional and social responses. By the time many of these metabolic problems appear, we are very deeply embedded in these networks.
Thus, it is no surprise that, at middle age, it is extremely difficult to change. Brain plasticity has decreased, not only due to normal ageing, but also perhaps with the compounding factor of neuropathy, which can greatly effect brain plasticity. On the outside, this means that people have a near impossible challenge to change their friendships or basic daily behaviors to a more healthy direction. And all of this is happening while these adults continue to go about their daily lives. This is a bit like an airplane – or perhaps better, a bird – trying to fix its own wing while it is flying. It is no surprise that medication is usually the solution, because no doctor or individual can ‘fix’ someone else and make such deep behavioral changes in every aspect of their life. And we would (rightly) see this as a violation of our rights and dignity.
So, as always in life, the only person who can change is ‘us’. But what is encouraging is that learning the above is very powerful and empowering.
That is, WE CAN change our social networks, our behaviors. It takes time. We can find resources online. We can take up other sports, and gradually eat differently. It is very normal and expected that we will ‘fail’ quite often in the beginning, since we are still living inside of our old social and behavioral world. This failure could look like binge eating, discouragement or even depression, conflict with or criticism by friends or family (who supported our old way of behaving), loneliness as we leave one social network behind, increased dependence on (unhealthy) coping mechanisms, continuing to sit too much, or many other related behaviors. The more we think about it, the more apparent it becomes how deeply entrenched we are, and how much compassion for ourselves and those around us it takes to change.
A very compelling documentary by the BBC: “Eat, Fast, and Live Longer”, is a great tool, since it really addresses a less painful way to change our eating behavior. Unfortunately, there is a huge amount of ‘noise’ around ‘dieting’. That is, there are many interests and all kinds of ‘information’, which almost look like faith. What is useful about this documentary is that the claims are not extreme, do not involve money, and the research is peer-reviewed, and also seems to fit common sense. (I.e. eat a little less on average in a way that is less painful than typical ‘dieting’.) The basic idea is to pick two days per week to eat 500 kcal (roughly one meal), and eat normally the rest of the week.
For those who have pre-diabetes or type II diabetes, this also seems a useful and reasonable solution, especially given other compelling results by Newcastle University, which shows that Type II diabetes can (in some cases) be reversed by reducing fat in the pancreas and liver.
So, the caveman finds himself sick, because he has become the spaceman, sitting too much, sucking down too much information, losing connection to his physical body and nature, and the basic need to move around, with too much food available. He is additionally challenged to overcome ‘critical thresholds‘ in his social and other behavioral networks to change his life in a positive way.
The spaceman, however, has an opportunity to learn how to live in this modern technological world, and to learn from the latest lessons about how to not only survive, but thrive in it. And as he learns, and reverses these symptoms of modern life, things seem to get better and better. He feels better, he learns faster, he makes more healthy friendships, he changes his habits, and life gets brighter, as yesterday’s future, as it always has, becomes today’s present.