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People really hate being alone with nothing to do. They hate it so much, in fact, that a large percentage of people — and a majority of men — elected to receive electric shocks rather than spend a few minutes alone without any entertainment but their own thoughts.

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In a world where endless stimulation is only a reach into your pocket away, one would think that a few moments of tranquility would be welcome. Why, then, would we miss an opportunity to tune out the stressors of the world? A look into our past, courtesy of paleontologist C.K. Brain, may provide some ideas.

As animals go, we humans are slow and physically weak. We have no spines, claws, armor, or sharp teeth, and we’re hopeless in the dark. Unsurprising, then, that our early hominid ancestors were extremely vulnerable to predators such as the saber tooth cat, Megantereon.

"Megantereon cultridens" by frank wouters - originally posted to Flickr as megantereon cultridens. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikim
“Megantereon cultridens” by frank wouters – originally posted to Flickr as megantereon cultridens. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

That vulnerability may have proved vital to human development. In 1995, Brain proposed that predation was one of the main evolutionary reasons for increased hominid intelligence. He proposed that humans were particularly vulnerable when sheltering in caves, leading to the development of predator-deterring strategies such as cultivating fire. In turn, that led to complicated social behaviors such as taking turns to tend fire, and eventually to more sophisticated activities such as cooperative hunting, tool building, etc. As these behaviors developed, a larger, smarter brain evolved. And as these behaviors improved the odds of survival, being alone meant forfeiting the spoils of cooperation.

It seems unlikely that predation is the only reason we evolved large brains, but there’s no doubt that predators were a major preoccupation of our ancestors. Our inherent vulnerability might explain why we hate being alone so much. To be alone — especially to be alone and tuned out — meant becoming Megantereon chow. Letting your mind wander could well have been fatal, providing strong evolutionary pressure in favor of those who stayed alert. If Brain is correct that predators shaped us into who we are, then the need to stay aware is deeply ingrained into human nature. Even receiving a shock is to interact with something, providing the illusion of safety to our inner Australopithicus. The world has changed, but deep down we still don’t want to be lunch.



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The South African Archaeological Bulletin, Vol. 50, No. 162 (Dec., 1995), pp. 93-97
South African Archaeological Society