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Many of us wouldn’t choose to be put into a stressful situation.
But journalist and anthropologist Scott Carney says forcing ourselves to confront stressors is how humans build resilience.
In his new book, Carney writes “humans love comfort to the point of absurdity,” and as a result, “we’re crippled with anxiety, autoimmune conditions, fatigue, loneliness and a generalized sense of unease.”
His solution is to learn how to tolerate being uncomfortable, and he does so in some very unusual ways in his book, "The Wedge: Evolution, Consciousness, Stress, and the Key to Human Resilience."
“The wedge is essentially separating stimulus from response in the body,” Carney says. “So putting yourself in a stressful situation such as ice water, something that demands all of your attention and then choosing what your body does in that stressful reaction.”
When you jump into a pool of ice water, your natural response would be to clench up and try to get out. But Carney says it’s possible to train your body to fight those tendencies.
“What I've learned is that if you're able to put yourself under lots of different sorts of physical stresses that give you really loud sensations that tell your body to do something automatically,” he says, “we have a certain ability to intervene, which gives us not only physical resilience, but also emotional resilience.”
On how emotions can get in the way of physical responses
“We're addicted to comfort in America and in the West in general. We have this idea that if we just insulate ourselves from the variations of the environment, that's sort of like how to keep ourselves safe and cozy. But that's not where we evolved from. Right? We grew up in the constant varying temperatures in the plains of Africa, and we were used to dealing with extremes. So when you jump into an ice bath, you might get that signal of imminent death, but it's because we, in general, don't expose ourselves to stressors anymore. And what you find is that once you do it, once you actually, let's say you're just taking a cold shower, it's more difficult to turn the knob to cold than it is to sit under the actual cold water. So it's really your emotions that are getting in the way and not really the cold from the environment.”
On why it’s important to learn how to manage physical stress
“The lion example is great. You know, that's when the threat was real. There is a lion. Let's say it's running at you and your body is primed to respond. You're going to dump adrenaline to give you energy. You're going to dump cortisol. That's going to ... increase your pain threshold. And your body is there to go into fight or flight. You're going to deal with that response with a physical activity.
“Now, when you fast forward into the modern world, we're not fighting lions. The threats are now sort of remote. You know, they're almost existential. And if you're fretting over your 401K or worried about your N95 mask or whatever it is you're doing, you're still releasing those stress hormones into your body, and those hormones have no place to go. And they make you feel anxious, they make you feel sort of overwhelmed. So what I'm trying to do and what I'm trying to suggest is that there's ways to give yourself stimuli that are appropriate for that adrenaline when you release it and managing yourself under physical stress, that gives you emotional resilience.”
On throwing kettlebells to build mental resilience
“This has been like the most amazing discovery for me, because the kettlebell section sort of started with me hanging out at the neuroscience lab at Stanford, where I'm swimming with virtual sharks in a shark tank, which the neuroscience behind it was really interesting because I wanted to control myself in a fearful situation. But there's something about videos of sharks that just don't trigger those automatic emotions. And so I was walking out of Stanford's front doors, and I get this call from a friend of mine in the Bay Area who said, 'Scott, you got to go hang out with my friend [Michael], who's going to throw kettlebells at you and gonna put you into an instantaneous flow state,' which I think probably gets the award for the lamest text message ever. But I had this feeling like, 'OK, I'm gonna give it a try.'
And I meet this guy, Michael, and he's holding what amounts to a weapon in his hand. Like it's a cannonball. It's this big piece of metal, and he's going to throw it at me. And in this moment, I realize that I have that stimulus that's going to make me really, really scared. And the ritual with kettlebell throwing goes like this. He looks at your eyes and he swings it once in the air and you're looking at each other. And then on the second swing, he doesn't let go. Instead, you shift your eyes to that thing, which is definitely going to fall on my foot in a second. And on the third swing, it flies through the air, and my hand sort of automatically grasps the handle as it floats through the air, and I throw it back to him.
“And now this fearful sensation because everyone's thinking, 'Oh my God, you are going to break your foot, you're gonna break your knee, it's gonna hit you.' But what happens is the movement is so simple and the danger is so obvious that you have to pay attention to it, that instead our movements start coordinating automatically. And we go from being in this fearful state to essentially dancing with kettlebells. And I realized that this is ultimately about trust by creating a threat that forces the attention that your body can give it. And it becomes this really beautiful practice.
“Eleanor Roosevelt once said, ‘Do one thing everyday that scares you.’ It's pushing your boundaries, right? The first time you throw the kettlebell or catch a kettlebell, it's such a powerful stimulus going from fear into joy that you will remember that. If you see a couple throw a kettlebell, usually they're terrible at it at first. These trustings come out in their movements. And so the guy who invented this says it's like couples therapy to watch this happen. They learn, you know, usually very quickly, to communicate physically without words because you're facing something that's visceral and then you're modulating it and realizing that this can be fun. This can be a joyful experience.”
On his experience taking ayahuasca
“So throughout the whole book, I am putting myself in very loud situations like things that command my attention. And ayahuasca is a thing that a lot of people are talking about right now. It's this hallucinogen that releases this chemical called DMT, and then it modulates that chemical by making it last a really, really long time in your mind.
“It gives you a different perspective on things. But you can think about a wedge as just a stimulus outside your body. For instance, the ice bath. But ... one other place you can put the wedge, is actually in your synaptic pathways, in the chemicals that actually transmit messages in your brain. For me, I wanted to connect with the universe. I had these huge questions about, you know, God, about spirituality, about who am I as a person. But instead, what ayahuasca showed me, you know, it was basically like a counselor, like it sort of showed up and you sort of talk to it almost like an external thing. It's very strange. And the shamans would say, you're talking to the spirit of the plant. But it might just be your own psychology.
“The challenge is to remain in control. The fear is that you're going to go mad and you're never to come back and you're never going to be the same. And what you're trying to do is make that change happen in a beneficial way. And I wouldn't recommend ayahuasca to everyone, but it is something that if you're called to it, it can be very, very powerful and very, very transformative. And for me, I ended up kicking an addiction because of it.”
On the importance of taking risks
“We need to move outside of our comfort zones. In Latin, there's this idea of memento mori, and it's something that we've lost in this culture. And instead, we avoid it. And in your nervous system, avoidance of death, you know, is good, right? That's what allows us to pass on our genes. But ignoring it, it makes us not take risks. And if you don't take risks, you don't grow and you can't find out what you are capable of.
“And I think that our tendency is to be numb. We want to be comfortable. We want to insulate ourselves. And when we do that, we exist in a narrower and narrower range of where we're able to feel comfortable. If we instead give ourselves strong signals, which is not to say dangerous. Like, I don't want you to hurt yourself, but I want you to expand the ability for you to act in the world. And realizing that sensations, the things that we feel, are guideposts for how we act in the world, but they are not the commands. You don't need to live your life jumping out of airplanes and doing crazy drugs all the time and only looking for the loud signal, but you do need to be capable of facing that loud signal. And that's, I think, the secret to life.”
Book Excerpt: 'The Wedge'
By Scott Carney
As a society, we’re crippled with anxiety, autoimmune conditions, fatigue, loneliness, and a generalized sense of unease that no matter how much we insulate ourselves from the natural world, eventually the hard realities of nature are going to win out in the end.
In order to reconcile the biology that we inherited from our archaic past with the world we live in today we need to find tools that reprogram our nervous systems with stimuli that would have been familiar to our ancestors.
But first, I’m going to have to ask a rather hard question.
What’s the point of being alive in the first place?
The way we generally understand evolution, the guiding principle of life on this planet really just boils down to birth, survival, procreation, mutation and death. It’s a fundamentally mechanical process that makes the miracle of life pretty darned uninteresting. Evolutionary biologists understand evolution in thousand- and million-year increments. They don’t have the resolution to understand the individual experience of an ancestral mollusk, platypus or primate. And this has made me wonder whether all those scholars who painstakingly examine endless fossil iterations have gotten it all backward. Perhaps there’s something about this moment—right here and right now—that gives purpose to that evolutionary drive, something so obvious that we’ve just missed it.
Here’s what I think: Maybe the point of life is the very experience of being alive—those moments of joy, empathy and love, as well as those of pain, sorrow and loss; things that can never show up in the fossil record. Maybe those feelings are actually what evolution seeks to preserve.
We feel love, hate, ennui, angst, depression, fear and everything else because having those capabilities passed on an evolutionary advantage. Emotions create a symbolic link between what’s happening in the world and what occurs inside of our bodies. And because evolution is a rather slow process, it would be hubristic to think that the sensory and emotional tools that Homo sapiens have access to appeared fully formed when the first member of our species started walking the Earth between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago. Look at the anatomy of any mammal and you’ll see familiar structures—bone plans, lungs, hearts, eyes, brains, etc. Those organs were all useful enough to survive the culling process of evolution. And, insofar as cognition relies on anatomical structures in the brain, it makes sense that most other creatures with similar brains have some level of emotional and sensory experience comparable to our own. Consciousness and our sense of self evolved because evolution put it there.
To this day, consciousness and the hidden mechanism that drives it remain poorly understood. But we know this: It didn’t start fully formed. It evolved from simpler life forms and the tools they had to sense and react to the environment. Those creatures wanted to live. Their collective desire was an evolutionary force in its own right. Or, to put it another way, senses and emotions evolved to give purpose to life.
Where most evolutionary biologists see discrete endpoints that add up to the slow process of change over millennia, none of those minute iterations could occur without the unique individual experience of each ancestor along that line. The way we teach evolution makes it seem that the only forces affecting a species are the glacially slow processes of natural selection and gene mutation. To these scientists, evolution is a conversation between the environment and an animal’s physique, with nothing in between. This all-too-big frame overlooks the individual creatures who had to have a reason to transmit genes from one generation to another.
All biology clings to life. The threat of death undergirds hormonal releases, muscle contractions and atrial function. It defines sensations through a lens of pleasure or pain, then determines whether or not the actions we take are necessary or needlessly risky. If life were a song, we can be pretty sure it ends in a minor key. But the point of life isn’t to land a good job, fund a retirement plan, work 40 hours a week at a desk until you’re too old to continue and then die comfortably in your sleep. The point of being alive is to have experiences that make it all worthwhile. Death is the greatest teacher, because it offers us a stake that defines what kind of life we want to have.
In today’s society, there is a basic assumption that the key to human health rests on the twin pillars of diet and exercise. We tend to believe that if we just eat the right things and then move in the ideal ways, somehow the calculus will yield healthy results. However, there’s a third pillar that we almost entirely ignore: all the ways the environment molds biology. Environmental signals are the levers, dials and buttons that send messages directly to our nervous systems. Our nervous systems, in turn, use that input to direct how our body responds to the challenges around it in terms of hormonal releases, metabolic shifts and a million other activities that pass below our conscious thought.
Evolution baked these automatic mechanisms into biology in the same breath as it formed out ability to sense the world. The two go hand in hand. When we feel good--our biology has feel-good responses. When we are under stress we have stress responses. And therein lies the key to human resilience. If you can learn to train and control how you feel stress, you have the ability to alter your physiology.
And you can do this because there is a moment of choice on the razor’s edge between when you have control over your physiology and when your body’s autonomic programming kicks in and continues on autopilot. This small space is the crux of consciousness itself where we all literally have the power of mind over matter. At the smallest level it’s akin to what you do when you feel a sneeze coming on, and decide to resist the sensation and override the process. Or how you decide not to feel ticklish when someone gently strokes your ribs. You create space between stimulus and response and master your body’s reaction. As you train that ability, it allows you to take control over fear, anxiety, depression and even chronic illness and autoimmune diseases. It lets you access heretofore levels of human endurance, just as easily as it calms your nerves during tax season. It’s a basic ability that we all have that makes us more conscious. More human.
That moment of choice is what I call “The Wedge.
Excerpted from "The Wedge: Evolution, Consciousness, Stress, and the Key to Human Resilience." by Scott Carney. Copyright © 2020 by Scott Carney. Republished with permission of Foxtopus Ink.
This segment aired on May 28, 2020.
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