Randolph Nesse (@randynesse) is the founding director of the Center for Evolution Medicine at Arizona State University and author of Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry.
What We Discuss with Randolph Nesse:
- What possible purpose do anxiety, depression, and anger serve from an evolutionary standpoint?
- Why the body’s mechanisms for keeping us safe often overreact, and what we can do to get a handle on them when they work a little too well.
- The evolutionary upsides to worrying about what other people think of us.
- Why natural selection shapes our behavior toward reproduction rather than health and longevity.
- Why do women often go for the reckless mate instead of the safe mate — and why do men stick around at all?
- And much more…
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One might suppose that the role natural selection plays in human evolution would be to make life better for us than it was for our forebears. In a sense, this is true — but “better” doesn’t necessarily translate into easier, more comfortable, or happier for the brains that pilot the bodies being streamlined to pass along their genes to future generations with maximum efficiency. In fact, some of these biological strategies seem downright counterintuitive to the survival of our species. What possible purpose could seemingly self-destructive tendencies like anxiety, depression, and anger serve from an evolutionary standpoint?
On this episode, we’re joined by Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry author and Arizona State University’s Center for Evolution Medicine founding director Randolph Nesse. He helps us make sense of mother nature’s evil genius and her designs that keep the party going even if we, the participants, aren’t always in the mood. It’s big-picture thinking for a species that doesn’t always see past the closest, most obvious brushstrokes. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
Please Scroll Down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
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THANKS, RANDOLPH NESSE!
If you enjoyed this session with Randolph Nesse, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at email@example.com.
Resources from This Episode:
- Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry by Randolph Nesse
- Randolph Nesse | Website
- Randolph Nesse | Twitter
- Randolph Nesse | Facebook
- Randolph Nesse | LinkedIn
- The Center for Evolution and Medicine | Arizona State University
- What Does the Appendix Do? | Healthline
- Birth Canals Are Different All over the World, Countering a Long-Held Evolutionary Theory | Science
- Why Do We Have Wisdom Teeth? | Healthline
- Blind Spot | American Academy of Ophthalmology
- How Cancer Shapes Evolution, and How Evolution Shapes Cancer | Evolution
- Michael Shermer: The Pattern Behind Self-Deception | TED 2010
- Signal Detection Theory | New York University
- Agoraphobia Symptoms and Causes | Mayo Clinic
- I’m OK-You’re OK by Thomas Harris
- Social Selection | Wikipedia
- Natural Selection | Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Living with Fear by Isaac M. Marks
- Why Young Males Pay the Most Expensive Auto Insurance Premiums | AutoInsurance.org
- Evolutionary Forces Explain Why Women Live Longer Than Men | ScienceDaily
- The Woman That Never Evolved by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy
- Defense Mechanisms | Simply Psychology
- Pleiotropy, Natural Selection, and the Evolution of Senescence | Evolution
- Core Concept: Solving Peto’s Paradox to Better Understand Cancer | PNAS
- Why Elephants Rarely Get Cancer | UNews
- Application of Evolutionary Principles to Cancer Therapy | Cancer Research
- Dopamine, Psychosis and Schizophrenia: The Widening Gap between Basic and Clinical Neuroscience | Translational Psychiatry
- Insanity Is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results | Quote Investigator
- Memory Loss & 10 Early Signs of Alzheimer’s | Alzheimer’s Association
- Evolutionary Perspectives on Genetic and Environmental Risk Factors for Psychiatric Disorders | Annual Review of Clinical Psychology
- Cliff-Edged Fitness Functions and the Persistence of Schizophrenia | Behavioral and Brain Sciences
- Depression vs. Low Mood | Pascoe
- Consequences of Commitment to and Disengagement from Incentives | Psychological Review
- Why Dieting Can Lead to an Eating Disorder | HealthPartners Blog
- Ladybugs Eating Aphids | Hanks Channel
- Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Symptoms and Causes | Mayo Clinic
- The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life by Robert Trivers
- Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright
- Todd Kashdan | The Bright Truth about Your Dark Side | TJHS 60
- The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self — Not Just Your “Good” Self — Drives Success and Fulfillment by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener
Transcript for Randolph Nesse | Good Reasons for Bad Feelings (Episode 377)
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:00] Coming up on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
Randolph Nesse: [00:00:02] Natural selection has been working to eliminate cancer ever since multicellular animals have originated and it's astounding that we don't all get lots more cancer. It's just incredible. Natural selection has done such a good job. And that's why elephants don't get very much cancer. It's because they've been shaped by natural selection to protect themselves against cancer.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:28] Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's sharpest minds and most fascinating people and turn their wisdom into practical advice that you can use to impact your own life and those around you. We want to help you see the Matrix when it comes to how these amazing people think and behave. Our mission is to help you become a better informed, more critical thinker. So you get a much deeper understanding of how the world works and make sense of what's really happening. If you're new to the show, we've got episodes with spies and CEOs, athletes and authors, thinkers and performers, as well as toolboxes for skills like negotiation, body language, persuasion, and more. So if you're smart and you like to learn and improve, you're going to be right at home here with us. For a selection of featured episodes to get you started with some of our favorite guests and popular topics, go to jordanharbinger.com and we'll hook you up.
[00:01:18] Today, Randolph Nesse, he wants to bring evolutionary medicine to psychiatry and mental illness. It sounds a little complex. But today, we'll be discussing why certain genes are selected. And it's, of course, not just natural selection, but it goes along the lines of why men do dangerous things, why men come a little bit too soon, sometimes, you know, just speaking for a friend, and why sometimes women don't come at all, why natural selection does things that seem to make no sense at all. We'll also discuss why we age. Why do people get old and can no longer reproduce or are a burden potentially on their tribe or society? Why do they tend to reproduce? Why did those genes get put forward? Why did we evolve mental illness or did we? And in the field of psychiatry, we are at biology before Darwin, astronomy before Copernicus — it's early. We really don't know a lot about what's going on. And Randolph Nesse has been teaching this for years. His books are super interesting and this conversation is no exception. I really hope you enjoy it.
[00:02:17] And if you want to know how I managed to book all these great people and manage my relationships, using systems and tiny habits, check out our Six-Minute Networking course, which is free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests on the show, they actually subscribe to the course and the newsletter. So come join us, you'll be in smart company where you belong. Now, here's Randolph Nesse.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:41] Let's talk a little bit about anxiety. Right now is a great time to talk about it and anxiety, I think, because —
Randolph Nesse: [00:02:46] Everybody in the world is anxious.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:47] Everybody in the world is anxious and many of us more so right now.
Randolph Nesse: [00:02:50] Everybody who is sensible.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:51] That's right. But anxiety can be useful, right? It's that we just have more than we need right now because too little can result in disaster, according to your book. So take us through this a little bit, because I can speak for everyone I think when I say, "Hey, I've had too much anxiety at one point in my life."
Randolph Nesse: [00:03:08] And you know, we all have too much anxiety and we all have too much pain and if you do something to reduce it, it doesn't hurt you. So it just seems like, "Hey, who designed this system? What a screwup?" And you're making life miserable for no reason.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:03:19] Right.
Randolph Nesse: [00:03:20] Even other bad feelings like depression and anger. What's the big deal? Why make life so miserable? I mean, I've been preoccupied by this my whole career, Jordan. It just seems like there's some malevolent deity decided to make everybody's life miserable. Even when life has gone pretty well, people are upset and uptight in finding whatever they don't have. That's really a lot of what got me into evolutionary medicine. I started asking myself the larger question. Instead of just working on emotions, I started asking, "So why the hell isn't the body better? And why did we have an appendix? Why do we have a narrow birth canal? Why do we have wisdom teeth? Why do we have an eye with a blind spot? Why do we get cancer?" So that's really been the whole focus of my entire career is asking that question. And it's been pretty thrilling that now, a lot of other people are taking that question seriously. It's not just a cocktail party conversation. It's like a really serious neglected, scientific question. You know, most doctors are trying to figure out, "What's wrong with this person now? What's wrong in the mechanism?" And I'm trying to say, "Step back, you guys. Now, let's take an engineer's point of view and ask, 'How is this thing designed in a way that leaves it so vulnerable to these kinds of things?'" Which brings us back to anxiety, what you were asking about.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:27] Yeah, indeed, and with anxiety — of course, anxiety can be useful. Can we explain the situations in which anxiety is useful first? Because I think a lot of people probably actually don't know this.
Randolph Nesse: [00:04:38] Really, well, you know, it's not just us. It's any organism whose faced with some kind of danger better get the hell out of there. And it's not just us and chimpanzees — a bacteria. Do you know bacteria can swim either towards something or away from something?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:52] I did not know that, but it makes sense. Right? They got to go somewhere.
Randolph Nesse: [00:04:54] when it gets too hot or too acid or too light, they start swimming away pretty fast. That's not exactly like anxiety and a big thing about emotions — a huge point — is that there's a lot of emotions that have nothing to do with how you feel. It's only about what you do. Because the only point of emotions is to get you to do stuff differently. Oh, that's good if you're a genius basically. And so we all have this capacity when we're faced with potential danger to, first of all, try to get out of there. And second of all, try to avoid it the next time and it works pretty well. In fact, the big question for most people is why does it work too well.
[00:05:30] I don't know if you know, but I spent 30 years hoping to start one of the first anxiety disorders research clinics at the University of Michigan. And, oh my gosh, at first it was just a few phone calls and very soon we realized that there was a whole ocean of anxiety out there. That we could help people with the worst problems, but just like you were starting to say, "How come everybody has more anxiety than me. And there's an answer. The answer is a smoke detector principle.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:56] Okay. Take us through that. To sort of recap here, people often have anxiety — I can speak for myself on that one and it can be useful because what is this? If I hear a rustle, what was the Michael Shermer thing? It was like if I hear a rustle in the bushes and I say, "Eh, it's probably nothing." I get eaten by the lion and those genes don't get preserved and evolved later on. But if I run away from it — which is like the base level of anxiety — then maybe I live to fight another day and reproduce it more importantly.
Randolph Nesse: [00:06:21] Right.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:06:22] But now we have more than we need because of what you said, which is the smoke detector principle. So what is this exactly?
Randolph Nesse: [00:06:29] I thought about this for a couple of years before I figured out a potential answer, Jordan. I saw so many people with so much excess anxiety. I just thought to myself, "What's wrong with the design of this machine that we all have too much?" And it's part of the anxiety where we worry about stuff in the future. It's partly fear of stuff right here, but it's all too great. And then I discovered a technical thing called signal detection theory, and it's a bit of mathematics that tries to figure it out — so how loud does the sound have to be behind that rock before it's worthwhile or running away? And the math is pretty simple.
[00:07:01] Pretend that you're getting water for your family and a watering hole, and the cost of running away is a hundred calories. But there's something behind that rock and it sounds like this, [growl sound]. If it was [roar sound] then you'd run. If it was [meow sound] then you wouldn't run.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:07:17] Right.
Randolph Nesse: [00:07:18] It's just [meow sound] so how bad does it have to be? Well, if the lion is there, it's going to eat you and that's going to be a hundred thousand calories. So the ratio is like a thousand to one, that means 999 times out of a thousand, you're going to run at some soft noise and that's going to be perfectly normal, even though the lion wasn't there. Once I realized that, Jordan, I started treating my patients differently. They go into a grocery store for the fourth time and say, "Dr. Nesse, I'm still feeling fear in a grocery store." And I say, "How come? You've been there four times it's been safe." Until finally, I figured out that that's how the system is designed. It vastly over expresses anxiety, just like our smoke detectors. They go off mostly for burnt toast.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:06] Yeah.
Randolph Nesse: [00:08:07] And they'd better go off for burnt toast because we want them to go off every single time if there's a real fire.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:13] Right, right. We can't have something that decides erroneously, even one in a thousand times that there's the fire because everyone dies.
Randolph Nesse: [00:08:21] Right.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:22] So we have to err in the other direction, which is 999 false alarms out of a thousand because that one time is the make-or-break scenario.
Randolph Nesse: [00:08:31] Right. And with some podcasts, people say, "Dr. Nesse, you think anxiety is useful. Therefore it shouldn't be treated." I say, "No, that's the opposite of what I think." You know, if you actually think about how natural selection shaped that system, my take is that the vast majority of the time is excessive and not necessary, except for that one time when it is necessary.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:52] Right.
Randolph Nesse: [00:08:53] I'd like everybody to be thinking that way, instead of just having a global too much or too little. Let's think about this situation and COVID gives us a great example.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:01] Yeah. This makes sense. Of course, pain can also be useful, it's just that too much is a problem. I mean, if my tooth hurts, I know, hey, there's probably an infection, there's an abscess. Something's wrong with my tooth. I better go to the dentist. But if it's hurting for 24 hours because I'm on a transatlantic flight. Well, I want some freaking Tylenol because I know my tooth hurts and I'm going to take care of it as soon as I can, but I can't do anything about it right now. So I'd like it not to dictate my entire life the next day.
Randolph Nesse: [00:09:26] That's exactly right. But what you put out about pain though, we can take that to the next place. There's another reason why don't evolve systems for pain and anxiety are vulnerable to overshooting. And that's because they self-adjust. You know chronic pain is like the world's biggest problem, except for anxiety and depression. It's just gigantic. So many people just are suffering every single day. How come the pain system is designed to give so many people's problems? It's because pain is supposed to stop you from doing stuff that hurts you before it actually hurts you much. And if it doesn't and you repeatedly get hurt, that means the pain system is not doing its job and it should get more sensitive. And paradoxically, it gets more sensitive, then you have more pain, and then it gets more sensitive, so it's a positive feedback. Same with anxiety, if you're not having enough anxiety to keep you out of danger, the anxiety becomes more sensitive.
[00:10:17] I tell my patients every time you avoid what you're anxious about, your inner mind says, "Whoosh, I just escaped that one." And then it gets worse, which is the whole key to most people's anxiety treatment is somehow convincing them to stay in the situation even though it's so hard for them. It's so hard for people to do what it takes to get over anxiety, but that's what's needed.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:39] So you're saying that's what's needed because we need to make it so that the anxiety system doesn't get rewarded based on a false alarm. Is that kind of what you're saying?
Randolph Nesse: [00:10:48] You know, it self-adjusts itself downward if you continue to expose yourself to something that is causing anxiety and don't leave the situation. My patients with agoraphobia often would run out of a grocery store after three or four minutes. That makes it worse. But if you go in there and go ahead and have your panic attack and wait until it goes down, the system seems to be designed in a way that makes the anxiety better over the long run. It used to be what I thought it was deconditioning. You know, it was undoing some conditioned response. It turns out that's not how the brain works at all. It's creating new downward going signals from your brain to lower parts of your brain that inhibit it, but it works so well. It's been so satisfying to treat people with anxiety disorders, although challenging sometimes, but pretty reliably effective if you can get people to do what they need to do.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:11:36] So agoraphobia is the fear of going outside or is it the fear of leaving your house? What's the definition here?
Randolph Nesse: [00:11:41] You know the agora was a Greek marketplace. So technically it's going far from home. But I've seen people who haven't left their small trailer in three years.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:11:49] Oh man.
Randolph Nesse: [00:11:50] I have to do a house call for somebody like that. And they're not very healthy by the time they spent three years just in their trailer. Every time they set foot on their step to their trailer, their heart starts pounding. They get short of breath and they wonder what's going to — they're feeling that something terrible is going to happen, so they go back indoors. So there's a big question about why it is that there's such a tight connection between panic attacks and — I've just described a panic attack. I think most people have had that at some time or another. You just feel like a sense of doom and your heart is pounding. You're sweating and breathing fast. And so how come that gets connected with not wanting to go out?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:12:24] Huh?
Randolph Nesse: [00:12:25] In fact, we've talked about that. You thought it was fear of sexual opportunities on the street.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:12:29] Okay.
Randolph Nesse: [00:12:30] Well, maybe. Brain scientists talk about it. That those places in the brain are connected, but an evolutionary approach is much simpler. It is if you're having repeated panic attacks because of almost being attacked by something, you really should stay home. And if you don't stay home, you better go out with somebody you trust. And if you did go out with somebody you trust, you better be ready to run home as fast as you can if anything, anything happens out there. And I find that simple explanation for a lot of people helps them. Instead of thinking, "Oh my God, I've got a brain disorder, and dah, dah, dah," they say, "Oh, this is a useful kind of response. It's overshooting. I'm not just a crazy person. I'm a person who has advantages as well as disadvantages." So it's helpful.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:13:10] So trauma and bad experiences can bring anxiety, but then it becomes worse and worse because the anxiety system makes the response more acute if it senses that the individual isn't actually avoiding that danger. Is that what you're saying?
Randolph Nesse: [00:13:23] Exactly, right. There's a young woman who came to us once in our clinic and she had been working in a grocery store in Detroit. And her second week on the job, somebody points a gun at her and says, "Give me all the cash in your cash register." And she freaks out completely and can hardly give him the cash. And decides with her mother's help, "I'm not going to work down there anymore." So she moves her job to a suburban grocery store. Can you guess what happens to her two weeks into that job?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:13:48] No! Does she get held up?
Randolph Nesse: [00:13:49] Some guy points the gun at her again. She was completely erect. I mean, she could not go back to work and in a situation like that, you have to wonder, "So is this like really abnormal anxiety?"
Jordan Harbinger: [00:13:59] That seems pretty useful. I mean, she has the worst luck in the world.
Randolph Nesse: [00:14:02] Isn't terrible.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:03] It's not completely irrational, I would say.
Randolph Nesse: [00:14:05] We got her better, but she did get a different job.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:07] Yeah. Yeah, work at a bank. There's a piece of glass between you and the gun.
Randolph Nesse: [00:14:11] Right, right.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:12] So the system senses danger. Anxiety gets triggered. There's danger again, then there's anxiety again, but possibly more anxiety because it's almost like the first anxiety response didn't do the trick because you still get the stimulus of — well, either having a gun pointed at you or just going outside of your trailer for a step, you still get that danger response.
Randolph Nesse: [00:14:32] And there are a lot of these things we're talking about, Jordan, a lot of people would call them more like fear because the danger is like right there in front of you.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:38] Right.
Randolph Nesse: [00:14:39] But a lot of the anxiety we experience is about — God, did I screw it up the party last night? Or what about that test I'm supposed to take? Or what about the podcasts I'm going to do tomorrow? Is it going to go okay? We're always thinking ahead. And another thing that really preoccupied me for like years was trying to figure it out, why do people just care so much about what other people think about them? You know back in the 70s it was, "I'm okay and you're okay. And let's quit worrying so much about what people think about us." And I had a lot of people come to me saying, "Dr. Nesse, please help me care less about what other people think about me." And I tried — it didn't work all that well. But then I started thinking evolutionarily and I realized that what other people think about us just matters enormously to what friends we have and what jobs we get and who our lovers are and everything.
[00:15:28] And I think we've been shaped by natural selection to do things that other people will appreciate. We call it social selection. And I think it accounts for why most people are very sensitive and generally good. I mean, if you get a reputation for being a creep or dishonest or selfish, you're not going to have very many friends. And so natural selection has shaped us to care a lot what other people think and it's basically a good thing. But just like other anxiety, it tends to overshoot. So most people care more than would be good for them, about what other people think about them.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:16:03] Now, what about natural selection? You mentioned in your book that natural selection optimizes for reproductive success. That seems obvious and yet we also ask questions like, "Oh, why am I feeling—?" Anxiety, for example, how does that contribute to reproductive success? And I think now that we give the lion metaphor, it's kind of maybe obvious to a lot of people — but before we get into those specifics, generally, middle of the road traits prevail. So like, I think the example you gave in the book was rabbits that are too bold, get eaten. And those that are too timid, don't get enough to eat and they burn too much energy fleeing and running around, running away from things that aren't going to actually harm them.
Randolph Nesse: [00:16:42] Right.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:16:43] So natural selection isn't really dramatically changing things per se, keeps things somewhere in the middle. Is that accurate?
Randolph Nesse: [00:16:49] In general, yeah. The textbooks always show things changing with natural selection, like models and stuff like that. But the vast majority of the time, it's kind of settling things on a middle level. There's nobody who's eight-foot-tall and there's hardly anybody who's four-foot-tall — I mean, some middle length of height is about right, bodyweight too, you know, and which is everything about us. How much anxiety? Too much, bad. Too little, bad. You know this is something that Isaac Marks, the famous anxiety researcher, worked on it with me. We realized there's a whole set of anxiety disorders that nobody is treating. We decided to call them hypophobia — not enough anxiety. Now, these people don't come to us in anxiety clinic saying, "Please help me with my anxiety disorder," because their problem is not enough anxiety. Where you see these people are in unemployment lines and divorce court and the morgue. Because they do wild and crazy things.
[00:17:42] But you were just asking about reproduction and now we're right back there again, Jordan, because there's one group of people in our society who tends not to have enough anxiety.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:17:52] Sociopaths, psychopaths?
Randolph Nesse: [00:17:53] Not exactly. Just us guys.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:17:55] Men?
Randolph Nesse: [00:17:56] Us guys. I mean, try to buy car insurance as a young man. You know it's going to cost you twice as much as it is for women. And even that is not quite fair because the guys have three times as many accidents. I started working on this with Dan Kruger years ago. I was trying to figure out for a talk I was giving on evolution of medicine about — so how young do men die compared to those women? I mean, if you go to visit your grandparents in a nursing home or something, it's all women at lunch. There are not very many men left. How come? What's wrong with the men? What turns out is that men have increased mortality rate compared with women, not just when they're doing wild and crazy things, but even in the first 10 years of life, 19 out of 20 causes of death are greater for men than women.
[00:18:36] You got to wonder who designed this thing, you know, and the answer to this is that for males — not just to humans but other species too — if you're doing stuff that mainly is increasing in reproduction, like competing for mates and stuff, you're going to pass on more genes, even if it shortens your life. So the study we did was using World Health Organization data. And here's a trick question for you — you probably know from the book — that for each 100 women in the United States who dies at age 20, about how many men are going to die?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:19:06] By age 20 or at age 20?
Randolph Nesse: [00:19:07] At age 20, yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:19:09] I mean ratio from men to women, it's got to be at least two to one. I don't remember this from the book, but I would imagine many more men die at that age, just judging by the stupid crap that I was doing at age 20.
Randolph Nesse: [00:19:20] So what I did — when I went into this, I thought it was like 120 or something like that, a few more men to die. More women die in childbirth, right?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:19:28] Sure.
Randolph Nesse: [00:19:27] So, hey, it turns out, it's 300 men die.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:19:30] To one woman?
Randolph Nesse: [00:19:31] Yeah, and it's not just the USA. It's every country in the world.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:19:35] Wow. So that sort of negates the whole third world country dying in birth statistics as well.
Randolph Nesse: [00:19:41] Well, actually the data is mostly from more modern countries and this ratio doesn't show up until modern times.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:19:48] Okay.
Randolph Nesse: [00:19:48] It wasn't that way. And 1900, so many people were dying from influenza and pneumonia and stuff that these differences didn't show up. But it's so profound because of what you said, Jordan. You were saying we're shaped for reproduction, not health. What a great example, natural selection, when it comes to sex and reproduction gets us to do all kinds of stuff. That's bad for our health and longevity, but good for our genes and there's sex itself. People do all kinds of things where they should have more anxiety, right?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:20:17] You would think.
Randolph Nesse: [00:20:18] Yeah, right. I mean whether it's who you have sex with or whether you use proper control. I mean, people are really stupid about that half the time. And it's just because that whole system is set to go off. It doesn't seem like anything else matters at the moment.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:20:30] So is this one reason why guys at age, let's say 17 to 27 are doing ridiculous thrill-seeking stuff? Because it's like, "Hey, look at me." I mean, does this all just apply for attention so that they can reproduce, and their genes or their body or whatever it is that's controlling things. Their brain says, "I don't really care if this guy eventually dies from this. I just want to push this DNA and these genes on as much as I can. I don't really care about this host though. He can eventually crash this motorcycle. It's not going to be — it's all the same to me."
Randolph Nesse: [00:21:03] I find this whole idea that natural selection shaped us to do. What's good for our genes and not good for us. I find that a very distressing idea. I mean, it's not just doing wild and crazy things as a guy, but I think all of us. We're designed so we're constantly preoccupied by our status and by achieving things and what we're not achieving and by other people. I think this makes us miserable. We're edging our way towards talking about depression as well as anxiety because people are always trying to do things. And most of the time, most of the stuff, we try to do, doesn't work out. And the question is then what do you do?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:21:38] Hmm. Yeah, well, then what?
Randolph Nesse: [00:21:40] Right. So, I mean, I remember trying to dream of becoming a baseball player as a kid. You have to get chosen eight out of nine people, enough times on the pickup squad and none of you are in the right field over and over again, and you realize, "I don't think baseball is exactly where I'm going to make my mark." And so when you go through all these things in life, we'll keep trying things. Then you go to Nashville and you're talking with people who are waiting tables or in New York waiting to break into the big time, whether it's Nashville or Metropolitan Opera or Broadway or something. It's a hard road, you know, and you got to admire people for trying because that's what it takes. It's gumption and grit and continuing to try, but there comes a point where it just isn't working.
[00:22:24] Again, I've tried to figure out all of these problems, not just why some people get them, but why is it that we all have this capacity for low mood and feeling bad? And the answer is because there are some times when it's best to quit. And even if you're not doing something as grand as trying to get into the Grand Ole Opry, what if you're just trying to go out looking for nuts? How long should you wander looking for nuts if there aren't any nuts on the trees this month? After a certain while you're just wasting your energy, right?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:22:51] Right.
Randolph Nesse: [00:22:52] So it's best just to quit and go home. And the people who were really enthusiastic and just kept going and going and going, they didn't pass on their genes. They wasted their calories. They wasted away the best thing to do when there's no food around is just to go home and wait.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:23:06] The question for me is, why is it that women who have such a high cost of pregnancy, right? They have to raise the child. There are all kinds of costs associated with being pregnant in the first place. Why would they be attracted more to somebody who does things that are so dangerous that they might not be around to provide for the offspring later? Wouldn't they have evolved to actually go for the safe guy that still has good enough genes but isn't trying to do — strap rockets to the car or balance on a bridge? I mean, it seems like that's kind of a little bit of failure here in a way. And instead of a failure that since it's evolutionary pressure, there has to be another function.
Randolph Nesse: [00:23:44] So we have to back up a little bit here, Jordan, and try to figure it out, so why do men stick around with women and kids at all?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:23:51] Many don't, but yeah, why?
Randolph Nesse: [00:23:52] But think about other species though, I mean, humans are really distinct, whether it's chimps or gorillas or other kinds of apes, there's no male staying around and providing much help at all. Sometimes the male will provide some protection, but humans have done something really special. In humans, males stick around for quite a while and they don't necessarily go messing around with everybody else under the sun. They often stick with one person for quite a while. They love each other and they take care of the kids. Wow, I mean, that's so unusual from an evolutionary point of view, you got to wonder how it happened at all. And this is a big, somewhat continued controversy in behavioral ecology on the law. But the big picture is that it really takes two people to raise a kid from the really helpless version that comes when he's born and teach them all the stuff that they need to be taught.
[00:24:45] Plus, if you're carrying a baby around which you have to do for a long time, you can't run very fast. You can't gather all the food you need to. It's really better for it, not just to be one person, but to be two trying to take care of that baby. And in fact, it's better than that. Usually, in smaller groups like that, it's not just a mother and a father, it's other relatives helping out too. Sarah Hrdy is talking about this and how the very origins of human cooperation and morality might've come from that kind of cooperation. So before we even talk about the other stuff, it's a marvelous thing. We should just appreciate it. That natural selection has made us too connect with each other and stick with each other and take care of kids.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:25] It does seem almost irrational in some way, given that if men are really designed to just keep reproducing rather than working on one offspring or two or three, it seems like you should theoretically just keep rolling the dice as it were so many times, because a few of them will be successful, but that's not how we evolved.
Randolph Nesse: [00:25:44] Well, there are some guys who are more like that. Aren't they?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:46] Yeah. There's plenty. Yeah. There are plenty.
Randolph Nesse: [00:25:49] And women try to weed them out except for on occasion. But in general, it looks like the best strategy has been to stick with one person and collaborate with her on the project of trying to raise kids. And this makes life so much different for us than done for other kinds of primates. It's just amazing.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:09] You're listening to the Jordan harbinger show with our guest Randolph Nesse. We'll be right back.
[00:26:13] This episode is sponsored in part by ExpressVPN. A lot of people don't know what these VPNs are. Sal, do you know what a VPN is?
Sal Cotching: [00:26:20] Honestly, I hadn't heard of one until today.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:22] Yeah. So this essentially hides where you're from. It can make you. Look like you're from another place on the Internet, but mostly it has your privacy in mind because people who own the network that you're on can't see what you're doing. So if you're at a hotel and you don't want somebody to know that you are watching porn in that hotel, you can use a VPN. Or if you're doing sensitive business emails, then you can use a VPN that the Starbucks, and then you don't have hackers in your Wi-Fi and your network and intercepting your traffic. And if you live in Hong Kong, now you have to have this because China is spying on you.
Sal Cotching: [00:26:54] So true, okay, good to know. My hotel room sessions from now on I'll be using Express VPN.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:59] Yes, exactly. And look, Expressvpn, there's a lot of VPNs out there, but this one is really fast. A lot of VPNs will slow down your connection or they'll sell your information and that's why they're cheap but ExpressVPN, I've been working with them for years and using them for years, even before they were a sponsor. So, I'm a fan and I'm satisfied that they don't turn around and hand my data over to the Chinese Communist Party or like, you know, my mom or anything. Sal.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:43] This episode is also sponsored by Mercari. Everyone has stuff they don't use, liner on the house. I just moved. So I got rid of a ton of stuff. I sold it. I donated a bunch of it. I wish I knew about Mercari when I was moving. Clothes I never wear an old iPhone in a drawer somewhere. I've like three phones that were obsolete that were just sitting in drawers and all kinds of electronics. Sal, you must have — I mean, you have a ton of crap I assume. You move here from Australia. You probably brought out a ton of crap you'd never even used again.
Sal Cotching: [00:28:09] Yeah. It's a relief too. I want to get rid of it. I've got to say, I like to travel a lot now.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:14] Yeah. Yeah. Minimalism for the wind, especially now that we're all stuck at home. I have to look at all that stuff. I never use it every day, which just increases the guilt factor. Right?
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Sal Cotching: [00:28:58] I love that because I'm not getting out of my pajamas for anybody.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:29:01] No, I mean, we couldn't even do ads. You're like, "Oh, I don't have a video camera. It doesn't work." Yeah, sure.
Sal Cotching: [00:29:07] I don't want anyone to see my pajamas.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:29:32] And now back to Randolph Nesse on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:29:38] So natural selection doesn't really want to dramatically change things. So we don't want blood pressure too high. We don't want it too low. We don't want babies to be too big. We don't want them to be too small. What about some of these folks that don't seem to feel — is that they don't feel as much fear or is that they get a kick out of fear? I'm sort of confused. What is it? You know, you see these guys climbing rock walls with no ropes and you think, "Well, what the hell is wrong with that guy? That's weird."
Randolph Nesse: [00:30:03] You know, there's one professor type who didn't seem much like a professor. He could only sleep comfortably if he was pinned in on a rock wall where he was climbing.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:30:12] Okay.
Randolph Nesse: [00:30:12] He had a hammock on a rock wall. He said, "Geez, I like sleeping in my bed. I'm not that comfortable on a rock wall." In psychiatry, sometimes we talk about reaction formation where people deal with anxiety by doing the exact opposite over and over again. And that's kind of a good idea. I mean, that builds mastery. I remember one of my kids when she was young, crawling off the edge of the couch, and falling off the end. What did she do? She cried for a minute. And then she went there and went ahead and did it again and again, and again and again. So I think there's something useful about that.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:30:42] What about aging? You mentioned this in the book, "Things that look like aging will spread across the population if they give benefits early in life." So things that look like aging will spread across the population if they give benefits early in life. And the example you gave is a hardening of the heart muscle, which can obviously kill you when you're older, will spread throughout populations — the genetic traits that cause this will spread throughout populations if that same genetic structure also helps bones heal faster or grow stronger in childhood. So, which I think is fascinating and totally makes sense, right? We evolve this thing that helps us stay robust and resilient as kids. And then we get older and it's like, "Oh crap, I've still got this genetic trait. That's hardening my aorta or something. And now I got heart disease." Why isn't there pressure to evolve something that slows down heart hardening, right? I've already reproduced. I'm old now. I'm 60, 70, whatever age, you know, is too old to reproduce. I don't really know. Why wouldn't we evolve to turn that sucker off? I don't need to heal faster. I'm done.
Randolph Nesse: [00:31:48] you know, I like this whole idea a whole lot better when I was 20 than I do now.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:31:53] I bet you do. This is a more fun topic back then.
Randolph Nesse: [00:31:57] Yeah, it was. So I started working on this as an undergraduate, trying to figure out — so why the hell does aging exist?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:02] Yeah.
Randolph Nesse: [00:32:03] There's genetic variation. Why doesn't natural selection get rid of those genes? And I came up with what I thought was a great idea. I thought, "You know, it'd be good for the species if some individuals died every year, so the species could evolve faster."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:15] As long as those aren't me. Right? Yeah.
Randolph Nesse: [00:32:17] Then I tried that idea out on some biologists I met at the University of Michigan. Out at the museum, they were studying animal behavior. They all kind of looked at me and they looked at each other and then they were quiet. I mean, it was almost like I had farted or something it was. And then one person just starts laughing and she says, "You don't know anything about biology, do you?" I said, "Hey, I'm a doctor of—." And they pointed out that George Williams in 1957, wrote a wonderful article talking about how the same gene that makes you vigorous in youth might actually calcify your coronary arteries — like you were talking about, Jordan — and kill you later, but that gene is going to be selected for. Because the advantages earlier are so much greater, then the disadvantages later.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:03] Right.
Randolph Nesse: [00:33:00] And you're right. That's what selection does, just what you say. It has postponed all kinds of things. I mean, chimps last only about half as long as we do, and it's a miracle and amazing that we last so long, even after most reproduction has stopped. That's a really big mystery. I mean, most of us aren't having kids anymore at age 60 or 70. How come we're still alive? How come natural selection doesn't just give up on us? But the answer seems to be that in the process of making everything work really, really well during the most vigorous parts of life, it makes things work well enough that they keep going and going and going. But pause for a moment with me, the fuel pump on your car, how long is that going to last five years, 10 years, maybe 15 years?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:46] I got to test. I have no idea. I drive an electric car that I have no clue.
Randolph Nesse: [00:33:53] How long your battery is going to last? So let's not talk about that.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:56] Yeah, I don't know.
Randolph Nesse: [00:33:57] It might be a bad thing someday — but in any case, the fuel pump is not going to last that long. Our hearts are still pumping like 70, 80, 90. How is that possible? And natural selection is just so miraculous in creating so many things that worked so well and that just physical things like that, but mental things too. I mean, you can remember stuff that happened to you at age five. You can rekindle a relationship you had in college, or you can have conversations across the Internet with people and have interesting things come up. It's fabulous. The whole thing has done so well.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:31] So this gene is selected for because natural selection just doesn't care in air quotes — it doesn't have feelings — but it doesn't care if we die at 60 from a hardened aorta, because we've already passed those genes on to the next generation and whatever gene hardened that aorta also helped us heal faster from injuries or whatever.
Randolph Nesse: [00:34:49] That’s right.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:49] Thus, those genes were able to be reproduced more often.
Randolph Nesse: [00:34:52] Exactly right.
Randolph Nesse: [00:34:54] DNA and genes just don't care if we enjoyed our golden years, that was not what was being selected for.
Randolph Nesse: [00:35:01] That's exactly right. And I don't know if you remember the chapter in the book about sex, but there's another aspect of this natural selection has really that's screwed us up and made sex life, just not as nice as it could be. It was like a little discoordination there. You open up a book on sex therapy and there's a whole chapter about why some men tend to come too soon. And another chapter about why some women come later or not at all. None of them ever asked a big question about, so how come, why is it that way? And the simple answer is natural selection doesn't give a finger about our happiness or coordination or romantic mutuality. All it cares about is making absolutely sure, but nobody stops doing anything sexy until those sperm get on their way to the right place. It's kind of an explicit thing if we talk about it any more, but I mean, it's amazing that the ideas that come up once you start thinking about aspects of the body and the mind and the whole system that don't seem so good and sensible, and often there's a reason for them.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:36:03] What about diseases? This is kind of your other work, but I want to dip into this a little bit. Diseases are not adaptations that I think during our soundcheck, you corrected me on. I said, "Hey, is there may be a reason we evolve this? Or just adaptations have gone wrong?" And I think a lot of people probably wonder this, a lot of us nerds anyway, wonder, are diseases just adaptations gone wrong? And you said, "Nope, let me stop you right there. That is absolutely wrong. And we know that much." Tell me about why.
Randolph Nesse: [00:36:29] I'm so glad you're bringing this up. You know, I teach courses on evolutionary medicine. Most of my career has been trying to bring evolutionary biologists to medicine and asking this question about why aren't bodies better. Every year, even after the end of the term, some student turns in a paper saying, "I think schizophrenia is actually useful for some people because — or I think that autisms are useful. I think that breast cancers are useful, the colorblindness is useful." And I say, "No, stop!" Those rare things have happened to a few people. We're talking about the characteristics of all of us. Those are screw ups. We do have to ask the question about why natural selection didn't make the body more robust. That's a good question, but trying to figure out how diseases are useful. That's just a stupid mistake. I'm so glad you brought it up.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:37:13] Yeah, what about something like cancer, for example? I mean, we talk about a lot of diseases, but the most common one I think is going to be the group of diseases or maladapt. I don't even know how to phrase this.
Randolph Nesse: [00:37:23] Yeah. Right. So why didn't natural selection do a better job of protecting us? I mean half of us are going to get cancer and a lot of it's going to die from it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:37:30] Is it because we're too old by that time, generally? So we've already reproduced in natural selection just doesn't care.
Randolph Nesse: [00:37:35] That's a lot of it, but why don't we die of something else instead, you know. In heart disease, it is really a disease of modern environments. That's not very common.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:37:43] Yeah.
Randolph Nesse: [00:37:44] But cancer is everywhere, not just in us, but in other species. And here's the miracle —
Jordan Harbinger: [00:37:48] I didn't realize that other animals get cancer. Well, I guess, dogs and cats, you hear about that sometimes.
Randolph Nesse: [00:37:52] They all do, but here's a question for you. Who's going to get more cancer, an elephant or a mouse? I mean, an elephant has 10,000 times more cells and if cancer is one cell going bad, hey, you'd expect an elephant to get a lot more cancer.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:38:05] I would guess it's the same. I don't know.
Randolph Nesse: [00:38:07] It turns out that mice get a whole lot more cancer, even though they have like way fewer cells.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:38:11] Yeah. Look at their diet. Right? I don't know.
Randolph Nesse: [00:38:15] So this is called Peto's paradox actually, though, because it used to be, we thought, "Hey, one cell goes bad. It goes rogue. It turns into cancer." But that doesn't explain why elephants get a lot less cancer. And a fellow who worked with me years ago, Joshua Schiffman decided to ask the question of, "I bet there's something in elephants that protects them." And there's a gene called p53, which basically is there to kill off cells or become cancerous. And he said, "Well, maybe the elephants have extra copies." And he went looking in elephants at the zoo near where he lived. And guess what he found, he found that they do have extra copies and he's even started the company to try to get extra copies of that gene into cancer cells to kill them off. What a great example of something that's potentially really useful.
[00:39:00] But I've kind of taken us away from the big point here, I mean, cancer is inevitable for any animal and the miracle is that starting off with a 10 celled animal, going to a 100-celled animal — natural selection has been working to eliminate cancer ever since multicellular animals have originated. And it's astounding that we don't all get lots more cancer. It's just incredible natural selection has done such a good job. And that's why elephants don't get very much cancer. It's because they've been shaped by natural selection to protect themselves against cancer.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:39:34] Well, good for them. Yeah, it'd be nice. If we could take a page out of that book, I think
Randolph Nesse: [00:39:37] I hope Joshua Schiffman's company thrives, and he finds a way to get extra p53 genes in there. Actually, there is new research also from Moffitt's Robert Gatenby in Florida and he's coming up with a different idea about how to do cancer and chemotherapy from evolutionary thinking. You talk about a profound implication. The old idea is all those cells in the cancer are the same, we've got to kill them all. The new idea is, wait a second, all those cells are a little bit different because they've got a bunch of mutations in them, which ones are taking over and reproducing the fastest, the worst ones. Well, if you just try to kill a bunch of them, you're basically opening up the ecosystem. So the worst ones can reproduce faster yet. And Gatenby came up with the idea of, "Hey, maybe we shouldn't just try to cream every single cell. Maybe we should be more gentle with our chemotherapy and leave some of those other inhibitory cells around." And he has fabulous results so far with prostate cancer. And now in breast cancer, mostly in mice, but some trials I'm starting in humans showing that a lot longer survival with lower doses of chemotherapy. I mean, if this works out, it's going to be just wonderful, but it's got to be replicated in other labs. A big problem with any medical research, of course, is people jumping to conclusions from one study.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:40:52] What about other sorts of harmful dysfunction? So let me rephrase that. I mean, can we see mental illness in the brain using things like fMRI? Can we see emotional or mental illnesses or is that not really how this works?
Randolph Nesse: [00:41:07] So, you know, my book is really an attempt. It's called Good Reasons for Bad Feelings. It's really an attempt to put psychiatry on a solid scientific foundation. And the attempt has been made for the past 40 years to put it on a foundation of neuroscience and that has made enormous progress. But back when I was just starting my psychiatric training exactly 40 years ago, this month, we were all pretty certain that we were going to find the specific genes, the specific brain cause, the specific brain hormones, and that we'd have diagnoses just like the rest of medicine, where there was an identifiable lesion you could see under the microscope. And we're going to find these things for psychiatry and fix up our diagnostic system and cure people better. You know, so much wonderful science has gone into looking for those things. And it's so, so disappointing that no one's been able to find them. We now know there are a lot of genes that influence whether you get a mental illness or not, but they're almost all influencing things by one percent or less. There are thousands of genes that influence schizophrenia and autism and bipolar disease. All with teensy, teensy effects, except for really rare, rare things. What a disappointment. We thought that we were going to find a neurotransmitter that's responsible. Dopamine was supposed to be the big thing for schizophrenia, wrong. Or then, we're going to do brain scans and find the brain was going to find brain spots, where there was depression or anxiety — not so. It's been such a huge disappointment. And I think just about everybody in psychiatry and the rest of mental health professions is now saying, "Oh, geez, what are you doing now?" The National Institute of Mental Health has just come out with this new big plan for the future. And they say, "Yup, we got to keep looking harder." Well, that's good. I hope we find things.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:42:52] That sounds like a great plan. Keep looking harder.
Randolph Nesse: [00:42:54] Do you remember how Einstein defined crazy?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:42:57] Yeah.
Randolph Nesse: [00:42:57] He says, "What’s crazy is when something doesn't work, you keep doing the same old thing." Sadly, I think this is what we've been doing in psychiatry and my mission, really my whole career, is to try to help people put psychiatry on the same foundation as scientists study animal behavior in general. And that is evolutionary biology. The rest of the medicine distinguishes symptoms from diseases. If you go into the doctor was abdominal pain, the doctor doesn't say, "You have abdominal pain. It's been there for at least two weeks and it is bad. And we're going to treat you with the abdominal pain plan." The doctor says, "Let's find out what's causing it."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:30] Right, your appendix exploded.
Randolph Nesse: [00:43:31] Yeah, or something. But if you go in with low mood or depression, sometimes you're not going to get anybody even talking to you. They're just going to say, "You got depression. Here's the treatment."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:40] Right. Turns out you have a low mood. I'm here for that. Thank you though. Right? Yeah, frustrating.
Randolph Nesse: [00:43:47] Right. But I mean, I can see why because what people want is a relief. And a lot of times talking about other people's personal problems doesn't bring them relief because they're trapped in some kind of situation they can't get out of. And plus that really often results in complicated long-term relationships, you know, and all the rest of it's expensive. And I would love for every psychiatrist and every mental health condition to spend hours with each patient, trying to really understand where they came from, what their life is like now, what feelings they have, what relationships they have, what they want things to be like in the future. Ah, dream on, Dr. Nesse. I mean, there's so many people that need so much hope and so few psychiatrists and other people. That's never going to happen.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:44:28] I wouldn't say never, I mean, what about AI? Eventually being able to have, let's say 75 percent of these "online or virtual" conversations with somebody and then someone like you looks it over for an hour and goes, "Aha, okay. Now, I'm starting to get a feeling for this person." And then you wrap the treatment up.
Randolph Nesse: [00:44:44] I think you just started a new company there.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:44:46] Yeah, well.
Randolph Nesse: [00:44:48] I mean, there are people doing cognitive behavioral therapy using online bots and it seems to work pretty well. If you can convince people to examine their thoughts and correct bad thoughts or if you could go do things that they're afraid of doing, they're really likely to get better. There are three things you can change to help someone who's got an emotional problem. One is the situation itself. And two is how you think about the situation. And three is the brain. And we do all three of those. It's often hard to change the situation. It's often easier to change how you think about the situation and there's often distorted thinking. And often people can take drugs to change their brains. But I'm a great advocate for doing whatever works that's safe. There's so much suffering out there.
[00:45:33] And right now with the whole world being upset by COVID and especially by its complications — I mean, I don't think it's pure COVID mostly. it's people being trapped at home with her husband and kids. It's people who don't have any money. It's people who are wondering what they're going to do now their job has gone. That's the stuff that's really upsetting people. Geez, it's tough.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:53] So viewing symptoms as diseases, we basically look for effects of these issues because we can't see physical manifestations much of the time, especially in the brain. There's no blood panel that says, "Ah, you have anxiety because your something, something, something in your blood is elevated. That's the problem." Instead we look for symptoms and we say, "Oh, you can't sleep. Oh, you get afraid when you have to go do whatever triggering event, go out to the grocery store. Oh, well, here's a pill that blocks a bunch of stuff that you would normally probably not be worth — you know, not be a problem for you. And now it's going to sort of make you kind of maybe behave like other people as long as you take these pills." So we can't see in the brain of the body, why some people get turned on — let's say by shiny black rubber, asking for a friend, of course.
Randolph Nesse: [00:46:38] Right. You know, there's cool research going on with brain scanning in particular and the genetics. You can find small differences. But are they enough to make a confident diagnosis? Not for a single disorder. In medicine, you take a biopsy. The pathologist says, "Yep, sorry. It's cancer." Or you take a blood test and say, "Yep, you got Addison's disease or diabetes." Is there any psychiatric disease where you can take a blood test or a genetic test or a brain scan or an EEG and diagnose it confidently? Not really. Alzheimer's disease, kind of — we're getting there. But it's such a disappointment like I said. So what do we do now? I mean, I think what we do now is to go back to what the rest of medicine has done. Rest medicine understands pathology in the light of normal physiology and how things work. And the rest of the body, you can kind of trace how the thyroid hormone works and to treat how it doesn't work if you have too much or too little of it. In the mind, it's an information processing system. And it's really hard to find something comparable to too much thyroid or too little thyroid, instead of we have to start recognizing it. It's more like a computer that's vulnerable to crash, not just because of the hardware problems because of software problems. Examine your computer and look at the hotspots to see if you can find out why your computer has crashed. Sorry. It's not going to work.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:47:58] No.
Randolph Nesse: [00:47:59] It's probably because of some information clash. And I think that's a lot of the problems we're seeing in our human minds. And again, I paused to say, It's so incredible that so many people function so well, so often. There's a lot of people who are kind of happy and rational, have good relationships. I mean, it's just fabulous that things worked so well for so many people so often.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:48:21] No. Why would we have evolved forms of mental illness like schizophrenia or is this also the same thing? Like the hard aorta where —
Randolph Nesse: [00:48:28] Oh, it's a wrong question.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:48:29] Okay.
Randolph Nesse: [00:48:30] We didn't evolve schizophrenia.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:48:32] Okay.
Randolph Nesse: [00:48:32] We went through this before and I know what you're saying.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:48:34] Yeah.
Randolph Nesse: [00:48:34] You're not saying why is schizophrenia useful? You're saying, why didn't natural selection—?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:48:38] Why does it exist? Yeah, why didn't natural selection eliminate this earlier? Is it the same reason? But I guess not.
Randolph Nesse: [00:48:44] Another person who did a PhD is Matthew Keller who is now a geneticist and behavioral biologist in Colorado, and he has done studies looking at the tiny effects of many, many genes that do influence your risk of schizophrenia. Most of them increase the risk by only less than one percent. And he finds out that they all increase the risk in the same amount. They count for the same amount of variance. And the answer is probably because anything that does more than that has gotten selected out. But now, we are asking a question, it's one percent of everybody in the world who is vulnerable to schizophrenia. One percent of everybody who has autism, maybe two percent. Or one percent of everybody has bipolar disease. What about all these one percent disorders? What's going on there? And you know, the last chapter of my book is about what I call cliff-edge effects. And it's a speculation, but it's my best attempt to at least offer some alternative way of thinking about these things. And it goes back to my thinking about why horses break their legs. You've been to the track some time?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:49:45] Uh, no, but I know what horse racing is. I don't think I've ever been to a horse track now that I think about it.
Randolph Nesse: [00:49:51] Oh, you should go to the horse track. Usually, there's a guy — or at least there used to be — steady behind someplace with a gun already.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:49:56] Geez.
Randolph Nesse: [00:49:57] Because one out of every thousand starts a horse is going to break its leg, start six horses at a time. Why do horses break the legs so much? This is a classic thing, isn't it? Not why this horse broke his leg, but why all horses are vulnerable to breaking their legs? And the answer is that horses are bred for speed.
[00:50:15] The secretary, it gets secretariat spread, the number three and four horses, they don't command nearly as much for stud fees. And so what you get is horses with longer and longer and thinner and thinner and more and more vulnerable leg bones. Now, 90 percent of the time, those leg bones hold up really fine even for the fastest horses. But the whole system is pushing it, so some individuals we're going to break their legs. And I think it might well be that for the human mind, certain traits like regulating our motivation for bipolar disease, regulating our social system for autism, and regulating her cognition for schizophrenia, they've been pushed so far and so fast up a slope of fitness that they get to the point that works really, really, really well for almost everybody. Except for a few people and they fall off the edge.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:51:00] Oh man.
Randolph Nesse: [00:51:01] it's a discouraging idea, but it's at least a different approach to these disorders instead of continuing to assume that those genes are abnormal. This implies that those genes are perfectly normal. It's just that in certain combinations, they push some tree just slightly off the edge.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:51:21] I hate to break away from our conversation with Randolph Nesse, but we'll be right back.
[00:51:25] This episode is sponsored in part by Indochino. I don't know about you, Sal, but I have a short torso and long legs. So whenever I buy anything, I look like, I don't know, I look like I'm wearing my dad's blazer and I'm going to the beach and I don't want to get sand on my pants. So it's really frustrating for me. I have to get bigger stuff and have it trimmed and hemmed and take it in and it's kind of a pain in the butt. Custom stuff is definitely the way to go.
Sal Cotching: [00:51:49] I have the opposite problem. I have the shortest legs. And so I'm always needing to get everything cropped.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:51:54] Well, we should — I'd say we should trade pants, but I can foresee other problems with this. Indochino — you can either go to the showroom, which I've done before in years past, or you can do a virtual style consultation where you shop online. And it's really easy to book the virtual style consultation. The people who work there, know what they're doing. You can personalize everything that you get. So it's not just formal wear. It used to be kind of just suits. Now, they've got shirts, chinos, you can choose, casual length, seven different types of collar spread. I didn't even know there were different types of collars spread, let alone seven. Pocket or no pocket, you can monogram your initials on there. You know, just in case somebody is trying to steal your shirts and claim them as your own.
Sal Cotching: [00:52:32] I love monogramming.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:52:34] I bet you do. Sal, why wouldn't you? Why wouldn't you?
Sal Cotching: [00:52:37] Yeah, that way you can never lose a shirt.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:52:39] Yeah, you can never lose the shirt. Like, "Excuse me, is that my shirt with the little anchors on it or yours?" "I don't know." "Let's check the monogram."
Sal Cotching: [00:52:45] Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:52:46] You can choose the lining color. Indochino has a great selection and they're really — they want you to be happy. I've had stuff remade there because I was slightly unhappy and I felt a little guilty about that, right? Like, "Oh, just get rid of this custom suit and start over." But they want you to be happy. Sal, tell them where they can check out Indochino.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:53:21] This episode is also sponsored by Better Help. We're in extraordinary times. And if you're struggling with stress, anxiety, or depression, you are not alone. A lot of people are holed up at home. They're not getting any sunlight. They're not getting any exercise. They're not getting any social activity in. Better Help has licensed professional counselors who are trained to listen and actually to help, not just to listen. That's kind of a keyword here with Better Help for that matter. Simply fill out a questionnaire to help assess your needs. And they get matched with a counselor in under 48 hours. You can do video, phone, chat, text — all that stuff is secure and it's unlimited. You don't have to worry about that. You can get professional help when you want, wherever you are and it's affordable. Sal, tell them where they can get a deal on Better Help.
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[00:54:33] Support for today's episode comes from Progressive Insurance. Fun fact, progressive customers qualify for an average of six discounts when they sign up for Progressive Auto Insurance. Discounts for things like enrolling in automatic payments, ensuring more than one car, going paperless, and of course, being a safe driver. Plus customers who bundle their auto with home or add renter's insurance save an average of 12 percent on their auto. There are so many ways to save when you switch. And once you're a customer with Progressive, you get unmatched claims service with 24/7 support online or by phone. It's no wonder why more than 20 million drivers trust Progressive and why they've recently climbed to the third-largest auto insurer in the country. Get a quote online at progressive.com in as little as five minutes and see how much you could be saving. Auto insurance from Progressive Casualty Insurance Company and affiliates. Home and renter's insurance not available in all states. Provided and serviced by affiliated and third-party insurers. Discounts vary and are not available in all states and situations.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:55:33] After the show, we've got a preview trailer of our interview with Mike Rowe — host of Discovery’s Dirty Jobs and Returning the Favor — on why the advice "follow your passion" is a complete BS. So stay tuned for that after the close of the show.
[00:55:46] Thank you for listening and supporting the show. Your support of the advertisers does keep us going and for links to all the great discounts you've just heard, you can check out those amazing sponsors for yourself, go to jordanharbinger.com/deals. And don't forget the worksheet for today's episode. The link is in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. And now for the conclusion of our conversation with Randolph Nesse.
[00:56:10] Now, what about emotions? This was fascinating from your book, which we'll, of course, link in the show notes. Emotions benefit genes more than they benefit us as people. So we talked about how our genes benefit themselves more than they benefit us as people in terms of our lifestyle or our quality of life. But emotions are often — it's almost like they're working with our genes and in cahoots to screw us over sometimes. Cheating on a partner, it's an emotional action, that's good for reproduction, but definitely not good for our relationships and the quality of our lives, for example.
Randolph Nesse: [00:56:40] But you know, some of it is really good and makes us human and it's part of our soul almost. And think about grief with me for a moment — I mean, if you think about grief kind of objectively, what a stupid thing. When the person is gone, why not do stuff for other people who are still around you instead of moping about, but there's something very deep and very human. If you lose a loved one, you're going to feel terrible for quite a while. I mean, it's a natural thing, and here's a big unanswered question, is grief something that's been shaped by natural selection because it's useful or is it just some kind of accident that happens because of attachment? And no one knows the answer to that question. I did a giant project one time trying to find the answer, trying to look at people who were elderly couples and then one person died and they were followed up in great detail in six months, 18 months and 48 months later. And I had this hypothesis that the people who did not experience grief would get into all kinds of trouble. There must be something wrong with those people, but that's not what we discovered. What we discovered is that people vary just enormously in their responses. About a third of people don't experience all that much grief, they mostly go on. A third of people experienced some and it goes away. A third of people experienced how intense. What we learned from this is that there's no one normal thing. And I think this goes for emotions in general. When people ask why personalities are so different and some evolutionists think that there are different strategies. I think it's because they all lead on average to about the same success. There's just this enormous variation in humans. That's just part of how we are.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:58:20] Why did we evolve then to be susceptible to disease? Or is this kind of what we had already talked about? Fear of heights keeps us safe. Coughing can help get us rid of infections like pneumonia but usually, this protects and serves our genes. In terms of sickness, I don't just mean physical maladies, but I mean like emotions. Back to what we were talking about before, like jealousy, what's going on here? Like, why is this something useful? That there's pressure.
Randolph Nesse: [00:58:45] Oh, I want to try to answer your question, Jordan, about why there is a disease at all. That's my next book.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:58:50] That might be a different show. Yeah.
Randolph Nesse: [00:58:52] I'll do it quick, though.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:58:53] Okay.
Randolph Nesse: [00:58:53] My next book is called Why Does Disease Exist? And it's basically an elaboration of all these ideas we've been talking about. The first reason is that, hey, there's a lot of stuff, natural selection can't do like preventing mutations, too bad. We're not perfect by any means. Another one is we live in different environments than we ever evolved in. Some people think this is the main explanation for depression and anxiety and stuff. It's not, it's not at all, but it's a big one and it's really big for heart disease and autoimmune disease. And then there's what we just have been talking about that natural selection is doing things that are good for our genes, but not for us. And then just kind of the thing you've been edging around about — there's a lot of things like we talked about with cliff edges, where natural selection shaped something to be really, really good, like a fast race car. But like a fast race car, it's vulnerable to breaking.
[00:59:43] So I think there are several different reasons why natural selection didn't make it better. And now, we can come back to where we started and run and go full circle with this whole conversation about why so many people are bothered so much by so many bad feelings. It just seems like nasty. It's not even cancer. I've run support groups for cancer people for a while. I mean, it wasn't even cancer that bothered them that much. It was the fear of deaths and the knowledge about cancer and the worry about cancer and the concerns about things like that. We live with our emotions. And here's a generalization, emotions are about the future, not the past.
[01:00:20] I think this is why COVID is causing so much problems right now is because of the uncertainty. It's things in the past that cause our emotions. But it's because of what they mean for our ability to do what we're going to do in the future. There are millions of students around the country wondering, "Can I go back to school in the fall?" And they don't know, or should they get a job? Should they sign up for online school? The uncertainty, I think is so hard for us because our emotions are predicated on trying to figure it out — the emotions are trying to get us to behave differently, to do something that's going to be better in the future.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:00:53] What about depression? Is that an adaptation? Like what function could that have? Or am I again making this mistake that I made before?
Randolph Nesse: [01:01:00] You know, as soon as you say the word depression these days, it means to most people it's a disease.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:01:05] Okay.
Randolph Nesse: [01:01:06] Because of television ads and everything else. So I try very carefully to distinguish what I call low mood from depression. And low mood is basically the same thing, but you can use different words for it and point out that there are certain times when it's best not to be too enthusiastic. Now in our modern life, you know, with hot and cold running water and food at our disposal, there's not too many times anymore when the physical aspects of life make it better to just hold up. But there are social times when it's best not to keep just doing what you're doing.
[01:01:40] And I found this on Eric Klinger, a psychologist in Minnesota, he wrote about this, I think in 1975. And his work and that of many other people that I've drawn on has led me to what my psychiatry residents tell me is the single most important thing I've ever taught them. And it's an extremely simple question to ask. It is for someone who's depressed to ask them, is there something you're doing or trying to do that seems so important you can't possibly give it up, even though it's pretty clear, you're never going to succeed? That question really gets you to not do enough things for many people, because what ordinary low mode is for is to get us to pause when things aren't working, to try to find another direction, to try to think about doing something else. And eventually, if nothing works, to give up.
[01:02:25] I mean, I read an article today in the New York Times about everybody who's been trying to make it in New York in a $3,000 a month apartment on a $2,000 a month waitressing job, that's gone away. There are all kinds of people ditching the city because they are realizing it's just never going to work. In that circumstance, feeling pessimistic is good. If you're just optimistic and say, "It will work, it'll work. It'll work." At some point, that is not smart. So what happens is if you keep trying against what your system is telling you about is never going to work. And it's not just leaving the fancy job in New York City, it's trying to get your spouse to stop drinking or trying to get your kid off opiates. There are some things you can't give up. And those are the things that are really, really prone to cause ordinary, useful, low mood to escalate and to really big time depression.
[01:03:15] Now, I'm going to pause right here. I think there's some that just explains all depression. Absolutely not. I see lots of patients who have pretty good lines and there's nothing I can find. I mean, it's more than their genes and their hormones, and it really is a brain disorder for many people. But for about half of them, I find that they're trapped in some kind of situation where they're trying to do something that they can't succeed at and they can't quit. It's not easy to quit or else they've done it, but I think this also leads to really productive conversations or therapy about let's talk about this and see.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:03:50] What about eating disorders, for example? Is this a mating strategy to remain thin for women, for example? Or is it about food scarcity? What is this actually about? Do you think?
Randolph Nesse: [01:04:00] So, a lot of people have suggested that eating disorders are an adaptation shaped by selection. I don't buy it. It's rare, a few percent of people and it is much more common in some cultures and others. I treated some eating disorders patients, and they convinced me to look at the whole system that regulates eating. And almost every eating disorder starts with a crash diet. And what happens after you decide, "I'm not going to eat it all for the next two days? I'm sick of being fat." Well, after about two days, you suddenly find yourself staring at an empty half-gallon of ice cream. And then you feel sick to your stomach and you feel sick to your soul. And you think, "Oh my God, I really am out of control. I've got to try harder. So you try harder. I'm going to go for three days without eating." Can you see how this escalates into a vicious cycle?
Jordan Harbinger: [01:04:44] Sure.
Randolph Nesse: [01:04:45] And worse yet there's a system built-in. The first system built-him in the face of famine is to get whatever food you can get and eat it really fast. And the second part is built-in is really unfortunate — if your food supplies are erratic, your body set point for weight up a little bit and actually makes you heavier. But what a tragic thing, the harder you try, the worse it gets.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:05:06] Right, because your body just will store energy more effectively because your food supplies are erratic. So you end up with somebody who has easy access to food, but really doesn't want to gain any weight with a system that is now regulating itself to say, "I need you to gain weight with every bite you take."
Randolph Nesse: [01:05:22] That's right. Now, there are people who can successfully control their intake.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:05:26] Sure.
Randolph Nesse: [01:05:27] Not all that many. Most of us are overweight in this country now. Most people also don't go into anorexia where they get in and really control their eating. Most people who have eating disorders have bulimia and intermittently gorge and sometimes vomit and do things like that. But it's such a tragic, serious illness. It's not people's fault. They can't control it. It's that they're trying to fight and evolve mechanisms and getting into a positive feedback cycle that really gets them diluted about their bodies and diluted about how they can control their weight. It's a serious, awful problem.
[01:05:59] There's a big study recently published showing that there are a few genes that have tiny effects on this. And the authors of that study went into great detail about how this means it's a biological disorder and therefore they must have a brain abnormality. I don't think that makes any sense at all. I think it makes much more sense to try to think about how eating is normally regulated by evolved mechanisms and how doing things like severe dieting set off a positive feedback cycle that really causes the disease.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:06:28] I found it interesting that we're hardwired for many things, but say to pick the optimal amount of berries off of a bush. So if I'm looking at a raspberry bush, I look for the one that has the most, let's say dark-colored, bright red raspberries on it. I start picking and I'm picking them really fast and putting them into a bucket. And then instead of getting every last berry off that plant, I just kind of move on to the next plant that has a lot more.
Randolph Nesse: [01:06:55] How do you feel when you first start picking, Jordan?
Jordan Harbinger: [01:06:57] I'm a little excited, right? I got all these like raspberries in my hand and I could do it really fast. I get a little bit of a dopamine rush, right? Because I'm, I'm killing the game.
Randolph Nesse: [01:07:05] And how about as there are only a few barriers left in the bush how are you killing them?
Jordan Harbinger: [01:07:09 It's a little tedious. I feel a little off, I feel a little FOMO because there's a plant next to me that has more.
Randolph Nesse: [01:07:14] If their plant is right next to you what are you going to do?
Jordan Harbinger: [01:07:16] I just reach over and start picking that one.
Randolph Nesse: [01:07:18] What if you don't see any plants for ways?
Jordan Harbinger: [01:07:20] Well, I'll probably finish picking the ones off of that bush. I don't know.
Randolph Nesse: [01:07:24] Should you pick every single berry, even though there's a kind of a cruddy berry through some pickers?
Jordan Harbinger: [01:07:29] No, I'm not going to go for that one.
Randolph Nesse: [01:07:30] So it turns out that what you're describing is how I understand how the mood system evolved. Mood is actually much more about relationships for humans, but every animal has to figure out how long does it stay in this patch, eating apples from this tree, or raspberries from this bush, before it goes looking for another one. And the answer is a technical calculation but they do it in their minds without even thinking about it, you should stay at that — this apple tree is making it a little bit easier.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:07:58] Okay.
Randolph Nesse: [01:07:59] How long should you stay at this apple tree? Well, some of them are way high up, right?
Jordan Harbinger: [01:08:02] I'm not going up there.
Randolph Nesse: [01:08:03] But how long is it going to take you to find another apple tree? Maybe 10 minutes. So what you have to figure out is. The rate of apples I'm getting from this tree is going down and down and down — It's getting kind of boring. We're not getting very many apples per minute. In fact, I'm not getting many apples per hour. I think I'm going to go to another tree. You got to leave that tree at exactly the time when the number of apples for minutes is equal to the overall number of apples per minute. You get over many trees and then you're going to get the maximum number of apples per day. It turns out that people do this very well. Every animal — rabbits do that very well, chimpanzees do that very well. And my favorite example is those ladybug beetles you see with the little orange.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:08:44] Sure.
Randolph Nesse: [01:08:44] They eat aphids.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:08:46] Okay.
Randolph Nesse: [01:08:46] And if you put them in a little cardboard box with a whole lot of aphids, they suck a little juice out of each one and go to the next one because it's easier to find one and look at the maximum amount of aphid juice per minute. But if there are just a few aphids, it does suck every bit of juice out of the aphid before they could look for another one. I mean, every animal has a system built-in, and there's something about motivation that decreases when you're not getting the payoff. It sends you off looking for something else. But then we talk about bumblebees. I mean, what about a bumblebee when it's getting dark and cold? There's a certain amount of time when — it's not just that flower time is open, it's cold and you're spending more calories than you're getting. And it's getting dangerous out there that bumblebee should just go home and do nothing.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:09:25] Sure.
Randolph Nesse: [01:09:26] And there are times like that in life. I'm afraid. There are times like that when the best thing to do is nothing. Now, it's rare these days. These days you can usually figure out something to do, but for our ancestors, there were times and the best thing to do is nothing.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:09:41] And maybe that's why we feel low mood because our system's encouraging us to not do anything. Does that make sense?
Randolph Nesse: [01:09:48] Does indeed. I mean, there's so-called seasonal affective disorder, right?
Jordan Harbinger: [01:09:51] Oh, yeah.
Randolph Nesse: [01:09:52] There are a lot of people who get down if they're in the gloominess of February and March and all the rest, and there's a big discussion about it. So, is that an adaptation? Hard to say, but it could well be because there are times — I mean, my ancestors lived on a very tiny island off the coast of Norway, and I try to imagine them being very enthusiastic in February and running off, looking for food. Those ones who were very enthusiastic and went running off, looking for food in February, they did not pass on their genes. And so most of us who come from that place or kind of more on the pessimistic side of things, and it's probably a good thing.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:10:27] In closing here, why did we evolve the power to even deceive ourselves? Answer me that one. I'm particularly talented at believing my own brand of BS. And I think a lot of us are. Is this tied to us evolving our ability to deceive other people, which is obviously useful?
Randolph Nesse: [01:10:43] So there's a lot of kinds of misrepresentation we do of the world in our own minds. You asked people, "Are you a better driver than other people?" And 80 percent of people say, "Yeah, I'm a better driver than other people," which is of course impossible. And if you ask people, you know how smart they are, most people think they're smarter than other people and all the rest. And this is probably a good thing. I think it's normal for people to think well of themselves because people who think well of themselves do better in life than people will think, "Oh, I don't have much to offer me." That's not a very useful thing.
[01:11:14] But you're asking a different question, Jordan. You're asking what about real self-deception about things like, you know, "I think she hates me." "Did she ever say anything to you?" "No." "How can you tell she hates you." "I can tell by the way she looks at me." "Tell me about this woman." "Well, you know, she's kind of a floozy." "Really?" "Well, she did say something to me. She said, 'Do you want to come up and have a drink with me in my apartment some time?'" "Oh, really? What did you say to that?" "Oh, I told her I wasn't that kind of a guy." "Are you sure she hates you? She invited you up to her apartment." Maybe it's more complicated. So people do all kinds of stuff like that. It wasn't that she hates you. It's that you're trying to protect yourself from your own impulses of going up to her apartment and getting in trouble with your wife if you've got a wife or whatever. People have all kinds of sections about that.
[01:12:04] Two people, Robert Trivers and Dick Alexander, I think made a very wonderful point. People can do better at deceiving other people. If they deceive themselves about their own impulses, kind of like the example I just gave. And I thought about that and that bothered me because the people I was seeing in therapy, I mean, they weren't lying awake at night trying to figure out how to trick somebody into getting in bed with them. They were lying in bed at night thinking, "Oh my God, that I accidentally failed to smile at that person. That I accidentally forgot to comment about that person's pregnancy. That I forget—" You know, people are very sensitive to their own flaws. And so I tried to figure it out — so Trivers and Alexander were right. They worked on that for a year and wrote a couple of articles about it. And this comes to psychoanalysis, doesn't it? The whole idea of psychoanalysis started by recognition that we're unaware of a lot of our own impulses, not only are we unaware with their systems and they're to keep us unaware.
[01:13:01] So, if I were going to tell you, "You don't actually hate her and she doesn't actually hate you. Actually, you're hot for her." You'd say, "Oh, I am not." That's the kind of denial that goes on with those kinds of defenses. But I eventually discovered that reluctantly, that I thought that Bob Trivers and Dick Alexander were right. That sometimes we do deceive ourselves to better deceive other people. But a lot of the time, I think it's for an entirely different purpose. I think if we have friends and they accidentally don't meet us for lunch. We could go into a big song and dance and blah, blah, blah. It's better just to say, "Oh, too bad," and then have another lunch with them. And nobody's a perfect friend or a perfect spouse or a perfect child or perfect parent. We're all screwing up sometimes. And I think the best thing to do about that usually is to forget about it. Don't even notice it, just go right on. When things get bad, then you've got to do something about it. But I think very often the ability to deceive ourselves about things is really useful. And it's also really good to deceive ourselves about a lot of our impulses to keep ourselves from doing stuff that gets us into trouble. I mean, if every time we saw somebody who's sexy, we started thinking about that, or every time we experienced envy, we started thinking about that. Our minds are going to be filled with all these negative unfulfilled desires. And now we're to Buddhism, aren't we?
[01:14:17] Robert Wright has written wonderful stuff about why Buddhism is true. You know, it's really true. I think that most bad feelings come from desires that we can't satisfy. I'm not Buddhist or anything close to that, but I do think there's wisdom from ancients that really melds very nicely with a modern view of how emotions are trying to get us to do things that benefit our genes, trying to get us to go and do things, and a lot of the things we can never have never get, never do, never succeed at. And a big challenge for life is how we deal with that.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:14:48] Dr. Nesse, thank you so much for coming on the show today. It's been really interesting and I appreciate your time.
Randolph Nesse: [01:14:53] Great fun talking with you, Jordan. I love your show and your podcasts. I'm listening whenever I can.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:15:01] Went a bit long there but I thought this was worth it. This guy's super interesting. His new book is about Why We Actually Get Sick. And I think that's a topic that many of us would like to know about. I want to know why we evolve the ability to get sick in the first place. Why can't we just be immune to stuff? Why can't we just sort of, kind of have a background process going on? Why do I actually need to get sick? There's more in this book, Good Reasons for Bad Feelings. Many people in hospitals right now wouldn't be there if we were living in an ancestral environment. Now, he touched on that during the show. He doesn't mean, "Oh, we've got to eat these specific types of foods and do a paleo diet." What do you mean? I mean, maybe he means partly that, but he's talking about smoking, cancer caused by hormone stuff, birth control pills, obesity, diabetes. We talked about that offline. Every extreme emotional response pattern or lack thereof has consequences. And that was a big takeaway for me from this episode.
[01:15:52] People who are too enthusiastic about things often go from one thing to the next and they can't finish a project or keep a business going. And people who don't get that way, they don't end up being enthusiastic at all are seldom motivated to act. So it's this sort of balance that nature puts us in where we don't actually want to evolve and extreme. Extremes are outliers, and they're often bad for us. This show reminded me of a previous show we did. We'll link to it in the show notes. It was with Todd Kashdan. And he spoke about why negative emotions like anger are useful. And it was all about emotions and how things that we think are negative about our emotions are actually very useful. Again, that episode was Todd Kashdan and that was episode 60 of The Jordan Harbinger Show. His book is called The Upside of Your Dark Side.
[01:16:37] And I'll leave you with this. The berry picking thing that trip anyone else up this whole time, I thought I was bad at math and lo and behold, I can do advanced calculus on the fly without so much as a pencil and paper that whole moving from one berry tree or bush to another at the exact time where the cost-benefit analysis of moving from one bush to another is actually perfect. This is a really cool experiment. I can only imagine the aha moment that the researchers had. And there was a lot in this book. It is very sciency and there's a lot of stuff where you kind of go, "What the hell just happened? What did I just read?" And I found myself re-reading it over and over. So it was good to get a chance to do the show here with Randolph Nesse. And a big thank you to him. We'll link to his book in the show notes.
[01:17:18] Links to everything, always in the show notes. And if you do buy the book, please use our website links because it does help support the show. Worksheets as we have for every episode. Those are in the show notes, transcripts in the show notes. And there's a video of this interview on our YouTube channel or there will be soon at jordanharbinger.com/youtube. I'm teaching you how to connect with great people and manage relationships, using systems and tiny habits over at our Six-Minute Networking course, which is free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. Don't do it later, do it now. You got to dig the well before you get thirsty, build your network before you need it even if it means you feel like you're starting from scratch. These drills take just a few minutes a day. I wish I knew this stuff 20 years ago. Find it all for free at jordanharbinger.com/course.
[01:18:03] And by the way, most of the guests on the show, they subscribed to the course and the newsletter. So come join us, you'll be in smart company. In fact, why not reach out to Randolph and tell him you enjoyed this episode of the show. Show guests usually love hearing from you depending on what you're going to write. You never know what might shake out of that. And speaking of building relationships, you can always reach out and follow me on social media. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram. You can also add me on LinkedIn. I'm actually quite active there these days.
[01:18:29] This show is created in association with PodcastOne, and of course my amazing team, including Jen Harbinger, Jase Sanderson, Robert Fogarty, Ian Baird, Millie Ocampo, and Sal Cotching. And remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for the show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. You know, another nerd who likes evolutionary psychology. You want to know why somebody feels the way they do, or somebody that wants to know that as well, share this episode with them. And hopefully, you find something great in every episode. Please do share the show with those you love. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
[01:19:07] As promised here's a preview of our interview with Mike Rowe.
Mike Rowe: [01:19:12] Follow your passion as a bromide is precisely what 98 percent of the people do who audition for American Idol and they're lined up. Thousands of people who have been told, "If you believe something deeply enough, and if you want something bad enough, and if you truly embrace the essence of persistence and your passion, if you let your passion lead, you stick with it." Well, following your passion is terrific advice if the passion is taking you to a place where opportunity and your own set of skills will be able to co-exist. Passion is something that all of the dirty-jobbers that I met possessed in spades. They just weren't doing anything that looked aspirational. So it was confusing. So if a guy in a plaid shirt sipping a cappuccino, that doesn't make sense. Well, guess what? Neither does a septic tank cleaner worth a million dollars.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:20:05] That guy had a million-dollar business.
Mike Rowe: [01:20:07] I actually counted them up once. I could be wrong by a couple, but I put over 40 people that we featured on Dirty Jobs as multi-millionaires. Passion isn't the enemy. It's just not the thing you want pulling the train, but look, I don't say don't follow your passion. I say, never follow your passion, but always bring it with you.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:20:32] For more with Mike Rowe, including a behind-the-scenes look at some of his shows and why we should not view a blue-collar career as some sort of cautionary tale, check out episode 264 right here on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
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