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We Are All Institutionalized

I spent much of my twenties working for the New Zealand Department of Corrections as a Probation Officer and later in other managerial roles. My specialty was high risk offenders who’d been released from prison on parole, including murderers and other long-term inmates.

Gate Fever

We used to talk about a phenomenon called “gate fever”. Surprisingly often, long-serving prisoners who were coming up for parole would start acting up and getting into trouble, even when they’d previously been well-behaved.

This is common in prisons around the world. When a man has been locked up for many years, sometimes more years than he’s been free, he becomes resistant to release and shows signs of fear and panic about the idea of leaving prison.

As explored in the movie The Shawshank Redemption, a man can come to depend on prison as a secure unchanging background with rules he understands and a culture that suits his personality.

The outside world, with all it’s complexity and change and nuance and freedom is actually decidedly intimidating place where he does not belong, has no status, and can barely function effectively.

One murderer I managed had been inside for 20 years. When he got out, I came to realise that he couldn’t use even the most basic technology. He didn’t know how to use an ATM to get money out. He was baffled as to how I moved the cursor on a computer screen with a mouse. He was outraged at the obscene price increase of KFC chicken.

He actually requested Home Detention conditions that would force him to remain in his house for a majority of the time. He was afraid to leave and go out into the world. It took years to reintegrate him into society, and I had to have many conversations convincing him not to reoffend just so he could return to prison.

This is what we call being “institutionalised” — to be dependent on an institutation to the point of developing a kind of Stockholm’s Syndrome mentality where we actually love our captors and refuse to leave them.

But I’m not writing about prisoners. I’m writing about the rest of us, you and me and everyone else who’s been a law abiding citizen (more or less) their entire lives, but are institutionalized nonetheless.

The dark truth about evolution

Evolutionary psychology presents a glaring truth that we stare at all the time without acknowledging it’s true implications: our brains have barely evolved at all in over 150,000 years.

We still have the basic brain structure and psychological functions of the earliest homo sapiens, which means we’re wired for surviving a place in the middle of the food chain, living in small tribes constantly surrounded by relatives, hunting and gathering for resources, and highly likely to die before we reach the age of 5, most often due to dental issues.

Imagine transporting one of these ancient humans and dropping them into a metropolitan city, forcing them to sit through schooling for over a decade, then make them commute an hour each way to work at a desk with a machine that stimulates you with dopamine hits by alerting you of emails, and then spending your “free time” sitting around watching other people live, through sports and movies and so on.

They’d also need to be conditioned into becoming addicted to a variety of substances and behaviours, such as alcohol, drugs, caffiene, gossip, porn, vaping and busyness. They’d be pressured to follow local cultural norms like working a 9–5, and spending their money on clothes, and admiring celebrities.

Do you think their ancient brain would respond well to such treatment? Do you think their ancient bodies, perfectly tuned to living in the wilderness, would respond effectively to muffins and Coke and processed meats?

Actually, you do know the answer to these questions… because nothing has changed for humans since then!

We are prisoners

YOU are an ancient homo sapien, at least at the fundamental level. Ignoring the slight physical adaptations that have occured over time and the minimal impact of epigenetics, we haven’t really evolved to deal with our current environment.

We are prisoners of a different sort. Like wild animals in captivity, the average human lifestyle is completely at odds with our brains and the rest of our bodies. Our psychological structure is completely out of tune with how we operate socially and culturally, and our bodies are not designed to intake what we eat or survive the way we move (or don’t).

We respond to nasty comments on a YouTube thread with the same emotional response with which we used to respond to seeing a saber-toothed tiger. We attack each other for slightly differing political beliefs with the same ruthless ferocity that we used to attack enemy tribes for stealing our women. We panic about a reprimanding email from our boss with the same anxiety that we used to have about being bought before the tribe’s chief for potential execution.

When we explore barely touched tribal cultures in Africa or the jungles of Brazil etc., we inevitably find that they are much more at peace with their lifestyles and societies. They behave more like smart apes that can interact effectively with their environment and each other better than the rest of us do. They don’t complain about depression or ADHD. They don’t get obese or anorexic. They don’t have major political battles.

They are not institutionalized like the rest of us.

Look at the evidence

You can’t go for long without looking at your phone. When the bus is late, your whole day falls apart. You stay at a shit job despite knowing you could find a better one, because of some vague unsubstantiated fear about running out of money. You sacrifice your family, health and hobbies to stress out about things that have no real relevance to your quality of life.

And when it all gets too much, you BINGE. Alcohol, Netflix, gambling, video games… you find something to numb the pain.

And yet god forbid you actually take the opportunity to leave prison. Even though you are constantly approved for “parole” from all of these cages, you consistently wake up every day and choose to remain imprisoned.

You could find a better job within a week. You could stop hanging out with losers and try that new promising social activity. You could spend less time working and more time playing with your kids. You could eat nothing but healthy meat and fresh vegetables. You could get up 30mins earlier each day to work out.

Nothing is stopping you… except for that weird delay feeling, that “not today, maybe later” narrative that comes up whenever you get an urge to make a change.

If you think a prisoner is absurd for screwing up their chances of release simply because they’re used to being in prison, then take a long hard look in the mirror. What kind of release and peace are you actively preventing and sabotaging?

All your depression and stress and anxiety and exhaustion are not natural. Other mammals living in the wild don’t feel this way, but animals caged in zoos or kept as pets often do display similar problems. This isn’t a coincidence. We don’t live the way that’s natural for us, and we can feel it.

You don’t need to “go bush” to correct this, though it might be worth a try just to get a sense of living in nature the way you’re wired. More practically, however, you can adopt many of the same patterns and social practices and daily lifestyle routines that isolated tribal cultures enjoy, like only working about 20 hours per week, and physically moving around a lot, and eating healthy food, and creating fun rituals and hobbies, and socializing face to face for many hours per day.

You could do it. Or you can remain institutionalized.

Your call.

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