Survival Gene Gone Rogue

Survival Gene Gone Rogue

What do you think about this idea? “A complex gene, body weight and psychopathology relationship wherein a primitive, survival “thrift gene” strategy may be conserved and represented in a subgroup of humans manifesting severe hoarding symptoms”*. Put plainly, this hypothesis is suggesting hoarding is an adaptive evolutionary behaviour gone rogue.

Animals tend to use two strategies to manage energy demands when there is a shortage of food or when they are faced with other stressful situations. First, they gain weight via fat storage for use later on (or “Ron” as we say in Australia), so the body actually stores more fat from every meal no matter how high or low the caloric value. Second, animals tend to hoard actual food stores. In stressful environments, studies have shown mice and other rodents hoard more food and carry more weight.

Animal studies are all very well but we can’t be expected to believe that humans will behave in the same way as mice or rats… can we? Humans are the thinking animal with emotions, feelings, and an understanding of our impact on others and our environment aren’t we? But what if, in times of stress, our primitive brain is storing fat and we are hoarding “stuff” because it is protecting us from future scarcity just like the animals we evolved from? In our primitive past, stress was being chased and eaten by predators or killed by other tribes but in 2015 our stress may just be a constant feeling of not being “enough” or the nagging notion of being a “failure”. Our brain can’t tell the difference. Hunters and gatherers experienced the “fight or flight” response when faced with a predator. They dealt with the stress by killing or being killed. Either way this stress response was short lived; if it persisted, it was likely to be due to famine, severe weather, or some other external threat. In this case saving energy, by way of “hoarding” fat and supplies, was the right strategy.

So while our primitive brain is telling our body, in times of stress, to save – save – save, the sophisticated brain is trying desperately to manage our emotions – which are the cause of our stress. So you see the brain is conspiring to keep us overweight and overstuffed. Both hoarding and dysfunctional eating patterns have been linked to emotion regulation. Eating and hoarding are both coping mechanisms that have evolutionary relevance. Comfort food and comfort objects… I’m just sayin…

We need ways to manage our emotions in order to reduce the stress in our lives. Well how the heck do we do that? Let me know your thoughts or successful strategies and I’ll let you know mine next time.

*Timpano, K. R., Schmidt, N. B., Wheaton, M. G., Wendland, J. R., & Murphy, D. L. (2011). Consideration of the BDNF gene in relation to two phenotypes: Hoarding and obesity. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 120, 700–707. doi:10.1037/a0024159

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