Why Smart People Hurt

Why Smart People Hurt: A Guide for the Bright, the Sensitive, and the Creative (2013) by Eric Maisel has very controversial ratings on Amazon. There are a lot of people raving about it and giving it five-star ratings, as well as a lot of people regretting having bought the book, many of whom didn’t even bother to finish it. I can relate to both sides: the book certainly wasn’t a fun read and I often struggled to go on as I felt there was a lot of meaningless babbling about meaning. However, there are a lot of passages I can totally relate to (not that I consider myself that smart).

Imagine the following sort of day in the life of a young girl with lots of native intelligence. Her household is in chaos, the kind of chaos that poverty, acrimony, addictions, and unfulfilled lives produce. Surrounded by threats, impulsivity, and zero tolerance for free thought, she somehow manages to get to school-and into another anti-thinking environment. At school, more chaos prevails and, despite the idea that school advocates for thinking, she is confronted with a shrink-wrapped, fact-based, topic-based, and test-driven curriculum that no adult with the freedom to leave would tolerate for an instant. After school, she goes off to parochial instruction and gets a narrow religious education that demands obedience, allegiance, and more thoughtlessness. Her evening involves her in more chaos, and to escape it she shuts her door, if she is lucky enough to have a room and a door, and finds some stress relief and some self-soothing by watching hours of ready-made, low-level television programming that further numbs her and dumbs her down. Finally she sleeps, only to awaken to another day just like this one .

Of course, most people have struggles in their lives, however, smart people tend to have their struggles with a particular set of challenges:

  • anti-intellectualism
  • authority and obedience
  • social struggles and finding our “tribe”
  • mental health problems (depression, anxiety, bipolar)
  • self-worth (switching between elevated and self-doubt)
  • mind-numbing routine work and boredom
  • making their lives (more) meaningful

While I think most smart people will be able to identify The author tries to provide recipes to cope with these struggles, like “thinking only useful thoughts”. I am not sure how helpful that is to other people, but I find it pretty useless advice. First of all, I am hardly able to tell my brain to come up with useful thoughts. Secondly, sometimes the least useful thoughts are the most interesting ones (how useful was relativity to Einstein???) and thirdly if useful means being able to live a more “normal life” or “financially successful” then it smacks very much of “conformist thinking”, something smart people are loath to.

Rather than getting some useless advice, I would have liked Eric Maisel to reflect on why smart people have this particular set of problems. It’s certainly something that has more got to do with society than the individual. Why is it that high performing sports teens are treated like heroes and are highly popular whereas high performing cerebral teens are treated like freaks and often have next to no friends? Why is it that smart people need “more meaning” in their lives than other people? Why do they struggle with routine work, authority and conformity?

I have argued that these questions may be resolved by evolutionary thinking. Even though reality may not always be so clear-cut we can think of Maisel’s “smart people” (a category that does by far not include all smart people) as evolutionary forager types living in a farmer world.

We tend to think of evolutionary changes as always leading to higher complexity. It’s something that is simply not true. The transition from foraging to farming brought along less cerebral and more physical work. Hunter-gatherers have an encyclopaedic knowledge of flora and fauna and tracking involves such complex cognitive processes that Louis Liebenberg described it as the origin of science. Among our three ancestral subsistence strategies foraging, farming and herding, you can think of foragers as the “nerds” among them.

If you think of Maisel’s “smart people” as evolutionary forager types in a farmer-herder world, it should become clear why they have the specific set of problems and why not all smart people have them. Foragers in a farmer society may have more problems with addictions like alcohol (or more modern forms like online and gaming addictions), mental health problems, such as ADHD, OCD, ODD and anxiety, and difficulty fitting in in general. These are all problems Native Americans face to a much higher extent than any other group in America. So, do many of the other remaining foragers all over the world.

On the flip side, you get lots of people who might even consider themselves not particularly intelligent because that is what they have been told in a school system that doesn’t work well for forager types (authority, conformity, rote learning). This is one thing that Maisel actually points out in his book. Rather than “smart people” Maisel’s book should have been about “alienated” people. People who don’t find much meaning in acquiring material wealth and “keeping up with the neighbours”. People who should think society is flawed, but only too often end up thinking it’s them who are flawed, instead. There are many labels I have found for such people, like neurodiverse or indigo. Calling them the “hunter-gatherer neurotribe” makes the most sense to me.

For more on the hunter-gatherer neurotribe hypothesis check out my The hunter-gatherer neurotribe: gifted, geeks, aspies and other aliens in this world

And Understanding Genius: Sensibility, Social Awkwardness, Sleeplessness, Sex, Suicide and Sense of Humour

Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on June 7, 2022.

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