How Idleness Was an Early Form of Meditation for Ancient Humans

Is a state of idleness really not benefiting us? Or do our brains need relaxation?

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

When you engage in meditation or any “downtime” for your brain, do you feel guilty, like you should be keeping busy? If we look at our early ancestors, we see that meditation is one of the features that connect us to our humanity. Professor Vishton explains how meditation is linked to our brain health and evolutionary functioning.

Young man meditating in living room chair
Our societal norm is to be overly busy without enough “down time”; however, our brains require periods of relaxation, such as during meditation, to maintain regular function. Photo by Daisy Daisy / Shutterstock

Is Meditation Idleness?

Because your body and your brain are still when you meditate, you may associate meditation with idleness. Our culture has taught us to believe that idleness is a cultural weakness while industriousness, or hard work, is a virtue.

However, this belief system is mostly a product of our modern lifestyle. Although meditation is currently “trending” in the media, it is not a new phenomenon.

Many researchers believe that people have historically spent a lot of time meditating, even if they didn’t call it meditation per se. We think of modern life as being much easier and more convenient than what’s historically been typical, but that’s a myth.

Hunter-Gatherers and Meditation

Humans have been around for about 300,000 years, as near as modern paleoanthropologists can figure. For about the first 280,000 of those years, humans survived as hunters and gatherers. 

Their job was essentially to harvest food that nature produced naturally, sometimes without a lot of effort from the humans. When food was plentiful, it’s estimated that people could find what they needed to sustain themselves—to feed themselves and their children—surprisingly quickly.

Studies of the few remaining modern hunter-gatherer societies—for example, the !Kung Bushmen of South Africa—suggest that the work week for ancient humans was about two-and-a-half days per week and six hours a day.

Other studies of the Machiguenga and the Kayapo groups in South America considered not just the specific hunting and gathering of food, but all of the work that they did in a typical week, and found an average of a little less than five hours a day.

Brain Evolution

Since the first hunter-gatherer societies emerged, most of the world has changed a lot. We work a lot more hours, and we live a lot longer. Our world is much more defined by our technology and efficiency. 

However, our brains are basically the same as those that were in the heads of those ancient humans. The processes that drive evolution function very slowly. 

The 20,000 years that we’ve spent since our hunting and gathering days is a blink of an eye in the scale of evolutionary times. Humans have engaged in idleness and meditation, or at least meditative thinking, for millennia. It seems reasonable to expect that our modern brains have adapted to use this idle time effectively and perhaps even to depend on it for regular maintenance activities.

A wide range of research suggests that there are a variety of positive benefits that emerge from regularly engaging in this practice of meditation. A few recent studies suggest that some positive benefits begin to emerge, in terms of measures of improved concentration and lower stress, within just a few days of beginning the practice. 

Most researchers think of meditation as an intervention that aims to enhance brain health and brain function as well. For most of the time that Homo sapiens has been around, we’ve naturally had a lot of down time. 

“It seems a reasonable inference to me that our brains are, and may always have been, built to require—or at least benefit from—a certain amount of meditation just to maintain normal function,” Professor Vishton said. “From that perspective, this meditation practice I’m suggesting isn’t about looking for a clever new way to enhance the function of your brain.”

Instead, according to Vishton, regular meditation gives your brain something that it needs to maintain regular function. Meditation might be less like a new medical treatment for some problem, and more like an essential vitamin or nutrient that we all need. 

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

About Kate Findley 401 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.