Go Wild

Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization


Read by Dan Woren

By John J. Ratey, MD

Foreword by David Perlmutter MD

By Richard Manning

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The scientific evidence behind why maintaining a lifestyle more like that of our ancestors will restore our health and well-being.

In Go Wild, Harvard Medical School Professor John Ratey, MD, and journalist Richard Manning reveal that although civilization has rapidly evolved, our bodies have not kept pace. This mismatch affects every area of our lives, from our general physical health to our emotional wellbeing. Investigating the power of living according to our genes in the areas of diet, exercise, sleep, nature, mindfulness and more, Go Wild examines how tapping into our core DNA combats modern disease and psychological afflictions, from Autism and Depression to Diabetes and Heart Disease. By focusing on the ways of the past, it is possible to secure a healthier and happier future, and Go Wild will show you how.


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On March 7, 2009, NASA launched the Kepler space observatory with the goal of discovering earthlike planets orbiting stars in our galaxy. Almost immediately, the data produced by this venture revealed the presence of planets orbiting stars in the "Goldilocks zone," a term used to describe an ideal distance between a planet and its parent star that is "neither too hot nor too cold"—what scientists have more formally termed the "habitable zone." By November 2013, the mission scientists concluded that in our galaxy alone there may exist as many as forty billion planets that could support life.

Applying some clever mathematics to their observations of these planets, the Kepler team learned something surprising: They discovered that planets actually deform the orbits of the very stars around which they revolve. And the denser the planet, the more it affects the orbit of the parent star.

In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus challenged the prevailing notion that the earth was the center of the universe. In his publication De Revolutionibus, he presented his observations concluding that the earth actually rotated around the sun. His rejection of geocentrism was ultimately denounced by religious leaders who held to the biblical proclamation of the primacy of the earth. What followed thereafter must surely have been a debate of great intensity, with both sides fervently digging in their heels.

We now know that these seemingly irreconcilable theories are actually both right and wrong. And this paradox is elegantly resolved by the Kepler observations of distant planets. Like the newly discovered planets, our earth distorts the orbit of a star, our sun. Thus the delineation of master and subordinate becomes blurred. In the mutually distorting dance of sun and earth, each participant influences the other.

In the pages that follow, you will be exploring the many dances that define our species. Through metaphor and anecdote, science and educated speculation, you will gain a deep understanding of the profound influence that our interactions with our environment have upon charting our destiny as well as our momentary well-being. And you will discover how, like our small planet's tug on the sun, each of us in turn influences all that surrounds us.

We humans are a polarized lot. Whether we're debating the center of celestial movement or the importance of genes versus environmental influence in human development, there is often little common ground. But now we are learning that, like planets and stars, genes and environment influence each other. It has become clear that our lifestyle choices—including food, sleep, exercise, relationships, and even acts of compassion—feed back a constant flow of information to our DNA and actually modify the expression of what had been considered an immutable code. As the science of epigenetics reconciles seemingly disparate theories about our health destiny, we are learning to embrace the notion of the dance and to accept that we must design our lives accordingly.

Go Wild shows us how we can do just that, by tapping into nature's design for us. Our genetic array evolved and refined itself over millions of years to manifest health almost perfectly in response to a fairly predictable set of cues from the environment. But we've turned the tables on our life code by providing confusing social, nutritional, and chemically toxic signals. Go Wild reveals the depth of our current evolutionary discordance, awakening us to how our lifestyle choices foster maladaptive gene expression and thus pave the way for disease.

The mission accomplished by this wonderfully empowering book is nothing short of revolutionary. Ratey and Manning provide us with the tools we need to reestablish evolutionary concordance and eliminate the conflict that we have unknowingly created between the boundless potential imparted to each of us and the maladaptive influences that now hinder its manifestation.

—David Perlmutter, MD


Go Wild. This title at first might suggest scenes such as college kids run amok on spring break, so it's fair to ask up front: What do we mean by this? If not college kids, then maybe survivalists foraging on an island? Loinclothed hunters pitching spears at antelope or fleeing lions? We mean nothing nearly so lurid, but you're getting warmer. "Wild" is one of those overworked words with layers of loaded meanings, but we intend to strip it to its core in order to make it useful—useful even to your own personal well-being.

Our meaning is easy enough to grasp. Think of wild versus tame, wolf versus dog, bison versus cow. We have the same sort of distinction in mind now when we ask you to expand this with the somewhat revolutionary notion of applying the idea to humans. Wild humans. It's not as odd as it sounds. In fact, through deep history, through tens of thousands of years, everyone was a wild human. The very same forces that tamed wolves and made them dogs tamed humans. Call these forces civilization, and yes, obvious and abundant benefits came with the deal. We're not here to dispute those blessings. Our bedrock point has more to do with genes, evolution, and time. Human evolution occurred under wild conditions, and this made us who we are. The modern human still operates on those same genes, almost wholly unchanged. We are designed to be wild, and by living tamely we make ourselves sick and unhappy.

We are going to tell you a number of fascinating details about that design: that you are born to move with grace, born to embrace novelty and variety, born to crave wide-open spaces, and, above all, born to love. But one of the more profound facts that will emerge is that you are born to heal. Your body fixes itself. A big part of this is an idea called homeostasis, which is a wonderfully intricate array of functions that repair the wear and tear and stress of living. This ability lies at the very heart of what we mean by "going wild."

We're going to make our case by first showing you the real, sweeping, catastrophic consequences of taming. The world's leading causes of death and suffering—killers like heart disease, obesity, depression, and even cancer—are the price we pay for ignoring our genetic code, our design. But fixing this, especially fixing this on the individual level, in your life, is not as overwhelming as it sounds. That's where homeostasis comes in. The task at hand is to get out of the way and let your body's wonderfully evolved abilities for self-repair do their job. The steps are simple and doable, even in our modern world. This is not speculation. Lots of people have taken these steps, including the authors. We'll tell you about them in detail, but we also have something more planned for you. If you trace these ideas along with us through this book, we think you will come away with a new appreciation for the human condition.

One of the realizations we hope to deliver is how everything—how you eat, move, sleep, think, and live—is connected. All of it is relevant to your well-being. This seems a simple enough idea, but it flies straight in the face of the fundamentals of Western thought, of science, and especially of modern Western medicine. The tame idea is to break down a problem into components, find out which component is malfunctioning, and fix that problem—an idea that works well enough with machines, but we are not machines. We are wild animals. The wild idea is to embrace complexity.

The fact is, your depression is not solely a condition of mind and is not isolated in the brain. It may be directly and firmly a fault of your exercise routine or choice of vegetables and protein. Your obesity may be caused by your diet or it may be linked to bacteria or lack of sleep—or, even more curiously, your maternal grandmother's low birth weight. Your failure at your job may be cured by long walks in the mountains with your dog.

Even the child's song knows that the leg bone is connected to the thigh bone; we mean to press this idea a lot further to provide some appreciation of the enormous complexity and interconnectedness of the various elements of human life.

The chapters that follow will begin to assemble the case by breaking down our various topics into subcategories, and some are the usual suspects. We will begin with the basics, by examining diet and then exercise, but that's not to say we will deliver up the usual advice. Rather, we are going to use some emerging realizations in both of these areas to establish a habit of mind, a method of thinking about the human condition. We'll build on that case by looking at a broader set of behaviors: sleep, mindfulness, tribalism, relationships, and contact with nature. As the case builds, you will notice a couple of themes. First, it will quickly become apparent that the boundaries of our categories are porous indeed. We will begin talking about nutrition, and suddenly there is a firm, physical link through an identifiable pathway to, say, brain function or the immune system. This is as it should be, because this is the reality.

But more important, you will also notice that each of these categories is a pathway, and each path leads eventually to the brain and the mind. Of course it does: the mind is the seat of well-being. Which leads us to a set of fundamentally contradictory ideas that will channel what follows. Each of these contradictory ideas is correct in its own way, and each has much to teach us.

The first of these emerges in a whole slew of statements through the years, but it's perhaps best stated in a sentence attributed to Native Americans: "Every animal knows way more than you do." The contradictory statement to this one has a long and robust tradition in Western thought, explicitly articulated even at the very root of the Judeo-Christian tradition: you, as a human, are the crown of creation, better, "more evolved," and therefore somehow separate from and superior to all other animals.

Maybe it's best to hear the first case from a field biologist, because these are often the people who, like traditional Native Americans, truly understand the idea. The act of close observation of a given species of wild animal does nothing so much as instill a deep appreciation for the inherent abilities that attune animals to the environment. The biologist was expressing this very idea to an observer one time when the observer challenged him. "Okay, if owls are so smart, why don't they build houses, cars, and computers?" The biologist's instant response was "They're so smart that they don't have to."

The same idea emerges in a more common event. You don't have to be a biologist to make a close study of an animal, and many of us do. We study our dogs. And many of us have had the experience of watching the familiar family pet deliver a litter of pups. Being proper dog surrogate parents, we research the coming event as thoroughly as possible. We make trips to the vet, we prepare for the various procedures we will need to follow to ensure each pup's first breath—there's a series of defined and specific steps to effect a clean entry into the world: clear obstructions and mucus and then stimulate, stroking gently to encourage those first few magical breaths. We think we have to, because our dog, smart as she may be, has never mothered pups before and has no access to how-to books or the instructions we printed from the Internet. And then the pups come and the supposedly ignorant first-time mother flawlessly executes each complicated step precisely as the instructions specified, and then she looks at us as if to say, "What are you here for?" The dog doesn't need to read the manual, because every animal knows way more than you do.

This is an especially important example, because it involves hormones, in this case oxytocin. Dogs have them. So do all animals, including humans, and oxytocin will figure in much of this book—even, in fact, in some surprising areas like business transactions, exercise, and violence.

But we are not restricted in thinking about instinctive knowledge of well-being in other animals, a statement that lies at the very heart of our argument. Somehow, we have gotten to the point of believing that we must ensure our personal well-being by a series of complicated gyrations and contortions, whole shelves of self-help books, multiple gym memberships, moon-launch-capable gear and telemetry, daily attention to the health section of the newspaper, support groups, and a constant count of calories. Yet imagine for a second a group of Masai men—the storied herders of Kenya—making their way across the Serengeti, an effortless trot of lithe, formed bodies, perfect conditioning, and a beauty and economy of motion that would be the envy of every dedicated gym rat. When do the Masai count calories or read the manuals? Where are their personal trainers? Or, for that matter, how do we explain the apparent well-being of the hunter-gatherer groups so assiduously studied for centuries by anthropologists and universally reported to be fit, thin, and happy? Hunter-gatherers are wild humans. Like every wild animal, they know way more than we do, which flies straight in the face of the crown of creation argument, and we do indeed mean to, at least at first, challenge that notion. Much of the damage that we inflict on ourselves, on others, and certainly on the natural world stems from extreme adherence to the notion of human exceptionalism.


The jury is still out on the question of whether the human brain is the pinnacle, the best thing evolution has ever done. The experiment has been in progress for only a couple of million years, and we have yet to see all the downsides, although a few are coming clearly into view. However, it is a simple matter of fact (and wonder) that the human brain is the most complicated and profound organ ever. In the early days of thinking about human evolution, or even today, much of what we consider exceptional about our brain is our cognitive abilities: using tools, planning, being clever—that sort of thing. These abilities are marvelous and unique. We don't mean to understate them here, but it may help to begin thinking about some other abilities as well. For instance, the purpose of all brains—not just ours, but in all sentient beings—is to allow movement, locomotion, coordination, and manipulation. We're exceptionally good at these skills as well.

Yet our cleverness, recall, learning, and grasp of fact are not all that complex as brain functions go. It turns out—and we know this because of sophisticated tools that measure and assess brain activity—that some activities we take for granted (empathy, language, and everyday social skills) are exceedingly complex; they light up the whole brain, a buzzing glow of unimaginably dense neural networks. This is what we do and what no other species can do. We'll unpack this idea slowly as we go, but know up front that what makes us human is our unprecedented ability to get along with one another. This is our crowning achievement.

And this is what interests us, but also offers a model or framework for the case we will build in the following chapters. We are going to talk about components of human activity, like diet, sleep, and exercise. But, as we have said, there are important connections among these components. More to the point, each of these activities supports the brain. Each of them in meaningful, measurable, tangible, nameable ways supports the brain and the brain's ability to light up that hypercharged network of neural pathways. These are the neural pathways that sponsor and record your well-being and ultimately your ability to connect to other humans. Light up the whole system, and you will feel better.

This book builds its case in succeeding chapters along just this path of logic. We'll begin by laying out a baseline, a summary of what we know about initial conditions and the details of human evolution. What exactly is the human condition and what is human nature? And we'll make the overarching case, by updating a more-than-century-old inquiry into "diseases of civilization," that violation of those initial conditions has made us ill. Most of what ails us today are precisely these afflictions: diseases of civilization. Then in successive chapters we'll look at the subsets of human activity: diet and exercise, sleep, tribalism, contact with nature, relationships, and mindfulness. We'll then summarize with a chapter of practical advice on the personal level.

"Wild." This is the word we need now. Before civilization, everything was wild, including humans. The polite term of anthropology is "hunter-gatherer," but calling our ancestors "wild" explains so much more. Before there was farming and cities, we were wild humans. Ever since, more and more of us have been tamed, and this is what is making us ill. All that unfolds in the following chapters will be the case for honoring the design of our bodies that evolution gave us, but the easier way to say it is this: Go wild.

Worldwide, there is a growing and necessary trend toward restoring wild systems via ecological restoration. The Europeans call this process "re-wilding." We are arguing that the human body is every bit as complex and biodiverse, it turns out, as any wild ecosystem, and like an ecosystem, it works best when restored to wild conditions. So think of this book as instructions for re-wilding your life, and maybe even an introduction to ideas that may change the way you think about life.

In the beginning, though, it may help you to imagine three scenes. You'll want to recall them every now and again throughout this book to see how different they appear. Like old-style chemical photo developing, the narrative that follows should reveal more detail in these images as our story unfolds. At first, the images will seem fuzzy and disconnected; if we do our work correctly in the pages to come, they will begin to reveal much about the human condition.

Here's one:

This is a photograph that we encountered years ago but that kept popping into mind as we thought about this project. There's probably a good reason it persisted, and it must begin with the fact that this is a classic photo of a band of hunter-gatherers recorded in 1947, before encroachment by civilization had compromised their way of life—and civilization did indeed make these people as sick as the rest of us in a very short time. But this is a "before" photo, and it shows a group of San people of Africa's Kalahari gathered in conversation or, probably more accurately, in storytelling, an activity that has bound us and defined our humanity for longer than we can imagine. The nakedness, of course, strikes us first, but that's a normal enough state for most of humanity for most of history. But beyond that, notice what the nakedness reveals: the lithe, fit bodies, upright and strong. Count ribs. But then check out the guy telling the story: the animation, the affect, the engagement. See what his face is doing, that he radiates a sort of magnetism that holds the circle together, engaged and involved. Who among us today communicates so well? And the circle itself? Notice that it is mostly children, that it hangs together, almost literally. There is an undeniable and readily apparent bond. There is trust.

The second image derives from a video readily available on YouTube, but anyone who has trained in developmental psychology has already seen it and heard it discussed at length, because its content explains a crucial issue of human development. But no need to go to the actual video: the scene it shows is normal enough and repeated often in every child's upbringing, at least every child lucky enough to have a reasonably normal upbringing. The scene is easy to imagine. A mother and a toddler are alone in a room full of attractions and distractions for the toddler—brightly colored toys and other objects of fascination. But it's a strange room. Toddler clings to mom but eyes attractions surreptitiously. Then courage builds, bolstered by mom's affection, and toddler leaves mom to engage an attractive object, maybe a big block. The block falls and makes a noise, and toddler immediately bolts for mom, goes through an interval of comforting, and then works up the nerve to once more go exploring, to venture off in search of the unknown.

All of this is exactly as it should be, now and from the beginning of human time. This pattern of balancing between comfort and exploration of the unknown is how we build our brains, and it is enabled by the presence of a mother's affection and support. It is the normal state of affairs, and we will need this image later, because it is not just about toddlers; it is about each of us.

The third image would at first blush seem to be about very few of us—a special case. We mean to address human well-being here as a universal, but autism is not universal. Most of us see it from afar and categorize it as one of those unlucky twists of fate that trouble a few people, maybe a genetic problem, but what has this to do with me? Yet we will build the case here that the relevance of this neurological problem goes well beyond the social costs. Autism may well be a disease of civilization, placing it right at the heart of the issues we trace here.

We were particularly struck on a visit to the Center for Discovery, in upstate New York; it's a residential facility that serves 360 people with autism, many of them too violent or disruptive to function in a normal family setting. Not all autistic people are violent or this disruptive, but the few who are wind up in places like the Center for Discovery. On the day we visited, staffers escorted us in and out of a series of classrooms, and we engaged some students without a second thought. Staffers told us that a month or so earlier this openness and access would not have been possible, that some of these people might have erupted. The staff credited the remarkable improvement in large part to an exercise regimen, and we watched people run, jump, and dance. This was their treatment: running, jumping, and dancing with one another. But just as important, this new routine built on a long-standing practice at the center of ensuring sound nutrition and connection with nature.

The scene we keep coming back to, however, was in a single tiny classroom, where four adolescent boys were seated in a row facing a simple bell and wood block that they each played in turn. A slight, dark woman with a cherubic face and a pageboy haircut sat at a small electric piano and tickled out a simple refrain, over and over again, as repetitive and simple as it had to be to engage the boys to ring the bell or strike the block, each in strict simple time to the beat laid down by the piano player. The words of the refrain echoed the activity: "Ring the bell, ring the bell, ring the bell," on and on and on. Rhythm and music, melody, meter, keeping time. This is the rhythm that calls forth a brain retreated from social engagement—the hallmark of autism.

But then we noticed the piano player, that she must perform this repetitious exercise for hours on end each day, because that is what is required of her. We noticed, too, that she was not treating this like repetition, that she was putting something of herself into each phrase, throwing in little embellishments and improvisations, that she sang from her center and, like all good singers, from the core of her emotional self. She was summoning a ray of hope to make music—not just sound, not even just melody and rhythm, but music—and doing it again and again and again in a situation that most of us would find hopeless. She was every bit as engaged and invested with the circle around her as the !Kung San storyteller. She was living the moment. She was mindful.

Appropriate, then, that this image came to us in this place, the Center for Discovery, because this was the site of one of two major turning points in each of our own stories. We have long said that there is no reason to write a book unless the process of doing so changes the author's life. Forever. Fair enough, because we hope that this book will change your life. Eventually, we will report how this happened for each of us in detail. But up front, we can say that Richard Manning lost fifty pounds and became an ultramarathon trail runner. John Ratey lost some weight, too, and changed the way he eats every day—but the big change was a major expansion in what he thinks about. He is well-known for writing about exercise and the brain, but the compelling story that is emerging at the Center for Discovery has made him far more attentive to issues like sleep, food, nature, mindfulness, and—more important—how they work together to create well-being. But it's not just the Center for Discovery that has changed John's thinking. One chance meeting, and a remarkable, spontaneous, wrenching personal account, changed his life. We'll get to that, too.


Human 1.0

Why Evolution's Design Endures

Evolution has hard-wired health to happiness, which means happiness is not as hard to assess as we make it out to be—not if you approach it from the wild side. Ultimately, we don't need someone else (or a book, for that matter) to define our happiness. Our brains do that. Every single aspect of the way we are wired and evolved makes it our brain's job to tell us if we are okay. Our survival depends on it being so.

Think of what our lives would be like if this were not true, if the body operated on perverse feedback loops that would tell us we are okay when we are, in biological terms, doing badly: we are hungry, cold, exhausted, and broken, and the brain says we are fine. Imagine such a feedback system, and then imagine the prospects of survival for an animal that has it. Imagine it being encoded and passed on in genes. But no need to imagine. This is precisely the perverse system that prevails in a drug addict, a hijacked system that says he is doing well when everybody can see he is not. Survival prospects? We know this answer without further study.

What we need most to understand from this is that our happiness is greatly dependent on our biological well-being, and the conditions of that well-being have been laid down by the imperatives of survival, by evolution. All of this means we need to pay attention to the conditions of human evolution to ensure our happiness. But the problem is, we don't. The popular understanding of human evolution is more or less wrong. But more important, the way we live is a clear and long-standing set of violations of the rules of human well-being, and it's making us sick.

First, summon that image that invariably pops into mind when we begin to think about human evolution: the series of cartoon panels in progression—first ape, then caveman, then us, and then a punch line. These ubiquitous cartoons make great jokes, but the idea behind them is wrong in an important way. So is the concept of a "missing link." The cartoon supports the idea that evolution gradually produced modifications and changes in human design in one neat, clear progression from our ape ancestors to who we are today, that the change was progressive, and that the process continues. All of this is wrong.


  • "A brilliantly creative synthesis of research and theory offering up a practical, playful, yet profound answer to that most basic question: how to live."—Edward Hallowell, MD, author of Shine: Using Brain Science to Bring Out the Best in Your People
  • "The mission accomplished by this wonderfully empowering book is nothing short of revolutionary."—from the foreword by David Perlmutter, MD, author of Grain Brain
  • "Essential reading for anyone interested in unleashing the true power of human nature."—Tyler Graham, author of The Happiness Diet
  • "An exciting read! A fascinating investigation into the power of evolutionary forces in our lives. Illuminating, penetrating, and immensely practical."—Jim Loehr, cofounder of Human Performance Institute and coauthor of The Power of Full Engagement
  • "A clear, sustained, fast-paced, utterly persuasive argument that much of our current distress and disease is the product of how the activities of regimented modern life estrange us from our biological needs, literally making us ill. It's also about how to live to avoid this distress. Filled with fascinating details, and the palpable joy of the authors who have found a way to break free from these restrictions, it's also inspiring and will influence many to change the way they live for the better."—Norman Doidge, MD, author of The Brain That Changes Itself

    "A real turning point that explains something I've been trying to figure out for years, having experienced symptoms of both ADHD and mild depression. Exercise is not simply necessary; as Dr. Ratey clearly shows, it's medicine."—Greg LeMond, three-time winner of the Tour de France
  • "SPARK is just what we need--a thoughtful, interesting, scientific treatise on the powerful and positive impact of exercise on the brain. In mental health, exercise is a growth stock and Ratey is our best broker."--Ken Duckworth, MD, Medical Director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness
  • "If your goal is to live a long and healhy life to the fullest, then Spark should be required reading."—Kenneth H. Cooper, MD, MPH, "The Father of Aerobics"
  • "Spark is mercifully short on Ivy League med-school-speak. And it may just spell the end of all dumb-jock jokes." --Abe Streep, Outside
  • "Ratey has culled the latest science and found that a regular workout can help build a better, faster brain."—USA TODAY
  • "At last a book that explains to me why I feel so much better if I run in the morning!"—Dr. Susan M. Love, Dr. Susan Love's Menopause and Hormone Book

On Sale
Jun 3, 2014
Hachette Audio

John J. Ratey, MD

About the Author

John Ratey, M.D., is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He is the author of numerous bestselling and groundbreaking books, including Spark, Driven to Distraction, and A User’s Guide to the Brain. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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