Homesickness, an innate response?

Hebe Halsted examines the evolutionary roots beneath this freshers’ phenomenon

Image: Flickr

Image: Flickr

HOMESICKNESS has always been an integral part of the freshers’ experience – many people have to deal with it. It is a concept recorded over hundreds of years all over the world; this nostalgic pining is harder to escape than the awful society club nights.

Scientifically speaking, homesickness is the emotional distress experienced when you spend prolonged periods in an unfamiliar environment. Its cognitive hallmark is preoccupying thoughts and feelings of missing home. What humans experience when they move away from home can be dated back to Greek soldiers during the Trojan War. The ancient phenomenon was also mentioned in both the Old Testament books of Exodus and Psalm; Hippocrates, a Greek physician, even believed homesickness to be the product of an excess of black bile in the blood.

The reasons behind this affliction can be traced back to our evolutionary roots. Firstly, it must be accepted that, as a species, humans are a bit rubbish. We don’t have claws or fangs to fight with, and we are generally a bit sluggish compared to many other animals; we are so vulnerable to predators on our own we had to stick together for our own protection. Hominid ancestors formed complex social groups, dividing responsibility for food, childcare and protection demonstrated by our nurture-nature model.

Evolutionary pressure has made us very sociable animals, and also incredibly needy. We innately want to belong in our group and stay there, because at a primal level we know that the person who wanders too far from the group ends up getting eaten. So, when we are isolated from a situation we are comfortable in, we sometimes don’t know how to react. On the other hand, many students come to university and have no desire to return home after the 10 week term.

Saber-toothed tiger attacks may be getting increasingly rare, but homesickness is still a driving force in how we act. A cure dating back to the 17th century in Switzerland, still used today, is to simply go home. That is no longer a reasonable thing to expect people to do. So instead of running back to your cave, make where you are your new home.
By being the very sociable animal you are so perfectly evolved to be, meeting people, joining societies and making friends, anxiety and loneliness associated with homesickness dramatically fall. To stop feeling homesick completely all you have to do is overcome four billion years of evolutionary drive, which might sound difficult, but you are at a massive advantage as tiger attacks in York are currently at a record low.

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