In the book The Runaway Species, Neuroscientist David Eagleman talks about the sea squirt. It’s a small mollusk that ‘swims around early in its life, eventually finds a place to attach like a barnacle, and then absorbs its own brain for nutrition.’
Don’t be a sea squirt.
One early indicator of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s is an inability to react to novelty. Does that imply that the reverse is true: that consistently engaging in novel behavior can help stave-off degenerative brain disease?
It’s a feature of complex adaptive systems that a stable system is a precursor to a dead system. Something that runs the same routine day-after-day is typically a dying system. There’s evidence that people with depression are stuck in neurological loops that they can’t get out of. We all know what it’s like to be trapped in the same negative thought patterns. Life needs perpetual novelty to succeed. This is one of the reasons researchers think that psychedelics have proven effective at alleviating depression; they break our brains out of the same familiar neural pathways.
This isn’t a uniquely human trait, animals also engage in deliberate intoxication. In his book Animals and Psychedelics, Italian ethnobotanist Giorgio Samorini wrote ‘drug-seeking and drug-taking behavior, on the part of both humans and animals, enjoys an intimate connection with…..depatterning.’ And thus dolphins get high on blowfish, elephants seek out alcohol and goats eat the beans of the mescal plant. They’re not just having fun, they’re expanding the possible range of their behaviours and breaking stale patterns. You’re not just getting wasted, you’re furthering the prospects of the species!*
*possibly not true or helpful.
So if we want to introduce more novelty to our lives, what’s the best way to do it? I think the answer is to look towards ‘flow’. The flow state is defined as a peak human experience. As a quick reminder, the godfather of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, defined flow’s characteristics as:
· Setting goals that have clear and immediate feedback
· Becoming immersed in the particular activity
· Paying attention to what is happening in the moment
· Learning to enjoy immediate experience
· Proportioning one’s skills to the challenge at hand
It’s that last feature that makes flow ideal for staving off behavioural stagnancy: dynamic challenge. If the challenge is always slightly beyond your skills, an activity never becomes stagnant. One of the easiest ways to ensure a dynamic challenge is to introduce a human opponent. For example, the amazing popularity of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is easy to understand in this context. Nothing focuses and clears the mind like combat. But it is also a fundamentally co-evolutionary pursuit; because you’re constantly dynamically adapting to the skills of another person.
Environmental feedback is another critical component for flow. This also makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. As Maria Konnikova explained in the New Yorker:
‘A fundamental component of our happiness is a sense of control over our lives. It is, in fact, “a biological imperative for survival,” according to a recent review of animal, clinical, and neuroimaging evidence. The more in control we think we are, the better we feel; the more that control is taken away, the emotionally worse off we become. In extreme cases, a loss of control can lead to a condition known as learned helplessness, in which a person becomes helpless to influence his own environment. And our sense of agency, it turns out, is often related quite closely to our motor actions: Do our movements cause a desired change in the environment? If they do, we feel quite satisfied with ourselves and with our personal effectiveness.’
Too much desire to exert control over your environment manifests in obsessive compulsive disorder, too little in depression. Sufferers of depression are therefore advised to engage in small acts of external influence, like making one’s bed in the morning.
In Mitchell Waldrop’s book ‘Complexity’ he describes the basic conditions for life itself as existing right ‘at the edge of chaos’.
‘Right between the two extremes [order and chaos] … at a kind of abstract phase transition called the edge of chaos, you also find complexity: a class of behaviours in which the components of the system never quite lock into place, yet never dissolve into turbulence, either. These are the systems that are both stable enough to store information, and yet evanescent enough to transmit it. These are systems that can be organized to perform complex computations, to react to the world, to be spontaneous, adaptive, and alive.’
Flow states and the edge of chaos are intrinsically linked. Embodied concentration in a challenging environment makes us feel ‘most alive’ because we are exhibiting the characteristics most associated with life itself; living at the edge of chaos. It’s why outdoor feels better than indoor, active feels better than passive. It’s why wingsuit skydiving is more of a thrill than Netflix and chill. We are maximally interacting with our environment.
As the ever-fascinating Jordan Peterson further explains: ‘your brain can tell you when you’re optimally situated between chaos and order. The way it tells you that is by producing the sense of engagement and meaning.…..This interplay between order and chaos shows up in religions all the time, especially since religions are a collection of various myths. The yin-yang symbol is the representation of order and chaos, and only in the harmonious balance between them is some sort of perfection achieved.’
Indeed, the Tao Te Ching describes the characteristics required for life itself, living at the ‘edge of chaos’. ‘Men are born soft and supple; dead they are stiff and hard’.
I’ll close with a famous quote from a master of combat and dynamic flow, Bruce Lee:
‘Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.
Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.’