Balancing change

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Homeostasis

The tendency towards a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes.

Why is change so hard? I’ve asked myself this question so many times, in reference to a wide variety of situations. Sometimes I feel like every cell in my body is resisting. I can almost hear them all going: “Wait! We have food, a warm bed, some kind of day-to-day stability. What you’re asking is that we, your cells, risk all that by plunging into the unknown! No way. We are staying just as we are, in this admittedly uncomfortable and less-than-optimal situation, where we know what to expect and how to plan for it.”

If our cells are trying to be maximally efficient all the time, they will be in energy-conservation mode. That’s our brain cells, too. In fact, the brain seems to put systems on ‘sleep’ mode when they are not needed. It feels unhealthy to me, because, just as muscles atrophy through under-use, so can our senses be blunted, our minds slower on the uptake, our experience of time itself changes as the sameness of daily life allows the brain to stop noticing, stop being alert. Novelty of any kind forces us to activate all those systems again.

In our hunter-gathering past, we evolved these brains of ours to answer specific needs. First and foremost, our brains are social brains. An enormous amount of processing power is devoted to analysing facial expressions, for example (which is one of the reasons that an over-botoxed face can be disturbing to watch). Trying to anticipate the reactions and feelings of others demands further huge tracts of brain cells. So if you are not being social, you are probably under-using large parts of your brain. Interacting with fictional characters in books and visual media cannot be the same, as it doesn’t involve your participation, or your jeopardy. I don’t game but I’d be interested to know the difference that an interactive medium makes in brain activity.

After that come all the dangers of life in the wild – falling off things, being attacked by animals or other people, or going hungry to name just a few. We had to notice everything very carefully, partly due to danger, partly just to make sure we were exploiting all the opportunities that came our way – a tasty snack (like a giant spider), lurking under a log, a new plant or fruit that we’d not seen before. This is a major change in human history – a lot of the time, a lot of us can just wander around texting as we go. We know where our next meal is coming from, and we don’t have to keep an eye out for sabre-toothed tigers. We are domesticated. We have domesticated our world.

That’s why the thrill of doing dangerous things is so great and so seductive. It brings all of our systems back online and make our glands produce substances that make us feel aware, keyed up, focussed. Afterwards we get a rush of ‘high’ hormones. Blood was pumped all around our bodies. We got oxygenated. A ‘natural’ life is a mixture of both states – rest and excitement. It’s the healthiest way to live. It seems that HIIT training is a good way of mimicking the ‘fight or flight’ type of situation, producing similar body reactions and after-effects. But the stimulus need not be physical – it can also be mental, emotional, psychological. The act of overcoming your shyness and talking to someone at a party. Standing up and giving a presentation. Playing a song at open mike night. It might be a small thing – going out for a walk, phoning a friend, getting a different haircut. Taking the risk is what counts. And using the social brain is probably the most demanding and exhilarating of all – which is really a ‘note to self’ to get out and interact with humans more. Some of them are idiots but many seem to be kind of okay.

2 thoughts on “Balancing change

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