we’re built to adapt, and adapt to what we build

9th December, 2008

my friend eric (who sometimes reads this stuff) had a party a few weeks ago, during which we had a brief talk about what was on our minds – i mentioned something about ‘motivating environmental stimuli’ and the built environment (eric is an architect). anyway, eric sent me an email afterwards and i thought i’d share some of what i wrote to him with you – whoever you are…

i am caught up in thinking about environmental psychology lately – how the built environment triggers specific responses, and how those responses seem to amplify frontal lobe behaviors (planning, simulating, calculating, managing) – and how below the frontal lobe is our limbic system – which is a finely tuned mammalian brain wired to help us adapt to whatever environment we’re in ‘intuitively’ – or, at least, ecologically (like all other mammals do). perhaps biological psychiatry is a better phrase.

we’re built to adapt and adapt to what we build, and while we, unlike other animals, can simulate/imagine potential outcomes and choose to do one thing rather than another based on what we imagine, regardless of the strength of the impulse (frontal lobe over limbic) i think the proliferation of frontal lobe behavioral stimulation we’ve embedded in our environment (things that cause us to retrospect, prospect, mentally simulate, etc.) is making us less ecologically (and self), aware, and that is retarding our development of knowledge (increased awareness).

i don’t have a specific solution but i’ve begun spending more time observing what motivates me in an environment, and how i feel (emotionally, physically) – and what types of intellectual activity (planning, retrospecting, prospecting, calculating, ?) seem to accompany various stimuli – and how there is an engaging ebb and flow of intellective and impulsive states of mind and responses. i think of it as a personal practice of skeptical empiricism intended to perhaps balance out my executive-simulating, and intuitive-ecologically adaptive mind(s).

i’ve mentioned nicholas taleb before, and i heard (and read – excellent tools over on fora.tv) him state his intentions like this:

how to turn a lack of knowledge, and a lack of understanding into action

my simple practice creates a state of mind similar to this idea.

here’s another quote of his that i’ve been thinking about today, from an interview with knackeredhack:

The biggest problem we have is effectively the incentive system. You should be able to pay $10 for a newspaper some days, and nothing another day. People pay the same price every day, regardless of the amount of news. That is counter to the way randomness is. In Extremistan [Taleb’s term for a world fashioned by rare and extreme events as ours has become] some days you have a lot of news, some days you have no news.

my take is that the pricing system (and even the layout/design of the document) creates a patina of orderliness that is strangely disconnected from the inherent turbulence of its content. And we train to (adapt to) that patina of orderliness, that appeals to/stimulates our frontal lobe, which manages our limbic system, that connects us to our environment ecologically, and so on.

interesting times.

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