The brain is a miraculous thing. A mass of neurons interacting in such a way as to not just regulate the rest of the body, but also make it react appropriately to stimuli, to exhibit a fascinating range of emotions and behaviors, to create social structures, and even to remember, think, and ponder.
A brain is also costly, though, and it needs especially much energy when actually being used. Much more efficient to run on auto-pilot, follow in tracks once established.
It’s a much-criticized point how far GDP has taken over the political imagination, to the point where economic growth is presented as the solution to all problems, as long as only GDP, its indicator, is to rise. It’s an obvious number to consider, it’s become so established that it’s easy to argue for it – and it’s a “simplet” that is totally misleading when one never asks what it actually stands for.
It’s a lot like what we do when it comes to concern about weight: As long as it is stable or falling, as desired, we think it’s all good, never stopping to look right or left for what may actually be happening. Your weight can be okay even as you turn muscle mass into fat deposits, losing strength, fitness, and health, though.
What is in the background of such simplifications are heuristics. Tracks along which to think, and thus save energy, that are so established that they appear as necessarily true. And it’s not just in thinking, it’s in all of life that we have a tendency towards the obvious and easy.
When everyone works 9-to-5, how could you do differently? With everyone talking about the latest TV series, how could you not also watch it? And with TV being so relaxing after a hard day’s work, why would you deny yourself the pleasure of turning on the tube and shutting off your nagging doubts and insecurities?
Why get up and go out for a run when you’ve earned some rest, and why cook when that takes time and energy and the next take-out or ready-made meal is just a phone call or a look into the fridge away?
Doing things as we have learned to do them, following the same habits, using the same patterns of response, reacting in similar ways… it even becomes a part of who we are, part and parcel of our personality.
When it’s not just personal (though this can also be seen with and in houses and with stuff) it also becomes a part of the landscape.
Houses have to be built and bought, and so do power plants, roads, factories and infrastructure – and all the costs sunk into them mean that it would not just be difficult but also costly to change anything; investments are to be used for the fullest, not written off, what’s been working so far could just as well be repeated… and so, alternative energy is too costly even as the costs of “conventional” energy aren’t properly priced, making houses more energy-efficient is too costly and complicated when it seems just as well to crank up the (already installed or easily bought) AC unit or heater… the newest electronic gadget, however, is snatched up because it’s just a simple purchase, and it promises so much more.
No thinking required.
The problem is that these apparent and easy, usual and comfortable, ways of thinking and acting keep us trapped.
They aren’t all bad per se, they are just human. (In fact, as a general pattern, they are in all of nature; necessary diversity comes because individuals are somewhat different.) When things are going well, and when the challenges and the conventional ways fit together well, they lead to good-enough lives.
Indeed, why risk doing something different when everyone’s “doing their job” and doing alright?
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
The problem comes when situations change – or there is unhappiness, dissatisfaction, that calls for change – and the responses remain the same. Evolutionary theory-influenced researchers speak of “locked-in systems,” which are what we are seeing now.
Things are changing, we need to change to better ways and often enough want to better ourselves – but we are trapped in simple ways of seeing things and easy, old – and increasingly, not good – ways of doing things.
Unfortunately, arguing against this part of our nature that tends towards inertia usually takes the form of arguments for more awareness and changed attitudes, even as this same our nature will mean that attitude does not necessarily translate into action. In fact, the opposite may well apply, so that we’ll need to find ways to change actions and have to think less about them. (That will be the topic of another article, though.)
Get out of this trap, realize simple but perhaps not so easy synergies to use for better, we will have to. (Putting it like Yoda from Star Wars is optional.)