Have you ever seen a mouse running around? The first thought that goes through my head is indescribable fear! haha. But having working in a laboratory at one time, I had the privilege to observe them within the safety of their cages.
They constantly run around. I mean, constantly. Ever wonder why?
Think of a baby. When we are that little, we are always attracted to every little thing in our environment. Even an empty roll of Bounty can amaze us for hours. But it’s no surprise that as wel grow up, we loose this sense of wonder.
My hypothesis is that this occurs because we learn to categorize things. For example, anything with four legs and a seat is a chair. There are millions of designs available, but we simply dismiss them as one word. The same occurs with everything we come across.
Evolutionarily, this is an incredibly effective strategy. It allows us to enter any environment, immediately categorize things that we have previously encountered, evaluate the risks (if there are any) and focus on new things. It allows us to free our minds and progress without spending an incredulous amount of time on the little things; almost like automatization.
However, the downside is that it makes us constantly search for something new. Nothing is interesting enough unless it is something different. And while that is excellent for progress, it affects our lives in two harmful ways – 1. it gets us addicted and 2. it causes us to loose our appreciation for all the things that we do have.
1. It gets us addicted. Think about smoking — we start with one cigarette, then a couple, then one pack, then over two to three packs. The same goes with any other addiction whether its drugs, video games, etc. In fact, even our brains are wired to pay attention only if the stimuli is novel or greatly increased in intensity. (For those who want to know more about this, search habituation and sensitization.) In any task we do, our motivational and reward systems are wired to get us addicted and pursue higher and higher goals in order to achieve the same level of satisfaction.
2. It causes us to loose our appreciation for all the things we do have. I think this is pretty self-explanatory. For instance, when was the last time you appreciated that you were able to drink clean water at the touch of a button? Forget the fact that this luxury never before existed in the history of this planet, but even today a vast majority of people in developing countries have to talk miles before reaching a water supply infested with microorganisms. Yet, “the grass is always better on your neighbor’s lawn.” We assume a state of continuous dissatisfaction, looking forward only to the next big thing.
How does this all connect to the mouse? Put a human in a room, he will explore for a few minutes and quickly dismiss things as conforming to one category or another. Then, he would just sit there and wait for something to happen. A mouse on the other hand, can run over a 1000 times per day in a 2×2 feet cage and stay enthusiastic to do it all over again tomorrow. Why this difference?
I believe that the reason that mice are able to continuously run around their cage without getting tired is because they cannot categorize. They can interact with objects and even remember them, but they can’t automatically dismiss them. Each time they have to evaluate whether one bar on their cage is exactly the same as the other one. Each time they have to evaluate the threat and reward from a food pellet, even though it is identical to the hundreds of others already eaten. The same is true for other lower class organisms ranging from fishes to algae.
As is evident, we are the most successful species on this earth. And an enormous part of that has to do with our ability to devote our attention to new things without spending all our energy engaging in the same tasks over and over again. It is the key to progress.