Stimulus and Growth

Our brains are wired to constantly search for both threats and opportunities. Through repetition we can develop automated patterns for actions, thoughts, and responses. This feature of our biology does wonders for downgrading both our energy expenditure (brain activities are quite costly) and our stress response to our environment. While this saves us from the exhausting reality of thinking our way through many tasks like its the first time we have ever done them, the feature also comes with a few hidden and unfortunate trade-offs.

Once we have relegated many patterns to our subconscious, we fail to fully experience the world around us. This explains the phenomenon we have all felt of arriving at the office or some other familiar place only to be struck that we cannot even remember the trip there. Memories are stored information of emotional or utilitarian significance. Failing to remember a drive across town demonstrates that our brain was not actively experiencing and collecting new information but simply using previously stored experiences to navigate the trip. Nothing new, nothing exciting, no challenges or threats or decisions, might as well go into auto-pilot and conserve energy.

Life in the modern Western world provides significantly more repetition than the human animal has ever experienced in our long history. While our ability to subconsciously automate repetitive patterns has obvious benefits and utility, it is ill-suited for the standard course of modern life. Our environments and chosen paths allow us to automate nearly everything. Another in a long and growing list of facets of modern life that seek to distance us from our physicality and animal nature. We’ve become efficient, but at the cost of never feeling entirely present.

Our brains constantly search for novelty, new threats and new opportunities, that will better inform our future thriving. Modern society has largely eliminated most daily threats (a clear benefit), but in the process limited our access to novel opportunities. Opportunity of exposure to new ideas, new people, new patterns, new sensations. In these opportunities, we grow.

Movement and fitness parallel life. If you are not actively thinking about and trying to improve your fitness you are allowing it to deteriorate. The standard American diet, office life, and limited to non-existent movement practice that comprises a “normal” life fall far short of what true thriving requires. Like a vitamin missing from a poor diet, if you are not actively seeking novelty, modern life hardly provides enough.

The wonders of modernity satisfy our very basic needs but fail to provide what humans need to thrive. We can find encouragement in the fact that it simply takes a little intentionality to bring novel stimuli back into daily life. Opportunities and novel experiences surround us constantly. We simply need to seize upon them.

Changes as minor as taking a new route, rearranging your furniture, or working from a new locale can provide the necessary jolt to get you out of auto-pilot. Our brain will spend more energy to adjust to these new surroundings but the cost is well worth the benefit.

Every time I snap myself out of a comfortable yet ultimately unfulfilling pattern I feel as though I’ve woken up from a long sleep. Hardly realizing how discontent I felt until looking back in hindsight.

While the smallest of changes can jolt our systems, we need them constantly. Any daily reality, not matter how exciting and novel it begins, becomes rote and automatic with repetition. I once moved across the world with only two small bags. Nearly every detail of my daily life changed overnight. My days to follow abounded with excitement and wide-eyed wonder as I soaked in my new surroundings. Soon I developed daily and weekly patterns that still leave me wondering where the weeks went. Even now, I find that many of the changes required to live in a van have become automatic. Regardless of how greatly we alter our life, the excitement cannot last unless we actively seek it.

As I sit on at a desk I’ve never sat at, on a floor of a building I’ve never visited, gazing out at a view I’ve never seen, I feel reminded of how much I need novelty to drive my growth.

Our thought processes dictate our motivations, our actions, our worldview, our values. Unless we intentionally seek to break them, our thought processes become coopted by their own self-created loops.

Without new information coming in, we cannot expect any new ideas, insights, or motivations to arise. Growth requires stimuli. Go out and seek them.