Feeling Our Way

Turn in the direction of the skid.

Why Things That Work Work Just Barely

Why everything is so scary.

One essential truth of Darwinism, behaviorism, and systems theory is that nothing is ever better than it needs to be. A genetic variation will be passed on if it produces a survival or reproductive advantage, but the variation derives no added advantage by being a pretty or clever solution. The rule for genes is like the old joke about the two hikers who stumble upon an angry bear—you don’t have to run faster than the bear; you just have to run faster than the other hiker. Good examples include childbirth, which any mother will tell you could be vastly improved, and caloric intake, where the eat-everything-you-can-find strategy has run afoul of our food abundance. Only in a world where the agony and danger of childbirth stopped everyone from having sex would an easier childbirth be advantaged; only in a world where overeating interfered with reproduction or survival to reproductive age would a preventative gene be advantaged (presumably by making people feel too full more quickly or by interfering with the tastiness of food). If I may take the liberty of personifying Mother Nature, I can hear her saying, “You want resistance to malaria? Here you go. Oh, it also causes sickle cell anemia? I DON’T CARE.” Or, “You want a genetic capacity to make music? Here you go. Oh, it also causes earworms? THAT’S TOO BAD.”

Operant behavior is analogous to Darwinian variation and selection, where the relevant contingencies involve reward and punishment rather than reproduction and survival. If you learn to do something well enough, you are unlikely to learn to do it even better. Indeed, one of the main things I am up to when teaching clinical trainees is to show them that it can in fact be done better. (The students with most potential appreciate this, as I imagine good culinary students enjoy a good restaurant; the students with the least potential want to be told they are already doing it well, as I imagine bad culinary students feel resentful and demolished by fine dining.) Competition can enhance performance behaviorally just as it does genetically. Detroit did not need to make better cars as long as the big three were competing only with each other. Nobody ever got really good at marital arts by sparring with beginners.

A functional system is just as hard to change as a dysfunctional system. Pixar was aware that it ran the risk of resting on its laurels before Cars 2 was made. (Cars 2 made a fortune on product sales, but there’s little doubt that it was Pixar’s first bad movie and hurt the brand.) It takes courage almost to the point of foolhardiness to ask if your most gratifying relationships and successful products could be improved, if the therapeutic moves you make are useful, if your famous training program should be rebuilt from scratch.

Perhaps the most advantageous genetic variation was the human brain. (I know how species-centric this sounds, but until I get some evidence that cardinals are actually congratulating each other on their plumage, I’m sticking with it.) Our big brains advantage us with respect to manipulating our environments for survival advantages and with respect to manipulating each other for reproductive advantages. They also allow us to build machines that will destroy the habitability of the planet? That’s too bad. They also allow us to build weapons that will destroy the species? Mother Nature doesn’t care. (Mother Nature is notoriously short-sighted. She cannot produce an eye unless every step along the way, beginning with light-sensitive cells, produces a survival advantage.)

The human brain’s great advantages derive from its capacity for imagination. I mean by this simply the ability to see and hear (and taste, feel, and smell) things that aren’t there. This enables us to solve problems by thinking about them, to solve them in pencil as it were rather than in ink, since the attempted solutions we try out in imagination can be easily and cheaply erased. Our valuable capacity to see things as they might be rather than as they are produces confirmation bias, perceptual inaccuracies, memory distortions, and invalid cognitive heuristics, but these are small prices to pay for what our imaginations provide (just as the agony of childbirth turns out to be a small price to pay on Mother Nature’s balancing scale).

Still worth it, but of more significant cost, is the constant rumble of terror that underlies our thoughts. The imagination needed for successful courtship, gregarious storytelling, and problem-solving also makes the night into a catalog of horrors. This goes double in the wild, in environments chock full of things really trying to eat us. Using our brains to figure out that we are going ourselves to die didn’t exactly help.

I don’t know if linking your anxiety to the benefits of your imagination will help you. I’m pretty sure that this will work better if you are fully aware of the benefits of your imagination. If you participate in relationships without complaint that punish you for what you’re thinking, including your relationship with yourself, you are bound to underappreciate the advantages of your imagination, and the costs of anxiety won’t seem worth it. Be careful not to wish to lose weight easily—you might be cursing yourself into losing your sense of taste. Be careful not to wish you weren’t anxious—you might be cursing yourself into losing your greatest strength.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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