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Primal Upper: novelty

Thanks to affective evolution all people are born with an innate attraction to regular change and dislike constant routine. That preference is no accident. It reflects the intensely variable lifestyle of our nomadic ancestors where the human genome first appeared.

For example, nomads rarely sleep in the same spot for more than a few weeks. Their diet consists of up to 500 different species of plants and animals. They physically move every day in positions that would challenge a modern yogi — climbing, crawling, walking, running, digging, squatting, stretching, bending and more. They have close relationships with the dozens of people in their camp. They traverse varied ecosystems.

Liking new experiences prepared our ancestors for their constantly changing world. With no guaranteed source of food, people who innately liked searching out new areas, tasting new plants, or inventing new ways to kill a beast, were much more likely to survive and reproduce than those always content with the same old thing. A nomad who disliked change would be constantly anxious, causing stress that would undermine their health and reproductive chances. The genes of those folks died out while novelty-loving genes spread to the whole species. Which is why us moderns are born with the same preference.

An abundance of non-evolutionary evidence shows the existence of this primal attraction. For example, psychologists long ago identified the existence of habituation, the more we experience a good thing, the less it tends to satisfy us. So your first ice cream cone today give lots of joy, but a second far less and a third could even make you sick. The reason why the peak experiences in our lives — such as falling in love, getting a promotion, or giving birth — are so joyful is because they are rare. If they happened every day, habituation would make us bored with them.

Habitation offered survival advantages to our ancestors by ensuring that they did not dwell on any one primal attraction. To flourish, they needed lots of primal experiences, and getting bored with one type helped them move onto the next life essential. So we naturally have a “wanting mind”. That feature of the human condition has been identified as a source of unhappiness, predominantly by Buddhists. They are only partially right. Desire is a serious problem when it pushes us toward experiences that do not fulfill our primal heart. Psychologists have a neat name for that: miswanting. A good example is the consumerist’s appetite for the latest new product. It turns out that material things generally don’t satisfy us. We like them only briefly after acquiring them and then lose interest. That’s because our genes are not materialists, but rather minimalists, as I discuss elsewhere.

So our lust for novelty is a problem only when it amounts to wanting the wrong things, rather than the few experiences that our genes really love. But there is virtue in dissatisfaction if it drives us to get more of the primal experiences that are necessary for our health and happiness. The Buddhists seem not to recognize that fact.

An interesting feature of life today is that while it offers unprecedented opportunities for novelty, it also imposes extraordinary levels of monotony. Most people live with a degree of tedium that a nomad would find intolerable. We sleep in the same bed almost every night for years and even decades; attend jobs from 9-5, five days a week, often for our entire work life; eat the same limited array of foods; sit the bulk of our daylight hours in chairs or sofas; rarely experience any diversity in nature; have few emotionally intimate relationships. Scientists have discovered from cell phone tracking tests that our daily mobility pattern is 93% predictable.[1]

While some routinization is the necessary cost of a civilized life, our modern world could be organized in a way that kept that to a minimum. But instead it maximizes bland homogeneity. Another post will examine why our culture fails to fulfil our need for novelty and many other primal preferences. But we need not be a victim of that failure. Once we understand our need for varied life experiences, we can go out and get them. Such as by trying new foods, visiting new environments, making new friends.

But there is a problem with this strategy. It runs into the straightjacket of our habits. The very same forces which monotonize our lives also create powerful habits which cause us to return to the narrow range of experiences every day. I discuss the problem of anti-primal habits here.

So how can we get the upper of more novelty in life? There is a solution.


[1] “Limits of predictability in human mobility”, Chaoming Song et al, Science 19 February 2010, pp.1018-1021.

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