Survival of the busiest

Survival of the busiest

Darwin showed us the way species developed. He explained that the survival of the fittest strengthened the line and the battle for the harem was not just opportunity to make massive whoopee but a necessary calibration of stock quality. From the emergence of the first amoeba the struggle has been survival and growth. It is small wonder that we are selfish and greedy – they are the very characteristics that brought us physically to where we are.

Civilisation only became necessary when we realised that there could be more to life than survival, better quality of life than by simply defeating others. Appreciation was always inherently there but it was a primitive business and, even at the outset, only a few really appreciated. They realised that the happiness everyone seeks is largely internal and that appreciation is the major part of it. Appreciation requires conditions that mean you are not perpetually on the alert for predators and that you can contemplate, create, think.

Like so many aspects of social life, creativity got pigeonholed, into “arts”, for those who think very little, and “out of the box” for those who think only a tiny bit more. It is neither, of course. It is the ability to perceive relationships, to match needs and resources, to touch facts with feelings and to know when to think for ourselves. There is no appreciation without some aggravation, no joy without a nearby tear and no love without pointed frustration.

Can our brains cope with this? Happily, it seems they can. The plasticity of which the brain is constructed can be moulded. What we constantly put in gets adopted by the plastic which changes itself to facilitate further thought in the same direction. That is good news but it is also bad news. If we keep feeding the brain things that lead to undesirable consequences it will try to help us perpetuate those and land us in actions – responsible and irresponsible.

The brain is plastic, not elastic. Were it the latter it would always revert to its original self. Being plastic it doesn’t do that. It moulds what it has learnt to make the next thought more easily follow the track of the last one. It is how addictions come about and why they are difficult to shake off. At a less harmful level it is how we become rigid in behaviour and thought. The consequences can be no less damaging, even if clearly less dramatic.

For a long time now I have thought solutions often to be dangerous. Not all of them, naturally. Solutions are how we cope with the routines of life. Patterns are there to make things easier. But it is the very easing of the brain’s effort that poses the threat. If the plastic is not pummelled it will become set in its ways, our thinking and innovation will cease and we will revert to the primitive beings who first discovered that a cave kept off the rain.

Survival of the fittest applied neatly to the business of species’ physical continuity. Today, it may turn out that we need to pay more attention to the brain as well as to the body.

Survival of the busiest is becoming the mantra we need to adopt.