Introduction to M0

Joss Earl

Consider the statement:

"Most people act stupid because they are physically addicted to boredom."

When people hear this, the most common initial reaction is "don't be silly, people hate being bored". Sometimes people also object to the first part, they disagree that most people act stupid. This reaction is far less common, for some reason we find little to disagree with in the phrase "most people act stupid".

The idea that people are addicted to boredom seems ridiculous, but let's consider it for a moment. Boredom is an unpleasant sensation that occurs when your mind is unoccupied. Supposedly, repetitive and predictable activities are boring, while novel and unpredictable events are exciting. Given this understanding of boredom, the way people act seems a little strange. Consider the phrase: "we are creatures of habit". We get up at the same time every day, go through the same rituals, go to work, do much the same thing at work as we did yesterday, come home and watch the same old television shows.

There is something deeply comforting about familiar habits and rituals. The truth is: most people strongly dislike having their daily routine disturbed. If something truly unexpected comes up at work, it doesn't make their day, it ruins it. How often have you heard someone say "I had to deal with some novel situation at work today, which was nice".

This behaviour doesn't sit well with the notion that people dislike boredom. One thing people genuinely dislike is sitting around doing absolutely nothing. This induces the unpleasant sensation that people think of as boredom. However, give them a mindless repetitive task to do, eg playing solitaire, watching television, or working on a checkout line, and they're content. Not necessarily happy, but not extremely uncomfortable either.

Just what is it about doing absolutely nothing that people hate so much ? Maybe doing absolutely nothing makes people uncomfortable because it forces them to think. Our brains are not designed for total inactivity. In everyday life we keep our brains ticking over with our routines. Very few people have jobs that actually demand any deep thought. Even highly trained professionals such as doctors or lawyers are seldom presented with situations of real novelty. They are presented with a situation which they recognise, and they then carry out the appropriate procedure that they were trained to perform. Occasionally people have to improvise a little or combine different techniques, but how often do they have to invent something or come up with some fundamental new insight. Doing absolutely nothing is uncomfortable because we are simply not used to contemplation.

We are all taught to get into a routine very early in life. We have to go to school, sit quietly in class, listen to the teacher, perform the exercises, do our homework, etc etc. This is when we get into the habit of habits. The trouble is, this predictable repetitive lifestyle is not something the human brain was originally designed for. We are tremendously adaptable creatures and seem able to adapt to almost anything, but that doesn't necessarily mean its a good idea.

The most fundamental change in human society occured when we evolved from being hunter gatherers to being farmers. Hunters have distinctly different requirements to farmers. A hunter needs to be continually aware of his surroundings, so his attention will quickly focus on anything that may be a threat or opportunity. He (or, of course, she) must be instantly ready to drop everything and begin another task such as following a fresher trail, instantly responding to danger, etc. As a hunter, novelty, constantly monitoring the surroundings, and creativity are the most important requirements for success. Farmers" are totally different in makeup. While hunters need immediate feedback from their efforts, the "farmer" must wait months to get any response from his crops. He needs to be able to sustain a steady, even level of effort, even with no apparent clear gain in the immediate future.

Our brains learned to cope with life as a farmer by producing more dopamine. Some theories suggest that dopeamine developed as a survival technique for seige like situations. If a monkey is sitting in a tree with a lion prowling around below then being patience is essential for survival. Dopamine calms down the monkey and allows him to out-wait the lion. In todays society we spend a lot of time in waiting situations. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that we spend almost all our time in waiting situations. Our dopamine levels are much higher than nature intended.

The increased levels of dopamine enabled humanity to function efficiently as farmers, but this came at a cost. High levels of dopamine significantly impairs the minds ability to think creatively. Worse yet, the dopamine is highly addictive. Recent research shows that almost by definition, addictive drugs are ones that raise dopamine levels. This explains why people object so strongly to having their routine distrurbed. It triggers exactly the same resentment that you observe in junkies when they are denied their fix. The more ritual dependent people become, the more easily they become irritated by upsets to their routine. In extreme cases people actually become angry when presented with a novel idea. They ridicule the person presenting the idea, but provide no arguments saying what is wrong with it.

People who work in these places tend to get stuck into a spiral of ever increasing paperwork and procedure. Everybody knows this. Government burocracies are a very good example. Common sense is thrown out the window. Procedures are only ever added, never removed. Organisations become extraordinarily resistent to change or reform. This no longer seems surprising. Anybody who tries to eliminate the procedures or introduce novel ideas is met with the resentment you would expect from an addict being denied his fix. That's exactly what's happening.