The Measure Of Man

A change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points
Alan Kay

Now, I’m not the biggest fan of the idea of an intelligence quotient, but I think Alan is really on to something here.

Humans are relativity machines: we experience and interpret our world through the lens of our previous experience. As an idea, in and of itself, this is unsurprising, for how else could we feel and see and know but through what we have already experienced? But bear with me for a second, and think about the experience of stepping onto a farm. The distinct, deep and abiding smell of hay, manure, fields and mud. It is powerful and unmistakable, until you’ve been on the farm for an hour. Then the smell starts to fade into the background when finally, you don’t notice it at all.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
David Foster Wallace

 

This phenomenon of normalization, the process of consistent stimulus becoming less and less is noticeable each time it is presented is called “Habituation“. We become habituated to our everyday experience, much like we become habituated to the smell of a farm: the rich details and experiences of our everyday lives can become invisible to us, lost in the quotidian.

Cultures around the world, I think, have recognized this to various degrees, in the tradition of the rest day of the week, holidays both sacred and profane. That said, the weekend rhythm soon becomes part of our habituated existence. We adapt and normalize so that those two days a week no longer provide enough perspective. We literally can’t get far enough away, and in turn, the cognitive tools we have to bring to bear on the world and the scope of sensation we have to process at best stagnates and at worst diminish.

 

Getting the hell out of dodge, going someplace fundamentally other, literally lets us become explorers of our own lives, see with new eyes just what, exactly, normal is.

 

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’
-Astronaut Edgar Mitchell on the Overview Effect.

 

The thing that I find most compelling about this quote is that the physicality of actually orbiting the earth fundamentally alters the window of possible thoughts. Mitchell certainly wasn’t surprised by what he saw, the astronomy, physics etc. were bread and butter to him, a PHD in astronautics from MIT. Still, the physical experience profoundly changed him, far beyond what he had expected.
 
I would give my right arm to go to the moon, but I just don’t think it’s in the cards, and while I have been very lucky and able to travel, I think it’s not just going places that does the trick: it’s the delta, the difference in experience that counts. While the moon is about the biggest change in perspective possible, I think in our everyday life the opportunity to try something new, to change your perspective, to see the world differently presents itself. The tough part is choosing. And it’s tough for a reason! The more common a stimulus is, the easier it is to process it (the mere exposure effect). Our brains literally recoil from novelty because it literally hurts. So we have to push ourselves to become neophiles instead of neophobes because otherwise we can literally loose sight of the lives we live in the haze of the “normal”.

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