Sunday, December 10, 2017


How can I slow the world down? On some days, the demands of noise and clamour seem so intense.  Go near a shop, and the imperative screams out at you to buy, to search, to do your bit.

It seems that our society has its ways of, shall we say, encouraging us to take part... in predefined ways.  You go to school; you go to university or do some training; you get a job; you earn enough to live on; you retire; you die.

Except that many people find that this turns into a barely.  You barely go to school; you barely make it through university; you barely manage to get a job; you barely earn enough to live on.  So many people are finding that life has become a matter of only just getting through.

Listen to economists talking, and you will realise that the models they work on are still based on encouraging people to need things.  They call it supply and demand in the technical language; but really it's just a question of some people needing things, and other people being willing to fulfil that need in exchange for money.  Once you have accepted that model, you are stuck with the inevitability of the behaviour it encourages you towards: speeding up and ballooning the circle of need so that it goes as fast and as big as possible.  The fast we call volume, the big we call price.  Sell fast and sell big.  That's the belief.  Or rather the model.  That way we don't have to admit it's a belief.

This, in part, explains the noise and pace of the world we are surrounded by.  We are encouraged to live in little hotbeds of market activity, whether we buy and sell houses, or food, or leisure products, or clothes... it doesn't matter what.

This way of living is bound to cause distress.  This is because we are being asked to travel faster than our organisms would comfortably travel.  Hollywood has even developed films with heroes in them who embody this mythical ability to travel faster than we normally would.  Rocky, Rambo, superhero films, romantic films, films about people 'made good' in some way... they feed us, for a while, the illusion of someone else's idea of success, ways of being which are truly difficult in the world, but on film, when someone else is doing it, look entertaining.

If you find yourself taking in escapist films with half of your life, and then feeling behind in the other half of your life, then you are living according to this model - the model of 'try to live slightly faster than you normally would'.  Eventually it will catch up with you.  You may find yourself having periodic 'blowouts' or 'breakdowns', as your whole body gets together and decides it really doesn't want to play ball with these unrealistic demands.

One of the key causes of illness is specialisation - the division of activities into narrower and narrower funnels, with each person responsible for managing their own little funnel.  Thus, in a factory, one person becomes a 'packer', responsible for doing just that one thing - or they don't get their money.  In medicine, you become a specialist in one area, however wide your interests.  If you do decide to become a generalist (for instance, a General Practitioner in the health service), then even that generalism will become a specialism you are paid for: for example, you will become a specialist 'port of first call' for patients; or a specialist 'prescriber for mild disease'.

This specialism pulls us further and further away from who we feel we are; which is why so many people eventually pull out of careers which, on the face of it, look rewarding, at least in a financial sense.

This all makes sense if we realise we are generated from generations of animals and humans who lived by relaxation-and-impulse. Watch lions living; or zebras; or otters; or fish.  You will see that they don't fuss about becoming a 'specialist in eating weed from the side of ponds'.  A fish is not keen to become 'the most famous fish in the world for grabbing 2 millimetre items from the water surface'.

But this is the kind of diversion from our natural selves that we have created.  Transpose that last example to the Olympics, and see how silly we have become.  We have so many categories, and then we invest large amounts of money trying to create temporary champions in those absurdly-defined categories.

Our evolved selves are still wanting to wander around in a much more leisurely fashion, occasionally focused, but much of the time just getting a few things done and taking a few things in.  Watch birds sitting on branches.  Watch cows mulling.  Watch fish browsing.

Alternatively, watch a busy city street.  It is often full of people going places.  Not necessarily the places they would naturally go without social pressure and advertising.  We sit in specialist jobs and dream of release.

In the same way, many of our psychological experiments, the ones that have defined recent cognitive psychology, have results derived from taking animals and people out of their natural environment and making them perform specialist tasks.  As a species, we are becoming experts only at making each other become expert in expertises we have pared off from parts of ourselves.  That is why, when we try hard at one thing, we crave another: we are beating one part of ourselves to death, and ignoring the rest of ourselves.  We are becoming the opposite of wholistic.

Purpose becomes trying to make yourself into something you aren't.  A sportsman with purpose has to ignore all the other parts of their natural self to excel at their chosen sport.  A businessman with highly-developed purpose has to ignore all the other things they could do with their time.

It is no surprise, then, when we overdose on purpose, and our bodies become tired of being forced into specialist boxes that do not come naturally to us.

There is a reward system that makes all this possible.  Again, some of its foundations came from the experiments that founded recent cognitive psychology.  The idea that, given the right reward, people will play the game of specialism.  If you do happen to want to escape the specialism trap, then you may have to learn not to respond in the same way to the rewards system developed to reinforce it.

Animals are quite good at escaping our silly reward system.  Humans tend to like the animals who do fall for it, but there are many who don't.  Thus, while some dolphins have been duped into carrying explosives, or surveillance equipment, into enemy territory... while some really intelligent animals have been harnessed by our specialist silliness... some are a little more circumspect.

You might, for example, choose to be more like a cat.  Watch cats.  They tend to wander around being fairly uninfluenced by humans.  They rest a lot.  They find warm places to be.  When they are fed up with something, they vote with their feet.  They don't agonise quite so much about everyone else's opinion.

Humans tend to celebrate the animals who respond easily to our little reward games.  Animals who let themselves be saddled, herded, homed, farmed, with the simple promise of food.

Escaping this intensity, if you are feeling intensively farmed, might be a matter of looking at some of the other animals, the ones the humans tend to like less, because they cannot be manipulated so easily.  Insects, reptiles, smaller birds, bacteria, worms, slugs, whales... I have no idea what will take your fancy, but whatever it is, try accepting some other models of living from creatures with less of a specialist obsession.  In time, you may find yourself breaking the shackles of your current reward system, and feeling a little freer.

Many modern economies are based on a model of exponentially-increasing supply and demand. We are persuaded to produce things faster and bigger than feels natural.  It makes us ill.  Furthermore, to feed this system, we are forced into uncomfortable specialisms with fancy names.  These forces pull us away from our more natural, relaxed, impulse-influenced ways of being.  Instead of quietly being ourselves, we seek to be famous, fucked-up specialists, in pop music, politics, whatever.

To escape this fate, try learning from some animals that resist human manipulation.  They may hold some secrets that may make you calmer and happier.