Thursday, September 6, 2007

382 Pre-adaptation: Premonitions for coping with future environments?

Message no. 382[Branch from no. 377] Posted by Thomas Culhane (1311520071) on Friday, February 16, 2007 3:25pm Subject: Pre-adaptation: Premonitions for coping with future environments?

Patricia speculates on why kids are so into video games, and I think many of her points are true.

Since this is a fertile area for discussion, I would like to offer some theories I have about the situation that may strike you as very unorthodox, but might stimulate your thoughts.

You will notice that there is a recurring diagram in your textbook. It maps out the “eclectic model of theoretical perspectives”. You see it first presented in Chapter 4 on pages 132-133 in Figure 4-8. Go ahead and take a look.

The eclectic model is also found in each chapter as a unifying theme: see pp. 140-141, figure 5-2.

See figure 6-1 on pp. 170-171.

See figure 7-5 on pp. 222-223.

See figure 8-6 on pages 266-267.

See figure 9-13 on pp. 320-321.

See figure 10-2 on pp. 338-339.

See figure 11-1 on pages 374-375.

See figure 12-1 on pp. 402-403.

See figure 13-1 on pp. 434-435.

And finally, see figure 14-1 on pp. 470-471.

See what I mean? The eclectic model is everywhere!

The eclectic model describes how “objective physical conditions” in our environment interact with our “individual differences”, with “situational factors”, with “social conditions” and with “cultural factors”, creating in each one of us a “perception of the environment”. The model says that when we perceive our environment as “within the optimal range of stimulation” we are able to achieve “homeostasis” – a feeling of general well being in which we are in harmony with our environment and in balance.

Perception is everything!

When we perceive our environment to be outside the optimal range of stimulation for us (if it “overstimulates” or “understimulates” us or if it seems to be “behavior constraining”) it leads to feels of “arousal” and/or “stress” and/or “overload” and/or “reactance”.

This is an unbalanced state. All organisms who find themselves in this state try to utilize “coping” mechanisms. If coping is successful, the model tells us, we “adapt” and/or “adjust” to our environment. The result of this adaptation can be cumulative effects such as “higher self-esteem”, and “skill development”, but it can also lead to “fatigue” and “reduced frustration tolerance.”

If we are unsuccessful at coping, we experience “continued arousal” and/or “stress”, and the more we find ourselves unable to cope, the more our stress intensifies. The results of failing to adapt to this feeling of stress or arousal can be cumulative aftereffects such as “mental disorders”, “learned helplessness” and “performance deficits”.

All good so far? The model is “eclectic” because it considers many different possible causes and effects and it doesn’t look at everybody as being the same in their response to the environment. It tries to integrate the various theoretical perspectives we are learning.

Because this is a PSYCHOLOGY class, we are very concerned with PERCEPTION. We privilege the “brain” and “thought” in psychology classes and in psychological models. You could say we are “consciousness obsessed”. Our models assume that it is our perception of an “objective reality” that makes us behave the way we do. Our models assume that “thinking” and “feeling” (both occurring in the brain, even if they make our hearts flutter or make us get butterflies in our stomach) rule our lives. The models therefore don’t have much to say about genetic programs that force behavior in the absence of thought and perception. What, for example, drives an organism that is perfectly content with its environment (i.e. is in perfect homeostasis) to leave that homeostasis (i.e. “to leave HOME-eostasis”!) What urge makes millions of different life forms leave the comfort of the nest and strike out into dangerous unknown territories, with neither a map, nor a compass? What gives the cat its curiosity, and what makes Magellan or Columbus choose to set sail around the world? What prompted Neil Armstrong to volunteer to set foot on the moon?

These psychological models assume that we cope with either our past or present environments, and might explain such behavior by saying that people do it for the glory (because in their past they were socialized to crave fame and fortune and in their present they don’t feel content at home, unless they can prove they are better than their peers by taking risks). Some theorists might say that non-human animals are driven by instinctive urges that, over millennia of natural selection, turned out to increase the number of genes they left behind even though they took risks and deliberately left homeostasis behind in search of stress.


That’s right – the weakness I see in the eclectic model is that it assumes we all WANT to COPE. It assumes that the point of behavior is coping. It assumes that the point of life is comfort.

I don’t doubt that all organisms are motivated to “survive”. Over time those organisms that didn’t want to survive… well, they didn’t survive. So they didn’t leave many or any offspring. So any genes or memes that predispose us to sacrifice ourselves or take too many risks should get wiped out of the gene and meme pools.

But could it be that something else is operating here than so called “natural selection” operating on an organismic level? Could it be that in a very very large system, some organisms deliberately go in search of stress and discomfort, not because it will benefit them or their families but because it benefits some outside intelligence (the eclectic model can explain all altruism or sacrifice without reference to any outside intelligence rather nicely by saying that, for example, a parent will leave a comfortable home in search of food because she feels stress worrying about her child).

There is one possibility concerning how our psychology of behavior and our environments interact that the model ignores as far as I’m concerned, and it is the one I would like to discuss here: The possibility of some behaviors being “preadaptations” to environments that don’t exist yet.

The problem with “preadaptation” is that it is impossible to prove except in hindsight, and the problem with hindsight is that one can always claim that a successful result proves that an intuition was valid, even though the correlation could be due to chance.

By now you are scratching your heads and thinking, “what the heck is the professor talking about?” Let me try to clarify!

Let’s say that your name is Cassandra, or Noah, and you have a dream that there is going to be a tsunami or a great flood. Neither you nor your entire tribe have ever experienced a tsunami, there are no records of tsunamis in any of your legends, and when you describe what you saw in your dream nobody knows what the heck you are talking about. But your dream was so vivid that you feel you have to change your behavior. So you gather your family and you move to higher ground. Or you build an Ark. You are ridiculed by everybody else, but you persist.

One day, lo and behold, the entire region is completely drowned in a torrential flood. Everybody dies except for you and your family (and whoever you brought with you).

In hindsight you could say “the dream was a premonition, and the person behaved the way they did because the dream created a stress that had to be coped with.” The eclectic model would work, but it wouldn’t explain why THAT PARTICULAR VIRTUAL REALITY felt SO REAL that you HAD TO COPE with REAL BEHAVIOR.

In hindsight we would say, “the mutant person who is born with the strong sense that small changes in the present environment could signal major disasters was ‘preadapted’ to the new environment that was to come. Somehow they “knew” something that seemed to be unknowable given normal “perceptions” of the environment.

If this sounds far fetched, imagine that you are the first bird to be born with an instinct that you should fly south as the number of hours of sunlight begin to change. Let’s say you are a bird living in one of the interglacial periods of the earth during a time when there were no harsh winters in your region. You are happy eating grubs and very much in homeostasis and yet… something tugs at you. You tell the other birds, “we should really… start heading… south.” You might as well be Chicken Little saying “the sky is falling.” Every other bird laughs and laughs. “We’ve never gone south, for a thousand years, we have spent all year right here. Why on earth would you want to go south.” And you would say (if you could talk and reason, which birds can’t do very well!) “I don’t know, I just feel it. We should all… fly south.” The others of course don’t listen, so you grab your mate and say, “come on, sweets, let’s go on a little trip…”

That year the ice age begins, and you two are the only one’s who survive. Because you have these mutant genes that make you anxious whenever the “winter” starts to approach, you pass them on to your offspring. In time all birds of your kind have an instinct to head south in winter.

We call this kind of “mutation” a PREADAPTATION to environments that don’t yet exist.

Throughout history, the sudden appearance of organisms who feel urges to do things that seem completely mal-adaptive to current environments has mystified us, particularly when, at some future time, they turn out to be RIGHT!

The problem is, we can never know before hand if something is a pre-adaptation (a pre-coping mechanism for an environment that hasn’t arrived) or just plain INSANITY.


I was thinking hard about this while I was getting obsessed recently playing “Resident Evil 4” on the Playstation. Imagine me, with all my work as a professor trying to finish my dissertation and teach classes and write, getting obsessed by some silly game where you go around shooting zombies. What gives? Perhaps I am just needing escapist fantasy, perhaps I need to feel like a hero – problem is, I do things in my real life that make me feel somewhat heroic, and my wife and I “escape” to far off lands all the time – we scuba dive, we visit temples and desert pyramids and jungles…

No, there is something about certain virtual reality games that tickle a different intuition. I notice that I don’t often play games like “Grand Theft Auto” or “Ghost Recon” or war games, or any games that take place in environments familiar to us today. When I do, I know it is for the usual escapist reasons. No, my obsessions, and those of many people, with science fiction COULD (and this is COMPELETELY UNPROVABLE!) be preadaptations. Is it possible that human beings intuit that the world we may inherit in the near future might be so very different from the one we live in today that we are desperate to figure out how to cope in those environments BEFORE they arrive?

How might the eclectic model of behavior explain human obsession with what now appear to be “fantasy” environments if some of these environments come to pass, and the humans who are best adapted to them are those who spent hours in them before they arrived?

This, by the way, is by no means any endorsement for children to play video games or waste hours watching TV or movies or lost in escapist fantasy! You probably shouldn’t even share this “meme” with your children because they might say, “see Mom, your professor thinks its okay to play video games because we are preadapting ourselves for a real future in which the Umbrella corporation uses genetic engineering to create a T-virus that mutates people into zombies so they can control the labor supply and get rich and powerful.” I am not saying that at all. In fact, after you read this, you should burn your computer and all the memes that are on it at Fahrenheit 451 degrees, so these ideas don’t replicate!

No, all I am doing is trying to stretch your mind around some rather radical views so that you can see that the eclectic model, like any model, is always and forever incomplete. You have to know, going into environmental psychology, that NONE OF THE THEORIES WE DISCUSS ARE TRUTHS. THEY ARE ALL SIMPLY THEORIES. Reality is out there, but, like Plato’s shadows on the wall, forever unknowable.


Your job is to think deeply about everything you learn and find ways of criticizing and testing everything.

A final thought: How would the eclectic model apply if instead of being human beings with free will, we were actually the avatars we control in our video games? Is it your character in the video game who is perceiving his or her environment, or is it you, behind the scenes, controlling the avatar like a puppet? Do you think the avatar really would WANT to keep jumping into those adventures you put him or her through? Wouldn’t Lara Croft in Tomb Raider or Jack in King Kong really much rather stay home in homeostasis if you weren’t controlling them and exposing them to danger for YOUR SATISFACTION?

And if it is true that an outside intelligence can go into a virtual reality and control a character, and preadapt it with all sorts of skills and weapons and magic and training for some future environment that only somebody outside the game can know will occur (as when I recently bought a rocket propelled grenade launcher in Resident Evil 4 because I knew, although my avatar didn’t, that I was going to run into a giant) then is it not possible that, to some greater intelligence than us, we are mere avatars in an even larger game?

Welcome to the matrix… again!

Have a great weekend!

Your “Nutty Professor!”

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