Thursday, December 04, 2008

Old Lessons

Collage by Lani

Have you ever wondered why we need to re-learn our big insights over and over again? Lynda Barry in "What It Is" describes it as an existential puzzle that she has solved over and over again. She has one of those big "ah-hah" moments, develops amnesia, and the existential puzzle comes back into her awareness and there she is, struggling to solve it again. (By the way, her book is wonderfully quirky and messy and just a lot of fun! You can even download a very nice preview from the publisher here.)

Daniel Nettle, author of "Happiness: The Science behind your Smile", has noticed something called habituation. He's applied it to the acquisition of material goods (if only I had this or that, then I could be happy) and found that once we actually have the object in question, that we become habituated to it. It no longer makes us happy and fades into the background, becoming part of the wallpaper of our lives. And we are free to long for the next thing that is going to make us happy.

I'm thinking maybe insights are like this. Maybe we become habituated to them, so that the idea that first lit up our minds begins to fade into the background, merging with the wallpaper. Then, like Lynda Barry, we have to solve our existential problem all over again. We find this beautiful, elegant insight and have that ah-hah moment and then put it aside. And it fades and merges with the wallpaper.

So how do we encourage ourselves to continue having these elegant insights? Gregory Berns (author of “Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment”) has studied fulfillment from the inside out, trying to discover what happens in people’s brains during emotional experiences like happiness and satisfaction. From his research, Berns has concluded that satisfaction requires two ingredients that nature has designed our brains to crave: novelty and challenge.

I'm thinking that I will try using novelty and challenge to wake up my mind, to continue to find or create my own little nuggets of wisdom and art. Not that the old insights are no longer true, it's just that our human ability to become habituated makes it feel that way.

So this is today's challenge. Find an old insight or truth and try to give it a novel twist. Perhaps create a work of art based on it.

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