Thursday, 19 January 2012

Does the Tiger dream of the jungle it's never seen? And where does our jungle lie?

This is a particularly pertinent topic to write about for a couple of reasons. The first is that the point I'm going to make here is pretty much the central basis for the novel which I'm currently writing. As a result, being clear about expressing it is something I'd really like to improve at. The second is that (as a result of the former point) I have tried to use this exact explanation a couple of times recently and made a right pig's ear of it, so I'd like to try to find a more elegant route to make my point.

As the title makes clear, this is all about Tigers. Specifically that, a Tiger who is confined to a cage in the zoo it may act strange, almost mentally dysfunctional, as it paces back and forth (even if it has only ever known the inside of that cage). One way of explaining this is to say that the Tiger is dreaming about a different place entirely. It has been shaped so completely by millions of years of evolution to one particular environment that it seems natural to me that it has whole regions of its brain, of its raw instinct, which don't know what to do with themselves outside of a jungle. Physically, it can survive in a cage, restricted to concrete and iron, but mentally, perhaps it will always be lacking something there.

Perhaps I'm making a leap, but this seems natural to me. Evolution constructs everything specifically to a particular environment, to a particular set of circumstances. Humans need great reams of construction and ingenuity to survive at sea, in space or even just in the cold. We are all too aware of our physical restrictions and how they dictate themselves, but it seems that we ignore the mental ones. Surely creature's brains are moulded over millennia to particular circumstances in just as irrevocably and completely as their forms.

So then the question which always came to my mind was, what is our jungle? What is it in particular which our minds are adapted to expect in their day to day living? Clearly it's hard to make an argument for any one particular kind of setting, there have been humans living in extremes of all kinds for thousands of years and, as far as I can tell, doing okay. No, I think the one constant which exists in all human society (up until the first cities) is that we are social. Not just this, but also that we live in partially familial tribes of a limited size. Obviously these tribes were fairly fluid and I'd imagine that their size varied a lot based on the surrounding landscape and the opportunities which is presented. However we see these limited social groups throughout all of prehistory all over the world and you can even find similar communities in Apes. Thus the two constants which, it seems to me, existed through almost all of our evolution are: constant and significant social interaction and a limited social group*.

I think there are a number of implications to this. Firstly I think the idea that we have a limited social capacity leads to a lot of strange phenomena. For instance our need to find out and dissect celebrities lives in detail (even though, reasonably, it has little to no effect on us) could be seen as a result of them taking up a place in our social landscape. Equally I think that this could explain our general inability to deal with large numbers. That is, we simply aren't able to properly fit the size of a country into our heads (except in terms of abstractions) and, as a result, we are generally very bad at making decisions on this scale (for instance, at understanding that single anecdotes don't represent the statistical whole). We still come to most of our conclusions as though there were actually only one hundred or so of us. This is why articles about individuals either scamming the welfare system or falling through its cracks are so effecting (because we treat them as being representative of the whole).

I also think that this is what leads to us tending to dislike people who are different. Whether in a religious, sexual or more mundane sense, if someone appears to be making a choice to be different from us we often resent them. I think that the cause of this is that, in small groups, dissenters and disagreements are actually potentially very dangerous **.

All of the above ideas could potentially take up an entire entry on their own, for now I just wanted to give a broad overview of some of the effects it could have.

I think it's the ubiquity of social situations which is our real jungle however. In a tribal situation, where you need to live together in more tightly knit groups simply to survive, it's easy to see that you have to be social, that it is a necessary part of your day to day existence. I don't think that we can ever really escape that, nor should we try especially. I believe quite strongly that simple interactions, even those of an entirely pro forma “good morning” nature, are simply good for our brains, that they let us know that things are okay. I wonder about a lot of things in this area, how many mental problems are caused or exacerbated by a distance between the sufferer and those around them? How do our brains cope with the fact that every day we walk past people that we never even say hello to? Is that processed as dangerous by some dark corner of our brain?

This is the real heart of the point I wanted to make, that I think being around (and friendly with) other people is a significant part of our mental diet. Putting it another way every time you interact with another person, even if it's at a very basic level, you are communicating (brain to brain) with the most complex thing you will ever interact with. Perhaps you think I'm hyperbolising the importance of our social side, but honestly, I don't think you can. I really believe that talking with another human being is one of the best things you can do for yourself each day.

As a final word, I wanted to finish by admitting that there has been a certain amount of things which I have just asserted here, with little to no evidence. In part that's intended, I meant this as a place to air my thoughts out as they are, but still, it's lazy. If you have anything you object to please feel free to comment or otherwise bring it up with me. I'd honestly love to discuss all of these ideas and, potentially, change these beliefs.

*[There's a whole theory about this assertion where Dunbar's number is said to the be the number of people we can maintain stable social links with (and that the need to increase this number was what led to the evolution of increased intelligence). It's interesting, but not particularly relevant, as all I'm asserting here is that we evolved in limited social groups (and so it is reasonable to assume that we are adapted to that particular situation).]

**[I'd like to add that I actually think on a large scale (as we mostly live now), differences and variations from the mean are very valuable and desirable.]

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