Adaptation – The Everyday Superpower

Did you know that you have a superpower? Seriously you do, but like so many heroes from science fiction and fantasy, you probably lack control of your amazing ability. You need a mentor to show you the ways of the force or introduce you to the wizarding world. I am not necessarily that guy, but I think I can get you started. First I have a cautionary tale.

Have you ever seen someone with a bad case of spinal stenosis? That’s the term for the curving of the upper spine that cantilevers the head out over the chest and creates a hump on the back of the neck. I first read about this condition in Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal. It’s very common in older adults and it causes lots of complications with eating and swallowing. The thing is, it is preventable, but lets talk about causes first.

See all of the soft tissues in the human body are adaptable. Sure they connect our muscles to our bones so we can move, and they align and cushion our joints, but they have one cardinal rule:

Tissues take on the shape that they spend the most time in.

In a perfect world our heads should always be balanced directly above the shoulders and spine. In that position the bones and muscles and tendons of the neck are aligned in the most efficient way to minimize the stress on the system.

Unfortunately many of us spend a lot of time leaning forward to look at  books that are laying on tables in front of us. We hunch forward to squint at laptop screens and keyboards and phones. Heads are heavy. Every second of time that we spend in that position stresses our head’s support system, otherwise known as the neck.

Over time it becomes harder and harder to even pull your head up into the proper position. This eventually pulls you into a downward spiral that is difficult to escape. The more difficult it becomes to get into a proper upright position, the more likely you are to let your head hang at the end range of motion for those tissues, which immediately starts training them that that is the position they need to conform too. This in turn makes it even harder to get into a good position.

As I’m typing this I can’t help but sit up a little straighter and shiver at the image of my hump-backed future self.

There is a way out. If you focus religiously on proper posture, and spend more time in that position, all of your tissues will return to the proper shape.

Ok, enough of that. I think you get the picture. Tissues adapt to the inputs we give them. Now back to your superpower. Have you guessed what it is yet?

I gave it away in the title. That’s right, the same adaptability that creates humpbacked humans has been the key to the success of our species. All animals adapt, but in general those adaptations are of the physical nature. Thicker fur for cold climates. Specialized beaks to enable a new food source. Colorful plumage to attract more mates. In humans, adaptation has gone beyond that. We’ve developed external manifestations that make us the most flexible creatures imaginable.

Over the course of our rise on this planet we’ve found ways to outstrip the pace of evolution by building artificial skin and claws (clothing and weapons), externalizing our digestion to broaden the range of foods we can eat (cooking and farming), and building external brains to pass knowledge on to the next generation (language, writing, books, and computers).

Like most superpowers this can be used for both good and evil. In this case the evil is failing to understand the consequences of these manifestations. The easier we make things on our brains and our bodies, the more native capability we will lose. All of our gadgets make us weaker. GPS and calculators and contact lists are a crutch that enables mental atrophy. The amount of hard labor that is done in the developed world has been steadily declining, and gym memberships are ubiquitous as people attempt to offset the lack of exertion that was once build into daily life.

Why am I telling you all of this?

The message the pervades marketing is that easier is always better. It surrounds us. I think that is wrong. I think you need to keep some hard work in your life. I think it inoculates you against the dangers of negative adaptation. It doesn’t have to be much, just enough to make you uncomfortable. Discomfort means you are still working hard enough that you are not losing ground.

Here are a few ways I have worked this into my life:

  1. I have a hand crank coffee grinder. every morning, I have to work for that shot of caffeine. I love the thing, but I find myself annoyed by my choice most mornings. It takes far longer. My hands often begin to get a little tired before I’m done. But that struggle just lets me know that I am still fighting the good fight.
  2. I have an old fashioned reel mower. Sure if the grass gets too tall, I pay for it. But to me it is worth it. It’s quieter. It doesn’t break down. I never have to go fill a gas can. The lawn isn’t perfect when I’m done, but I can feel the burn of good, hard, honest work in my hands and arms and legs.
  3. We resist using the air conditioner and the furnace just as long as we can. I used to work in foundries. back then I was so well adapted to heat, that even the warmest weather was never a problem. The last several years of working in air-conditioned comfort have ruined that, but at home, we still try. This has a double benefit of saving you money, and making you more resilient in the even that the comforts of central air are not available.
  4. I memorize my numbers. Credit card numbers, phone numbers, social security numbers, and library card numbers. Passwords too. Not only is it handy, I’m seldom at a loss when a phone battery dies. Plus it save time when buying things online, filling out forms and reserving books.

I’m not perfect. There are times I give in and pay to have the yard mowed. There are times I forget things and have to reset passwords. But none of that is the end of the world, and more often than not I come out ahead.

So next time you are thinking of buying the latest time saver, take a moment to decide if it will push you past the point of convenience and into the realm of a negative adaptation.

I am addicted to learning about why. From nutrition to neuroscience and philosophy to behavioral economics I am always seeking to understand. When I am not completely immersed in the latest book to catch my eye or practicing Brazilian jujitsu, I am usually cooking for my wonderful wife, playing with my two beautiful kids or out running with one of our dogs.

1 Comment

  1. I love this piece, Thad. Especially about tissues taking shape of the position they spend the most time in.

    I’m wondering if you have stretched this idea to to emotional rhelm. In a personal area I think I do all that I can to not feel anxiety and sadness. Also in business, all communication in meetings or writing seems to be all data no emotion.

    Avoiding discomfort can only lead to atrophy.

    I think we all try our best to flatten our emotional landscape.

Leave a Reply


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: