Friday, July 07, 2006

chaos theory

Do you ever fantasize about chaos? By chaos, I mean something in between how we think of it (frenzied and random) and how scientists think of it (this) .

Do you sometimes imagine your life as a series of dominoes and you focus on the types of events could bring them all down in succession? In the scientific version chaos, this is known as the butterfly effect.

There are butterflies in my theory too but they're usually in your stomach.

Let's say your boss sends you an email that says "We need to talk." You think about all the things you've done wrong in the past few months - you gave that one lady the wrong drink or you didn't file that report on time or you've been dealing with some personal drama over email half the day. So you're about to get fired, right? You follow the disaster to its natural conclusion and suddenly, in your mind, you're in rags, muttering to yourself and pushing a shopping cart full of empty plastic bags.

A weird bump appears on the knuckle of your middle finger and your active imagination immediately sends you to a hospice bed, begging for a fatal dose of morphine.

You forget someone's birthday so surely you're about to be completely alone and friendless.

In the split-second version, let's say you step out onto the street and a car speeds past inches from your body. While you sigh (or curse) and cross the street nonchalantly, the you inside your head gets dragged under the car and smeared over three blocks of asphalt.

OK "fantasize" might be the wrong word.

"Envision" or "obsess over" probably work better. You anticipate the worst. You steel yourself to tragedy. Your bloodstream pulses with adrenaline. Your jaw clenches. You feel almost all the pain of this terrible event, even though nothing has actually happened. It's kind of torturous. Our muscles contract; our heads ache; we feel sick or dizzy or both; we can't concentrate on anything but this imaginary event.

Why do we do this?

(Some of you probably think: "I don't do this." I don't believe you.)

I've heard some people say - I have said myself, in fact - that if we prepare ourselves for the worst then we feel something akin to bliss when it ain't that. I've also heard people say that thinking this way works like an reverse curse. In other words, if you think of it in advance, it couldn't possibly happen.

Those ideas are all well and good but they are just excuses not explanations. The real reason we play these games with ourselves?

Deep down inside we're still cavemen.

How much time has passed since homo sapien first appeared on earth? 130,000 years ago. In evolutionary terms, that's not very long when you consider that the human lineage first diverged from chimpanzees five million years ago. The first human beings had to struggle daily for survival in the face of predators, food shortages, disease, bad weather, and even their own neighbors. They had to be on guard and prepared for anything at any time. Their internal emergency response system had to be first class and always in a state of readiness if they were going to survive.

Consider that 2000 years ago, most of our ancestors were nomads, savages, or slaves. One thousand years ago, we might've been serfs. Five hundred years ago, most of us were still living in poverty and even the rich had no santitation, no real treatment for infectious disease, no decent medical care at all - a broken limb could mean permanent disability or even death. One hundred years ago, we were subsistence farmers or factory workers laboring in terrible conditions. We lived in polluted cities or exposed to the elements and many of us still didn't have access to quality medical care or good santitation.

But within the last 100 years, an unprecedented number of us in the developed world have gained access to sanitation, safe working conditions, consistent food sources, decent medical care, better protection from inclement weather, and so on.

In other words, the internal emergency response system that evolution provided us with 130,000 years ago came in handy pretty regularly up until about 100 years ago. We're designed to be on alert at all times.

Now, even if we don't imagine the worst possible outcomes, Hollywood and the news do it for us. We collect terror and tragedy. It used to haunt us. Now we hunt for it.


Blogger Mandy said...

Ah, finally! Someone who understands the great possibility of tumors in my stomach/brain/lungs, the suspicion that I might be losing my memory, and my fear that every day Victor will die in some terrible accident.

7:04 AM

Blogger Stacy said...

I'm always amazed at how orderly the insect world is...they just don't seem mto create any drama do they?

As for chaos, I just assume it's part of the trip, chaos is probably why we have mountains.

6:42 PM


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