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From vitality to complexity
In my last post, I suggested the lure of vitality as a way of explaining our attraction to certain kinds of settings. Following Christopher Alexander’s (1) arguments about our primal attraction to life in all its forms and Jane Jacobs’ advocacy for “vital little plans” as a way to build neighborhood-sized chunks of healthy and vibrant life into cities, I flailed my arms convincingly (didn’t I?) suggesting that somewhere in the intersection of those things was a way of understanding why we found many different kinds of settings attractive and animating, whether or not they contained trees and leaves.
We all know that there is a broad range of different types of environments that make us feel good, and if we’re honest, we’d also probably agree that that range includes more than things that are explicitly “natural.” Why? There’s no shortage of evolutionary accounts of one kind or another that suggest we’re drawn to things that are Good For Us in one way or another, but as I’ve explained in earlier writings here, I think those kinds of accounts fall short. I want to go off in another direction.
Stupid maze tricks
Consider an interesting bit of lab-based animal behaviour called “spontaneous alternation.” This behaviour, discovered in the 1950s, shows up in a simple maze built in the shape of a T or a Y. The idea is that if you take a lab-captive animal, such as a rat or mouse, and set it free at the bottom of the T or the Y, it will run forward and then make a left or a right turn. Of course, that’s not very deep. There really isn’t anything else the poor critter can do, is there? But what gets more interesting is what happens if you pick up the animal and pop it back at the starting position for another try. On the second trial, the animal is most likely to choose the road not taken. That’s spontaneous alternation. It might (or might not) surprise you to learn that there are companies throughout the world that will sell you a pretty spiffy and expensive pile of hardware designed to automatically measure all of this spontaneous movement of animals. One reason is that this test is one way of measuring whether an animal understands and remembers a simple thing about space. Think about it. If the animal goes down the unchosen alleyway on trial 2, it must remember where it went on trial 1. Pretty cool, huh? In the biz, we’d call this kind of talent “spatial working memory,” and its a pretty important building block for all kinds of everyday behaviours that we rely on to keep our lives together.
What’s also cool is that this behaviour is, as the name suggests, spontaneous. Animals don’t have to be trained to do it. They do it because they want to. When I was a student working in a lab that had captive critters to play with, I remember reading about spontaneous alternation and being skeptical enough that I built a little T-maze out of cardboard and placed some of my smartest gerbils (2) in the maze to try it out. And it worked! So, what’s the big deal here? At the time, the idea was that spontaneous alternation, along with a few other kinds of findings, suggested that animals are motivated to explore new things. Then, the prevailing currents in animal behaviour suggested that the list of things that could motivate any kind of behaviour was pretty short: food, drink, sex, and perhaps abject fear (3). So, arguing that animals possessed some kind of intrinsic curiosity drive was a very big deal indeed. I could go on and on about this, but I’m trying not to write a textbook here. If you want to know more, there have been textbooks written about spontaneous alternation. But not by me.
Things get complicated
Now let’s take another right turn in the T maze and take a peek at the work of one of my favourite psychologists, Daniel Berlyne. Berlyne worked for most of his professional life at the University of Toronto, where he worked extensively to understand curiosity. He spent much of his career steeped in ideas that came in part from findings like spontaneous alternation, suggesting that curiosity, understood as a drive to gather more information was a cornerstone of the behaviour of all types of beasts from cockroaches to human beings. Berlyne wrote extensively about such matters, churning out seven good books in a life that was not as long as I wish it had been (4). One of Berlyne’s arguments was that a part of what drew us to certain kinds of settings was complexity. He went a bit further than this to argue that there was a kind of a sweet-spot for our preference for complexity. Too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing (5). People argue a lot about this sweet-spot idea these days and I think the consensus is that maybe things aren’t quite so simple. But, like the spontaneous alternation idea, there’s a wealth of provocation in the idea that we are attracted to complexity. That word, complexity, is a pretty thorny one, by the way. Scientists like me spend endless hours pondering it. It’s like so many things in life—we know it when we see it but defining it is a true bugger. There are some fairly decent mathematical definitions of complexity and there are also some nice, practical shortcut definitions (6). But one thing that runs through all of the complex bafflegab is the idea that complex things, pretty much by definition, contain a lot of information.
Are you now beginning to see the connection between spontaneous alternation and our preference for complexity? Here’s a visual way of thinking about it. Shown below are two images from streetscapes, taken from some of my own experiments. Which if the two looks more like somewhere you’d like to be?
If you answered the busy streetscape rather than the rather sparse one, your preferences are in line with those of most other people. In fact, we even have a little bit of difference in our physiological responses to these two kinds of settings. Busy, complex settings excite our nervous systems. Dull, monolithic ones just don’t do it, generally.
I feel as though we’ve made some progress then. Maybe the word vitality is a short-hand code for complexity, which we like because we are drawn to places where there’s lots of information. We go places where it’s possible for us to learn new things about the world. It’s not even hard to get from there to a kind of evolutionary account where we might argue that perhaps learning new things about the world is generally a good, perhaps even adaptive thing in the Darwinian sense (7). We could even suppose that one thing that nature scenes and nice urban scenes (and lots of other stuff besides) share in common is that they afford new information about the world. So we could almost just leave the story here and imagine that we’ve solved something. But somehow that’s just not in my nature. I think we can go even deeper than this. In my next post, I want to get us from where we are to thoughts about autonomy, agency and (shudder) the possibility that the holy grail for us is perhaps free will (8).
(1) A sad footnote to begin is that as I was writing these words I learned that Christopher Alexander had died. This made me very sad because I’ve thought about him many times over the past 10 years or so and I’d even hoped that I might meet him someday. Not to be, but as long as I’m around, he’ll have a nice place in my confused little noggin.
(2) I’m not even going to try to explain why I just said “gerbil.” If you want to know, you’ll have to google my early scientific history. I spent many formative years in the company of these noble creatures.
(3) Writing these words, it occurs to me that this simple list of motivators might have been an apt summary of what made me tick up to, at least, my early university years.
(4) It makes me sad that I almost but not quite overlapped with Berlyne’s years at the University of Toronto. Alas, he was gone before I got there. But even if this wasn’t true, I might have been too preoccupied with the simpler things in life (see (3) above) for him to have bothered with me.
(5) Perhaps including some but not all of (3) above
(6) One of the simplest ways of doing experimental work on complexity is to simply ask people to rate the complexity of scenes, objects, pictures, whatever. Sounds slightly dumb but in line with the “we know it when we see it” idea it helps make a little progress sometimes.
(7) All I mean by this is that to satisfy the Darwinians among us, we would need to explain how doing (or not doing) something would make it more likely for us to spawn offspring. Most of the time, it seems to me, we just answer this question with one of my favourite aerobic activities: arm-waving.
(8) I know, I know. For the dour philosophical doomsayers among us, perhaps just think of the perception of free will, rather than the genuine article. I’m not a philosopher, as will soon be obvious to any philosophers who might ever read this.