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Phenotype Plasticity – We Shape Our Future

We respond, adjust and adapt based on environmental stressors. The big issue Daniel Lieberman discusses in his book, The Story of the Human Body : Evolution, Health, and Disease, are how the stressors, what was present in our environment, shaped us into who we are today. He explains how the cultural revolution has outpaced biological revolution and is now the driving force. The reason our environment is so important and a driving force is because it shapes us and has added meaning to the idea of plasticity.

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This book also explains why and how so much of the work by a variety of people relate. It explains why doing certain things or creating specific environment Nudges, as described by Thaler and Sustein, pushes our bodies to respond, adapt and change because of our reaction to present stressors.

The idea of plasticity is getting a lot of press lately. A lot of news has been shed about brain plasticity and how the brain continues to evolve and change based on its environmental stressors. Examples are shown from meditators and how their brains have changed because of their meditation practices. We also hear all the time about people doing things that were supposedly impossible. Of course impossibility is a situational statement.

Those impossibility statements mean it is impossible based on what we know and can do now, TODAY. At one time flying, going to the moon, running the 4 minute mile, and even making video calls was thought to be impossible. Even the late Christopher Reeves, who played Superman in the movies, who was paralyzed in a horsing accident, taught himself to walk again, something supposedly impossible.

To me what this means is that we have to be creators of the environment we want, not passive consumers. In other words we must create an environment that nurtures, supports, encourages, and reinforces factors that create a desirable future. Some examples Lieberman shares in his book of how what we do shapes what we become relate to issues with our feet, our teeth, obesity and diabetes which he argues does not have to be our evolutionary destiny.

He explains in detail we evolved to move and stress our body through movement. He demonstrates how our movements helped us realize our potential by creating strengths and abilities that were built in but not yet developed. With regard to feet, he suggests orthotics or other shoes that soften the stress on our foot only worsens any problems by weakening rather than strengthening our feet. He says we should work to develop strength in our feet and then our foot muscles will not become strained and inflamed, which he explains is the cause of the pain.

In a personal example, my girls got warts on their feet from hours and hours of gymnastics. To treat the wart the doctor burned the the bottom of the wart. I asked why and she said that doing so ignites our own immune system and then immune system treats the wart. I am sure there is more to it but sure enough, within a week the warts were gone. This is another example to show how our body adapts adjusts and correspondingly reacts to the environmental stressors, a burn in this case.

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To me one of the most interesting issues he discussed focused on teeth. Of course we have more cavities today because we eat more sugar and starches than in our evolution because of farming, but we have created a remedy – dentists. What I found very educational was when he says data suggests our jaws have become 5-10% smaller over the last few thousand years because our food is easy to chew from processing. He cites data that indicates if we stressed our jaw more during our youth with vigorous chewing, even sugar free gum chewing, our jaws would be bigger. If our jaws were bigger, it would eliminate the need for the common practice of wisdom teeth removal. After all, why would we have evolved to have more teeth than our jaw could hold. Our ancestors did not have dentists who removed wisdom teeth – because there was no need. On a personal note, I chewed a lot of gum when I was young and I have not had  need to get my wisdom teeth removed, very coincidental.

With regard to obesity and diabetes, he suggests these conditions are outcomes of what we were evolved to do. Evolution did not prepare us to live in a world of abundant food and leisure. Eating and behaving, evolution says eat and relax, however our actions create outcomes and those outcomes are results of our actions. Our actions are the result of how we react to the environments we choose.

Another highly publicized example of our personal plasticity was made popular by Dr. Carol Dweck. I posted about her findings related to brain plasticity and the growth and fixed mindset here with McDonough and Braungart’s Upcycle work. To document the significant power of the brain, Alia Crum continued this work to show how just thinking about food can create physiological response. If you wan to learn more, I wrote about Dr. Crum’s work here.

Our stress response represents an even more basic level of our plasticity. We can learn new things or stress our brain to learn new things in school or at work and our brain capacity and potential expands – an example of plasticity. This is how our brain evolved. As I posted before more can be learned from Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk – Stress Can Improve Your Health and here.

If you are interested in learning more, I am again offering links to a TED Presentation he made and interview he had with Brian Lehrer and Steven Colbert. I found them interesting. Enjoy.

This link takes you to Lieberman Interview on Brian Lehrer Show  BL

This link takes you to his interview with Stephen Colbert On the Colbert Report  Unknown 

Be Well’r,
Craig Becker
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Wanting & Liking; Knowing & Doing- Very Different

In contrasting fashion I have read  and are reading books that take similar concepts from different perspectives. In reading “The Upside of Your Dark Side” by Todd Kashdan I learned that just because we want something, even something we want really bad, it doesn’t mean we will like it when we get it. He explains that wanting and liking are handled by 2 different parts of our brain. In other words, when someone else tells us we should have or get something because it is great, we may realize after we get it that it isn’t great. While Todd suggests this happens because different parts of the brain handle each requests infers this may be a problem but to me it seems this is a good thing and should happen.

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To me the process of wanting and possibly liking, as handled by our brain uses science or the Socratic Method. It seems what we are doing is one part of our brain, without experience, makes an educated guess or hypothesis that something is wanted or needed.  We don’t know if it is right until we test it. After we test that something we will know if we do or do not want it. Isn’t that life? Marketing of course has confused the issue by manufacturing wants and confusing wants and needs thanks to Freud’s cousin Edward Benays.  I will talk about marketing in future post.

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Based on a recommendation of a respected friend I am reading and learning from Daniel Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, health and disease. He explains we did not evolve to be happy and well adjusted. He also explains a lot about what Kashan says is our desire for comfort – an actual genetic desire. He explains we adapted to become what would make it most likely we would reproduce.

As he explains, adaptations to our biology happened to encourage reproductive success, not to make us happy or to have a long lived life or to achieve goals. If those needs overlap, then yes we did evolve for that purpose. However because we adapted through our evolution, what we were continually changed. Each time we adapted to optimize our situation, that optimization changed everything meaning we had to evolve again to optimize. These repeating adaptations are all part of who we are and helps explain why we are the we are. It also provides several reasons as to why we are less than rational. Our biology creates different wants and needs. We therefore are irrational because of our varied adaptations throughout our evolution.

Our irrationality is explained in detail by the Behavior Economics and brilliantly by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast & Slow. For more information about these topics you can see posts here  andhere.

For example, Lieberman suggests we get chronic disease because we are doing what we were evolved to do. The evolutionarily driven choices we make for food and exercise today were created for an environment of scarcity and discomfort not for todays world of comfort and abundance. This explains much…

I am learning a lot, I look forward to sharing as I learn more about how we can best generate comprehensive improvements by creating interactions so everyone and everything benefits. If you have read either of these books please share your thoughts. Thank you – I look forward to learning more…

Humanity’s Insignificance in the History of the World

In an enlightening and educational documentary, The History of the World in 2 Hours which is linked and also visible below, it was reinforced and helped me remember much of what I had learned about how our world evolved. It also made very clear and helped me realize humanity’s insignificance. The world has been around for 14 billion years, humans, in all forms, maybe 200,000 years or less than even 1% of time.

By seeing all that has happened, it helped me understand the insignificance of our existence. Knowing this motivates me even more to want to learn how to live the best we can to make life more livable. Learning to live with and in our world is the only way we will be able to expand our capacity and achieve our potential for a better life. Living in cooperative, not in a competitive way, allows, well actually facilitates, the development of greater complexity. Throughout evolution, it was not that bad was destroyed but that more complex efficient, effective organisms grew from the organisms that did not adapt and cooperate to make life better. A great resource about these concepts is Martin Nowak’s book, “SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed” 2011.

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It seems clear we can live better by respecting and cooperating instead of living as if we own the planet which will likely to end our short run. This idea, however, I think was better explained by the comedy genius George Carlin. As he explains, humans are currently acting like a virus on the living human planet which the planet will work to eliminate. Instead of being a virus, we can learn to live as part of this wonderful system in ways that creates interactions so everyone and everything benefits which is paneugenesis or selfish, selfless, synergy.

Make it a Great Week!

Be Well’r,
Craig Becker

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