(in conversation with Margot Kelley and Ron Wallace) What causes us to become satisfied with a thing, or less satisfied? What is the internal mechanism that tells us we are capable of a greater degree of satisfaction than we already experience? What is an appropriate level of acceptance of a particular thing or circumstance? When do we settle for something less? How do we develop as infants from a position of ‘like what you get’ to one of ‘get what you like’ as adults? Where does greed fit in, the irrational desire to acquire as much of a thing as possible regardless of the consequences? Perhaps this aggressive and selfish individual behavior has evolved as a hedge against the possibility of doing entirely without. Greed, lust, desire, longing, hope, as distinguished from instincts such as hunger, sex, or sleep are part of a spectrum of deep-set emotional responses to undesirable or adverse conditions that threaten our stability. While our desires provide a driving force toward self-satisfaction and contentment, at the same time we may experience opposing feelings of social isolation, loathing, disgust, fear, and despair that are in direct conflict with our desires. Consider Sunday Brunch, a fancy buffet at a hotel dining room. It provides us with a classic dilemma. We pay a lot for an extravagant meal and we want our money’s worth. We want to be fully satisfied. Yet if we eat everything that is offered to us, we are aware that we will probably suffer the discomfort, and even guilt, of overeating. But if we don’t try to eat as much as possible, we feel like we have cheated ourselves. We may recognize that our desire for complete satisfaction is irrational. Yet we are doomed to be in conflict! Where does the problem of satisfaction arise? Do the basic conflicts occur at the genetic or individual level? Are humans, the only ones to experience this level of conflict? Do other animals experience this dilemma? Do our planning brains play a role? Is a sense of past and future necessary to accommodate a broad range of satisfaction levels? It seems likely that we rely heavily on social cues to help us determine what is an appropriate level of satisfaction for a given circumstance. As an added benefit, this softens our tendency toward more selfish and aggressive behavior in response to unchecked desire. Yet, sensing ‘we can do better’ must be related to executive functions of the brain, ones that visualize and plan our future, that compare one experience against another, that drive us forward to a different plane of experience. Ron Wallace suggests that an answer to the questions of how and when we ‘settle for less’ or ‘reach for something greater’ is related to the extension of the innate tendency in humans to imitate one another. Margot Kelly adds that when we want to copy somebody’s behavior, we may not have the same abilities or capabilities of the person we are imitating. The imitation could be risky. It would make sense then that humans would evolve a flexible mechanism that would constrain behavior that was potentially harmful in imitating another person (the ‘like what you get’ solution), but would allow us to mirror our own possibilities of successful behavior (‘get what you like’) at the same time.
A Collection of Writings on Nature, Science, and Art by John Holland