Surviving Human Nature

Some Topics

Perseveration and Clinging to the Past

“For what I am seems so fleeting and intangible but what I was is fixed and final. It is the firm basis of what I will be in the future and so it comes about that I am more closely identified with what no longer exists that with what actually is.” …Alan Watts, The Way of Zen.

Perseveration means persisting in beliefs, behaviors and resisting new learning and new approaches to recurrent problems. Despite the advantages of letting go of memories and artifacts of the past and being fully present, humans cling to the past. Humans find it difficult to change old routines even when circumstances change and the old routines are no longer effective; this is perseveration, a reptilian tendency. Clinging also involves oral histories that require the repetition of stories and collections of artifacts, used in ritualistic behaviors. The endurance of groups often depends on re-telling stories and repeating stylized behaviors.

The persistence of the past is not a feature of time or the really real out there in the universe, but a feature of the brain. All learning involves changes to the structure of the brain that tend to persist. Once learned, a behavioral routine is part of brain structure. New routines can override old routines, but older patterns persist and often prevail. Children are more adaptable than adults because they are learning new things every day and their brains are more likely to change through experience and formal learning. Adults tend to be more fixed in their learned routines and fundamental changes require major reconstruction of their brain structure that occurs slowly over months to years.

Perseveration is maladaptive in proportion to the rate and degree of change in the environment. Adaptation requires behavior changes when big events alter the environment or new information requires behavior change. Humans who cannot learn new strategies and do not update their information tend to perish when circumstances change. The lethal effects of preservation are apparent when you consider the adverse health effects of smoking, overeating and drug use. At least half all diseases prevalent in affluent countries can be avoided by changing behavior, but the majority of humans will not or cannot change deeply imbedded habits.

You could argue that if conditions are stable, perseveration is allowed and there are some advantages. The first benefit is that established routines that have worked in the past are reassuring and if circumstances stay the same, the same routines continue to work. The second benefit is that familiar people, landscapes, sounds, smells and tastes are understood and trusted; whereas new and unfamiliar experiences require a major effort to learn, adapt and overcome the uncertainty of new experiences.

As humans age and lose much of the randomness, curiosity and adventure of youth, old familiar, experiences become increasingly attractive. The family album is brought out, old songs are played, and stories of events long ago are repeated endlessly. As dementia progresses new events are confusing or immediately forgotten, old stories are recalled and recited repetitiously with evidence of pleasure. Reliving of the past is the main content of selftalk and storytelling. There are stories of the “good old days” but painful past events tend to be recalled more often by selftalk and are repeated and embellished as casemaking. The case argues that someone or some group has wronged you in the past; the wrongs are detailed; revenge and retribution are sought.

Casemaking is often shared by storytelling and grudges can be maintained for generations. Revenge and retribution become cultural activities and much human drama depends on case-making stories with revenge as the goal. Hatred is the most entrenched version of casemaking that focuses story-telling skills on diminishing an enemy and promoting the right to revenge.

Education has a tendency to perseverate. Children are required to learn facts about the past and are rewarded for reading old books, learning obsolete ideas and methods. Most discussion of educational reform focuses on achieving literacy and better math-science scores rather than producing happier, more creative, more compassionate humans.

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