Monday, May 04, 2009

Spring, Bet the Farm

Spring just makes you feel alive, doesn't it? I don't suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, but I certainly feel the long rhythm of the seasons. Without exception, when spring breaks out, I feel like taking on 27 new projects. Of course, being old and wise now, I somewhat restrain myself, I think.

Behavioral psychologists have pretty convincing evidence that our brains are wired in such a way as to get very high satisfaction and motivation from an activity that provides occasional rewards. The classic example is gambling with slot machines. You put your nickel in, pull the handle, busy/flashy/whizzy things happen, lose. But every 100-200 events, you hit the payoff, and this flood of nickels comes pouring out of the slot. This modality of reward is a far more powerful motivator than a small reward that happens every time you "pull the handle" of whatever activity we're discussing.

B.F. Skinner developed animal models where, for example, a pigeon pecks a lever, and a piece of grain pops out of a chute. After a brief training period where the pigeon learns that pecking the lever causes the food to appear in the chute, they change the formula so that the bird has to peck the lever 2-4 times to get the food reward. Once the bird understands the new formula, they keep increasing the number of pecks required to attain the food. Pigeons would routinely become capable of pecking the stupid lever 10,000 times to attain the reward. They were far more likely to peck the lever many times than the bird that got a tiny reward every time they pecked the lever.

The executive summary is that we humans, and lots of other creatures, like a little risk in our lives if there is a big flashy payoff that happens occasionally. This peculiarity turns out to manifest itself all over the place. If you get paid an hourly wage, they don't give you a ten dollar bill every hour, you get a big check at the end of a week.

Farming is hard work and risky. But occasionally, farmers (and gardeners) get the big payoff of a valuable harvest. People who stay in abusive relationships are thought to be "motivated" in this way. Sure, getting verbally or physically or emotionally abused sucks, but the abuser frequently feels high levels of guilt and then gives the "big payoff" with showy flowers, or highly emotional apologies, expensive gifts, etc.

Plants are also not immune to this phenomenon. There are species of pine tree that produce seed in pine cones that virtually never open up enough to drop their seeds and allow germination. Unless they experience fire. There's the big payoff. They plant a lot of seedlings at a time when the fire has removed 99% of the competition.

I keep a Venus fly trap carnivorous plant as a novelty. I enjoy and appreciate their unique methods of gaining nutrition. They rarely flower and make seed, preferring instead to use vegetative reproduction through the use of rhizomes. Push a rhizome over 4" and start a clone/sister plant. But on rare occasions, they decide to make blossoms and reproduce sexually. This is risky for the plant as it requires a lot of energy to make the stalk and the flowers. It can so deplete the plant of energy that it can kill the plant. But it also can introduce more genetic diversity into the plants descendants and give the potential to move much further away geographically. If a seed gets stuck to the foot of a fox, this could mean a move of 100's of yards, if not a mile or more. There it is again, the big payoff making up for the risk.

Here's a picture of what the big gamble looks like on my particular Venus Fly Trap:
So I suppose the analogy is, I as the gardener have increased my garden space by approximately 100 fold. The increased time and energy loss might kill me, but I might get the big huge payoff of home grown watermelons and cantaloupe as well as real tomatoes.

Our previous minister at some point made the theological point that if you are not stretching yourself spiritually by doing something uncomfortable or new (risky?) in your faith life, you're probably doing it wrong.

Go ahead, take a chance. Try something new.

Finest regards,


No comments:

Blog Archive