On molting: An exercise in outgrowing our mammalian brains

In my childhood, I spent many hours watching grasshoppers undergo the arduous process of molting alongside my Uncle – one of the greatest (and little known) insect enthusiasts of our time. In practice, this has meant spending a ton of time crouched over in bushes spying on the private lives of, well, bugs. If you’re at all familiar with the process of molting, you know there’s nothing too romantic about watching. Moment to moment, the changes in an insect’s form are nearly imperceptible.

Unless you have a superhuman attentional fortitude, you’d probably lose interest within a matter of seconds. But Uncle would stay engrossed in capturing this process, for dozens of hours on end. He had a religious devotion to the well-being of these tiny creatures, and for good reason. As an insect molts, it’s left in a state of near-paralysis – vulnerable to predation, hungry, and asphyxiated. My Uncle often stood guard over hoppers he’d befriended mere moments before as they underwent their ecdysis, because he loved to be near the wondrous spirit of transformation.

On each occasion I’ve borne witness to, the anthropod eventually emerges victorious – a soft, fleshy, vulnerable creature with shiny, new features, having left his rigid exoskeleton behind. This can mean it’s grown a pair of wings, rehabilitated an injured limb, or simply grown larger. It’s a process that occurs anywhere from 5 – 60 times over the course of an insect’s lifetime.

What’s interesting to me about these insects isn’t that they undergo metamorphosis. As humans, we do too. We may not shed our exoskeleton in a single, continuous layer, but we do leave a cloud of dead skin particles and hair follicles everywhere we go. Our muscles tear and grow stronger, our bones lengthen, our scars fade, old materials leave our bodies and new ones take their place.

What captivates me about them is that their physical transformation can be bucketed into several discrete phases. To the naked eye, it appears that in only a matter of hours they have started anew – they abandon the exoskeleton that’s accompanied them faithfully for a stretch of their lives and begin again.

A cicada undergoing ecdysis, Wikipedia

There’s a romance to this that I can’t escape, especially as we enter the new year.

Although we humans don’t have physical exoskeletons, we do have mental ones. Our brains quickly form biases and associations about the world, and they saturate our belief systems. Moment to moment, we operate almost entirely on a set of heuristics we’ve adopted through generations past or as a matter of direct experience. We’re myopic. We’re tribal. We cling to what we know.

Like exoskeletons, these mental tricks allow us to move efficiently through the world and keep us safe from harm. However, they also limit our growth in important ways.

Heuristics, while efficient, are often misguided. They’re what phenomena like racism and prejudice are built upon. Myopia is critical for our survival moment-to-moment (navigating traffic) – but crippling when we try to plan for the future in almost any meaningful way (saving money). Sometimes, our nearsightedness even makes it difficult for us to consider fairly the experiences of those far from us – physically, racially, or specially. Our tribalism gives us beautiful things like pride for our country and loyalty towards our loved ones, but it also gives rise to immense cruelty (see: Holocaust). The list goes on and on.

From time to time, we too need to shed our allegorical exoskeletons to grow beyond the comforts afforded by our mammalian brains.

This year, as we’re building our resolutions of habits to build and break, we should remember to ask:

How can our values – like our behaviors – be in a state of meaningful evolution?

Our values and beliefs – and the use of our attention that underlies them – deserve careful scrutiny.

The whole of human history can be told as a story of blind spots and overcoming them. As a race, we’ve excelled at relying on our mental shortcuts to justify the exclusion of others from moral consideration. We can look to the beginnings of civilization at the treatment of slaves in Athens to the modern-day exclusion of women from positions of power. One need not look very far to see the moral errors we’ve been oblivious to, even in our time. We can Google “genocides happening today” and see – easily – how catastrophically incompetent our “default mode” can be at attributing salience to important things.

So, who or what are we ignoring that we ought to be paying attention to?

Which blind spots do we possess?

How do they protect us?

How do they limit us and our ability to serve others?

This is an admittedly demanding set of questions to answer. Answering them impartially would require us to challenge our subconscious mental processes and to see, clearly, the limits of our own programming. But I think we will find – after overcoming the initial discomforts of this exercise in extreme vulnerability – that it is a unique privilege to live in accordance with values we actively choose for ourselves, as opposed to ones we passively come to hold and that then follow us for the remainder of our lives.

Let’s whittle away a bit at these layers of abstraction. Practically speaking, our molting process can take many forms. I’ve included some tactics that have worked well for me here. Although my process is messy and I borrow inspiration from others daily, I hope these tips can serve as useful starting points for your own self-examination.

1. Begin with this fairly-comprehensive list of cognitive biases. Study them, ingest them. Use them to fuel your self-awareness. You can chart the biases you notice in yourself. For each, ask: How does this bias protect me or something I care about? And also: How does it potentially hurt me or others?

I reached several new insights and updated my behavior accordingly using this model. For example, when I first learned about the “just-world fallacy” – that is, the tendency for people to believe that the world is fundamentally just, causing them to rationalize an otherwise inexplicable injustice – I began to look at situations of injustice in a new light. There was a noticeable shift away from the attribution of guilt, shame, and blame and towards compassion and responsibility for the well-being of others.

Similarly, once I understood the diffusion of responsibility as a cognitive bias, I became hypervigilant about public situations in which individuals could be in need of assistance. Typically, we avoid getting involved in such interactions – because we experience fear of embarrassment from offering potentially unwanted help, or fear that we might make a situation worse. We rationalize our inaction by thinking “Surely, someone else has already helped” and in doing so leave the injustices as they are. Chances are: if you don’t help, no one else will.

2. Draw out your circle of concern. Ask yourself: Who do I care about? Who lies outside of my natural circle of concern? Peter Singer’s Famine, Affluence, and Morality may help you step into the frame of mind this exercise requires.

In recent years, my own moral circle has expanded to include non-human animals, insects, and most recently – people of the future. Each of these groups managed to elude my visceral sense of morality for most of my life, but once I saw them as what they were (other minds), these new inclusions have changed what I eat, what I do, and how I give. This might sound exhausting at first; many of us experience compassion fatigue for the countless ills that plague the human race alone. But as a matter of direct experience, I have found it to be one of the greatest joys of my life, to recognize other beings as deserving of our compassion and to live, as best as I can, in accordance with that belief.

In addition to expanding your circle of concern, it’s worthwhile to ask whether or not your actions are aligned with your moral circle as it stands. The continued existence of the human race is something most people can probably get behind without much persuasion, and yet it’s a comically underfunded area of academic research – as philosopher Nick Bostrom’s chart artfully captures. In trying to act more consistently with our existing circle of concern, we might spend more of our resources on trying to prevent the next global pandemic or on mediating AI risk.

bostrom dung beetle.png
Funding for different subjects of academic research from Nick Bostrom’s “Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority”

3. Observe yourself in motion. Throughout your week, notice each time you feel a sense of “right” or “wrong” and jot them down. Where did these values come from? Why do you believe what you believe? Think about whether there’s a good reason they exist beyond just, “this is how I was taught” or “this is what I’ve always known” or “it feels wrong”. Listen closely to the things you find sacred. Bring them into question.

I often catch myself thinking something is wrong because it “doesn’t feel natural” – usually accompanied by a gut reaction that tells me to run for the hills. But, what is “natural”? Are man-made buildings any less natural than a beaver’s dam? Is cell-based meat any less natural than ice cream? Is genetically-engineering food to have more nutrition any less natural than using life-saving medications to fight disease? Should an object’s proximity to this ambiguous state we call “nature” have any bearing on whether something is good or bad? Human beings are products of nature, so in my view, nature, evolution, natural selection, whatever you want to call it – gave us all of this. In other words, everything is natural…our evaluation of whether something is good or bad should be held separate from what feels natural and what doesn’t.

We can expect our molting process to be as arduous, uncomfortable, vulnerable and paralyzing as the one our insect friends undergo. But like the shedding of an exoskeleton, each molt can open us up to the world in extraordinary ways. At the very least, I can promise it’s worth it to spend a moment of this brief existence examining the contents of our own minds and choosing for ourselves what we believe and how we will live. I don’t think any of us will reach the perfect moral destination in our lifetime, but I do think we can strive to see clearly and make our choices count in the time that we have here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: