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© Pieter Derycke 2019
  • Pieter Derycke

Hanging and the environment - part 4 - via negativa and superstimuli

In previous parts of this blog series, I talked about the importance of the environment for movement. We said that sometimes we needed to add things to our environment, in order to match it more with our environment of evolutionary adaptation. I also suggested to (re)start looking at the existing environment better, and see movement opportunities as children do. In this part we will talk about tweaking the environment by taking away things.


Today’s song ‘Another Day‘ (by Jamie Lidell) is, via-negativa-wise, stripped down to a voice, fingersnaps and handclaps.


There’s a lot to talk about, but I’ll make it short, and I’ll try to remove as much as I can…


Via negativa is a term I first encountered while reading Nassim N. Taleb’s book Antifragile (read it!!). Although it is a principle I used before, sometimes deliberately but by no means always, I appreciated it more and more because of Mr. Taleb. Originally a theological concept, via negativa is about gaining by subtracting, not adding. Via negativa is applicable to many areas, including (especially) health.


In essence you don’t look for improvements by adding things, but by removing things. You could say it is a form of less is more.


You remove the things that you know to be bad, instead of adding things that are possibly good. Removing things does not have negative side effect, whereas adding things has side effects. And in complex systems like biological organisms, you can not know what the side effects will be.


Often this means keeping what has passed the test of time and removing the new. Or at least be very careful in your use of the new. And since Nature, by means of evolution by natural selection, is the ‘master of high dimensional trial and error’ (p. 349), via negativa often means removing the non-natural and leaving the natural.


(As I have pointed out before, the word ‘natural’ is tricky. Natural does not mean perfect, it’s just very hard to improve nature. Don’t forget Orgel’s second rule: Evolution is cleverer than you are. The burden of proof is on the unnatural things.)


There’s a lot more to discuss and learn from the via negativa approach, and, again, I can only recommend Mr. Taleb’s books. But let see how this affects human movement and health.


Some examples:

  • Do you think you sit too much on chairs? Get rid of the chairs and sit on the floor

  • Television gets in the way of your movement practice? Get rid of the television

  • You have troubles keeping off the sugared drinks? Don’t buy them

  • Are you thinking of buying the latest new fitness gadget or workout tool? Think twice,

  • Social media getting in the way of going out for a walk? You get the gist


Mr. Taleb also quotes Ennius: “Nimuim boni est, cui nihil est mali” (the good is mostly in the abscence of bad).


One category that deserves special interest is the group of superstimuli. A superstimulus (or supernormal stimulus) is one that elicits a greater response than the stimulus the organism was made to deal with in nature, than the stimulus for which it was shaped by natural selection. Think of the work of Niko Tinbergen. I promised to keep it short, but do check out the following links:


A nice informative cartoon by Stuart McMillen on superstimuli.

A short talk from Dan Dennett that touches on the subject.


Superstimuli are not necessarily bad, but they compete with the things we know we are good. An example could be children watching TV. Maybe television is not bad per se, but it takes away time from outdoor play, which we know is good and absolutely required for kids.


So, with some exaggeration, I can summarise as follows: ‘Remove what is not natural and keep what has worked in the evolutionary past. Remove the distraction, especially the superstimuli.’


What are the things you’d like to remove to make your movement better? Any superstimuli that you’d like to eliminate or control?


Cheers,


Pieter