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  • Foto van schrijverPieter Derycke

Notes & Quotes - Desmond Morris, neophilia and neophobia, play rules and people in pain

Recently I finished the classic ‘The Naked Ape’ (1967), by Desmond Morris. By pure luck, I found an 1969 edition in a second-hand bookstore, smelling dusty and, you know, like all old books do. Apparently, at that time it only took 95c (I suppose US$) to be the owner of this little book. At the time, ‘The Naked Ape’ caused a bit of commotion, for some it probably still does… It is always fun to read classics in (pop)science, even if you know the scientific knowledge has outdated some of it. Still, a few quotes caught my attention, because they concern some of my personal topics of interest: exploration and play…

“In all exploratory behaviour, whether artistic or scientific, there is the ever-present battle between the neophilic [love for the new] and the neophobic [fear for the new] urges. The former drives us on to new experiences, makes us crave for novelty. The latter holds us back, makes us take refuge in the familiar. We are constantly in a state of shifting balance between the conflicting attractions of the exciting new stimulus and the friendly old one. If we lost our neophilia we would stagnate. If we lost our neophobia, we would rush headlong into disaster.”

“We explore and we retrench, we investigate and we stabilize. Step by step we expand our awareness and understanding both of ourselves and of the complex environment we live in.”

"Instead of performing a wide variety of heterogeneous activities, the withdrawn individual sticks to the few he knows best. For him the old saying: ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’ has been re-written: ‘Nothing ventured, nothing lost.’ ”

The tension between the neophilic and the neophobic is something that has been on my mind for a longer time (although not in this terminology). I think that in people with pain, there is a shift in this tension. The shift can go in both ways:

  • In the first phase of the problem, it seems logical that the person experiencing pain, would try some new things, new ways of moving, new ways of problem solving, new ways of interacting with the environment. Because the old ways of moving hurt. So the tension would shift towards the neophilic drive.

  • On the other hand, the person having pain could also understandably change the tension towards the neophobic urge, because what you don’t know, what is new, could also be bad and increasing the pain/threat.

This is very much in line with what we see in the research about movement variability. In the acute phase there could be more variability (searching for solutions), or less variability (limiting freedom of movement for protection). Both can be adaptive and health promoting. Only, on the longer term, there seems to be, in many people, a reduction in variability that is not adaptive, at least costly and probably impeding recovery.

Maybe this could be translated to a shift towards the neophobic drive. Too many people with pain, end up in a state where new=dangerous, whereas of course new could be dangerous, but new could also mean opportunity for improvement! I think this is an important task of the therapist: shifting the balance from neophobic towards neophilic.

Note that this does NOT mean that neophobic=bad, neophilic=good!! It means that, for some (probably many) people, especially with longer lasting pain, there’s too much neophobia. I like ‘the friendly old’ in the quote. The known, the old is friendly, stable, secure.

Also note that neophobia is not the same as fear-avoidance! Fear-avoidance could be seen as an extreme neophobic behaviour. Neophobia in people with pain could be very subtle.

I especially like the end of Desmond Morris’ quote: ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’ changes to ‘Nothing ventured, nothing lost’. Sometimes losing nothing is better than trying to gain something, but risking of losing even more… It has to do with statistics.

It also reminded me of another great quote: ‘Never be not afraid’ by Grug Crood, the protective pater familias of the animation family the Croods. I wrote about this some time ago…

But of course, if you experience chronic pain, losing nothing can be good, but you don’t want a status quo, you want improvement! You want to get better and get rid of the pain.

Now, what to do with this?

Luckily and not coincidentally, Desmond Morris shows us the way: play. Play and playfulness are all about exploration. But how to get a neophobic person to play? In the chapter about exploration, he sums up 6 ‘Play rules’, that could be used in movement teaching and therapeutic exercise/movement. He does not say where he found these, there’s no reference, nor whether he invented them himself. But I like them:

  1. you shall investigate the unfamiliar until it has become familiar

  2. you shall impose rhythmic repetition on the familiar

  3. you shall vary this repetition in as many ways as possible

  4. you will select the most satisfying of these variations and develop these at the expense of others

  5. you shall combine and recombine these variations one with another

  6. you shall do all this for its own sake, as an end in itself

“These principles apply from one end of the scale to the other, whether you are considering and infant playing in the sand, or a composer working on a symphony.”

The child playing, the musician composing, and I would add: the person learning to move, the person in pain trying to get better!

Another time, I’ll try to give some examples of applying these 6 rules to movement/therapy. I’ll end with a last quote from the book, one that suits my biases very well:

“When there is no variability in the environment the exploratory urge stagnates.”

Use play and a variable environment (tip: nature) to shift the tension from the neophobic to a more neophilic state.



[Art by Walton Ford]


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