Hearing the word “experiment” probably conjures up images of lab coats, notebooks and pig brains floating in jars of stinky chemicals. But an “experiment” doesn’t have to involve those things.
In fact, experimentation serves a profoundly meaningful function in life. When we experiment, another word for “trying new things”, we test out the possibilities in life and allow our new experience to inform our decision-making.
If you want to learn about how to experiment in life, to allow new things to enter it, then read on!
Where Does The Word “Experiment” Come From?
The word “experiment” comes from the Latin experimentum, which means “a trial, test, proof, experiment.” In other words, “to experiment” is a more efficient way of saying “to try something new.” The word has nothing at all to do with lab coats, laboratories OR pig brains and everything to do with our openness to experiencing the world. It’s a way of approaching the world, available to everyone.
Recasting the act of experimentation as something that can take place anywhere and at any time, regardless of our level of education or position in life, allows us to appreciate the fact that we can all be experimenters.
Why Is The Width Of Train Tracks What It Is?
In the book “The Zahir” by Paulo Cohelo, the story’s protagonist, a suave and successful writer, comes across the question “Why is the width of train track the same everywhere in the world?” Throughout the story, the protagonist speculates on the answer and eventually discovers the reason behind that certain separation between the tracks.
Before we continue, I would like to ask you, reader. Why do you think the separation between train tracks is what it is?
I invite you to take some time to speculate on the answer. Chew on it for a bit.
I asked one of my friends the question and, being a scientifically minded person, she answered “Probably because that separation maximizes the volumes the carriages’ volume while minimizing the amount of wind resistance experienced by the train.”
The Answer Is…
The answer given in the story (which is fictitious, but it serves to make a point) is the following:
Train tracks have that width because that’s what it was in England, which is where the coal-fired steam engine originated. Why was that width chosen in England, then? Because that was the width of tramway rails before the railroads. Why? Because the tramways in England were built using the same tools used by wagon builders, which determined the spacing between wagon wheels. Again, why? Because old roads in England had ruts into which the wagon wheels needed to fit. Finally, why? Because the ruts were left behind by Imperial Roman chariots around, 1500 years prior.
When the protagonist of “The Zahir” finally learns the (fictitious) answer to the question, it encourages him to identify the patterns in his life which he has unconsciously followed for the last several years of his life. It is a “We have always done things that way” story.
While the story behind the width of train tracks is fictitious, it does point to two kernels of human nature:
- We are creatures of habit.
- We are creatures of culture.
I’ll explore these two points in what follows.
The Brain Is Built For Habits
The brain is an energetically expensive organ. It consumes between 20-25% of our glucose (this is still orders of magnitude less than the best computers our species can currently design). Because it uses so much energy, the brain has evolved to minimize its energetic consumption whenever possible. Which is why habits exist.
Habits are unconscious or automatic solutions to recurring environmental challenges. For example, most of us walk. Walking is a solution to the recurring environmental challenge of locomotion. We all need to be able to move around the world in order to procure the resources we need to live. So walking is a habit most of us practice regularly. But it didn’t start out that way.
We all had to learn to walk. And it took as time and countless failures. But once the brain had learned the required symphony of movement which is walking (walking is incredibly complex so that’s no small feat), the conscious brain outsourced the activity of walking to another part of the brain called the basal ganglia, where it became automated.
Most Habits Are Unconscious
Almost all adults don’t need to exert any conscious effort to walk. We can if we want to, but it’s not necessary. The same goes for reading, getting dressed, tying our shoes, using the toilet and everything else. Even wiping our butts was difficult for us once! Remember that? Now they’re habits.
The brain is constantly shifting activities from requiring conscious effort to requiring none of it. It is a fantastic feature. It allows us to solve the recurring challenges of life easily so that we can dedicate our conscious energy to big, ambitious goals. Like filling a swimming pool up with dumplings and plunging into it.
But the automating feature can also come with downsides, we all have habits we recognize as hurtful to us, yet they’re so automatic to us we can’t stop ourselves from doing them. I used to think very negatively of myself, and even though I had an inkling it was hurting me, I couldn’t stop myself from doing it, because it was such a deeply ingrained habit. The fact that is no longer the case is proof, at least to me, that we can change even our most unconscious habits. We just need to know how (read this article to learn about a fantastic resource to do that).
So we are primed to pick up habits. Now for the second point “We are creatures of culture.”
A Culture Is A Set Of Collective Habits
What we call “culture” is really a pattern of habits practiced by a group of people. For example, in Mexico we have a celebration called “Día de Muertos” or “Day of the Dead.” It’s a wonderful celebration in which people get together to honor their dead loved ones with offerings of food, drink and drugs (meaning alcohol and cigarettes). There is chanting and praying and for a few days towns in Mexico are set alight with the glow of marigolds and candles.
Everyone loves “Día de Muertos.”
But if you asked the average Mexican how or when the celebration of “Día de Muertos” started they would be unable to answer you. This includes me. This is just what everyone around us has “always” done. As a child I loved the celebration (I still do). It was an excuse to get a day off from school. Plus, it was cool and mystical and it was an excuse to get your face painted as a “Catrina.” Of course children love to partake!
But for “Día de Muertos” to be a habit it has to solve a recurring environmental challenge. What challenge does “Día de Muertos” solve? The challenge of honoring the dead, of course!
So culture is a set of collective habits practiced by a group of people. We begin to unconsciously learn the culture of our people before we’re even born. As an example of this, newborn babies prefer to listen to music they heard while still in the womb over completely unfamiliar music.
Human Beings Are Primed To Learn Culture
Depending on who you ask, culture has been responsible for our immense “success” as a species (I write success in quotations because we still have a lot to learn about what it means to be a successful species). It’s because we are so capable of learning the habits of thought, word and action of the people around us that we can come together and cooperate with such tremendous efficacy. No other animal on the planet can cooperate like we can (maybe ants, but they’re societies are less complex than ours).
And, like with individual habits, culture also comes with its dark side. Machismo, the belief that a man’s masculinity is determined by his ability to dominate women, remains prevalent throughout Mexico.
Every culture has its pros and cons. The Japanese culture promotes tremendous discipline, self-control and loyalty this is evidenced by the Japanese habit of working indefatigably at the same company for the entirety of your life. At the same time, that culture comes with a price; burnout and suicide are rampant in Japan.
The same can be said of any culture. Actually, with globalization and the internet, Yuval Noah Harari writes in “Sapiens”, that there is now no such thing as a “Mexican culture” or “Japanese culture”, since we’re all so interconnected that a “pure” culture no longer exists.
Whatever the case, humans absorb the culture we’re born into, which then shapes the opportunities we see in the world. Cultural absorption is mostly an unconscious process. Wherever it is you’re living, you can be certain that you are learning the culture unconsciously.
Which leads us to why it’s so important to experiment in life.
How Culture Can Help And Hinder Us
Now that you know, at a basic level, how we pick up personal and cultural habits we can talk about why it’s important to include experimentation in our lives.
In the stupendous book “Go Wild” by Dr. John Ratey, the topic of culture is discussed. Ratey mentions a tribe in the Amazon jungle which procures all of its nutrition through hunting animals and gathering plant foods. These people have learned the best way to hunt animals and the best plant foods to gather, not through attending school and being taught these things by a teacher, but through cultural absorption. People in their tribe, probably many generations ago, discovered effective methods for finding food in the jungle which then spread throughout the tribe because they were good solutions to the recurring challenge of needing to eat.
The interesting thing is that the tribe collects only a fraction of the edible plant foods which have been identified in their region of the Amazons. But because those plants are not considered food in their culture, they are ignored by the tribespeople. This effectively locks out an entire tribe of people from potential nutrition which is readily available in the world around them! If only people in the tribe experimented, they would have access to wider nutritional opportunities.
I bet you can see where I’m going with this, reader.
Culture Is A Powerful Tool
It allows us to learn the habits of success from the people around us. And it also allows us to learn the habits which hold the people around us back.
The thing is, until we choose our own beliefs (which lead to habits) we unconsciously pick up the “good” and the “bad” aspects of a culture (“good” and “bad” are illusions which is why they’re in quotations). This is why it is so powerful to become aware of ourselves as cultural beings.
When we accept that we are open beings, meaning we are vessels which get filled by our surroundings, we unlock the power to choose what we expose ourselves to.
In other words, we can choose (at least partially) what parts of a culture we want to absorb and which ones we don’t.
For example, I grew up in Mexico City, so I learned to eat spicy food. I also picked up a tiny bit of machismo. All of this happened unconsciously, of course. But, once I developed my self-awareness enough, I was able to keep the spicy food eating, while letting go of the tiny bit of machismo. In that way I took what I wanted from my culture and left what I didn’t want.
In order to do that I had to experiment.
Experimentation Allows Us To Jump The Tracks Of Life
If I hadn’t read certain books, listened to certain podcasts and been in certain relationships, I would have never known that I carried a bit of unconscious machismo from my Mexican upbringing. I then would have never been aware of how my culture limited me. By experimenting with new things I was able to transcend my limitations.
Human beings are natural experimenters. But some people experiment more than others. There is a theory in psychology which establishes the “Big Five” personality traits:
- Openness to experience (includes aspects such as intellectual curiosity and creative imagination)
- Conscientiousness (organization, productiveness, responsibility)
- Extroversion (sociability, assertiveness; its opposite is Introversion)
- Agreeableness (compassion, respectfulness, trust in others)
- Neuroticism (tendencies toward anxiety and depression)
It’s known as the OCEAN model. While I don’t believe it’s possible to classify human beings’ personalities, its a fun intellectual exercise. At our core we’re all one and the same.
How Open Are You To New Experiences?
People who are more open to new experiences (or more open to experiment) are more likely to identify and let go of the unconscious, limiting habits they have picked up throughout their lives; to identify the foods which are standing right in front of their faces but have been ignored because they never learned they were edible.
When we experiment we test the world and see what comes back. Then, based on the return we get, we can change our choices and see what comes from the change. We are self-correcting goal seekers. And the more we experiment the more chances we have at correcting ourselves and, thus, reach our goals.
There are several habits one can practice to increase openness to experience, according to science (I don’t have the exact references, but you can find them if you want to). And most of them (one could say all of them) are free!:
- Being in nature
- Meeting new people
- Learning new things
Of these, I believe meditating is the most accessible/powerful of habits to increase our openness to experience. Anyone can meditate (those who say “they can’t meditate” are the ones who would benefit the most from it), you can meditate anywhere, at any time and it’s free to do so. If you want to learn how meditation increases our openness to experience read this article.
To End, I Encourage You To Experiment More!
I hope this article has shown you the absolute awesomeness that is experimenting in life. Life only becomes a dull routine if we allow it to. Humans are biologically wired to crave novelty. New things fascinate us.
As an example of how this has worked out for me, this entire blog is the result of my experimentation. I received a master’s degree in chemistry. Chemistry! Do you think I could have written all of these articles if I had stuck to just learning chemistry? I wouldn’t have been able to. But, as I followed my curiosity and experimented with learning and applying knowledge ranging from anthropology to zoology, the idea for this blog slowly took form within me.
In so doing I transcended a limitation I didn’t even know I was carrying: I believed there was no activity in life which I could regularly do happily, skillfully, which the world needed and which I could get paid for. Thanks to my personal experimentation, I discovered there was. There were many failures along the way, but failure is the price of success.
Many people believe the only way to encounter new things is to travel, but that’s not true. We can all take small steps to increase experimentation in our own lives by practicing one (or several) of the habits I mentioned above. The world is only your oyster, if you allow yourself to test it out!
So I invite you to experiment more. Who knows what you might discover?
To our wealth and success.