After a day or a week of performing a task, it’s not too surprising to see some improvement in performance of the selfsame task. But that improvement isn’t the real deal – all that happened was familiarization. This is the same phenomenon as the “practice effect” that haunts researchers – the tests they use are often enough to produce improvements on the tests themselves, but without a change in the true trait of interest (the thing the test was supposed to point at – for example, using an IQ test to measure intelligence, or a computer test to quantify “memory”). You see a better score on the test not because you actually improved in some fundamental way, but because you are familiarized with the task. And if you simply wait a short period of time, maybe a few hours or days, the familiarization effect is dissipated.
This is important from two angles – one, the task is not the trait (a specialized application of Ido Portal’s “content/container”), and also, that there is a spectrum of adaptation. Let us deal with the latter.
Spectrum of Adaptation
A heuristic that might be useful for conceptualizing the spectrum of adaptations is the range of biological actions that organisms manifest in response to environmental changes from A) homeo-/allo- stasis through B) acclimatization to C) true adaptation (evolution).
Allostasis is the organism maintaining/returning to homeostasis – maintaining a normal range of fluctuation within a specific environment, by rapid and short-term responses. In the biological sphere that this most literally refers to, these effects are mediated by the nervous and endocrine systems. For example, when I run, the the body releases hormones that break apart stored glucose so as to maintain metabolism (which is driven regulated by pH levels, a major factor in homeostasis). But we can use allostasis to understand the practice effect: a psychological readiness for the task, because the task is anticipated. Sit me in front of a computer test, and my fingers prime to type. Tell me to expect a math question, and I shift, in an intuitive fashion, to a mental mode ready to calculate. It’s not that before and after the state of readiness, that I am different in a fundamental way.
Acclimatization points at reversible but more lasting changes in response to changes of environment (and not only typical changes WITHIN the environment). The changes revert when the environment reverts. In the most literal sense, we acclimate to temperature, light, pressure, etc, and for durations however long the environment is changed. But we can also be said to acclimate to psycho-social factors, for example, from the shift from a rural to an urban environment (or vice versa). This biological phenomenon allows us to explore new environments. For example, I move to the mountains where oxygen pressure is reduced, so my body increases red blood cell count allowing me to improve oxygen transport. In terms of the familiarization effect, if I perform a task sufficient times, something inside of me changes to be better prepared for subsequent exposures to the task. But remove me from the environment, and the effect is lost. In a way, I cannot be said to have truly changed.
The most long-lasting of changes are genetic in nature, in the form of evolution. If a group of organisms is placed in a new environment over generations, those that have acclimated the best will be naturally selected for, and through principles of inheritance and evolution, the next generation will have a greater proportion and magnitude of such traits. These traits in the newer generations will be much more hard-coded than any of the acclimatization-type effects.
We can further boil down the three coordinates in the seemingly linear spectrum of adaptation as follows
Allostasis – factors within the environment changed, but the environment is fundamentally the same.
Acclimatization – the environment itself changed, but not permanently, producing reversible effects.
Growth – the environment changed permanently, and created survival pressure that drove genetic change in the species, such that more long-term changes occurred.
There is a gray area between acclimatization and evolution… and the adaptation I want is THERE (let cultural evolution take responsibility for improving the practice of future generations!).
As I go into a practice, I want it to change me, so that I can move along to the next step in my evolution, but not lose what I gained. I neither intend to revert to my prior environment nor stay in the current. So what can I take with me? If I was looking ahead, hopefully I anticipated what traits I would wish to have further down the line, as my environment changed… and for the unpredictable changes, hopefully I found some traits that prepared me for chaos as well. So an intelligence is required as I chart my course.
But I must also consider – I shouldn’t want any overly-permanent change… again, looking down the line, I must expect that any adaptation now could hurt me eventually, in some other environment. Hence species go extinct… (and yet, neither should I toe the water too carefully, in fear)
So there is something beyond acclimatization that I want: put me in the new environment, let me transform, and let me take the transformation with me to the next environment. Thus I can continue to grow, to evolve.