Gregory A. Clark: We can change the world for ourselves and others

Once exploration begins, there is no telling where it will end.

Happy New Year! Or is it?

Truth be told, our yin-yang brains are wired not only to seek novelty — but also to reject it.

It’s a brave new world — but also a dangerous one. Both competing thrusts make sense. As any parent can attest, a kid’s natural first reaction to almost any new food is to spit it out: “That’s disgusting!” As literally it is: “Dis” = bad and “gustus” = taste. So we stick out our tongues and eject the new, suspicious, foul-tasting food.

Neophobia isn’t always unwise. A new food might be toxic. Reject it, and you survive. You can always try it again later.

But it doesn’t stop there. In the same deeply instinctive way, we also reject new ideas. Even our faces express disgust — simply because something’s new.

Willem J. Kolff, lead inventor of the artificial kidney and the first human artificial heart implanted at the University of Utah in 1982, describes his first response to learning about an operation to save “blue babies”:

“At the time, you could not repair the defect in the [heart] ventricle. They would put blood from the aorta, or from the subclavian artery, into the lungs, so that more blood would be oxygenated. My first reaction was negative — I stuck out my tongue.”

It was ... disgusting.

Neophobia is understandable, but not informative. We must look past it to progress.

Kolff continues: “When [Professor] Pickering explained to me what was done, I made a decision that my first reaction to something I hadn’t heard about would never be negative again. But this negative reaction is very common. The best thing you can do is not pay attention to it.”

Science discovers existing truths; engineers create new ones. In both enterprises, novelty is essential for progress, yet novel discoveries and inventions first meet resistance. But here’s the good news: If neophobia is the yin, curiosity is the yang. Because it’s also human — and animal — nature to explore.

Scientists often use food rewards to study animal behavior in laboratory settings. But even a hungry animal soon becomes sated. A memorable 1954 experiment by Butler and Harlow used visual rewards rather than food. Monkeys continued performing for up to 19 hours straight simply to open a window that afforded a more interesting view.

Novelty is its own reward. It’s food for the brain. And the brain’s appetite is nearly insatiable. In return, feeling good motivates seeking further novelty. Win-win.

Neuroscientists now can electrically stimulate what might be casually termed “reward systems” in the brain. One can train a rat to run a maze using small electric pulses to activate the reward pathways, much as one can train rats with sweets. Importantly, this neural pleasure burst not only reinforces past behaviors — it also motivates adventurous new ones. After a few feel-good brain tickles, rats willingly scurry down a steep slope that had proven too daunting before. (Skiers: Take note.)

And once exploration begins, there’s no telling where it will end — as the tale of Imo the genius macaque shows. Studying monkeys in forests is difficult. So, scientists put sweet potatoes on the beach of the small Japanese island of Koshima to lure the island’s monkeys to where they could be more easily seen.

As any beachgoer would expect, the potatoes got sandy, ruining the monkeys’ free lunch. But young Imo discovered that she could easily clean her potatoes by washing them in the ocean. Bonus: the potatoes got salty, too. Imo’s fry sauce, FTW. Monkey see, monkey do. Imo’s discovery went viral, and potato washing spread throughout the troop.

One thing led to another. The troop learned to bathe in the ocean. To swim. To dive for seaweed. One monkey, Jugo, decided to boldly go where no Koshima macaque had gone before: He swam to a nearby island, which he inhabited for years.

Imo died in 1972. But the troop is still dipping sweet potatoes into the sea.

As we leave annus horribilis behind, we face both new challenges and new adventures. So, be prudent. But also remember: Like Imo, we can change the world not only for ourselves, but also for those around us. And for generations still to come.

Happy New Year after all.

Gregory Clark

Gregory A. Clark is an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Utah. The views expressed are his own. He dedicates them to his young granddaughter. To learn is to live.