Evolution and Succession of Obsessions

My father was a collector.  He maintained a stamp and coin collection.  He also had a large collection of tools, including the various gadgets and accoutrements targeted to achieving something useful around the house.  Dad had different scissors for different uses, different kinds of tape, different measuring instruments, various ways to bind things together, assorted glues, etc.  Each little intervention had a firm location in his various drawers.

I didn’t attempt to reproduce his organizational obsession, but I did find solace in collections.  I had rocks, insects, stamps, coins, miniature dinosaurs, comics, all manner of boyhood hobbies.  None lasted past a couple years, except for my comic and dinosaur affections.  I never acquired Dad’s propensity to store and immediately retrieve everything he owned.  Nevertheless, I seem to retain a certain amount of Dad’s ability to focus.

I have friends, relatives and clients who are into sports.  Their memory for statistics is often astonishing.  I fish for muskie in Wisconsin most summers.  The ability of passionate muskie fishermen to remember the length of fish caught with particular lures in particular places in specific lakes under unique weather conditions over several decades borders on the ability of savants.

I’ve described two possible sources for human obsessional tendencies.  There is my story revolving around dance, song and gesture being the central focus and social matrix of Homo erectus and earlier hominid societies.  Geoffrey Miller in his The Mating Mind describes a runaway-selection feedback loop whereby hominid males and females select each other for features that compel procreation opportunities.  He and I have written about dance and song generating an exponential increase in brain size.  I have hypothesized that the Henry Jerison thesis of predator physical abilities always compelling a bigger brain than their prey applies to a dance-driven, sexual-selection feedback loop where adroit dancers are being reinforced to exhibit massive synapse production with no ceiling in escalation.  The brain mass created would be far more than is necessary to acquire food.  In other words, only aesthetics has the power to compel the kind of increases in brain size we’ve seen over the last three million years.  Only aesthetic-based obsession and compulsion, reinforced by a runaway-sexual-selection  feedback loop could evolve our species with such speed.  (Click here for more detail)

There is a possible second connection among aesthetics, obsession and evolution, a possible additional reinforcing factor contributing to the social, dance-driven dynamic.  Consider that at some point the proliferation of synapses and increased brain mass resulted in the emergence of self awareness.  The rituals of dance resulting in procreation opportunities probably also featured a relative loss of self awareness, not unlike the elation characterized by mass dances today.  As nondance, nonritual portions of experience became more and more frequently accompanied by an experience of separate self, early humans may have experienced ritual dance as deep relief.  The more dance, the more brain mass produced, the more existential individuality.  The more individuality, the more compelled an individual would be to engage in mass dance to experience loss of self.  In other words, we may have evolved partly due to a split consciousness/mass consciousness feedback loop.  (Click here for more detail)

A feedback loop we are still obsessed with today.

The obsession of addiction might be described as an exhibition of a deep desire to experience mass or shared consciousness.  That twelve-step programs succeed with various kinds of addictions makes perfect sense in the context that a shared community with a binding center achieves the goal that an addiction seeks, a goal that drove our very evolution.

My father is agnostic.  There seems no connection between his obsessions and religion.  When young, he did collect locks of hair and photographs of a succession of lovers, and he spent no small amount of time dancing and singing while on dates.  Nevertheless, religious mythology did not and does not cross his mind.

I was not a hair collector.  Singing and dancing were not my things.  Nevertheless, I would suggest that obsessional thinking is closely related to how we evolved and to rituals of dance closely associated with spiritual experience.

After I outgrew my boyhood hobbies and finished experimenting with drug-induced altered states (often characterized by feeling part of something larger than myself), I slipped into the routines of adulthood.  Some things that have emerged over time are the various obsessions that resulted in my feeling part of something larger than myself.  In my life, obsession and spiritual experience are closely tied.

Over the last three or four weeks, I’ve been paying closer and closer attention to trees and tree trunks.  I look for girth and beauty in local oaks, maples, elms and other giants of the suburbs.  As I find the most beautiful specimens, trees I never even noted in the past, I acquire a larger and larger collection that brings me joy.  I find myself driving suburban roads I’ve never driven before, looking for possible new examples to admire.  This is not an obsession.  But it is related to a family of experiences in my life that have been filled with this type of focus, sometimes crossing the line into obsession.

When crossing that line, my obsessions have almost always involved art.

Evolutionary theory is perhaps my deepest obsession.  I revel in the journey to uncover how we came to be.  If you’re familiar with these websites, I don’t have to go into more detail.  The line between science, art and spirituality has disappeared.

In my 20s, I trained myself to become a portrait drawer.  I didn’t want to paint portraits, only draw them.  I practiced often.

In my 30s, as a comic artist, I also focused on facial features.  This focus on faces compelled a detailed exploration of specifics.  When I ran a sales firm, I’d stand at trade shows and spend a day looking at and evaluating noses.  Another day it would be only ears.  By narrowing my attention to something extremely specific, I would absorb detailed information, which provided avenues toward integration.  The integration sometimes was accompanied by elation.

There was a time when I was focused on people’s breathing, observing the ways that shoulders moved when people inhaled and exhaled.  There was almost a year when the sound of leaves in trees had my attention whenever wind was near.  I experience waves of focus on bird chirps and song.

For a while I focused on billboard design and the integration of billboards with surroundings.

These are not unconscious compulsions.  I consciously choose a particular focus after some incident arouses me.  I then proceed to immerse myself in the detail.  Something captures my attention, and I dive in.  It happens that I discover an author and then read everything that author has written.  I’ll discover a drawing technique and then practice it until it becomes integrated into how I draw.

I am estimating that this tendency has an evolutionary and spiritual etiology.  Compulsions to engage in attention to detail, often in a fashion where the same action is repeated over and over again, may be directly connected to the peculiar and particular way that we evolved.  I suspect it is no accident that people with autism, Asperger’s, obsessions and compulsions have both larger brains characterized by little downsizing of the left cerebral hemisphere and a deep focus on rhythm and repetition.  (Our species had a larger brain, but it began growing smaller about 30,000 years ago.)  The experience of isolation expressed by many with Asperger’s may be related to there being so few post-youth rituals of community integration, rituals offering a union of repetition, elation and copulation.

Spirituality, obsession, sexuality, repetition, evolution and art feel closely tied.  Discovering how a theory of human evolution could explain how these six things are related is a deeply satisfying obsession.

Proceed to author’s FREE book download on this subject (The book is called Evolution, Autism and Social Change). 10 minute introductory video here.

on 08/28/09 in Art/Play/Myth | No Comments | Read More

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