Power of Repurposing

Evolution did not equip us to deal directly with modern experiences such as the Internet, global communications, and rapid transit. It did equip us to adapt to these influences – and do it quickly. Fortunately, we don’t have to grow new brain cells to address novel experiences like Facebook. We can simply repurpose old circuitry. That’s the power of our amazingly plastic brains.

“Understanding what is in our cognitive toolbox is a first step to understanding how we can most effectively use these tools to address modern problems that our brains did not evolve to solve.” (Wheatley)

Wheatley and Parkinson describe three kinds of repurposing:

  1. Evolutionary Repurposing, in which an animal adapts to its environment using the tools at hand in the environment. For example, we evolved spatial/distance representation in the brain; however, in modern society we have repurposed this ability and also applied it to our concept of “closeness” to people in our social network.
  2. Cultural Repurposing, in which cultural inventions–such as reading, musical forms, and belief systems–are acquired in a lifetime by co-opting preexisting brain circuits. “For example, we did not evolve to read. Instead, a growing body of research suggests that we read by repurposing neural machinery that evolved to process faces and objects.” (Parkinson)
  3. Instrumental Repurposing, in which “novel problems are addressed by the top-down engagement of older systems. By rapidly and flexibly framing novel problems in ways that evoke pre-existing systems, language and imagery facilitate repurposing at a timescale that evolution cannot match. For example, political and moral intolerance, from religious persecution to bans against same-sex marriage, have been fueled by the language and imagery of disgust, thereby evoking evolved responses towards toxicity and disease.”

“This repurposing allows us to do a lot with a little. Our brains have the flexibility to form new combinations of pre-existing computations and deploy these computations rapidly and flexibly in new contexts.” (Wheatley)

This ability to repurpose previous brain circuitry means we can change any behavior, any thought pattern, any prejudice, any belief by simply repurposing it. Thus the value of education as part of a program of change. Releasing emotional energy held in old thought patterns is only half the work – perhaps repurposing is where the real magic happens.


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