In the summer of 2010, I took a road trip with my family from Grand Forks, North Dakota across the state to mountainous Medora. An hour into our first hike after arriving, we accidently became split up. I decided to climb to the top of a near peak to look out around the valley and find them. This was perhaps the most important journey of my life. Two things happened to me on my way: I stopped and stretched after tying my shoe, and I bumped into a sharp rock jutting out of a boulder. My current philosophy came directly from these incidents and is explained below.
Let’s say you’ve been hunched over tying your shoe or craned over a keyboard all day and start to feel restless. You sit up, crack your back, and stretch your arms far above your head. Felt good, right? Why do you think that is? If you thought that the muscles just hadn’t been worked for a while and needed some exercise, you’re partly correct. Consider this: if someone pokes your arm with a sharp rock, it hurts. The arm doesn’t say, “Something just hit me. It hurt.” Instead, the nerves of that muscle of the arm send a message to the brain saying, “Something just hit me.” The brain then makes it hurt by sending that little pain message all the way to the arm – the brain is in control. So when you stretch your arms back over your head, the muscles do get the little exercise they need, but the brain makes it feel satisfying.
Technically, the act of stretching is done for only one reason: to make the body more physically prepared for whatever may come its way. With the muscles relaxed and pliable, the animal of the human being may fight or take flight stronger or quicker, depending on the situation. Seeing as the brain wants its body to survive, it rewards stretching with a little flush of pleasure that bubbles in the fingertips and shoots down throughout the body – it felt good, so we will do it again. Likewise, if something hurts, we slowly learn to shy away from it, just as a dog may learn to avoid sticking his nose into a hot oven with its door open. This then is two different conscious entities of the brain working together: the survivalist training the animal.
The reason for pain and pleasure is extraordinarily necessary. In the case of the rock and the arm, the survivalist warns the animal of a threat. The harder the rock is stabbed into the skin, the more pain is released. This makes sense because the harder the rock is pushed, the more danger the body is in. If pain was not issued or the body did not react to it like it instinctively does, the rock could stab the arm two hundred times before you noticed or chose to stop this from happening; you would never know that letting the rock stab you is a bad thing until you’ve bled to death right there on the spot. It is possible, and very likely, that not all of humankind’s ancestors had this ability (and it is an ability) to feel pain and the ones that did survived long enough to reproduce and pass on the “pain gene”.
All this, I thought about while I made my way up the hill. I stood up tall and straight at the summit and looked down into the miniature canyon. I took a deep breath, really feeling my lungs working inside me and became a believer of evolution.