The uses of positive feedback
Most of us sincerely want to grow and change for the better, but often find ourselves frustrated and stagnant in our habits. Let’s take a look at how the mechanism of positive feedback can benefit us, getting us moving in new and exciting directions. But remember: I am not a doctor. (though I do play one on TV)
With a dynamic system, such as the weather, a machine, or our own personality, there are two kinds of feedback mechanisms: negative and positive. In this case, negative doesn’t mean “bad” but simply opposite, nor does positive feedback mean praise.
In a negative-feedback system, motion in one direction is counteracted by feedback nudging in the other direction, keeping things centered. A cruise control is an example; when the car slows down, the throttle is increased, and the car stays at the same speed. When the car goes down a hill, the system compensates by reducing the engine speed. Other examples include thermostats, auto-pilots and voltage regulators.
Generally, negative feedback is good for keeping things the same, and most of our machines depend on it. Think of negative-feedback as a valley; everything rolls toward the center.
Positive feedback, on the other hand, adds energy in the same direction as the deviation from center. Imagine a thermostat that reacts to hot weather by turning on the furnace. The result is that any small drift is amplified, and rather than stabilizing in the center, things tend to “run away” in either direction, often to extremes. Likewise, the center is very unstable, like a balancing act.
Both of these situations create what are called attractors; states that the system will eventually find. In the case of negative feedback, the attractor is in the middle, and with positive, it is at the extremes.
Humans are Positive
Despite our desire for control, it appears many of our natural tendencies are based on positive-feedback dynamics. Let’s look at some examples:
•Some appetite hormones are created in adipose (or fat) cells. In other words, the more body fat, the more appetite. Thus the more overweight a person is, the more they want to eat. Likewise, skinny people find it easier to resist rich foods.
•Drug users find that they both need more and more to achieve the same effect, and that they have less and less control over their actions, until a “melt-down” occurs.
•People can become addicted to things that don’t even seem pleasant or useful; like ice-baths, cutting themselves or drinking gasoline.
We don’t need to try very hard to find stories of lives spinning out of control due to these “runaway” feedback paths.
How can any of this be good?
Sometimes something minor and barely noticeable can, through positive feedback, grow very large indeed. In summer, small weather disturbances in western Africa will drift out to sea, and little by little, fueled by warm water, become huge hurricanes. This so-called “butterfly effect” means that the puff of air created by an insect can be the beginning of a huge event.
When we are having trouble getting started on anything in our lives, this feedback system comes into play; if we just nudge ourselves in the direction we choose, momentum begins to build very quickly. LIkewise, if we begin to take action, we become better at taking action, and more efficient at what we do.
•People who practice their instrument usually do it a lot, while people who don’t get around to it also don’t get around to a lot of other things.
•The old adage: “If you want to get something done, ask a busy person” holds true: people who do things are good at doing things.
But beware: inactivity breeds more inactivity; the more we procrastinate and stagnate, the more exhausted and lethargic we become.
So it all boils down to this:
Just start. It doesn’t need to be a big deal. Sit down and practice. Write something. Change something; pretty soon you won’t be able to stop.