In the 1950s a team of primate biologists studying the Macaca Fascata monkeys that lived on Koshima, an island off Japan, would dump sweet potatoes on the beach for the monkeys to eat. The sweet potatoes were like currency. The monkeys loved them and would spend more time on the beach. giving This exchange gave the biologists more time to observe them. There was one problem. The sweet potatoes were covered in sand, which made them unpleasant to eat.
One day, a young female monkey happened to drop a sweet potato into the sea water. She was intelligent enough to put two and two together and recognize the benefit of salty-flavored, washed sweet potatoes. She became a devoted dunker and tried to share her discovery with the other monkeys. First, members in her family picked up the habit, one by one. The practice spread haphazardly through the group as a result of individual contact with other dunkers.
The biologists documented the sequence and found that when about the hundredth monkey embraced the habit of dunking sweet potatoes in the sea, an unexplainable thing happened. One morning, dunking was still a random behavior; that evening every monkey in the group spontaneously started dunking the potatoes. The whole group crossed a threshold together and formed a new habit.
What’s more, researchers on other islands observed that their monkey groups spontaneously began the dunking routine. The future of the monkey groups was changed forever.
I read the story about the monkeys in The Everyday Work of Art written by Eric Booth. Booth writes that many explanations have been offered for the monkey’s behavior change, but he finds Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance to be most compelling.
Briefly, morphic resonance is the concept of collective memory energy that exists in and around things, including humans. Sheldrake suggested that the laws of nature (some of which manage cell production and growth) are like habits that can and do change over time. (See Resource 2 below for more information).
Booth included the story of the monkeys in the very last section in the last chapter of his book. He ended the chapter with this thought (I paraphrase):
We tend to reject things beyond our understanding because we don’t reveal the truth through our logical questioning. We can get a grip on more complex relationships when we try something less conventional and set aside common misconceptions and consider new kinds of engagement.
When I wanted to improve my plein air painting skills, I created a 50-day challenge for myself and asked a friend to be my accountability partner. The challenge tested me. It gave me plenty of opportunities to check in with myself about why I would carry 18 pounds of equipment in a backpack and spend three or four hours a day standing out in the weather to paint. Everyday.
My life and routines were interrupted and changed in so many ways by the Covid-related shutdown and in the months since. Even though I have time and feel motivated to do more with my painting and with writing, I haven’t. But I want to. So I’ve decided to build some new habits that will help me level up.