One use of evolutionary principles in psychotherapy is to change the context in which behaviors, thoughts and emotions occur, in order to change in turn these behaviors or the impacts of emotions and thoughts. In ACT, for example, when we help a client to see his or her thoughts as tools rather than truths about the world, or to welcome his or her suffering as information about what is important to him or her, we are in fact transforming the context in which thoughts and emotions arise. In a way, we modify the ecosystem of certain thoughts and emotions so that they do not flourish as easily.
When it is the individuals themselves who modify their environment, we speak of niche construction in the evolutionary sciences. The canonical example of niche construction is the construction of dams by beavers, who shape their habitat by raising the water level of a part of a river, turning the river into a lake. In turn, they live in an ecosystem composed of other animals and plant species usually found in lakes, which influence their other behaviors (e.g., reproduction). Similarly, Myrmelachista schumanni ants spray formic acid on all plant species other than the tree in which they nest, creating entire areas without any biodiversity, called Devil’s Gardens. In this way, they keep herbivores away and obviously modify their own behaviors, for example their foraging behavior.
In humans, besides spectacular tangible niche constructions, there are also many examples of cognitive niche construction, i.e. situations in which human beings modify their cognitive environment, with changes in their behaviors in return. The approach of ACT is to build a specific cognitive niche in which thoughts and emotions can be considered from a distance, in order to influence behaviors in return towards a better quality of life.
Outside of psychotherapy, there are many other examples of cognitive niche building, some of which have particularly important collective effects. Daylight saving time is one such cognitive niche construct. It is particularly interesting because of its
magnitude and for its repetitive nature. Twice a year, we decide to go backwards or forwards by one hour from the sun time. In an instant, simultaneously for millions of us (daylight saving time applies in a large number of countries in temperate zones), a synchronization marker is transformed. Very quickly after the change, millions of human beings eat earlier (or later), wake up earlier (or later), travel to work earlier (or
later), in short, modify their behavior while absolutely nothing has changed in their physical environment. The change in their cognitive environment has significant repercussions on their behaviors, and nothing but the human beings themselves has decided on this change.
The particularity of the cognitive niche construction is that it is totally arbitrary, since it is based on language. This means that the impact of a cognitive niche construction on behavior can be very rapid, almost instantaneous in this example, since it does not involve anything material. In fact, this ability allows for a very
high degree of behavioral flexibility and adaptability.
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