Locusts have a long and storied history. This swarming winged insect is known as an agricultural pest, associated with infestations that ravage crops. They’ve caused food shortages and famine, and can threaten “the economic livelihood of one-tenth of the world’s humans.” And for centuries, they were a mystery: No one knew where these voracious, migratory creatures came from. How did they appear and disappear so quickly?
It wasn’t until 1921 that Russian-British entomologist Sir Boris Uvarov proved that locusts are (fewer than 20 species of) shy, solitarious grasshoppers that can transform into gregarious locusts during times of drought.
But why did it literally take centuries to figure out that these two creatures were actually the same creature? And why, even after the theory was proposed, did scientists resist it? Why was that such a hard idea to swallow?
Maybe it’s because we can’t see that in ourselves. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychology professor from Northeastern University, says people can be “experientially blind” when faced with a new image of themselves. They just can’t take it in.
From NPR’s Invisibilia podcast, animator Francesca Cattaneo, and What An Insect Can Teach Us About Adapting To Stress, there’s a potential lesson in this locust mystery:
“If you see yourself in a certain way and that way is inflexible, then you will go to great lengths to make sure that you and everybody else sees you in that way,” she says. “And in the end, you’ll be stressed more frequently, you will work harder to try to please people … to keep that view of yourself intact.”
If you are struggling in one role in life, your professional life for instance, you don’t pin your whole identity, your whole sense of self, on that role, she says. Instead, it helps to have “multiple views of yourself,” Barrett says.
“So if somebody criticizes you as a teacher, well, you have other ways to think about yourself. You could think about yourself as a friend in that moment, you could think about yourself as a mother. You think about yourself as a terrific gardener.”
Next, watch an Epic Catapulting Locust In Slow Motion and a swarm of locusts devouring everything in their path.
Realizing that you have “a vocabulary of selves” you can become, Barrett says, can be empowering. “It doesn’t allow other people to define who you are. You get to be the author of who you are. Your brain is the one that’s making the choices.”
According to Barrett, “You aren’t who you are all the time. You are who you are in a given situation.” You might be a locust in one setting, and a grasshopper in another.
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