I frowned at the brown smudge on an old-school light switch and scrubbed at it more vigorously. Nope, that wasn’t coming off. Then I frowned for a different reason: molded into the light switch’s cover was the all-caps exhortation “FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS.” I let out a little laugh. All instructions, I wondered, or just the specific one on the other side of the switch: “TEST MONTHLY”?
To a not-inconsiderable degree, we are products of our contexts, and mine at the moment was fresh off a three-hour car trip spent listening to Philip Yancy’s Where is God When it Hurts? One of the early chapters describes a most fascinating case in which following instructions would be obviously beneficial for anyone given them, but in which people—even highly intelligent ones—consistently failed to comply.
Researchers hoped they could design a warning system for the body that was better than our inbuilt one (namely, pain). The applications of such a system are evident: those insensitive to pain are victims of all sorts of horrendous tissue damage most of us avoid by instinctively flinching away from painful stimuli. Not so the leprous or those born impervious to pain. If a pair of shoes doesn’t fit right, they might wear their toes down to bloody stubs before forgoing the shoes.
So scientists developed a different system: a contraption set to buzz lightly but persistently when tissue damage was imminent from too much pressure, heat, cold, or friction. The project was a marvel—an expensive one at that—but was stymied by intractable human nature. Even the most annoying stimulus the researchers came up with couldn’t match the dogged insistence of pain. When pain speaks, we hop to. Anything less is ignorable, much to the chagrin of the hapless scientists.
We are notoriously poor followers of instructions. Even simple ones. Even conspicuously beneficial ones.
Finished with the age-stained light switch, I moved onto the laundry. I’d just helped my husband move into his new home for his medical rotations, and the place was pleasant (rather, I’m determined it will be once I’m through with it). The previous tenant had clearly had difficulty with instructions—as do we all—since he’d left the dryer lint trap caked with what I can only imagine is several years’ worth of clothes’ leavings. I’ve never seen anything like it.
I should perhaps mention some more personal context to explain why this was so objectionable to me. I live in frequent fear of fires, whose destructive potential awes and horrifies me. It’s part of why I’m so fastidious about lint traps and their proper maintenance (I’m also cripplingly cheap, so prefer all appliances to be well-maintained—for their own preservation and my wallet’s).
So I always clean the lint trap. But there are doubtless painfully obvious instructions that I am equally guilty of eschewing. I don’t come to a complete stop at familiar stop signs on near-deserted roads. I don’t hesitate to scurry through the crosswalk when the light is a firm red hand of rebuke. I bike on the sidewalk. Were I insensitive to pain, I’m confident I’d fail the researchers’ test too; we’re all rebels in tiny, inconsequential ways that would become quickly consequential if we, too, were deprived of pain. I, for one, know I won’t be testing my light switch monthly—unless, perhaps, the failure to do so results in me stumbling in the dark and ever-so-painfully stubbing a toe.
Natasha (Strydhorst) Unsworth (‘16) is a science communication researcher and practitioner working on her Ph.D. at Texas Tech University. Natasha hails from Calgary, Alberta. Some of her favo(u)rite authors are C. S. Lewis, Francis Collins, and Bill Bryson. Her favourite earthly place is the Canadian Rocky Mountains, and her favourite activities are reading and enjoying the great outdoors—preferably simultaneously.