But we don’t just go through this process in the privacy of our own neurology. Our personal lives are extended exercises in bridging gaps between ourselves and others. You move into a new neighborhood or start a new job, and the first thing you do is to get your bearings. You figure out who’s who, what’s what, and how to make the most of it. An electrical charge that’s reached a presynaptic terminal, doesn’t stall and say, “Oh, too bad – there’s no immediate way across.” And neither do you. Rather, you engage with the impromptu visits from new neighbors, the questions of new co-workers as a normal (and welcome) sending and receiving of interpersonal signals that connects you with others in a network that’s every bit as dynamic as the signaling in your nerve cells.
And so we enrich our lives. It may feel scary and intimidating to confront the unknown, but there’s also an air of excitement… the invigoration of discovery. Crossing the gaps of time and space and meaning changes us. Just as our experience can be altered by whether our neurotransmitters are received, rejected, and/or recycled, our lives are changed by the journey from not-knowing to knowing, from here to there, from one sort of being or doing to another.
Leaping into a gap to find our place is something we do regularly by design. Career paths, education, getting to know other people, working towards a desired outcome, are all examples of closing gaps, which we do on a regular basis. You know you need a new job, but you’re not sure where to find it. So, you dive into the gap left by the job you left, like a neurotransmitter diffusing across the synaptic cleft. You actively go looking, surveying classifieds and online job boards, talking to recruiters and hiring managers, as your perspective changes and your direction course-corrects. Eventually you settle on the path you’ll follow, and like a tiny molecule docking on a post-synaptic receptor, a way opens, and you continue your career trajectory.
Formal education (learning anything, really) is another common exercise in closing the conceptual gaps between not-knowing something and knowing it well (or well enough). Informally gathering information of any kind is another aspect. We gossip, read the news, follow social media feeds. You could even say the whole social media phenomenon is only possible because of our insatiable need to close the conceptual gap between not-knowing and knowing. Would we even need Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, if we didn’t feel like we were separated from each other? Would our eyes be glued to our phone screens as we check our timelines and news feeds, if we didn’t feel like we might miss out on what’s happening in the world at large? We get tremendous satisfaction from being in-the-know and finding out stuff we never saw or heard or knew before – or never realized we needed to know.
From schooling to following a career path to wasting time on Facebook, our entire lifespan is comprised of a long series of connections. Friends, family, foes… Job offers, raises, lateral moves, promotions… News, informational tidbits, skills… They all draw us along, irresistibly pulling us towards some distant state of being / doing / knowing. Just as our neurotransmitters are continuously leaping into the void to connect with a relatively distant destination, we venture again and again into the unknown to learn something new, to connect with a new person or experience, to get us from where we are, to where we want to go. We don’t think anything of it. It’s just what we do. It’s who we are. And it comes so naturally to us, that people who do not do it are viewed askance, as though something is wrong with them. Indeed, the DSM has made plenty of space for them in its successive tomes.
What makes our connecting activity so tantalizing is the gap – the space we need to cross. That gap is useful… invigorating. It can be scary. It doesn’t feel safe. We don’t like feeling disconnected or alone. So, we reach out. We extend. We push to make contact – even if the pushing is uncomfortable, and the outcome is unsure. Our dread of separation piques our urge to transcend it, and invites us to draw closer to what is distant. If that gap weren’t there… if we immediately connected the dots in every single aspect of our lives… if we instantly recognized every single person we encountered or understood exactly what was required of us in every single situation… we’d have that much less impetus to venture into the unknown, beyond our comfort zone, and extend ourselves in ways that force us to grow… To change… To become something other (and perhaps better) than before.
Not all the changes are easy, of course, and the end results often leave a lot to be desired. Sensing, perceiving, and figuring out what it all means is an imperfect process at every level of our human lives. We disagree. Sometimes violently. Our understanding of others comes up short, and we act on flawed assumptions, producing pain all around. But if we were all “wired” directly in ways that produced exactly the same experiences and exactly the same interpretations of perceptions, our world would be a drab series of redundancies, none of which would stand out as particularly interesting or inviting. None of us would stand out as particularly interesting, even to ourselves. Everyone would be the same. Everything would be uniform.
How boring. How life-suckingly boring.