We’re Not Lazy…We Just Desire Efficiency

Come home at 3 PM.  Start homework at 10 PM.  Sleep at 2 AM.  Wake up at 7 AM for school.  Rinse, wash, repeat.  This is an obviously inefficient yet not necessarily uncommon schedule for high schoolers. Because of this mechanical behavior, parents and teachers alike often complain that high schoolers are easily distracted and unwilling to work.  But despite the existence of social media and other distractions such as computer games, recent studies suggest that our personal habits and addictions are not to blame.  Instead, the human brain and nervous system subconsciously readjust kinetic rhythms to conserve energy. Therefore, it is only natural for us to engage in distracting activities instead of being productive if doing so means we are less tired overall.

The Experiment

According to recent studies by Dr. Max Donelan of Simon Fraser University, no matter how determined one is to perform exhausting tasks, the brain will attempt to find alternate, more energy-efficient methods of completing the same objective.  In order to test their hypothesis, Donelan’s team used an exoskeleton that handicapped subjects by applying a force to their legs to oppose motion.  It is already a well-established fact that people will naturally tend toward movements that cost less energy.  Donelan’s task, given this dictum, was to explore how people discover what these patterns are, and how humans adapt in certain situations to save energy.  

During the testing period, subjects initially wore a suit on a treadmill with no limitations as a controlled test and it took awhile for the test subjects to settle. Later, the exoskeletons were modified to slightly restrict motion  in order to encourage energy-saving movements by forcing the subjects to quicken or slow down their pace. Interestingly, rather than following the energy-saving gait, they resorted to their original gait.  

Afterwards, people were exposed to a wide range of restrictions that altered their gait between extreme ends of the spectrum, exposing them to a multitude of situations.  For example, sometimes the optimal gait would be extremely fast, while other times the optimal gait would be painstakingly slow. Subsequently, the researchers set the exoskeletons to restrict the subjects in a varying amount and observed how the subjects chose their own paces.  They noticed that the subjects were more inclined to change their gait to a more efficient pace compared to the previous control test, even if it meant that they had to greatly change their movements.  

Since, without any exposure to the variety of restrictions, the subjects were unable to adapt properly, the researchers concluded that humans do not have the innate ability to readjust to conserve energy. Instead, humans must be exposed to a broad spectrum of conditions in order to adapt appropriately.

Implications for Students

The idea that humans are able to adapt to save energy is not limited to just walking.  This idea is pertinent to many daily tasks, especially ones related to school.  As high schoolers, perhaps through our laziness, we have learned to adjust our own learning styles to best suit our needs, similar to how the test subjects were able to assimilate to the current optimal gait.  

Victor Yin, a fellow student at Monta Vista, uses in-class essays as an example.  He states that “when you are lazy, you write messier which still works,” which shows that students actively try to find the most efficient way to complete the task. Exposure to different situations, from essays to tests, increases the probability that we will find the best solution when faced with a difficult situation.

Meanwhile, neuroscience professor Sarah Jayne Blakemore blames the changes in teen behaviour on the physiological changes of the prefrontal cortex during adolescence, according to a recent piece by The Telegraph.  These changes can affect a teen’s ability to make proper decisions and plan ahead, causing teens to have the reputation of taking unnecessary risks in order to have fun.  Similarly, Blakemore argues that teens always feel and look tired due to early starting times.  She is vehemently opposed to 8:30 AM starting times, stating that for teens, waking up at that time is equivalent to an adult waking up at 5:30 AM.  Blakemore’s research agrees with Donelan’s, confirming that, especially for teens, the perceived acts of laziness, are meant to help them work better.  Teens sleeping in is simply just a natural reaction for them, allowing for their bodies to catch up.

While it is important for teenagers to attempt to stay proactive and productive, it is also important to keep in mind the natural consequences of innate laziness and psychological changes that further enhance lazy behaviour.  Even though adults should not accept laziness being an inherent trait as an excuse, they should not condemn it either, since it is simply many teens’ natural response to the stressful environment that they are in.