No stress, no adaptation

In the 1930s an Austrian-Canadian endocrinologist—grossly over-simplified, someone who specialises in hormones—by the name of Hans Selye came up with General Adaption Syndrome. It’s a simple, robust model of the biological response to stressors. It’s most easily represented in graph form.
As you can see, there are three stages. The first, identified in yellow on the graph, is known as the alarm stage. It represents the body’s immediate response to a stressor. The second stage, known as resistance, is when the body begins to attempt to adapt to the stressor. After that comes the fork in the road that is the the third stage. If the magnitude of the stressor exceeds the limits of the body’s ability to cope with it, the third stage is exhaustion. Physiological resources become depleted and the organism begins to lose function. But if the stressor is either eliminated or overcome, the third stage is recovery. The body will attempt to reset and regain homeostasis. 

An applied example of this can be found in physical training. In the beginning of a 5000m row, your body is shocked. It becomes aware of the stress and demands being placed upon it and reacts. The state of the cardiovascular system is altered and optimised for the task and resources are shifted to the working muscles and organs. But the body cannot keep this up for ever. If the 5000m row is completed before the body is overwhelmed, you’ll enter a state of recovery. If you push so hard that your body can’t keep up with the demands you make of it, your performance will suffer, and eventually, you’ll drop into a state of exhaustion and have to stop rowing.

Another way to understand this model is by saying that muscles get stronger by undulating between stress and recovery, by moving through periods of rest and exertion which gradually increase in intensity, duration and complexity. Essentially, what the GAS model teaches is that without stress, there is no adaption. There can be atrophy and decay, but no improvement.

This idea becomes even more interesting when we take it out of the biological realm and apply it to learning and development. 

James Stockdale, a fighter pilot who crashed in Vietnam and was held and tortured as prisoner of war, said in his book, “To me the biggest educational fallacy is that you can get it without stress.” What Stockdale understood is that improvements in the mind are prompted by the same thing as improvements in the body; stress.

When you’re attempting to learn something, does the effort put you under stress? If you’re learning to play a sport, do you try to apply the techniques learnt in training during live performance? If you’re studying at university, do you just show up at lectures, take notes and go home to do your coursework? Or do you read extra material that sits at the boundaries of your comprehension? Do you enter into debates and argue with your peers about the interpretations and applications of what you’re learning? Do you undertake research that deliberately pushes you to the limits of your ability? Or do you stay ensconced in a safe, sterile environment where stress is eliminated?

Muscles get stronger by lifting weight. The cardiovascular system develops only when it is taxed. And we grow only when necessity challenges us to use and implement all that we’ve been trying to learn. In the realm of the biological, in the domain of the mind, when there is no stress, there is no development.