Reimagining agency and the power of home
by McKay Holland (Honors ’09)
Humans are compulsive home-shapers. Unlike creatures that merely adapt to their ecosystems, as niche constructors we also modify the world to fit ourselves. We build many kinds of niches for many reasons: to simplify tasks, support memory and identity, coordinate group behavior and membership, and more. If people aren’t “at home” in the world, they find ways to make themselves at home. Thus, we’ve spread to inhabit most ecosystems on earth and built altogether new ones. But these constructed niches are not static, and neither are we. Our ongoing interactions enmesh us ever more tightly with the constructed world, including one another. These interrelationships shape who we are now, but crucially, they also set trajectories for who, and how free, we’ll become by engaging in them.
Modern life demands vast amounts of information, and niche construction helps explain how we successfully perform so many cognitively challenging tasks. We don’t have to process or remember all of this information because it’s stored in the environment instead of in our heads. One familiar constructed niche, the home, enables dwellers to outsource enormous amounts of labor—be it cognitive, social, emotional, or practical. My house stores my (shoddily) organized belongings. Its overburdened bookshelves remind me of what I’ve learned and how those bits of knowledge interrelate. My dog’s morning kisses wake me more readily than any alarm clock ever could. Photos of loved ones remind me of what matters most. And so on. I didn’t find a home that tightly fit my wants and needs, nor did I build it from scratch. Its degree of fit co-evolved in both directions: I modified it to support my routines and values, and it (and my dog) “trained” me through ongoing processes of entanglement. So too with healthy relationships and communities: we grow to fit one another and so become mutually supportive.
Another case cuts deeper. Researchers made surprising discoveries in high-functioning Alzheimer’s patients living at home with minimal support. Unlike comparable patients, their memory and practical functionality proved remarkably strong given the advanced state of the disease. But when they were relocated to a care facility, their memories and practical abilities promptly collapsed. Stranger yet, researchers found no concomitant decline in cognitive function or brain degradation. What explains this? The key was in the patients’ homes. Cabinet doors were removed to make their contents visible, family photos were labeled, and written instructions and other cues abounded. As the disease progressed, they built clever systems to accommodate their specific needs, enabling them to care for themselves. Absent supportive homes, their practical abilities fell back into line with their brains’ limitations. More than most, these patients drew upon external tools to supplement their diminishing internal “cognitive reserves,” but does it matter that their cognitive resources were external instead of internal? What if other practical abilities and identities depend on similar tools?
Finally, imagine you’ve lost your home, social network, and nearly all your belongings. You’d be wracked with debilitating anxiety. You’d quickly learn how homelessness robs people of dignity; denies them access to public space and supportive social niches; and creates a situation in which basic tasks like travel, eating, sleeping, and bodily care require constant reduplication and improvisation. Whereas supportive niches undergird and even augment agency, identity, and social standing, unstable niches on the street undermine all three through external modification, often by design. Life in such niches is so exhausting it almost guarantees failure.
All this suggests personal agency grows not only from inside, but also from socio-material roots. What once seemed easily taken for granted now looks like an achievement cultivated through long, collaborative, potentially fragile engineering projects that demand upkeep and ingenuity. Nor are the boundaries between mind and world fixed or clear-cut. The lines we draw separating internal resources—like memory, willpower, and self-esteem—and external ones—such as houses, smartphones, and social regard—matter immensely because they determine the baseline of agency and, by extension, what counts as augmentation and disability. Perhaps it’s unappealing that personal agency is so contingent and breakable. But if true, there’s an upside: well-shaped homes can hold us in our agency when times are tough and, when they’re not, open wider degrees of freedom to create, express, and improve ourselves.
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The Westminster Review is Westminster College’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.