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Mike Sutton
Mike Sutton
Dr Mike Sutton is the author of 'Nullius in Verba: Darwin's greatest secret'.
Posted in Arts / Communication Arts / New Media

On the 'Comfort Zone': Why 'Best Thinking' is Uncomfortable.

Dec. 28, 2015 3:14 pm

On Christmas Eve, I commissioned my friend the Nottingham portrait artist Gabe Woods to paint an oil on canvas picture of the metaphorical 'comfort zone'.

I want this picture to use as a teaching device for the small minority of students who complain that we are making them think too hard. Honestly. I'm serious. This actually is a student complaint these days.

"Only when you leave your comfort zone," I always inform such uncomfortably-brain-hurting students, "do you ever learn anything. Be glad, therefore, to be uncomfortable in your university education."

Furthermore, I say:

"Would you otherwise wish to pay so much for what you already know - or could find out without our expert help? We are here not so much to impart knowledge - but to help you think. And good thinking - 'best thinking' is uncomfortable."

Gabe and I discussed some ideas as to how he might fulfil this brief. I've no idea what we are going to end up with. I want it to be something students can be asked to go and pay a visit to. Something they will stand before, contemplate and be - hopefully - moved and inspired by.

Meanwhile, I decided to use the BigData-IDD method to find the origins of the term.

At the time of writing (28.December, 2015) the shameless plagiarizing editors of the unreliable so-called encyclopedia Wikipedia have no idea when the term was first coined.

I discovered that once again I can get back further than the etymological experts with my BigDada-IDD technique. For example, the best selling etymologist David Wilton writes:

'comfort zone, n. When introduced in 1923, this term referred to home heating. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the phrase began to be applied metaphorically.'

Wilton is right about the built environment heating origins. But the term occurred in print at least a decade earlier than his best efforts could detect - in the 'Heating and Ventilating Magazine' Building Systems Design, Volume 10, (1913) on page 30:

ESTABLISHMENT OF A COMFORT ZONE. Before working very long, it became evident that there was a temperature and humidity range within which the occupants of the rooms were comfortable.

In my opinion, far more interesting, however, is that the extremely rare phrase 'comfort's zone' occurred first, and once only, in a poem of 1819. In 'Aonian Hours and other Poems' by W. H. Wiffen:



Is this the etymological origin of 'comfort zone'?

Oxford Dictionaries online has a good explanation of the concept of the comfort zone metaphor:

(a) A situation where one feels safe or at ease or settled. (b) Method of working that requires little effort and yields only barely acceptable results: if you stay within your comfort zone you will never improve.'

The notion of the 'comfort zone' is useful for thinking about how 'states of denial' help people live with uncomfortable facts.

An interesting publication on the metaphor of the comfort zone

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