Since the birth of this column several years ago I’ve mentioned this question a number of times. I came upon it many years ago in a piece written by the poet, Alice Walker. Its potency, elegance and simplicity resonated deeply with me. She suggested that every policymaker or decision maker in the world simply ask this basic question when confronted with any decision of consequence. In other words: Is it best for the children for a Wall Street Bank to leverage itself 40-1 in the pursuit of out-sized financial gain for a few upper echelon executives? Is it best for the children to brainwash them to wrap themselves in explosives and walk with a detonator into a crowded market? Is it best for the children to deforest the Amazon rain forest at an increasingly accelerated rate? Is it best for the children to attend public schools where the stress of excessive competition for grades, and things like bullying and ostracism almost inevitably results in significant brain disorganization?

Midwives versus Doctors

Midwife JPEGHere’s a recent study that was a surprise to me, but will not come as much of a shock to most midwives: Doctors don’t like them. Don Creevy, the Stanford doctor who delivered my daughter, Amanda – was an active advocate and vocal supporter of midwives. It seemed like a no-brainer to me. Midwives are not the enemy. So is it best for the children for doctors and midwives not to be able to get along? Especially in a country with our shameful infant-mortality rate – tied with Poland and Slovakia for 34th place? What if they began dialoging to explore and create possibilities for supporting and enhancing each others’ work? Right now these two groups do not appear to be answering The Big Brain Question “Yes” for one another very convincingly. Might answering it “Yes” be better for America’s children?

A story by Atul Gawande in the New Yorker suggests so. Salaried medical teams working in Grand Junction, Colorado, provide significantly better care at less than one third the cost than in McAllen, Texas, where the bulk of the doctors have turned their medical practices into private profit centers. The most expensive piece of medical equipment in McAllen, turns out to be a doctor’s pen.

The Big Brain Question Revisited

In the past few months it has been driven home to me over and over again just how much of the struggle, suffering and heartbreak in the world is the result of people simply not having had the Big Brain Question answered with an unequivocal “Yes” for themselves, either as children, or later on as adults. Almost every conflict in the world, locally or globally, seems rooted in this failing. The Catch-22 is that if we haven’t had this question answered “Yes” ourselves, then we have very likely not developed the neural resources needed to understand the power that answering this question affirmatively actually has.  One unfortunate result is that it leaves us unable to answer it “Yes” for others. The Big Brain Question – “Are you there for me?”- has untold individual and cultural implications.

In an oversimplified but useful explanation, it seems to work like this: Having people around us that we can unequivocally count on – especially early on with parents who “get us” – works to help us build the resonance circuitry and the neural connections necessary for learning to effectively manage stress and anxiety. Well-managed stress and anxiety allows for more and better neural growth and connectivity, particularly in the all-important pre-frontal areas. Since the brain does not have toxic stress chemicals constantly killing off recurring attempts at pre-frontal development – not needing to produce them for the life-preserving, stress-addressing limbic areas – greater integrative growth and connectivity results. (I don’t think it’s an accident that in his early years Buddha was a sheltered, protected prince, and Christ was born to a Holy Mother). DeaconPre-frontal growth and connectivity permits significantly greater emotional self-regulation, improved immune systems and makes more resources available for so-called executive functioning and creative thinking. The result: less stress in the family; less unmanageable fear. Less stress and less fear equals more comfort with innovative risk-taking, or what Berkeley anthropologist Terrence Deacon calls “relaxed selection.” It’s the natural progression of Darwinian natural selection – survival of the fittest is supplanted by survival of the calmest. Is it best for the children to have people in their lives they can unquestionably count on, especially during the times of “growing pains,” the trying times? Absolutely and unequivocally.

What Two Can Easily Do

It’s not an accident that people who have significant relationships with other living beings tend to live longer and enjoy better health than those who don’t. They tend to be there for one another, their “resonance circuits” helping to soothe and calm in savage times. Even cranky curmudgeons living with other people live longer than those living alone. And curmudgeons with pets live better lives than those without them. It could be argued that his relationship with birds helped keep Robert Stroud (The Birdman of Alcatraz) alive for 73 years during a time when the average lifespan was considerably less. Prisons don’t tend to be low-stress environments. The noise level alone is mind-numbing. (Interestingly Stroud died shortly after he no longer had access to his birds and his wife and mother were denied visiting privileges).

And so, answering the Big Brain Question “Yes” for ourselves and one another in times both good and bad, in my mind is very possibly the absolute best thing for the children. How might you increasingly answer it “Yes” for the children in your own life, young and old alike?