There are people in the world whose sole mission is to consciously engineer, direct and influence every decision our kids make, from the time they get up each morning, to whom they associate with, to what they manipulate us to buy for them, to what college they go to, or if they go to college at all. These “missionaries” operate as society’s “Choice Architects.” The best of them are considered by University of Chicago Economist Richard Thaler and Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein as paternalistic libertarians who only wish to Nudge us and our kids in directions they deem good for our mental and physical health. The worst of them are Ponzi-cons like Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford who deliberately design choices that optimally benefit them and theirs and severely damage you and me and our kids.
Short of living in a cave on bread made from wheat we’ve grown ourselves and water collected from condensation on the walls, we are all subject to the manipulative efforts of society’s Choice Architects. And the Choice Architects are avidly at work learning precisely how the brain works, all in the hopes of designing earlier and more powerful brand obsessions, while increasing the number of Americans who buy things we don’t need and become dysfunctional hoarders (currently 6 million), and positioning candidates to win political elections by a landslide. Since we can’t beat the Choice Architects, one option is to learn a bit about how they work and pass that learning on to our kids.
The Most Interesting Man in the World
Martin Lindstrom is such an architect. The author of Buy-Ology, and one ofTime Magazine’s 100 most influential people, he travels the globe 300 days a year on the corporate dole designing experiments to look precisely inside the consumer’s brain. His goal is to become the Choice Architect who ultimately succeeds in turning consumerism into a religion, which won’t be such a tough challenge – our brains already display the same activity when viewing familiar brands as when we view religious images! Jesus on the Cross and a Dos Equis Beer – to brain neurons they both represent “the most interesting man in the world.”
The Ten Pillars of Spirit
To strengthen that brain brand response even further, Lindstrom has identified The Ten Pillars Common to All Religions. He is busily at work trying to get corporations to design them into their ad campaigns. Briefly, those Ten Pillars are: a sense of belonging; a clear vision; power over enemies; sensory appeal; storytelling; grandeur; evangelism; symbols; mystery and rituals. More and more you can expect to see Choice Architects incorporating these elements into their pitches. All those along with one more … fear.
Seeing is Disbelieving
Why fear? Because the amygdala in the brain is prewired and on constant Red Alert to pay attention to threats in the environment, real and imagined. And Choice Architects know that one of the greatest threats we fear is social ostracism, to which we are especially vulnerable as teenagers. But adults are vulnerable as well. Take this experiment performed in the 1950s by Solomon Asch: which of the lines A, B, or C on the right is the same length as X? Anybody in their right mind can see it’s B. But suppose a group of experimenter confederates working with the Chief Choice Architect all said line C was the closest match? You’d still say line B, right? Except for one thing: Gregory Berns and his colleagues at Emory University replicated this famous Asch experiment and scanned people’s brains while they performed it. The result: for many people social pressure actually caused the visual and parietal cortex in the brain to change the information that the eyes took in. The stress of social pressure literally changed how the brain processed what was seen. Under even minor stress – which many police detectives know from long experience – seeing is not always believing.
Turning Beautiful Ugly
These and other limitations of the brain are something that the Choice Architects over at the website Beautiful People apparently have little clue about, since they are now offering sperm and eggs for in vitro fertilization to people who don’t qualify to be listed on their beauteous website. Isn’t that special? What these architects fail to realize, of course, is that true beauty is in the brain and heart of the beholder, and only superficially in the eye.
So, we need to teach our children that the decisions and choices we are tempted to make in response to fear in our lives, really needs to be respected – respected in the sense of the original meaning of the word: to look once again. Kids need to learn to trust in fear as a signal calling them to pay closer attention, and that it’s probably best to delay fear-based decisions and get other people’s perspectives to help us manage our own limbic system and beat the Choice Architects at their own game.
One of my favorite stories about money involves Max Bazerman, a professor at the Harvard Business School. Bazerman regularly auctions off a real $20 bill at the start of his Negotiation and Decisionmaking course. The $20 bill typically brings in more than $100, in my mind a perfect demonstration of how ego and emotion operate to highjack our limbic system when it comes to dealing with money. Bazerman’s exercise shows exactly how anxiety and distorting emotions truly are the enemies of intelligence. People in business and in interpersonal dealings often abandon their “right mind” when it comes to money, for who in their right mind would pay more than $100 for a $20 bill? (Unless, of course, it’s one of these hand-drawn bills by J.S.G. Boggs or a Fundred Dollar Bill!).
Our thinking about money tends to bring into play more of these 100+ brain biases than possibly any other topic. Biases like the Irrational Escalation of Commitment, Negativity Bias and the Normalcy Bias. With the latter, we end up refusing to plan for or insure against something that’s never happened before, like a job loss or a hurricane in California or an earthquake in Iowa. Irrational Escalation of Commitment, meanwhile, shows up in misguided efforts to “keep up with the Joneses” – buying things simply to try and influence what the neighbors think. The Irrational Escalation of Commitment is also powerfully evidenced in Max Bazerman’s $20 bill auction. In for a penny, in for a pound, as the saying goes. Crazy. Irrational.
Intent on protecting us from mayhem and disaster, the Negativity Bias tends to be the default for many of our brains. The problem here is when we fail to recognize it as a bias. Yes, there are neurologically damaged, destructive people in the world who harm themselves and those around them (Watch a little network news to confirm this reality). But there are many, many more healthy, helpful, productive positive people in the world. Making regular contact with them helps us begin to neutralize the Negativity Bias.
Riding our Financial Flow
The flow of money into and out of our lives is a central reality of modern life (although these days its more likely to be a number digitally printed in the bank statement or investment account showing up on our computer screen). We need to provide kids much better teaching and learning about the skillful use of money much earlier. One fact kids should learn is that when it comes to money, many people become emotionally disturbed and are unable to think straight.
To help straighten their thinking, one of my favorite money resources is Michael Phillips’ classic treatise: The Seven Laws of Money. It’s an easy-to-read introduction to the less obvious, creative qualities of money. Phillips speaks more to the right brain than the left. Briefly, the Seven Laws are: 1. Do it! Money will come when you are doing the right thing; 2. Money has its own rules: records, budgets, savings, borrowing; 3. Money is a dream – a fantasy as alluring as the Pied Piper. Money is very much a state of mind; 4. Money is a nightmare (Of the people we punish, the people we have to take out of society and imprison, 80% or more are people who are unable to deal skillfully with money); 5. You can never give money away; 6. You can never really receive money as a gift. Money is either borrowed or lent or possibly invested; 7. There are worlds without money. They are the worlds of art, poetry, music, dance, sex, etc. the essentials of human life (and social neuroscience! :-))
The Sharp-Fanged Faces of Finance
So, how can we take those laws along with others and best help our children address financial insanity when it tries to rear its many sharp-fanged faces in their lives? In the old days, it used to be addressed at least a little bit by high school classes in “home economics.” But no longer. One suggestion might be to model skillful money management along the microcredit lines developed by Nobel Peace Prize WinnerMuhammad Yunus. Start kids out with a small loan/allowance. Their job is to grow that allowance and pay parents back the initial loan, making them eligible for borrowing and paying back twice the original amount. Children can be creatively guided in how they earn and grow their money – growing their financial brains at the same time – but the main idea is to give them lots of practice in skillfully managing money of their own. Even the richest 400 people in the world need to be challenged by the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to become skillful in the social use of their own money, so there’s hope for our kids if we begin encouraging them early enough.
Brush your teeth more than twice a day. In my house growing up, both my mother and my father lost all their teeth to gum infections before I was born. As a result, I never saw either of them brush or floss – they put their teeth in a glass of water by the bed at night. Consequently, I had no modeling and little early discipline in oral hygiene myself. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to keep most of my own teeth for more than six decades, but not without considerable expense. I would give myself a B- in terms of oral hygiene, which it turns out, is significantly correlated with heart disease. By extension, I would argue, poor heart health negatively affects brain function, since a diseased heart pumps blood to the brain much differently than a heart that is not diseased. If you want to optimize brain function, take care of your heart. Your teeth will greatly appreciate it.
Delay clamping a baby’s umbilical cord. Doctor Paul Sandberg at the University of South Florida’s Center for Excellence in Aging and Brain Repair has determined that significant benefits accrue to babies whose umbilical cord is cut only after it stops pulsating. The benefits from this pluripotent blood supply include diminishing respiratory distress, sepsis, chronic lung disease, prematurity apneas, and increases iron to prevent anemia – in effect providing baby with their very first stem cell transplant. Patience is a neurological virtue.
Orchestrate the constructive expression of anger. I’ve often thought how unfair it is that the good die young, and that cranky, negative, whining, trouble-making apocaholics like me frequently live to a ripe old age. Well, some researchers at the Spanish University of Valencia have discovered, in part, why that might be: good people who tend to keep things bottled up miss out on expressing anger that reduces cortisol levels and activates the left hemisphere of the brain. Lower cortisol levels are correlated with better stress management and the left hemisphere is associated with positive feelings and emotional closeness. Go figure. Then go find ways to creatively and constructively move that anger energy out of the brain and body in ways that don’t raise other people’s stress levels!
Cultivate conscientiousness. Do what you say you’ll do. If you give your word, keep it. Your word as a strong bond correlates with a brain with strong bonds and greater neuron density. Promises made and kept, answer the Big Brain Question best. Denise Head, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis, found that conscientious people have larger volumes of gray matter in the orbitofrontal and medial temporal areas of their brains than those less conscientious. Being reliable pays off neurologically.
Get out of abusive relationships. Abusive relationships make us fat and stupid. Here’s what Dr. Renee Boynton-Jarrett at the Boston University School of Medicine has to say about the effects of simply witnessing abuse on as many as 10 million kids in America:
Exposure to intimate partner violence in childhood is associated with altered neuro-endocrine system profiles, impaired socio-emotional development, cognitive functioning, attachment to caregivers and emotional regulation, and poorer physical and mental health.
That altered neuro-endocrine profile can make our brain unable to handle such things as food cravings. The end result, as these researchers point out, is even further disruptions to our brain and body health and well-being.
Don’t be born in December. Like Thursday’s Child, December children have far to go – they end up developmentally almost a year behind their peers. This has significant disadvantages. Such children are less likely to become sports stars according to one research study. In addition, two Notre Dame economists, Kasey Buckles and Daniel Hungerman claim that if you’re born in winter, you have a much higher probability of being fat, poor and stupid! These are all things associated with a disorganized neural network.
Pay attention to messages from skin. The skin covering our body is our largest organ. Its condition will often provide us with clues to the amount of stress we’re under. Cortisol, a stress-generated neurotoxin at high or sustained levels, increases skin oil production, often resulting in acne flare ups. Sores that spontaneously erupt and are slow to heal can be another sign of excessive stress. Rashes, itchy skin and alopecia – bald spots that appear suddenly on the head or face – can also be stress indicators. When any of these things show up, it’s time to take extra self-care.
Practice empathy for optimal mirror neuron development. Finally, I’d like to leave you with this inspiring animated video featuring Wharton professor Jeremy Rifkin on the power of empathy to change both our personal internal world and by extension, the world your mother inhabits, the one where the brain you’ve grown has made her extremely proud: Becoming Civilized.
There was a funny, clever piece in the Onion several weeks ago that compared young children to unrepentant sociopaths. They repeatedly demonstrate an utter lack of empathy and a willingness to exploit anyone and everyone to satisfy their own selfish desires for a Snickers bar or an Iron Man Electronic Repulsor. What made the piece funny is how accurate the comparison was. What made it not so funny is how similar descriptions portray the level of brain development for many people in positions of power in education, business and government. (Dr. Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP is a prime example. In the wake of one of the ugliest man-made environmental disasters in history, Tony’s publicly-stated main concern is “to get my life back”).
The Triangle is a Jerk – The Sweetheart is a Square
But it wasn’t always like that. A recent New York Times article by Yale developmental psychologist Paul Bloom, presents compelling evidence that these power brokers actually beamed in with a pretty highly developed sense of morality. In one scenario babies were exposed to short plays where a square with a face drawn on it helps a circle; a triangle, also with a similar face drawn on it, thwarts the circle. When presented with an opportunity to choose either shape immediately afterward, babies overwhelmingly chose the helpful square.
Here’s Professor Bloom in the New York Times with a summary of his infant morality studies:
All of this research, taken together, supports a general picture of baby morality. It’s even possible, as a thought experiment, to ask what it would be like to see the world in the moral terms that a baby does. Babies probably have no conscious access to moral notions, no idea why certain acts are good or bad. They respond on a gut level. Indeed, if you watch the older babies during the experiments, they don’t act like impassive judges — they tend to smile and clap during good events and frown, shake their heads and look sad during the naughty events. The babies’ experiences might be cognitively empty but emotionally intense, replete with strong feelings and strong desires. But this shouldn’t strike you as an altogether alien experience: while we adults possess the additional critical capacity of being able to consciously reason about morality, we’re not otherwise that different from babies — our moral feelings are often instinctive. In fact, one discovery of contemporary research in social psychology and social neuroscience is the powerful emotional underpinning of what we once thought of as cool, untroubled, mature moral deliberation.
Morality Gone Wrong
We apparently come pre-wired for empathy and morality. So where do things go wrong? USC professor Antonio Damasio offers some pretty compelling evidence in answer to just that question. The culprits according to Damasio are Somatic Markers. In his books, Decartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain and The Feeling of What Happens, he posits that fear, pain and pleasure experiences condition our brains such that under stress, or when we’re confronted with chaos or confusion, emotions operating outside the bounds of awareness work to powerfully influence our decisions. That would be fine, except for one thing: fear and pain experiences exert a much more powerful experience in the brain than pleasurable experiences do.
(I’m guessing many of us can readily recall our very first sexual experience. How has that experience worked to operate in our lives with every sexual experience that has followed? If it was sweet and tender, we probably can recall it with some ease. But if it was abusive and traumatic, how has that influenced us subsequently?).
The first experience our children have in virtually every area of life, continues to shape subsequent thoughts and experiences ever after through a process known as anchoring. Anchoring is the equivalent of one-trial learning and it shapes us for better or worse. Such learning, especially around threatening events, is essential for survival. We don’t get many second chances to walk out into the street without looking both ways. So, that’s the good news.
The bad news is that if this early conditioning is aversive, instilled by anchoring and somatic markers, it can work to compromise empathy and morality when real world events tend to confuse or frighten us. One way to counteract the fundamentally flawed ways that somatic marking and anchoring intrude into our lives, is first to realize and understand that these processes actually are real, and that the past unquestionably influences the present and the future. Starting from such awareness, we can then begin to build our own greater capacities for flexibility and resilience in times of stress or uncertainty. And when we can’t, when we don’t know what to do, don’t.
There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned economic recession to bring out thefear in me. Fear of poverty, fear of crime, fear of aging, fear of cancer, fear of people, fear of death. Fear, fear, fear. For the most part fear seems to have two central aspects: it’s always fear of something seemingly destined to happen in the apocalyptic near or distant future. (Hey, poo happens!). And it’s always a product of the thoughts that either seem to spontaneously emerge or that are triggered by something in my current proximate environment, something that highjacks my limbic system and literally disengages the Executive Function part of my brain (Highjacking happens, too!).
Take last week for example. We came home to our neighbor informing us that while we were gone a car with four strange guys in it pulled into our driveway. When the neighbor walked over to see what they wanted the driver told him: “We just want to take a look around.” The neighbor told them to leave or he would call Officer Bob. They promptly left. What I noticed is that in the wake of hearing this story, I suddenly began locking the front and back door before I went to bed each night. Until I caught myself; and then I stopped. I refused to let the thoughts and images in my head, conditioned by hearing the story of four strange visitors, coerce me into making this fear-based decision. The town averages less than 10 burglaries a year, and clearly the neighbors around here are looking out for us.
To counteract the above fearful thoughts I often use a mantra that I’ve mentioned previously in this column: “In this moment, everything is all right.” That seems to put my medial prefrontal cortex in charge and works to calm down the amygdala. It also serves as a useful reminder that I can’t really trust my brain and the thoughts it generates, given the 104 known inherent biases that live inside it, not to mention the 15 forms of distorted thinkingthat I regularly engage in.
But kids get trained early and often in the art of fearful thinking and making fear-based decisions through multiple experiences just like my example above. Any kids living in our house would have known that one day we didn’t lock our doors and the next day we did, even with nothing being said about it. Hopefully they would have seen, and I would have explained – as well as modeled – the process by which I refused to let fear dictate my behavior (If I lived in Manhattan, however, more locks on the door would probably be the environmentally appropriate response. Manhattan has more than 10 burglaries a year).
Big-Picturing the Future
Mostly I think, fearful thinking has a chance to take root because parents are so consumed with the daily realities of home and family life, that they have difficulty in seeing the bigger picture. Take this bit of information I present from time to time in my graduate course, Opening the Gifts of Death and Grief:
Average Human Lifespan by Era
Classical Greece/Rome: 28
Pre-Columbian North America: 30
Early Modern Britain: 40
Early 20th Century: 45
Current world average: 67.2 (2010 estimate)
World Average in 2050: ____?
When I ask people to fill in the blank for average lifespan in the year 2050, I get a wide range of responses. The Apocaholics assess that one disaster or another – for example, the recent synthetic creation of life running wild (a bacterium) – will set human lifespan back to the 20 year Neolithic average. The Singularity enthusiasts on the other hand, embodied by folks like Ray Kurzweil, assess that 2050 will see us continuing along an accelerating, upward trajectory. Developments in biotech, pharmacology, information technology and the network decoding of Heat Shock Proteins will all work together to increase human lifespan to somewhere between 150 and 200 years.
Over-focused in the Slough of Despond
Matt Ridley claims that Apocaholics like me are over-focused on life’s risks and we underestimate our capacity for innovative responses to those risks. Ridley is a best-selling zoologist, and the author of The Rational Optimist. He claims that new centers of innovation are emerging from pockets all around the world – something like synthetic life creation is but one example of a good thing going on constantly. Along with many, many other things that most of us have little awareness about. Ridley’s prediction for the remainder of this 21st century:
“Prosperity spreads, technology progresses, poverty declines, disease retreats, fecundity falls, happiness increases, violence atrophies, freedom grows, knowledge flourishes, the environment improves and wilderness expands.”
Not much for me or the world’s children to fear in a prediction like that. Now if only we could convince my emotional, limbic brain.
Back when I managed research facilities – about 12 buildings on the Stanford campus – every summer I would hire extra help to do some of the deferred maintenance while folks were away on break. Usually I would select big, strapping high school beef-eaters to help with the heavy lifting. One summer I caught Dan and Chris, who were supposed to be power-washing the building exteriors, goofing off inside one of the offices.
“If I catch you messing around again,” I mock-confronted them, “I’m going to tell your mother on you!” The sudden look of shock, shame and horror on both their burly football faces took me completely by surprise. I had, it seems, unexpectedly tapped into a very vulnerable place.
The First Voice You Hear
Coincidentally that year, one of the visiting scholars in residence at Stanford was Fred Erickson from UCLA. Fred is an expert in prosody which involves speech and its rhythms, intonations and stresses. Each of our brains pays first attention to how things are said, and then secondarily, to whatever the words might mean. Beginning at roughly five weeks in utero, according to Alfred Tomatis, the so-called, “Einstein of the ear,” embryos begin tuning in to the intermittent reinforcement of mother’s voice. Mother’s voice, it turns out, very likely drives early neural development, and later takes on profound significance that can last a lifetime. It’s not for nothing hearing is the first sense to develop. For good or ill – for impoverished neural development or for enriched development – mother’s voice is closely connected to survival for young children. Thus they learn to pay exquisite attention to it from the get-go. And since words have no meaning yet, what gets paid most of the attention is … prosody.
Children who are separated from mothers at birth generally have difficult times developmentally. This is not unreasonable, since one major energy source driving neural development has been abruptly removed. Tomatis had great success with such children in France by simply recording the voices of birth mothers and playing them in a specifically sequenced manner. (He later obtained good success with recordings by Mozart and Gregorian chanting as well).
If it were up to me, digital video and audio recordings of birth mothers and their voices would be stored on the Internet and would be accessible to all children across their whole lifespan. There’s nothing so soothing as a loving mother’s voice as this research by Leslie Seltzer and Seth Pollak at the University of Wisconsin – Madison demonstrates: a kindly telephone call from mom dramatically lowers cortisol and increases oxytocin. And we know such conditions are excellent for brain development.
The Unkindest Abuse of All
The operative word in the above research, of course, is kindly. Just as mother’s kind voice profoundly and positively affects neurotrophins (proteins that support brain cells’ survival, differentiation and growth), it has an equally disproportionate negative effect when unkindness, criticism or screaming is involved. In these cases, mother’s voice strikes terror in the heart.
Current research suggests that somewhere between 80-90% of American parents scream at their kids (Almost 100% scream at seven-year-olds for some reason). After the first few episodes the initial fear that kids experience eventually gives way and kids’ own neurology conditions them toward tuning out. But what is tuning out? I would argue that tuning out is a form of dissociation. The “Whatever Response” is a forced intellectual and emotional disengagement. Left brain and right brain go bye-bye. And as “recovering neurologist,” Bob Scaer and others point out, dissociation promotes the antithesis of neurogenesis and synaptogenesis – the growing and connecting of new neurons in the network. Tuning out impoverishes neural development.
Guiding The Mouthy Majority
What then are 80-90% of American parents to do? This is where the creative aspects of parenting live. First of all, even if you don’t really believe that screaming at kids is all that damaging, in this instance we, and our kids, are better off by taking Pascal’s Wager. That is, by acting as if screaming actuallyis damaging. If it is damaging, then we’ve taken active steps to address it. If it’s not damaging, then the steps we’ve actively taken result in no harm, no foul.
And the steps to take? Off the top of my head, I can think of two. First is, to make a game or practice to see how often I can catch myself mid-scream. It’s sort of like, “Aha, my limbic system got me again!” Once I’ve caught myself and taken the time to settle down, I can then take on the work of relationship repair. I can offer apologies for losing my cool and explain that I am experimenting with trying to catch myself when I get emotionally out of control. Apologies help kids know that parents are human and that we do things we don’t really want to more often than we might like. Parenting is a practice, and putting the power of mother’s voice to work in it, can produce dramatic results.
Cornel West, the Princeton philosophy professor, was recently asked to critique President Obama. “He’s too enamored of intellect and has failed to surround himself with people of wisdom” was the essential criticism that West, a friend of Obama’s, leveled at him.
I think many of us are enamored of intellect. I know I am. Growing up in the shadow of Yale University, intelligence was something to aspire to, even in the housing projects out on the edge of town. My mother’s dream for me was to attend MIT and become a civil engineer. (She grew up near Cambridge). My mother had few dreams of me growing up and becoming wise. That can be a problem for the world.
The Cornerstones of Wisdom
Compassion, self-understanding, morality and emotional stability are some of the qualities that science currently considers the cornerstones of wisdom. Two psychiatry professors at the University of San Diego think they have a research-based handle on what comprises true wisdom. Dilip Jeste and Thomas Meeks consider these five items to be the central unifying elements of wisdom:
Wisdom is uniquely human
Wisdom is a form of experience-driven,
advanced cognitive and emotional development
Wisdom is a rare personal quality
Wisdom can be learned and measured, and generally increases with age
Wisdom cannot be enhanced with drugs
Notably absent from the list is any mention of the heart. I’ve presented the Nine Integrative Neural Pathways previously in this blog, along with the Heartmath research and claims by Joseph Chilton Pearce that the next great human developmental/neurological frontier is fully expanding the existing brain-to-heart and heart-to-brain wiring such that it can carry a six lane expressway full of energy and information.
How do we build such expressways? The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal once observed, the heart has its own wisdom and our left brains alone might not be the best apprehenders of it. (Pascal would have said it this way if he were a neuroscientist ). The left brain – intellect alone – can’t provide a detailed plan or an accurate map, but it can take good notes along the journey.
Pivoting Between Heaven and Hell
The more I think about wisdom and what it is and how it relates to social neuroscience, the more I suspect it is a function of profound life experiences that work to organize and integrate our brains in complex ways. It is an organization and integration that often finds us traveling a path that touches on great suffering and brings us face to face with our own personal Dark Nights of the Soul – a journey that often forces us to look deep within our own hearts. William James called such people The Twice-Born.
Such integrating journeys increase and expand control of our limbic system, as demonstrated by the well-known Zen story, The Secrets of Heaven and Hell. This story not only demonstrates the ability to skillfully short-circuit potential limbic high-jacking, but it also demonstrates accomplished transpirational integration (wisdom consciousness), as well as profound heart-brain interconnectivity – a clear willingness to die for the benefit of another’s learning. Wisdom, this story suggests, runs parallel with the cultivation of learned fearlessness.
As a social critic, Cornel West shows up for me as someone demonstrating learned fearlessness. In his autobiography he provides one powerful clue to his fearlessness unfolding. He was asked how a black kid of modest beginnings managed to graduate Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in three years. Here’s his response:
The Sacramento (Bee) ran a long article on me with a big picture. They went over to interview (my) Dad. They told him they needed thirty minutes to ask a battery of questions about how he had raised his children. But Dad being Dad broke it down beautifully. He said, “I don’t need thirty minutes. Fact is, I don’t even need one minute. I can give you the answer in four words. Be there for them. Give your children all the time they need.
“That’s it?” asked the reporter.
“That’s it,” said Dad. “Be there for them.”
And he was. He always was.
For the wiring of wisdom and learned fearlessness, it apparently helps to start with a wise parent, one who fully recognizes the need to make and keep the “irrational commitment” to consistently be someone your kids can radically rely on. Not a job for the faint of heart.
… We Can’t Confidently Rely Upon.
Brainwise, I was very lucky as a kid. Our family was intact until the day my father drove up alongside the curb in front of our failing neighborhood grocery store, opened the driver’s window and handed me out a puppy. I didn’t see or hear word one from him for the next 20 years. (Ironically, as soon as he was grown enough, Corky the puppy ran away as well!). Fortunately, I was a relatively healthy-brained four-year-old by that time – a solid neurological foundation had had time to set.
Any time a parent or significant person abandons a family, there are important negative, neurological consequences for every member. Dr. John Briere, president of the International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies sums up those consequences pointedly: “If we could eliminate child abuse and neglect tomorrow, the DSM (Psychiatry’s Diagnostic Bible) would shrink to the size of a pamphlet.” Working to shrink that abomination is one reason why I research and write this column.
Also, according to Frank Putnam, psychiatric director of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, abuse and neglect are the single most costly public health problems in the US today. They are a major contributor to struggles with alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse, mental illness, AIDS and violent crime, costing more than 100 billion dollars a year in this country alone. Skillfully address child abuse and neglect, and the “War on Drugs” gets reduced to a local police action. But unfortunately, this recently released plan to make America the healthiest nation on earth makes absolutely ZERO mention of any need for educating parents.
Safety and Sustenance
One job of skillful, caring parents is to provide safety and sustenance. Safety and sustenance are essential for answering The Big Brain Question “Yes.” Our brains need people to care for us, and to care skillfully. What this means for starters is for mom to avoid the 200 brain damaging toxins found on average in tested, contemporary umbilical cord blood. Almost every failing that I can identify in contemporary society seems to have at its roots, people not skillfully caring for one another. And that failing jumbles and impoverishes our neurological wiring.
The caring that so many of us didn’t receive, and weren’t shown repeatedly, over and over again, frequently translates unconsciously not only into family life, but into modern business practices as well. Here’s a recent real world example; similar unskillful caring happens I’m sure millions of times a day the world over.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Last Thursday I was meeting a colleague in Seattle for lunch. Since I don’t use my mobile phone much, I have a GoPhone deposit account with AT&T. You deposit money with them and they subtract a dollar every time you turn your phone on and they also charge something like ten cents a minute thereafter. I needed to call my colleague to tell her I would be late. I turned on my phone only to discover that the $90 balance remaining the last time I used the phone had somehow recently “expired.” If you don’t use the money you deposit with them, AT&T’s fine-print contract allows them to simply steal any unused balance after the allotted time passes. Needless to say, I saw red. My limbic system became completely high-jacked. I’m still pissed about their thievery a week later. I wrote a letter to their CEO. Good luck.
Or take something simple. I walk into a Starbucks where they charge me $4.50 for a cup of hot cider. Then I sit down and try to use my computer and they want to charge me an additional fee to use their WIFI. I can go down the street to a Happy Donuts or Le Boulanger and get WIFI for free, with complimentary refills on most of their drinks. I get the distinct feeling with Starbucks that it’s more about the money than it is about me.
The money isn’t the main issue, of course. The issue is that AT&T and Starbucks aren’t skillfully caring for me, the person who makes their existence possible. They don’t answer the Big Brain Question “Yes.” They easily could be, and that’s the shame of such business practices, not only with AT&T and Starbucks, but with millions of other businesses the world over. They are oblivious to how such behavior impacts patrons and their neurology, not to mention customer retention. What they fail to realize is that operating in a manner that promotes well-being, that stimulate our neurology in positive ways, can be massively good for business.
Now, to balance this negative example, a few months ago we asked a neighbor who’s an electrician to come over and give us an estimate to put in a digital meter on our community well so we could figure out how much it was costing to run the well pump and the heater and share the cost equitably. Bruce came over gave us the estimate and a date he would be available. He showed up early, offered to install a used meter at a discount, and finished the job in less time than he estimated. He also offered to let us pay him in Terras, the local currency here on Whidbey Island, created as a means of promoting bartering and easy exchange for local services. How did my brain feel after each of these very different transactions? I’m sure you can guess.
Several weeks ago I watched the Rachel Maddow’s show about Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Shortly into the account, three things became crystal clear to me. One was that McVeigh’s disorganized family of origin made him greatly susceptible to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The second thing that became clear was that his experiences of killing enemy combatants in the army damaged his brain even further – he reportedly watched through his M40 sniper scope as a single bullet exploded the heads of two Iraqi soldiers during the Gulf War. (Research suggests that the brains of soldiers who actually kill people become much more disorganized than the brains of those who come home wounded in war).
The third thing that became clear to me from the TV special was: there but for the grace of God go I.
As a teenage loner, susceptible to PTSD myself, I was slated to be drafted into the army. During the physical, I was diverted to an examining psychiatrist who determined me unfit for service for several reasons, probably chief among them being, at the time I owned a dozen guns. I had also been arrested for hunting in a public park (I currently own no guns, and haven’t for decades). In retrospect, I was clearly on a collision course with what University of British Columbia psychologists Del Paulus and Kevin Williams have identified as psychology’s Dark Triad.
The Dark Triad
The Dark Triad describes three different personality types: narcissists, Machiavellians and psychopaths. Narcissists tend to be vain, conceited and selfish, and aggressive in their pursuit of success and glory. They tend to be indifferent to the suffering of others, as exemplified by Tim McVeigh telling the victims of his bombing they needed to “get over it.” Machiavellians tend to be extremely self-interested, flattering and manipulative, constantly looking out for Number One. Machiavelli himself has been described as a “teacher of evil,” counseling those in power to rule through the use of cruelty, violence, fear and deception. Finally, psychopaths tend to be callous and arrogant, deceitful and cunning. They demonstrate little interpersonal affect and often act on impulse. Timothy McVeigh could fit into all three categories, and when I was of military draft age, so could I. Except for one significant difference …
Somewhere along the way I managed to get the empathy and compassion circuits in my brain activated and hardwired into the network. I distinctly recall the moment those circuits went online. I was in my early twenties when, seemingly by chance, I picked up a book by J. Krishnamurti – Think on These Things. Krishnamurti’s teachings seemed to instantly fire up some dormant neural wiring in my brain. Compassion and empathy apparently super-charged my dopamine receptors and have guided my life’s direction ever since. Caring for others (and deliberately including myself in that circle of caring – has grown to feel increasingly good in my body and brain. For the most part.
In addition to whatever Dark Triad elements each of us might possess, compassion and empathy are necessary elements for living responsibly in the world in general, but they are crucial for effective parenting. There are however a few compassion caveats that I’ve borrowed from emotional intelligence expert, Daniel Goleman, which I think it might be useful to offer up here. Goleman, himself borrowing freely from facial coding expert Paul Ekman (upon whom the TV drama series Lie to Me is based), identifies three main ways we can empathize with others.
The first is cognitively. Cognitive empathy involves simply consciously knowing how another person might be feeling and what they might be thinking. This kind of empathy is somewhat removed, centered primarily in the left thinking brain, detached from own internal emotions.
The second type of empathy brings in the feeling brain, centered mostly in the right hemisphere. It generates “emotional empathy.” Recently discovered mirror neurons appear to be responsible for emotional empathy which allows us to actually feel the same emotions that others are feeling. Parents and caregivers who tend to be overly emotional in their empathy however, run the risk of “over-attuning” to other’s inner worlds. When that happens the result is often paralysis and/or psychological exhaustion, which often leads to parents and caregivers developing a sense of detachment. Detachment is not optimal for the care and feeding of young brains. It can lead to indifference, rather than what Goleman calls “well-calibrated caring.”
The third type of empathy is compassionate empathy. Compassionate empathy lets us feel right along with others. Ideally it finds us with enough internal neurological and biological resources to then be able to freely offer help. Compassionate empathy is often missing in business and government – signaling a clear lack of optimum neural integration. The government’s response to Hurricane Katrina and the financial crises generated by Wall Street banks have recently demonstrated a lack of compassionate empathy. It’s also often missing in parents who are overworked and underappreciated. And it was clearly missing in the mental makeup responsible for the Dark Triad in Timothy McVeigh. I thank my lucky stars I managed pretty early on to escape that fate.