Archive for March, 2008

Spare The Rod!

March 28, 2008

    Researchers once took newborn monkeys from their mothers and raised them to maturity – away from other members of their species.  These distant cousins of ours went stark, raving, mad.  Upon rejoining their troop, they would fight, bite, and couldn’t even copulate normally. 

  Only humans could dream up this sort of experiment and what’s worse – visit equal cruelty upon their own children.  Child psychologist Alice Miller has written much about early injury and its ramifications and repercussions.    

  Miller holds that neglect and abuse were at the core of Hitler’s psyche. (He among countless other monsters large and small) Crucially though, she also says that a child needs only to connect solidly with one healthy adult to avoid horror.  Might not make it to Disneyland, but neither to the bunker at Berchtesgaden.

  Perhaps the evolution of consciousness has thus far been skewed or uneven.  The brain is one high powered organ out of the control of most owners. Lots of spare capacity. Lots of shooting stars bound to constellate.  Painful episodes in early childhood might not easily be brought to later awareness, but will, at a minimum, inflect all succeeding years.

  Likewise compassion.  In The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, Edward Hallowell MD writes: “There’s a lot you can do to promote happiness, and there’s a lot you can do to retard it as well…  Unconditional love is the best inoculation you will ever get, and what does it inoculate against – despair”.

  Either way, remember, it gets hardwired in courtesy of neuronal selection.  And just like any other wire bundle, it is so much sweeter to get it right on the first go.

  Pop Quiz: What does “Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child” mean to you?

Raise Your Hand If You Like To be Told That You’re Stupid

March 21, 2008

   A study published in 1993 questioned why some gifted children nurture their talent all through their teenage years while many let it whither.  The insights hold meaning for all.   Researchers had teachers in a highly regarded suburban high school identify freshman students with high degrees of natural talent in one or more of the following areas: math, science, music, athletics, and art. 

   Those selected who then agreed to participate were followed throughout their high school career by means of the “beeper method”.  They’d carry a beeper and whenever it was activated by a researcher would complete a questionnaire asking about time, place, activity, mood, feelings, environment, level of satisfaction, etc.  After graduation, their records of achievement were evaluated and conclusions drawn.

   Several factors were found to be associated with the successful development of talent. First, children must simply be recognized as talented.  Talented kids can concentrate, but also are open to new experiences.  They are less inclined to just socialize than pursue some sort of meaningful activity; they spent more time alone.  They are sexually conservative. 

  Their families provide both support and challenge.  They like best teachers who were “supportive and modeled enjoyment”.  They found both expressive and instrumental rewards in their activities; that is they enjoyed creative opportunities while tracking future goals.  Talent will be developed if it provides “optimal experiences – flow” ie if it occasions the sorts of experiences in which one loses track of time.

  Finally, the researchers emphasized their observation that “psychological complexity (is) the organizing principle”.  The opposing forces at work within and among the factors listed above create the cohering whole.

  Read the book. Even though written fifteen years ago, it’s still enlightening.  Brains haven’t changed.  Talented Teenagers, Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, Whalen, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Postscript: To the surprise of the researchers, the “Talented Teens” did spend a modest amount of time in front of the tube.  Decompression, relaxation perhaps.  Clearly, they  used it instead of it using them – a practice which alone would yield quite a bit more than a head start.

PPS.  Read other books by Mr. Csikszentmihalyi.  His studies of optimal experiences are absolutely fascinating.

The Marvelous

March 13, 2008

   But, shoot, look where Galileo got us: “There is a straight line from the physics of Bacon and Galileo to the atom bomb” (German physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizacker).  Funny thing about science – just like religion – it’s yielded some really bad shit.

  Several interesting books (the exhortatory End of Religion by Sam Hamill and God Is Not Great, How Religion Spoils Everything by Christopher Hitchens) have been published recently about the terrors of religion.  Gotta remember that there is also the continuing tragic paradox of the Enlightenment.  Without the miracles of modern technology, the nuts and crackpots and despots about would be little more than babbling idiots – you know, sans WMD.

  Several years ago author Michael Frayn wrote a play called Copenhagen. It centered on his fictional account of the wartime discussions between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr which may or may not have helped stop a Nazi bomb.  The morality of any atomic research in all of its historical permutations is the larger background issue.

  During a discussion of the play on NPR, a physicist savored the “sweet technological problems” that were and are attendant to nuclear weapon research. He even giggled in so doing.  Later, on the same program, Werner von Braun was quoted: “we were only charged with getting the rockets up in the air…”  

  Here though, is what went through Robert Oppenheimer’s mind while watching the first mushroom cloud at Los Alamos:

       I am become death, the shatterer of worlds;
      Waiting that hour that ripens to their doom. – Bhagavad-Gita     

  Nothing like a slap in the face, eh?

  Frayn ends his play talking about “that final core of uncertainty at the heart of things”. Can’t put the genie back in the bottle, but can Pascal* leave his room without sowing seeds of destruction?

  Perhaps best after first having found a way to be comfortable there.

  Here’s the koan, courtesy of Seamus Heaney:

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air. 
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it.  But in vain.
“This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,”
The abbot said, “unless we help him.” So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvelous as he had known it.

*”All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone”  Blaise Pascal 1623-1662

Ockham’s Razor Is Also Sharp

March 4, 2008

 There is a definite downside to adventure.  Several in fact.  And by adventure remember, I’m not talking about sitting against a tree by the river, eyes shut, bobber in the water, string tied to your toe, waiting for a tug.     

  I am talking about the sort of endeavor for which the south end of the learning curve yields lacerations, contusions, and confusion.  With progress, scrapes and dunkings etc get fewer and farther between and thought processes more subtle.  With time and prowess come economy of movement and cessation of thought.  And ever more dangerous situation.

  The obvious potential drawbacks are such things as death and/or dismemberment.  Gravity sucks as is said.  So does hitting a fixed object at a high rate of speed, or freezing to death, or dying of thirst, or hunger, or lack of oxygen.       

  Failing those, problems arise with a first hiatus.  Sooner or later, depending upon the nature of the interruption, experiential desire will return.  In the words of British alpinist Mo Antoine, “The rat will be fed”.  Yup, the rat can be drugged or boozed or beaten into submission, but not forever.  The sooner one makes an offering, the more the attraction of traps and poison is attenuated.       

  The most troubling problems though come with offspring.  Folks whose ideas of fun raise the hair on the necks of friends and neighbors, shouldn’t be surprised when their kids call repeatedly from the ER, or after an attack by a puma in Bolivia, or from the local pokey after a night on the town. If both parents have contributed high pain thresholds, well, hold on tight.       

  Dang.  What’s wrong with staying home?  Couch potatoes don’t get stitches.  Everything can now be undertaken virtually.  Aristotle, for one, found field work unnecessary.  He figured that everything could be worked out in one’s head.       

  No truth in virtual.  Ask Galileo.  Or climber Barry Blanchard who wrote of setting off on an adventure:  “I felt as though I was pushing at the door of a dangerous radiant, cathedral”.  That’s where will be found the metaphysics of light.