Friday, June 25, 2010

The Driver Behind You May Be Unconscious

The Driver Behind You May Be Unconscious

Nothing splendid has ever been achieved except by those who dared believe that something inside them was superior to circumstance.
- Bruce Barton, American author, advertising executive, politician (1886-1967)

Almost all of us believe that something inside us is superior to the circumstances of our lives. It's what keeps us sane and away from killing each other. Not so many of us accomplish something splendid. The reason may be a disconnect between what we are capable of and what we believe we are capable of.

Hold that thought for a moment while we check out that driver behind you.

Have you ever fumbled with your car radio or to take something out of your glovebox or even had a conversation with someone in the car you were driving and suddenly realized that you had absolutely no memory of driving the past few minutes? Technically you were unconscious while driving.

Unconscious? Doesn't that mean in a coma or dead, or at least asleep? Yes, but not exclusively. To be conscious means to be fully aware of your surroundings. As you were obviously not fully aware of your surroundings while you drove in our example, you could not have been conscious. So what were you?

Social science has given up on the idea formerly called the "subconscious." Mostly because there is no evidence for it. One dictionary describes "unconscious" as "that part of the mind wherein psychic activity takes place of which the person is unaware." In this example you were aware of your radio search or your glovebox search or your conversation. But you were also aware in some very different sense--psychically--of your driving.

Could you be driving "mechanically" as some used to say young adults did after a few years of driving experience? Let's put it this way, would you be comfortable driving on a highway at full speed surrounded by people who were driving only "mechanically"? The ugly truth is that many of us do. That guy behind you may indeed be driving mechanically, or unconsciously, meaning that he may not be able to apply his full attention to any emergency that may arise (such as you having to come to a sudden stop because a dog wandered onto the highway).

You dream with your unconscious mind. When you dream many of the functions of your brain you normally consider part of your waking life are shut down. The frontal lobes, for example, those brain parts that allow you to distinguish between right and wrong and that keep you on "an even keel" when you are awake, don't function. That's why dreams can be crazy sometimes, because the brain's normal control mechanisms are shut down when you are asleep.

Science doesn't know for certain why we need sleep, though recent research suggests it help us to review our activities of the previous day so we can embed them in longer term memory--that is, we need sleep to consolidate our daytime learning. You, very likely, do not know how you managed to pilot your car down the road without being aware of what you were doing while searching for a different radio station. But you are certain you weren't asleep. But were you conscious?

Any activity of the brain that does not involve the full application of all critical brain functions is an activity you do while, technically, unconscious. While unconscious your body may be in bed resting or in a hospital room in a coma. It may also be doing--indeed parts of your brain may be doing--something other than that of which you are fully aware.

What do you think when you hear an argument in a murder case that the defendant was not fully aware of what he was doing when he killed his wife? If you are involved in a collision while you are technically unconscious, the investigating police officer will consider you just as liable. We all assume that we do everything consciously. Science says otherwise, though we all hope that part of science doesn't take the stand in a court case.

Murder cases and car collisions are extreme cases. Most of our lives are lived away from extremes. Yet people sometimes do little things they may not be aware of--things that annoy you greatly or that inconvenience you--without being fully aware (conscious) of what they are doing. You don't want them imprisoned for their faults because then you would have to be behind bars for doing similar things. So, what to do?

The human brain and consciousness are, as you can see, subjects that bear much more study. We understand very little about them. Yet they govern our lives, and the brains and consciousness of others impact our lives, every day. As much as they mean to us and as much as they affect our lives, we know almost nothing about them.

We accept that we are all imperfect beings. Now you have a clue why that is. It may not solve any mysteries for you but it may help you to understand why people do or say things that simply don't seem right or in character for them, things that seem out of place.

As with many human behaviours it's best to ignore the extremes because they do not represent who these people are. Who they are when they are fully conscious. They, in turn, can be expected to forgive your extremes of behaviour.

But, just in case, if the driver behind you seems distracted, maybe you should pull over and let him or her pass before something happens you may find messy and uncomfortable. You can still drive fully conscious.

Bill Allin is the author of Turning it Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents and teachers who want to know how their children can develop socially and emotionally in concert with their intellectual and physical development.
Learn more at http://billallin.c/om

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Stop It, Lazy Selfish Greedy Bastards!

Stop It, Lazy Selfish Greedy Bastards!

"I love humanity. It's people I hate."
- Edna St. Vincent Millay, American poet and playwright (1892-1950) [also quoted in the Peanuts comic strip]

Farmers learn stuff that's down to earth. As I immerse myself in the deeply troublesome and awkward project of converting a lifelong city boy to struggling survival farmer (small variety, 8 acres), that has become my favourite saying--the "down to earth" one.

Before I continue with this article I must convey an important life lesson. There are two types of people: those who always put their own best interests first and those who frequently and comfortably put the best interests of others, individuals or groups or whole communities or societies, ahead of their own.

That may be the most important life lesson I have ever learned. It explains a huge amount about human behaviour. Personally, as a member of the latter group, it means that I can disregard any ideas of friendship or overtures of relationship of any kind with members of the former group.

Is that classification too harsh? Perhaps I can make it easier to understand by suggesting the behaviour of house cats as representative of what I will call the selfish group. If you have carefully observed the behaviour of cats, bells should begin to ring in your head now. Cats are the ultimate self-interested pets. Nature has programmed them to be survivors by putting themselves first.

That's not to say that cat owners are selfish or self-interested. On the contrary, they tend to be more altruistic kind of people. Dogs, on the other hand, better represent the altruistic group--again, that's not necessarily true of their owners. Dogs in the wild survive as individuals in an interdependent relationship with the pack. As the saying goes, dogs have owners while cats have staff.

People tend to behave much like one or the other of these two groups. No, I don't mean that they eat with their faces in bowls, let's leave that now.

Where I live, in eastern Canada, people with European heritage have lived for hundreds of years (First Nations people for over 3000 years in the oldest continuously occupied community in the New World). Only in recent decades has garbage been collected. Before that people took their trash to a dump, burned it or left it in a remote area of a field. Today I removed the last remnants of a burn barrel where previous (and oh so primitive) humanoids had tossed stuff that could never possibly burn.

Why would they put non-burnables in a burn barrel? Because they expected to move before they would have to deal with the consequences of their laziness. Much the same reasoning some people use when they toss beer bottles or cans out the windows of their cars as they drive down a road late at night rather than returning them to a recycling depot (the get their deposit back) at some later time.

My wife and I want to create a small farm that grows vegetables. You could call it a hobby farm except we don't plan to sell our veggies. We want to donate them to local foodbanks and shelters. Farming requires machines, ours needed a tractor with a plow. Lacking funding from a generous government or chemical manufacturer, we bought a used tractor, a classic model made in 1948. It worked beautifully, except the clutch would not disengage, which is decidedly awkward if you want to change gears.

For weeks I asked around but nobody knew how to adjust that clutch--"Take it to Bremner's (a local tractor dealer with an excellent reputation), they can fix any tractor problem." One day recently a man who usually functions with an oxygen hose at his nose (he didn't even get out of his car) stopped by our house as his wife left a fish her husband caught in one of his healthier moments. Even at our first meeting when it came out about my not being able to adjust the tractor clutch he offered to do it for me.

A few days later, without the oxygen, he hauled his 350 pound frame under the tractor, thrashed around for about an hour and came out with the clutch adjusted, something others had been unable to do. Despite needing his oxygen again, he stayed for tea then made his way home for pure O2. He wouldn't hear of taking a penny for his trouble. He was happy to help.

Everywhere you look you will find what some call the givers and the takers. Both may be easy enough to like until you need something, at which time the takers will vanish. Their lives are driven by self-interest, which is to say, greed.

The selfish ones are so easy to see around us that without evaluating life carefully you might get the impression that almost everyone is greedy and selfish. They aren't. The generous and altruistic people don't advertise themselves. They just are. The selfish ones make the news.

Believe it or not, despite the huge media efforts by industries to make us all into selfish, accumulative, consumer workaholics, more people today than ever before in history are giving to others, thinking of others, putting the best interests of others and the world ahead of their own. That's how civilization grows. That's how humanity progresses. That's how our planet will survive. We can't expect industries or the selfish to think of the welfare of everyone else.

Humanity could do with more selfless ones among us. People can change. What might help is if you are an altruistic person who is happy make this known to a selfish person who is unhappy. Selfish people are all basically unhappy, they seek thrills and gratification as substitutes for real happiness. It never makes them happy because they can never get enough. Greed is addictive.

Spread the word. Happiness is addictive as well. The more you give to the happiness and welfare of others, the happier you are. No one knows why. It seems, somehow, to be built into our genetic code to have the ability to be selfless while we retain the basic instinct to be greedy.

If we really want to beat nature, we can do it by helping each other. No other animal on the planet has the potential to do that the way we do. Birds and mammals are known to be nurturing and some are altruistic, but none can rise above what nature provided the way people can.

That's the only kind of defeating of nature that is win-win. That's the real potential of humanity.

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for teachers and parents who want their children to grow healthy and strong in all developmental streams, not just a limited few.
Learn more at

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Who Is That Person In The Mirror?

Who Is That Person In The Mirror?

The state of your life is nothing more than a reflection of your state of mind.
- Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, American self-help author, writer, speaker (b. 1940)

Wayne Dyer ranks among the top few advocates of the "Change your mind, change your life" school of thought about life. I have admired his thinking for many years, though I have stayed away from his so-called New Age thinking about spirituality.

Yet I can't avoid the attraction of this quote, though he may have intended something different than what I take from it. I grant that if you look at life positively, life looks positive, you will feel positive about life. I grant that with few exceptions the media try to make our world look much worse than it is by using the Shock and Awe strategy to secure listeners, viewers and readers. But there is more to this quote than that.

When I look in the mirror I don't really see me. What I see is a right-left-reversed image of what others see when they look at me. Yet others see what they want to see when they look at me anyway, not necessarily the real me. The real me doesn't show up--has no way of making itself that "public"--either in the mirror or to others.

When I look in the mirror I see only the vessel I use as my travelling companion. Crippled at birth but recovered enough to walk and run close enough to what other kids could do to look "normal." Brain damaged at birth (breech, no blood to the brain for too long) but managed to reroute enough neural pathways over the succeeding decades to get by.

The man in the mirror had much to overcome. He received no nurturing, no teaching, nothing most of us expect from parents for the critical first six years of life. When he "went public" at age six, a feral child newly exposed to peers who had grown and learned in normal ways, it was as if he had just be born. At six years, this little fellow unknowingly had walls created around him intellectually, socially, emotionally and physically as his age peers grew while he just got a bit taller. He had, in effect, a deep well to climb out of if he were to survive in a world that cared no more about him than his parents had.

Some time during high school he learned to read, though he remained functionally illiterate until past age 44. He got a girlfriend whom he eventually married and with whom he had two children. Co-supporting his young family he secured a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in education--all the while still functionally illiterate, never having read a single book all the way through.

Why do I write about myself in the third person? I can't see any of that in the mirror. People I meet can't see any of that. In fact, I am no longer that person because I have changed so much.

In the process of climbing out of that pit, I got into habits of learning and improving myself I have retained throughout my life. When most people slowed down from learning at a rapid rate as they got older, I sped up because I could and didn't know there was an unwritten rule that you could stop when you wanted as an adult.

My father and mother knew virtually nothing about parenting. They taught me everything they knew about parenting. I used that little bit of learning about parenting to fail badly raising my own children. When my first wife left our family, I hurt. When she later died and my children decided they no longer found me of any value, I made up my mind to learn why. I knew it would be hard and it was. I knew much learning would be required and it was. What I didn't know along the way was that I would surpass what most other adults knew about parenting only to find myself blazing new ground, beating a path for those to follow.

I went from a know-nothing who could do little physically, had no skills and could only follow the lead of others to someone who takes the lead himself. That wasn't easy. Knowing nothing has its own problems, but leaders always have enemies who don't want to see others succeed where they can't or don't care to go.

I changed dramatically as a person. None of that change shows in the mirror. My life changed because I made up my mind that knowing more than most people about how children grow and develop meant little if I didn't spread the word. I kept climbing because leaders can be seen and heard better from greater heights.

I became someone much greater than I could ever have imagined as a child or as a young adult. I know that person better than the child or the young adult I used to be. I know that person intimately. I like him. None of that shows in the mirror.

Today the man in the mirror and I tolerate each other. The real me pays little attention to the mirror man because he isn't like me and he has changed only by aging. The real me changed by growing, spiritually, emotionally, socially, intellectually. The real me is still a motor moron because I depend so heavily on the man in the mirror and he is still that barely recovered cripple with a sometimes dysfunctional brain.

How much attention should we pay to the person in our mirror? That person does absolutely nothing to help us. He or she gets older and insists upon demonstrating the effects of that aging in the mirror daily. The person in the mirror never gets better, only older.

Pity the person who cares deeply about the image they see in the mirror. That image will inevitably change, but never for the better. The person who identifies closely with the image in the mirror is destined to eventually be both old and stupid. The person in the mirror never gets smarter either.

There is a saying: Aging is inevitable, getting old is voluntary. I don't care for that saying. I prefer to think that the person in the mirror gets older while I keep getting better.

I do get better. So should you. If you haven't already decided to get better, you can make the decision and act on it today. Simply making the decision makes you better. Knowing that you need to learn in order to get better, and that no matter how much money you earn and spend won't help, is a big leap forward in your quest to get better.

If you make the decision to get better before you reach the end of this article, you will already be better for it. Wow! Congratulations.

But hurry because....

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook of epic importance but easy to read on the subject of child development and learning and of parenting.
Learn more at

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Your Momma Should Have Known

Your Momma Should Have Known

"Our brains develop according to a recipe encoded in our genes...The sequence of DNA in those genes is pretty much fixed. For experiences to produce long-term changes in how we behave, they must be somehow able to reach into our brains and alter how those genes work."
- Carl Zimmer

Nothing against your mother. The point is that your mother and everyone's mother should have been taught what you are about to learn, before you were born. The news is recent, but the information itself has been around since the beginning of our existence.

Caution: What you are about to learn may change what you think about life and how you understand the sometimes mysterious behaviour of others. You won't be asked to convert to any way of thinking. It will simply help you to understand.

Human behaviour, or human nature if you will, may present the greatest mystery and challenge anyone has ever faced. For examples, men ask "What do women want?" while women wonder "What makes men tick?" Neither is a huge mystery, it's just that we haven't taught each other what a few of us already know.

The study you will read about could not have been conducted on humans. At least not on living ones. You will soon understand why. It was conducted on rats. And on the brains of people who had recently died, some from suicide. Just to make it more enticing, love has a great deal to do with it.

In humans, love is a mystery. The word has more definitions than just about any other in the Oxford English Dictionary. The problem is that we can't get a handle on exactly what love is. Yet, in our own lives, we tend to quantify love. We don't measure love as such. We measure loving touch.

In general, we touch those we love more than those we don't love. When the romance of the early months of a new relationship filled with lots of loving touch fades and the touching reduces to little or nothing, we say that love was lost. People leave legal relationships seeking more and better love, but what they really seek is more loving touch. We tend to equate touch with love. We measure how much others love us by the amount they want to share loving touch with us.

Not so easy to test in a science lab. Especially when ethics intervenes when we want to prove that people change for the negative when they lack sufficient touch of others. Many labs have turned to rats as substitutes. The similarities between us and rats in these tests may make you uncomfortable, but they are real.

In one family of rats the mother was allowed to lick the fur of her babies, often and extensively. In another, the mother hardly licked her babies at all. As adults, the two groups of rats turn out very different. In the neglected group, the rats were easily startled by unexpected noises, they were reluctant to explore new places and their bodies produced lots of hormone when they experienced stress.

The licked and loved rats were not easily startled, showed great curiosity in exploring new places in their environment. And they "did not suffer surges of stress hormones," according to Carl Zimmer.

They did not suffer surges of stress hormones. I do. Like many others, I lack the gene that should cause my adrenal gland to produce a hormone that neutralizes the effects of epinephrin (commonly known as adrenalin), the chemical produced by the adrenal gland to prepare us for action in times of sudden stress, known as the fight or flight response. In other words, when my body senses stress, I not only get the surge of adrenalin but it hangs around in my bloodstream for hours, even for days.

Why do some people suffer severely from stress--even to the point of thinking about or actually committing suicide--while others seem able to handle stress with relative ease? The rats in the experiment above and in hundreds of other labs may show us the answer. The rats--and at least some of us--may not be able to handle stress as well as others because our brains and bodies are not prepared for what amounts to prolonged chemical warfare on us. Self-induced chemical warfare.

Two families of molecules control when our genes turn on and off, which ones and for how long. One, the methyl group, essentially plugs the path for genes to express themselves by producing proteins. The other, coiling proteins, wraps our DNA into spools so tight the genes can't become active. If either is too successful or lacking, something can happen with gene expression (or may be prevented from happening) that will affect our health and even our lives.

Our experiences can rewrite these two, collectively called the epigenetic code. Most of the writing or behaviour patterning is done before we are born. However, strong experiences after we are born--even extraordinarily strong experiences as adults--can rewrite the code.

Differences between the brain of the licked rats and the neglected ones were found in the hippocampus. The glucocorticoid receptor gene--the one that controls how long adrenalin stays in the bloodstream--for example, was capped off by methyl groups in the neglected rats and they had fewer receptors than the licked rats. Thus the neglected rats had fewer ways to stop adrenalin from doing its thing when it was no longer needed. They were permanently stressed out.

Neurobiologist Michael Meaney, of McGill University, and colleagues followed his rat studies by studying the brains of people who had recently died. Twelve had committed suicide and had suffered abuse as children, 12 had committed suicide but had not suffered abuse and the final 12 had died of natural causes. The suicide people who had suffered abuse had cortisol receptors capped by methyl groups and had fewer receptors, as they had found with the rats. Abuse in childhood had caused them to be permanently stressed as adults.

Another group studied suicide victims and people who died natural deaths and found methyl groups blocking the gene that produces the protein BDNF in the Wernicke area of the brains of the suicides. Environmental influences--everything after birth, including human interaction--can also affect adults.

Neuroscientist Eric Nestler, of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, examined the brains of mice that had been put through so much stress in conflicts with other mice that they were depressed. He found differences in an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which is involved with the brain's reward system and helps to set values on things based on the pleasure derived from them. He found the DNA in that part wound tightly with coiling proteins. Nestler's group found the same kinds of epigenetic changes in the brains of depressed humans who had recently died.

Brain changes caused by coiling proteins and methyl groups should be able to be reversed, once we learn how. Nestler injected HDAC inhibitors into the nucleus accumbens parts of the brains of depressed mice to loosen the coils of DNA. Ten days later the mice were less hesitant about approaching other mice and other signs of depression were absent.

These studies suggest that previously intractable human troubles such as depression, suicide and a wide range of problems associated with constant stress (including those that impact the immune system) may be correctable. More study is needed and testing on humans will be tricky, maybe even risky at first.

Any change to the brain is risky. But it may be do-able. Medical science is still in the very early stages of learning about our most complex and sophisticated organ.

Soon taking a DNA sample of a newborn baby will be routine. The sample will be examined for variations from expected norms so the child can have a genetic adjustment made and avoid genetic problems and weaknesses that are an unfortunate part of life today.

Bill Allin is the author of Turning it Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for teachers and parents who want to grow healthy children right from birth. This book shows us how.
Learn more at

[Primary source: The Brain, by Carl Zimmer, Discover, June 2010]

Monday, June 07, 2010

It's About Time: What You Don't Know But Should

It's About Time: What You Don't Know But Should

Humans invented the concept of time. It didn't exist, in the way we know time, before we came along. No other creatures on the planet have the same concept of time as we do. Or, if it did exist, who would know?

Is time real or imaginary? Einstein considered it real, counted it as a component of what he called the fourth dimension, space-time. Space-time figured prominently in projections based on his theory of relativity.

But so did gravity and some physicists (albeit far from a majority) wonder now if gravity is everything Einstein says it is. For example, where is all that Dark Matter that supposedly comprises far more of the universe than the matter we can detect? For that matter (excuse the pun, I couldn't resist), where is all the "real" matter that should exist but we're having difficulty finding since we became aware of the Big Bang and developed big telescopes? University of Maryland astronomer Stacy McGaugh's study shows that many galaxies have much less matter than should be there to account for their gravitational pull.

If gravity is not what Einstein said it is, then that messes up our concept of time. So does the average U.S. city commuter really lose 38 hours a year to traffic delays or is that just imagined? The answer (you're not going to like this, I didn't) is that most of what we believe about our lives is based on how we perceive it (what we imagine it to be) more than on reality. (Okay, I wouldn't have time to explain that even if I could.)

After nearly a century of using Daylight Saving Time (DST), we still aren't sure why we use it. Benjamin Franklin introduced it as a joke. He said that if we got up an hour earlier each morning we could get an hour's more work done in daylight and save candles in the evening. The U.K. adopted DST in 1917, most of the rest of the world followed. (Personally, I can't see sleeping through daylight in the early morning hours in summer when that's often the best time to work outside. The mosquitoes in our area agree.)

Daylight Saving Time accounts for a drop in electricity use. The U.S. Department of Energy claims power demand drops by 0.5 percent during DST, saving three million barrels of oil in the U.S. alone.

By the way, it's not Daylight Savings Time. It's Saving. Savings is an account you have at the bank. That is, you would if you had any money to keep in it.

One study watched how quickly bank tellers made change, pedestrians walked and mail clerks spoke and concluded that the fastest paced U.S. cities are Boston, Buffalo and New York. (As an aside, I have often wondered if rats are insulted when we refer to the fast paced life of humans in cities as the Rat Race. If so, they had better get over it because half the population of the world lives in cities today, most in big cities.)

The psychologist who did that study found the slowest paced cities were Shreveport, Sacramento and Los Angeles. (Nothing in the report about the pace of life of rats in those cities.)

Back in the old days one second used to be defined as 1/86,400 the length of a day. (We'll pause here while you fetch your calculator if you like.) A second can still be defined that way, but it will be a longer second. The friction of tides as a result of gravity by the sun and moon slow earth's travel, lengthening our day by three milliseconds each century. (Feel free to think of it as "mutual attraction" not gravity if my previous statements made you uncomfortable with that word.)

Let's put that into perspective. In the time of the dinosaurs the day was only 23 of our hours long. (You don't suppose they had a dinosaur version of Rodent Race that caused the dinos to die off.)

Speaking of things that slow earth's rotation, even the weather can do it. El NiƱo winds can cause earth's rotation to slow by a fraction of a millisecond over just 24 hours.

Technology can do better than that. In 1972 atomic clocks in more than 50 countries were made the final authority on matters of time. They're so accurate that they lose about a second in 31.7 million years. But in 31.7 million years our day will be a half hour longer, so won't all our atomic clocks be wrong?

Actually, no. To keep the clocks in synch with earth's rotation we now add a "leap second" every few years. The most recent leap second was added this past New Year's Eve. (I thought 2009 seemed longer for some reason.)

One clock does even better than the network of atomic clocks. The clock at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, in Boulder, Colorado, measures the vibrations of a single atom of Mercury and is accurate to less than one second of loss in one billion years. (Who knew an atom of mercury could shiver that long?)

We think of timekeeping as standard now. In fact we call it Standard Time. Until the age of trains that had to meet set schedules in the 1800s, every village had its own version of standard time. They used solar noon in their respective areas. As odd as it seems now, a few watches were made in those days of confused standard times for trains that kept track of two times, one the local standard time and the other "railway time."

The U.K. adopted Standard Time first through an act of Parliament. The U.S. came on board on November 18, 1883. Some people speculate that the adoption of Standard Time may have prompted Einstein to think about how space and time might be united in his theory of relativity.

Einstein said that gravity affects the passage of time. So a passenger in an airplane, flying where gravity is weaker, would age a few nanoseconds more than a person who kept his feet on the ground.

Quantum theory claims that the shortest possible period of time (known as Planck time after the German physicist whose work began the whole study of quantum theory) is 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 second.

Most scientists today believe that time as we know it began with the Big Bang, created with the rest of the universe 13.7 billion years ago. If you care, stay tuned because that belief could change any time now.

Will time ever end? Three Spanish scientists claim it will. They say our expanding universe is not really expanding at all. Rather time is slowing down, making it seem to us as if the universe is expanding. According to their calculations, time will eventually stop, at which point everything we know will stop as well. (I was going to calculate when that would be, but I don't have time.)

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for teachers and parents who want their children to develop all aspects of their lives at the right time.
Learn more at

[Primary source: Discover, March 2009]

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Have We Created Societies of Social Welfare Bums?

Have We Created Societies of Social Welfare Bums?

Love is the condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.. Jealousy is a disease, love is a healthy condition. The immature mind often mistakes one for the other, or assumes that the greater the love the greater the jealousy.
A competent and self-confident person is incapable of jealousy in anything. Jealousy is invariably a symptom of neurotic insecurity.
- Robert Heinlein, American writer (1907-1988)

What do love and jealousy have to do with welfare? A great deal, as you will learn. First let me note that the two paragraphs that comprise the quote come from different sources by Heinlein.

Let's lead off with a big idea, though one you should find comfort with. We have people for whom someone or some people other than themselves takes priority over their own best interests. And we have people who, when all distractions are stripped away, have their own best interests of primary importance.

Doesn't everyone give importance to their own best interests? Of course, it's how we survive. Doesn't everyone have to put the interests of others ahead of their own sometimes? Yes, but in the case of our self-first group, putting the interests of others ahead of their own may indeed be in their own bests interests. I scratch your back, you scratch mine.

Take the example of a highly paid executive who makes a sizable donation to charity right before the end of income tax season. By no small coincidence the amount of the donation happens to lower his income below a threshold, putting him into a lower tax bracket. In the end he is money in pocket and he receives acclaim for his donations. Is that bad? No, most of us would do it if we could. But that person can't claim to have the best interests of others ahead of his own if he will benefit financially from the donation. His own wallet counts first.

Now let's take the example of a parent who loads his adolescent son with electronic toys and gadgetry, so much so that the boy spends much of his time at home alone playing with the games. Admirable, huh? Except when you realize that the parent has thereby relieved himself of the parental obligation of interacting with the child, of teaching life lessons to the child while conveying the benefits of a close relationship between parent and child. That's what parents are supposed to do, what they have done throughout human history. The parent avoids that. That puts his own interests ahead of those of his son, no matter how he appeases his conscience by telling himself how good a father he was to give his son so much, more than he had as a child.

Another example, this time from the other group, might be the businessman who takes time out of his work week to mentor school kids--or even one child--so that the children have examples of good role models other than their own parent(s). Many other adults belong to service organizations in their communities where they volunteer many hours each year to benefit certain groups or individuals with needs they can't otherwise meet. They help, others benefit.

We have one group who loves themselves first, another who loves others more. You likely know many of each type. You may even have friends of both types. "Love" may be a strong word for people for whom love is, essentially, a business arrangement.

To put this into clearer perspective, let's take an extreme example of a life crisis. Let's say a natural catastrophe such as a hurricane or tornado destroys one or more distribution centres for electricity in your area. It will take weeks, maybe months, before power is restored to your home and every other home, business, factory, recreation hall and other gathering place within 500 kilometres of where you live.

At crisis times, we all need allies. It's the time when everyone should pull together. In this scenario, which group of people would you rather have as your allies, the self-interested ones or the ones who willingly share and think of others before themselves?

That's easy to answer, you may say. Choose the group who will help you most. That extreme example was only to give perspective. Life is filled with all kinds of situations of a less critical nature in which we could use help from others. You might have a flat tire on the freeway and your cell phone battery is dead. If someone were to stop to help you, which group would you expect the helper to come from?

Some people can't make it in life. For many reasons, they have fallen into a pit of problems from which they can't extract themselves. They lose their job, can't pay their mortgage, get hassled by credit card companies, and so on. No matter what they do, they can't manage to put their ducks in line.

We have welfare (also known as social assistance) to help them. But for how long? If they do not have the necessary work skills, attitude and work ethic to get and hold a job, it could be years before they can pay their way in life again, if ever. Somehow they didn't get what they needed while they were in school, including life skills that could help them to survive in times of crisis.

They often live in the poorest quality of housing, maybe it reeks of the urine of past occupants or harbours cockroaches or has plumbing that works only sporadically. Or all of the aforementioned. It's not pleasant to be inside, especially in summer, so they sit outside with their beverage of choice, often beer.

That's where they are when some people see them and complain that "we pay our taxes so these people can sit around home all day and drink beer." Have you ever heard one of those complainers express a desire to change places with those welfare "whores" they despise? If life is so easy for welfare recipients, why would more people not want to change places with them?

We have many people in our society who, for a variety of reasons (none of them pleasant), must spend many years in prison. The prisons allow the inmates to work, for which they receive a little money (a dollar a day, for example) they can use to buy small treats for themselves. They often have access to libraries and classes to upgrade their education. And they can watch television.

Setting aside the discussion of the mood we might expect prisoners to be in (remember, they must associate with staff members who are outsiders to them) if we kept them confined full time in mind-numbing violence-inducing cells, we have people who condemn prisons for being places of luxury. "It's a great life and we pay for it!" Have you ever heard one person who seriously would trade places with a prisoner for any given period of time? Of course not. They know life is not luxurious or comfy in prison, no matter what they say.

Some people want to help those confined to prisons. Some want to help those who are stuck on welfare because they can't figure out how to dig themselves out of it. Some want to throw a lifeline to people who have lost their jobs or whose homes have been lost to fire. Or people whose life mates have walked out, leaving them alone enough to want to end their lives. Or people of an age they should retire because their health is not so good, but they can't because they have lost their life savings to some scam or stock market downturn.

They are the helpers. They are the "liberals" who want to "help out every freeloader who can't be bothered to work enough to earn a proper living." Even though not one of the self-first complainers would ever offer to change places with a person with a problem, they condemn those who would help. Because helping others does not help themselves and they are always more important than any others.

Those helpers are the ones you want as allies in a crisis. Ironically, the helpers will, in a crisis, help even the most self-interested lamers.

Returning now to our opening quote from Heinlein about love and jealousy, does it become obvious to you which group of people are likely to become jealous and which more apt to love others?

If you have a mate who is jealous, now you know why. That mate is not someone who would lay down their life for you in an emergency, no matter if you would for them or not.

Study your friends, workmates and neighbours and you will see which are the selfish ones and which the generous helpers. Some love themselves first and foremost, some love others more.

Remember, you will eventually have a crisis in your own life. Cultivate the helpers now so that they will support you when you need them. That's what friends do, though they serve much different functions most of the time.

The old saying goes: to make a friend you need first to be a friend. If you want to have a helping kind of person as a friend, you will need to make friendly gestures to that person first if they are not already your friend.

In other words, help someone else now who needs your help. That person needs a friend now and will be your friend later when you need him or her. Maybe. The ones who become friends will far outweigh in benefits to you those who take what you give and forget about you.

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for teachers and parents who want to raise their children to be helpers, to be able to make friends, to be self sufficient yet comfortable with interdependence.
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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Robert Heinlein: un-American Rebel With A Cause

Robert Heinlein: un-American Rebel With A Cause

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein, American science-fiction author (1907-1988)

That's outrageous! Why, look at what our experts have done for us.

Our expert chemists have created chemical fertilizers and pesticides to put on our agricultural crops so megafarming agribusinesses can produce lots more food than our ancestors ever dreamed of. And diseases and weaknesses such as diabetes, allergies and heart disease at rates never previously imagined because our bodies can't cope with the chemical attacks over long periods of time. (Tests are usually over three years, seldom longer, as if nothing could affect our health over a long period of time.)

Other expert chemists, medical specialists, have developed drugs to rescue us from the ravages of those chemicals, which have also made their way into our air (over half a million kinds) and our drinking water (over 300,000 kinds).

Our expert medical doctors happily prescribe those drugs for the rest of our lives so we can stay on our feet and work harder than our ancestors ever dreamed. And, so they won't forget what to prescribe, many of them accept reminder gifts from the pharmaceutical companies. A comfortable arrangement for the experts.

Our business specialists, MBAs tucked neatly in safe locations, figure out how to manufacture things to make our lives easier. Our communications specialists devise ways to sell those products to us through advertising, making us believe we need stuff we seldom use. The facts that our lives are not easier, that we have more stress than any previous generation, take more drugs than any previous generation and buy so much we don't need that we have to have yard sales and to give other stuff to "needy" people in neighbouring countries is never mentioned, so we forget. (Donations by Americans are often sold in Canada, and vice versa, a fact seldom noted publicly.)

Our expert architects design skyscrapers so well that most people who have to work in them have their health compromised. Sick building syndrome--no one knows how it will affect our length of life--stands as a hallmark of modern architectural progress.

Our legal specialists are so good at defending bad guys with cash to spread around that few go to prison and the ones who do have short stays. Our lawyers have reputations worse than used car salesmen of the old days. Their accounting specialists advise them how to Hoover every available dollar from ordinary folks who know so little of the skills of relationships they don't know how to stay married, so little about money management that more cash goes out than comes in for too many people and so little about getting along with neighbours that whole television courtroom series have cropped up to document the conflicts and allow the rest of us to be voyeurs.

Our specialists have made us the great Western World are persuaded those who are not part of it envy to such extremes that some of them want to murder us because of it.

We are, in short, the epitome of progress. We have our specialists to thank.

Let's take a moment to consider the parts of their lives that our experts and specialists don't want us to think about. Would you expect to see one of them changing a flat tire? No, because they have roadside assistance insurance. Or is it because they have no idea how to change a tire? Or because they fear getting their hands dirty. Ask one.

Most pay little attention to their diet until they are diagnosed with diabetes, heart disease, have a stroke or are told point blank by their doctors that they are obese or dangerously overweight such that their lives are at risk. They know little about nutrition, what their bodies need to stay healthy.

Most have no idea how to fix their own computers, even how to keep dust out of them, and many don't even keep their security programs up to date. They don't change the oil in their own cars because they don't know how. They can't change a washer in a leaky tap/faucet. They have to call a plumber when their toilet plugs up because they have no idea how to use a plunger (or how to avoid plugging the toilet in the first place).

They don't plant their own gardens where they can grow pesticide-free and chemical-free veggies and fruit because they "don't have time." In fact, most don't have any idea how to tend a garden.

On the other hand, a high school dropout may know how to do all of these things and hundreds more. Does this make the dropout more fit for life in the 21st century than the highly educated person? Not necessarily. But maybe.

Consider this possibility. Something happens that causes the power to go out in your part of the world and you learn that it will be out for a whole year or more. Would you rather have the high school dropout who has had to survive by the seat of his pants for many years as an ally or one of the experts or specialists mentioned earlier in this article?

Of course you assume that such a thing will never happen, even though a terrorist bomb could accomplish it. The 30 million people of the US state of California believe their state will never sink into the Pacific either, even though scientists have been warning it would happen for years from a split of earth's tectonic plates along the San Andreas fault. Many Americans are unaware that what is known as a super volcano is brewing under Yellowstone Park, even though a blow that would darken the skies of the world possibly for years is overdue. These things can happen. Eventually one will. Some call it Armageddon, but it's really just nature in action.

Am I suggesting that high school and post secondary education is worthless or counter productive? Not at all. What is needed is a change of focus in our elementary and high schools. We need to teach children life skills, not stuff they know they will never need or use. How much do you remember or use of what you learned in high school? Would you have willing traded much of it for some of the life skills you have learned by experience since then?

Adolescents and young adults have trouble in high school often because they see how useless what they are forced to learn is and will be to them in the future. They know they need to learn life lessons--that desire to learn is instinctive--but they don't know what those lessons are or how to get them. They rebel. They drop out. They take drugs or alcohol, get tattoos, listen to music that could destroy their hearing, and so on. Eventually, most of them learn the lessons they need, get back on track and become upstanding citizens. But not quickly enough. Those lessons often come the hard way, by making mistake after mistake and learning from them. A few don't make it.

As radical as Robert Heinlein's suggestion in our opening quote seemed when you first read it, it makes more sense now. We have time to teach these life lessons and more. We simply need to eliminate what was better suited for 18th century schools than it is for today's world. In the 18th century kids learned life lessons at home. Today's kids can't learn them at home because many of their parents don't know the life lessons themselves to teach. With both parents working to earn enough to buy the fun things of life as well as what we believe are necessities, we need someone to teach the life lessons that used to be taught at home.

They aren't being taught at school today because the curriculum is too crowded with other (often unnecessary) stuff. They aren't being taught at home. And our young people experience more problems at school and outside of it than any previous generation.

This is a simple connect-the-dots problem and solution. By the way, I still don't know how to set a bone, but I can do most of the rest of what Heinlein suggested. It took me six decades of life to learn these lessons. I should have been able to learn them in school, before I needed them. You too.

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, an easy to understand guidebook (with a threatening sounding title) for parents and teachers who want to grow children who know how to manage their lives. It includes specific lessons.
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