Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Community break-down!

Apologies for sounding like a headline from the Sun! Not my intention.....

When I was a kid I lived in a street of about 50 houses. That street was full of non-related 'aunts and uncles' whose children we played with regularly - indoors and out. There was never a shortage of kids to hang out with or people that could be called upon to help with any situation - major or minor. For my mother, this prevented her from parenting her three children in isolation while my father was at work, she was never short of adult company and I am sure this made parenthood easier for her.

A few decades ago however, this changed and the idea of a community based on locality alone no longer seems so prevalent. I don't think this is doing us any favours.

The reality is that feeling part of a community - especially in your locality - is good for you. Feeling connected with those around you enables you to trust them. Feeling affiliated to your neighbours makes you feel safer, more supported and less isolated. Better relationships make people happier. And if we feel part of something, we are more likely to look after it.

So why has this happened? I do think politics has played its part. In recent decades, both left and right wing politics has moved very much in favour of individual choices and freedom - the left for social issues (individual freedom to choose how to live - which of course I do approve of when it comes to matters of discrimination etc) and the right for the market (economic freedom). This focus on individualism has moved us all away from focusing on societal obligations and community bonds and made us somewhat 'all out for ourselves'. Our lives have become materially better and we have greater individual choice but at the expense of affiliation to others. We now tend to play a game of one-up-man-ship to demonstrate our success with this individual freedom rather than connecting to others and contributing to the greater good for the masses.

It seems like its another one of those situations where we know that something is not particularly good for us in the long-run (like watching too much TV, retail therapy, refined sugars etc) but that we just cannot help ourselves. I wonder if people have actually forgotten how to be part of a community or what they might want or gain from it.

As with many things, I think localisation is part of the answer. Handing organisational responsibility down to localities must surely be better than central government making all the decisions and telling us how to live (and us becoming angry and ignoring/hating their decisions). If people are involved in key decisions they are more likely to care about their locality, they will surely come together more and community bonds will be strengthened. However, I do think we have become so used 'the rights of the individual' we might need to re-learn a degree of selflessness before we can collaborate properly! Poor us hey!

Friday, 18 May 2012

Over- rationalisation

I am reading The social animal by David Brooks at the moment. It is full of so many interesting snippets but this morning's reading set me cogs off! Particularly this bit......

It all started with Plato. He said that the higher, more rational functions that the human brain were capable of, were the best bits and the 'underlying,' more basic passions and sentiments were brutish and unruly. He said, the conscious part that could reason and apply logic was the part that should be nurtured. Then the dark ages came along and that section of the brain took a back seat and more irrational superstition and folklore were in charge again. Then along can the renaissance and the higher thinking returned and pretty much stayed. Logic, science and theories of prediction prevailed. Of course there is nothing wrong with this kind of thinking. It has brought about huge health and technological benefits for example. But then we might have become a little over-zealous with our scientific principles and in our quest for certainty, applied it to too many things - even things that are fundamentally about (and as unpredictable as) human nature (including values, passions, motivations) - like economics. The science of economics, for examples assumed that human reason is nearly all consciously controlled. We do currently live in a society that is comfortable with things that can be logically proven and yet so many things can't -especially human behaviour which has so much impact on our day to day existence. Anyway.....

Scientific thought's domain is the conscious mind (level 2 thinking). However, this completely overlooks the huge part that makes up a human: the unconscious mind (which does level 1 thinking). In some ways our unconscious mind is a bit simple. It harbours stereotypes, makes us have reactions that are simply based on prior experiences, looks after simple bodily functions etc. But in other ways, our over-looking of it does us absolutely no favours. The unconscious mind has a hundred thousand times more processing capacity than the conscious mind. There is lots of scientific evidence showing how the subconscious can process much more information to arrive at a decision (for example). When we make a decision using our subconscious, it is more likely to feel like a gut reaction than a logical process. But when we have let our unconscious work on a decision, we will have unknowingly considered far more information to arrive at our conclusion. And that is what science (level 2) thinking is missing. It looks for patterns and predictions found in components of the whole, as the whole usually includes too many parts to create neat and predictable patterns. Level 1 thinking, however, can process the whole but because it's not conscious, it's hard for our 'needs hard evidence' minds to appreciate.

A good example of level 1 and 2 thinking is given in the book. Suppose a farmer wants to know when to plant his corn. Well he could consult with scientists to look at the weather patterns and predictions, the types of corn etc. This will give him worthwhile information and he can make a logical decision. However, farmers in the States have always successfully planted their corn 'when the oak leaves are the size of a squirrel's ear'. I see the first type of thinking as level 2 thinking - based on conscious reasoning and the folklore as result of centuries of observation and processed intuition - or the result of allowing level 1 thinking to make your judgement.

Throughout history societies have moved from being predominantly rationalist (described as simple-minded by Alfred North Whitehead) as we are now in the western world and predominantly romantic (described as muddle-minded). During simple-minded times, it was attempted to interpret people as simple mathematical models and during muddle-minded times intuition and imagination guided the way. As the book says 'sometimes imagination grows too luxuriant and sometimes reason grows too austere'.

The trick therefore is to know when and how to marry the level 1 and level 2 thinking. Lots of things boil down to balance. If we have too much trust in rational thinking then we overlook a more intuitive process - a less tangible process but a process that has been busy taking in far more data than we ever knew we could. We never fully know ourselves any more than we can others so when it comes to wise decisions - sleep on it or take some time - and let your subconscious do the work for you!

Sunday, 25 March 2012

World Salvation

OK so I went for a cycle ride and a pub lunch with a friend and we had an agenda. The agenda was a tongue-in-cheek attempt to bring some structure to our rambling conversations. One item on the agenda was 'world salvation' (others included 'optimising chocolate experiences' and 'spring' for example). With world salvation, we started with a little altercation over whose responsibility it was but we ultimately agreed that my friend would do it but that I would help. The previous item on the agenda had been 'attachment' (see last post) but because of our tendency towards wandering open-ended thoughts we linked attachment to the current item. It was quite easy actually. Our thinking went like this:

Attachment theory is currently establishing the idea that while nature provides some basic building blocks, humans are born with a lot of hard-wiring yet to be put in place (usually pre-one year of age). The survival reason for this is that our eventual hard-wiring needs to depend upon the world we are born into and the social interactions we have once we have arrived will be representative of this 'world'. Sometimes we need to be wired ready for a dog-eat-dog world, other times the opposite. (I wrote a previous post about how the shift from hunter-gatherer to agriculture made it possible for societies to be less egalitarian.) Therefore our personality hinges so much on how well we attach to the key adult/s in our lives (most commonly our mothers). The two main aspects that secure or insecure attachment impacts on are 1) our stress responses and 2) our ability to empathise and want to connect with others. Both could be clumped together as 'our ability to regulate our own emotions'. And then I drew a picture like this to show how the different attachment disorders manifest (and yes they are spectra - I perceive myself to be a bit along the ambivalent spectra!!!):
A child that had secure attachment will have had a responsive mother who 'read' her baby's emotions and worked out if the baby needed food, a drink, warmth, distraction from boredom etc. This therefore would have secured in the baby the ability to 'reach out' to his mother and expect to get his needs met. This baby grows up into an adult that wants to affiliate to others and sees other people as able to provide help and support. This baby also develops the ability to self-regulate emotions as the mother helped the uncomfortable feelings disappear. Healthy emotions 'flow' - they come and they go. Emotions only become a problem when they become blocked and fester because then they make a person defensive (this adult is not usually conscious of the source of these 'triggers and reactions').

So to world salvation. Many of the world's problems come from lack of empathy which enables people to dominate others and gain and abuse power. There are so many situations when people are treated in appalling ways that demonstrate an absolute lack of empathy and happiness to dominate and keep things unfair and unequal. I know that 'breaking the cycle' of ineffective parents creating children who become ineffective parents is often mentioned but that there is little real drive to do this. This might be because those in power (avoidant attachment disorders spectrum) are not able to truly empathise with the plight of those less fortunate than themselves. However, I propose that the cycle be broken by investing in parenting - supporting parents of babies not just by showing them how to be responsive, but also by re-creating supportive community networks so that mothers feel less isolated. Sue Gerhardt (who write 'Why love matters' - a great book about attachment and brain development for anyone that wants hard scientific evidence) pretty much concluded the same and she has attempted to create such support through her clinics. And this is not a class issue. Attachment disorders are found in people from all social backgrounds.

For a world where people genuinely care about each other, support others because they can empathise and have healthy relationships because of their free flowing emotions, we need to shift this spectrum..... to the left!

but while those in power remain emotionally impaired, focusing on anything other than economics, laws, taking away people's employment rights in the name of supporting a free market, and punitive measures etc this seem very unlikely. In fact the absolute absence of promoting the nation's wellbeing in any government initiatives says it all! One big hippie signing out.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Attachment - relationships

I was lucky enough this week to have some training delivered by a psychologist (run more like a group therapy session!) on attachment this week. I have had previous training sessions on attachment but they were either overly detailed, too much about research and/or delivered knowledge that could not really be practically applied to the children I work with.

In a nutshell - (like I like it!)

The trainer started with the premise that every child is born with hard-wiring for survival. Obviously this makes a lot of sense in evolutionary terms. Therefore, whatever circumstance, family set-up, family behaviours etc a child is born into, they will adapt (and subsequently develop the hard-wiring) that will optimise their chances of survival. Getting a parent's attention is a crucial part of this survival so disorders to do with poor attachment are due to a child receiving, little, inconsistent and/or frightening attention from their parent/s. Strategies for getting these parents' attention will therefore be 'warped' and will result in extreme, unusual and difficult behaviours. For these children, their patterns often mean they get negative attention - but this is still better for them, of course, than no attention at all.

The psychologist then went on to list the four ways different attachments manifest in behaviour.

Secure (the 'healthy one'). When the parent of a young child with secure attachment leaves the room, the child exhibits some concern and then is pleased when the parent returns. I don't teach securely attached children!
Avoidant - this happens when parents have not responded to their child when s/he is distressed and in need of attention. This child will not notice when the parent leaves the room, would give any stranger in the room the same attention as his or her parent and not really respond significantly when the parent returned. The way a child like this would behave in my classroom is to mostly appear not to care above anything and then, suddenly explode. I get a lot of these!
Ambivalent - caused by a parent mostly not responding - but occasionally responding appropriately - to the child's distress. This child will be stressed when the parent leaves the room but also give the parent a hard time when he or she returns - 'how could you leave me?' A child like this tries numerous strategies to get attention (to try and hit on the one that gets the right response) and therefore this child's behaviour is all over the place - s/he might try banging the table for attention, might rip up work, might try verbal abuse etc
Disorganised - caused by abuse/bullying/fear/emotional chaos from parent, and therefore the behaviour of the child is really inconsistent, confused and all over the place). The behaviour from these children I would describe as full of fear and 'easily spooked!'

The difference between this session and others I have had is that this chap related attachment to everyone in the room. He asked us all to think about what we do to draw people in and form relationships and what we do to push people away. Just that simple question provoked a lot of discussion! The general consensus for pushing away was that we ignored the person. How British! But the ways people drew people in were quite varied including
- humour
- intense interest in the other
- show off (cleverness, capabilities etc)I think this might be counter-productive!)
- be nurturing and compliant
- be humble and compliant
- and some people clearly struggled with how they drew people in.

These lists highlighted our own hard-wiring from our own early childhood - as our attachment history effects how we behave in all relationships. It also highlighted that extremes in behaviour can cause some people to react badly (marmite people), whereas mediocrity makes a person more palatable to everyone.

Another part of the training seemed to be about highlighting the fact that what seemed completely normal to us (because it was embedded in our childhood) might seem extreme to another. I guess this was the therapeutic element - as it started to de-construct what you had held on to, maintained and even guarded as 'normal' so you might become more self aware and understand your own perspective might have been a tad warped and demonstrated how the resultant behaviours have affected your relationships.

Just more fodder for the dossier 'we are all, buttons and patterns!'

Friday, 6 January 2012


Last night I stumbled across one of those 'debates' that erupt on Facebook every now and then. You know the ones - where one person posts their view and before you know it there are seventy or so post on the thread. You get the:

•the rationalist
•the idealist
•the militant conspiracy theorist
•the aggressor
•the misses-the-point-the-other-person-made-er
•the flippant
•the questioner
•the jump to someone's defence-er
•the academic with evidence

all putting their throbbing pennyworth in the pot. What fascinates me is how those 'debates' go. This particular one I would surmise had little impact in terms of idea development or opening up others' mind to accepting another viewpoints. In fact, because there was some aggression and personal comments I would go so far as to say it probably shut down a few minds.

This debate in part reflected the way we tend to approach conflict of ideas generally - in law, in education and in meetings: we are adversarial/oppositional. This links to my friend's Philosophy MA thesis - where she explored different ways of communicating to enhance idea development. She wrote her thesis on the back of feeling unable to contribute effectively to academic discussions (despite being extremely intelligent) because they were based on a person putting an idea forward and then everyone ripping it to pieces. (Thinkers - who receive the logic of a debate loudest can cope with this - feelers like my friend - cannot). This also links of course to Edwards De Bono's six thinking hats. Bono observed that in a meeting of egos people compete by shooting down other people's contributions to feel superior. So he suggested you align egos and make them compete not against each other; that you make the competition a race in the same direction so outdoing another builds upon ideas rather than knocking them down.

I guess there are rarely debates that actually ask, 'well what is it we are trying to achieve here?' because what is a debate ever trying to achieve?
•Consensus? No that cannot be right - we will always have different viewpoints.
•An agreed way forward? Yes that sounds better.
•Deepening individuals' understanding of the topic in hand. Yes - I'll go with that.
•develop ideas - yes!

I think effective debating might need an overhaul.

So after pondering all this, I finally went to bed and gave my chap a synopsis of what I had found and thought and he said, 'perhaps that will be the one thing Facebook teaches us!' An optimistic piss-take. He's funny!