Friday, December 14, 2012

How to SCIENTIFICALLY Avoid a Crappy Life...

In four neurologically proven (albeit, not-so-simple) steps…

Life, as we all know, isn’t exactly easy. We have to deal with nonstop external issues, which make our already-tense internal issues fifty times worse. We’ve got interpersonal problems, we’ve got intrapersonal problems, we’ve got problems on the social level and we’ve got problems on the spiritual level. And just about every neurologist worth his PhD will tell you the same thing:

It all goes back to upbringing, people.

The term “upbringing” is tossed around all the time. As parents, mom and dad are expected to mold little Susie or Johnny into a decent-ish human being, so that the fruit of their loins turns into a college-educated non-drug addicted, workforce-ready android at exactly 22 years of age. After that, you’re officially considered an adult, and you can do whatever the hell you want, because society has deemed you responsible enough to go out there and buy cars and houses and fill out people’s paperwork and all that stuff.

The thing is, people look at “upbringing” as strictly a form of social development - that means, being instilled with personal and cultural values so that little snot-nosed rug rat that pukes on the carpet can become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company someday. The thing is, “growing up” probably has WAY more to do with one’s neurology than his or her “sociological” rearing. Where things get extremely interesting is when you evaluate the whole biological/social schism, and realize that the two are so closely intertwined that it’s next-to-impossible to imagine a human being becoming anything without looking at the external and the internal wrapping around each other like that swirling candy cane pattern on a barbershop pole.

Modern brain science has pretty much TOLD US that there are four things that ultimately determine whether or not a child will turn into a functional member of society or the next Richard Ramirez. Forget all of that psycho-babble Piaget nonsense, the key to shaping a human being into a decent cultural inhabitant has EVERYTHING to do with hitting key developmental points SANS external impediments. In other words? Neither “nature” nor “nurture” play a greater role in determining what kind of human being an individual becomes - instead, it’s how one is nurtured at certain junctures in natural development that ends up making a person, for all intents and purposes, who they end up being for the rest of their lives.

So, let’s say you’re an expecting parent. You really want to make sure your offspring will make you proud someday, and you’ve been reading all sorts of developmental psychology stuff to figure out how to turn your kid into a model citizen. Soon to be mamas and papas, let me save you some time and just quickly run down the four, scientifically-validated things one has to do to insure that his or her child DOESN’T grow up to be an unabashed failure.

Want to avoid having a crappy life? Simple, dear readers: just follow these four scientifically backed steps, and you’ll be on the path to excellence in no time…

Have wealthy parents (or at the very least,  have parents that try to make your home life as least chaotic for you as humanly imaginable)

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Wait a minute, you mean to tell me that the first step to having a non-sucky life is to have well-off parents? You mean, that thing I have absolutely zero control over?” In reply? “Yeah, and it’s a whole lot more important than you’d think.”

This much is absolutely undeniable - parents with higher socioeconomic status tend to have children that, on average, are more intelligent than the children of parents with lesser socioeconomic status. From a sociological perspective, it’s really a “no shit, Sherlock” argument: of course parents with more money have more intelligent kids, because they can afford to send them to early education programs and enroll them in better schools and hire tutors and all that jazz, while poor ass kids (and trust me, I was one of them) had to make do with whatever scant materials the under-funded local school district had to work with. But in that, there’s also a surprising neurological angle that very few people are aware of.

Check out this study released earlier this year. Researchers say that the reason the children of rich kids end up smarter than poor kids has very little to do with socialization, and a whole hell of a lot more to do with neurological development. They found that the hippocampus - the part of the brain that’s vital for things like memorization and learning - were able to hold a much larger “volume” than kids from lower income homes. Additionally, they found that the amygdalae of children with richer parents held a much smaller “volume” than those of poorer kids. The amygdalae, by the way, is the part of the brain that processes what “stress” is - in short, the children of more educated, wealthier parents are genetically “designed” to better cope with stressors and retain information than lower class tykes.

Oh, and it gets worse from there. You see, children that experience stressors from 0-5 years of age aren’t just emotionally stunted, but neurologically damaged in the process. If “toxic stress” levels climb too high for children, scientists say neuroconnectors in their brains are permanently “shorted.” The end result? Higher levels of drug abuse, depression and even shittier overall health later in life.

The secret science here is that children of wealthy parents aren’t smarter BECAUSE their parents are educated and have money, but because their moms and dads are able to provide more stable home lives and earlier educational opportunities, which in turn KEEP their kids' brains from becoming whirlpools of pre-school angst. Feasibly, a lower income child can became an intelligent individual despite their parents’ meager income, pending ma and pa do the best they can to keep the household peaceful and devoid of too many obstacles to the well-being of their child’s mental health.

Which brings us to the topic of broken homes. You know what, I’ll just let you read the data for yourself. Clearly, if being in a poor household with TWO parents generally puts people at an early neurological disadvantage, growing up with just a parent tends to put people on the fast track to G.E.D.-ville in a hurry.

BUT, there seems to be one major weak spot regarding this “socioeconomic/neurological” barrier. Regardless of parental income or education status, evidence suggests that children that learn to read at earlier ages generally end up with greater cognitive abilities than their peers - meaning that the quicker your kid becomes literate, the more likely he or she can compensate for whatever neurological shortcomings he or she may have encountered earlier in his or her development.

Learn as much about the social sciences as you can before entering high school 

One of the great unpublicized realities of neurology is that our intelligence levels - for all intents and purposes - “crystallize” before we enter the 9th grade. Long story short, how intelligent you are compared to your peers at age 14 is generally how intelligent you will be compared to your peers throughout life. That means in between the ages of 6 and 13, it’s time to get your ass seriously cultured.

“Intelligence” is a pretty difficult thing to gauge. No matter how you define “smart,” a few general attributes are common when determining whether or not an individual is above average; memorization, spatial skills, and ability to multi-task, among others. The “problem” here is that people generally look at intelligence as a basic evaluation of STEM capabilities, and that’s it. Going back to that whole left brain/right brain dynamic we’ve heard about a billion times now, students that score astoundingly high in math and science generally have a more difficult time handling the humanities than the average student. Put a top 10 percentile engineering student or computer scientist in a sociology or philosophy class, and watch Mr. Smarty Pants go from teacher’s pet to dumbfounded like that.

You know how earlier, we were talking about richer kids being more soundly “wired” neurologically than poorer kids? Well, that’s true, but as we all know, neurological ability doesn’t necessarily mean one is generally better at adapting or applying him or herself. The reality is, a lot of professions that we think of as being the domain of eggheads - math, science, technology, engineering and economics - are all quantitative fields that are more accessible to individuals with rudimentary intelligence. Their neurons process information faster, and their heads can store greater amounts of data. They have the ability to memorize complex data sets and equations, and have no problem evaluating complex systems - just as long as those complex systems have a certain, numerical value and a definitive solution set.

Now, let me turn your attention towards an entirely different kind of intelligence - social intelligence.

Like general intelligence, social intelligence is a little difficult to decisively nail down, but according to most theorists, one’s social intelligence encompasses several key things: one’s self-awareness, one’s awareness of society and social prompts, and one’s general understanding of the complexity of human behaviors. If general intelligence is a measurement of one’s quantitative abilities, than social intelligence is a measure or one’s qualitative abilities, how he or she develops social cognition, empathic accuracy and self-presentation and a whole host of other interpersonal skills.

While rudimentary intelligence can be improved through practice, the neurology is pretty damning; if a kid has more well-developed neuroconnectors, more hippocampus volume and less amygdale volume, of course he or she will be inherently better at quantitative studies than the average individual. Where pre-adolescents can score an upper hand is when parents place an emphasis on increasing the social intelligence of their children; that is, developing interpersonal skills and a greater knowledge of social systems and the complexity of self at an early age.

That means that, between the ages of 6 to 13, your kid needs as much social experiences as he or she can get. That means a ton of interaction and exposure to culture; as in, real culture, and not all of that bullshit on PBS. A lot of people think history, psychology and philosophy are “too intricate” for young kids, but I tend to disagree; think about the social advantage a pre-teen has when he KNOWS about social factors like groupthink, and Freudian transference and even the Marxist “base and superstructure” theory. Not only does it make for a more socially-attuned kid, I think it makes for a more well-informed, better-judging individual all around. The more a young kid knows about self and society, the more likely he or she will figure out how to best adapt and apply him or herself in diverse social environments - a highly desirable characteristic that even the most well-adjusted children of privilege oftentimes have major difficulties achieving.

For God’s sake, stay away from drugs and alcohol

This one is a no-brainer if there ever was one. The great thing here is, people seem to be completely unaware of how drug and alcohol use during adolescence hampers one’s neurological development - as in, permanently.

Let’s get the basic stuff out of the way early. If you need me to tell you that doing heroin or meth at 15 is bad for a teen’s neurological development, then congratulations on figuring out how to finally open a laptop. Secondly, the physiological effects, while relatively short-term, still have a major developmental influence on the neurological growth of young people.

Recently, researchers made a pretty startling find about the long term impact of chronic drug use among adolescents. Apparently, teens that use marijuana more than four times a week (and believe you me, there are indeed plenty of kids that do just that), end up having IQ scores around their late 30s that are about 8 points lower than the general population. Where things get particularly freaky is that the study suggests that the neurological impact of weed use during adolescence is enough to cause an “irreversible” toxic effect on one’s brain chemistry

The gist here? Doing drugs or imbibing alcohol - no matter which kinds we’re talking about, and no matter the quantity - is enough to royally screw up the last portions of one’s developing brain if he or she is under the age of 18. So if you’re thinking about chugging or druggin’ before you graduate high school, just remember - the total damage you’re looking at is a little bit lengthier than a morning hangover.

Try not to be a complete and total shithead by the time you turn 25 

25, at first glance, seems to be a pretty arbitrary number. And also, the term “shithead” is completely and totally vague and unscientific, but give me a second, and I will fully explain why this is important.

There’s a part of the human brain called the prefrontal cortex. Basically, it’s the part of the brain that’s responsible for individual judgment - that is, the most strategic portion of the human mind. It allows you to weigh options and develop long-term plans and fully consider the consequences of one’s actions. And wouldn’t you know it, the average human’s prefrontal cortex doesn’t completely develop until…you guessed it…25.

The grim reality here is that once we hit 25, we’re basically done “developing” on the neurological level. While we may maintain our basic intelligence level and mental faculties from 25 until we hit middle age, by the time we are in our mid twenties, that’s it as far as who we are as developmental creatures. Our morals are basically concrete, and how we respond or react to environmental prompts is hardwired into our skulls. At 25, we are as socially and neurologically developed as we’re going to be, so from then on out, who we are then is pretty much who we’re going to be until the day we die (barring some major traumatic brain injury or an unfortunate case of full-blown Alzheimer’s, of course.)

With that info in mind, I suppose you can see the importance of preventing individuals from becoming shitheads before they hit their mid 20s. While social interventions can alter an individual’s conscientious perceptions in adolescence, by the time an individual reaches quarter-life crisis, it’s pretty darned difficult to “reverse” one’s prefrontal proclivities. Not only do the frontal lobes serve as  the “core” of one’s decision making, they also serve as the emotional hodgepodge where things like anger, sexual desire and compassion for others are “solidified” as one’s traits.

Now, that’s not to say that one’s prefrontal-driven characteristics can’t be altered, it’s just that it’s way, Way, WAYYY easier to do so when a person is younger and still developing mentally. That’s why it’s so much easier for an individual to learn multiple languages when he or she started as a kid than if he or she was to try and pick up a second tongue in college - your brain is still in the process of forming into its “permanent” shaping, and you still have a little developmental space left to acquire new skills and even strengthen things like neuroconnector speed. Along the same vein, that’s why so many criminal justice folks make an emphasis on rehabilitating offenders when they are still children - the “core” of who they are is still moldable, and a lot of those prefrontal patterns are still susceptible to alterations.

To make a long story short, by the time you are 25, your behavioral dispositions are pretty much solidified inside the complex circuitry of your brain. After that, you are more or less the individual that you will end up “being” for the rest of your life, and if you just so happen to be a complete and total shmuck at the big 2-5? Odds are, you’re going to be a complete and total shmuck forever.

Conclusion (or something kinda’ like that, I guess): 

For as long as human beings are going to be on this planet, the debate about biological determinism and social influences - and particularly, which of the two has a “greater pull” on one’s behavior, attitude and mentalities - is going to be, at best, circular, and at worst, completely fragmented.

In the pudding, we’re seeing some pretty substantial proof that both neurology and interpersonal experiences play might important roles in how people develop. In fact, it’s quite clear that the two are so closely related - with social experiences shaping physiology, and vice versa - that it seems a little stupid to separate the two factors as co-influencers on one’s mental health.

The problem is, the sectors of psychology and biology are so opposed to intermingling that it seems as if the two fields are intentionally trying to downplay the push-pull relationship between external factors (social prompts and personal experiences) and one’s physiological development. The reality is, BOTH influence how an individual develops, and until modern science - all branches, mind you - come to the consensus that “nature” and “nurture” are completely inseparable as psychological concepts, we’re just going to find ourselves chasing the invisible dragon until our shoes fall apart.

Now, as far as how this information should influence how one lives his or her life, well…I think it’s something thought we all ought to take into consideration as individuals. An understanding of the complexity of neurology would go a long way in truly explaining why people do what the end up doing, and in some capacity, believe what they believe and hold true what they hold true. The problem there, of course, is that such a perspective inevitably provides us a slippery slope into total determinism - meaning, if you don’t blaze past all four of these major neurological development impasses without a checkmark, it’s ultimately impossible for one to become a “completely” functional adult human. Which, in turn, brings me to my ultimate thesis.

While statistics give us a pretty good idea about general populations, it all goes out the window when analyzing people as individual human beings. Yeah, if you check off all four of these things in your path to adulthood, you will most likely be a pretty decent human being, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t skip a point or two and still turn out a pretty good person - if not one better than most of the individuals that can say they snuck past all four neurological checkpoints without incident. Similarly, I am almost certain that there are people out there that failed at all four neurological points that ended up becoming decent folks, they same way there are PLENTY of people that nailed all four that have to be among the worst human beings that have ever lived.

Summarily, if you want a good life, these four suggestions are most likely to put you in a position to succeed, based upon what we now know about neurological development and its impact on psyche. But, to guarantee that you will have a good life, there’s only one criterion that, at the end of the day, matters:

Just how willing are you, as an individual, to strive for one?

1 comment:

  1. What you have to understand is that psychology originally meant study of the soul (mind & spirit), not just the organic brain, as seen here:

    In fact, the Latin meaning is actually an originally African concept. If you don't believe me, look at all the interest in the Pyramids and hieroglyphics.