All Body and No Mind

In a recent comment to one of my posts, my friend BTG recounts a study done not long ago that pointed out a key difference between young people in 1950 and in 2000. Recall that in 2000 we were already into the age of the “millennials,” those young people that are unduly preoccupied with themselves. In fact, the study showed that in 1950 12% of the young thought they were “important.” In 2000 that percentage grew to 84%. This is an astonishing statistic and worthy of serious reflection.

Much has been made about the fact that our generation is passing along a world to the younger generation that has even more problems than we faced and failed to address. No doubt this is true. They will be forced to address those problems if they are to survive. This sounds like hyperbole to those who dismiss global warming as just another cycle that the earth has seen for thousands of years and who insist that humans are in no way responsible for those radical changes that are now affecting our weather, melting the ice caps, burning up huge areas of dried-up forest, thawing the permafrost, and drowning islands in the Pacific. These are serious problems and whether our generation can be blamed for all of them is a moot question which will become increasing irrelevant as those who survive us struggle to deal with them. And eventually they will be forced to deal with them. That much we know.

And yet, if these people think the only thing that matters is their very own self, and if they become increasingly unable to use the left half of their brains which does the thinking, we can predict that a collision is inevitable. The problems cannot be solved if they are never addressed or when addressed are dealt with by a generation of people whose only interest is in their own comings and goings, who do not know how to anticipate, imagine, or plan.

I have blogged (some would say endlessly) about the “self-esteem” movement in our schools and homes. Given the growing body of clinical evidence, there is no question that this movement has contributed to the millennialists’ preoccupation with themselves. The movement insists that self-esteem can be developed and nourished only by telling the young, whether deserved or not, that they are wonderful and that the things they do are truly marvelous. That this tactic does not work has also been shown to be a mistake in those clinical studies that reveal the fact — known to common sense — that self-esteem can only be developed and nourished by honest appraisal that follows from hard word and genuine achievement. In a word, telling Johnny he has done a great job when you and he both know full well he did not only confuses Johnny and does not build his self-esteem. But it does reinforce the notion in Johnny’s mind that he is the most important thing in the world. This is not a good thing and leads to the age of entitlement that we now find ourselves immersed in. Johnny is sure to be faced with immense problems and he is not likely to be the least bit interested; and if he manages to attend to those problems he will be unable to think his way through to possible solutions, because nothing much has been demanded of him throughout his school years. This has already begun to happen as any one who has paid attention to recent developments, especially in this country, can attest.

A few months ago I quoted Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel in which he tries to come to grips with the forces that have brought us to where we are at this point in history. He talks about the intelligence of the so-called “primitive” people who must daily solve practical problems in order to simply survive, while we moderns ignore those problems, convinced they are not real problems or if they are someone else will solve them. He notes in this regard that

“. . .there is a . . . reason why the New Guineans may have come to be smarter than Westerners. Modern European and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by television, radio, and movies. In the average American household the TV set is on for seven hours per day. In contrast, traditional New Guinea children have virtually no such opportunities for passive entertainment and instead spend almost all of their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing with other children or adults. Almost all studies of child development emphasize the role of childhood stimulation and activity in promoting mental development, and stress the irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation. This effect surely contributes a non-genetic component to the superior average mental function displayed by New Guineans.”

This observation reinforces the claims that I, along with many others, have made about the problems we will increasingly face and be unable to solve. My concern with the self-esteem movement, which in itself may seem trivial, is rooted in this same concern: how will self-absorbed minds atrophied like ours are becoming be able to deal with real-life problems of survival which are increasingly complex and pressing?

Ironically, Thomas Jefferson, of all people, characterized such minds centuries ago when he was remarking about aristocratic people, whom he held in very low regard — such people as kings and their courtiers:

“Now, take any race of animals, confine them in idleness and inaction, whether in a stye, a stable, or a stateroom, pamper them with a high diet, gratify all their sexual appetites, immerse them in  sensualities, nourish their passions, let everything bend before them, and banish whatever might lead them to think, and in a few generations they become all body and no mind. . .”

In my view this is why a good education is so important. The average person today lives the life of the kings and courtiers of Jefferson’s day. And they all have electronic toys — as was  made clear in a photo going the rounds on Facebook in which a dozen teenagers are sitting in a museum in front of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” texting. Every single one of them is attending only to the toy in his or her hands and ignoring the beauty around them — and each other. Our kids are becoming “all body and no mind” and this does not bode well for a future when these folks will be faced with problems we can only now begin to imagine.

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Progress?

We tend to be a bit smug here in America. We are convinced that we have made huge strides over the rest of the world that has been left behind in our tracks. Our technical wizardry is at or near the top of the pile, we have licked most communicable diseases and have the most powerful pickup trucks. In a word, we are more intelligent and just plain superior to the rest of the world — especially the so-called “third world” which we disdain, confident that they will assuredly never catch up with us. Exaggeration? Hyperbole? Perhaps. But I doubt that there are many out there that doubt that those with the highest IQs in the world are the product of the industrial revolution that arose in Europe and soon was capped off by American “know-how.” Is it possible that this is all bollocks?

In a recent book written by the biologist Jared Diamond titled Guns, Germs, and Steel, these pretensions are called into serious question. Diamond will have none of it. In fact, he suggests that our technical wizardry, for example, has placed us behind undeveloped countries we like to think of as “primitive” or “backward” precisely because it is leaving us passive and without a thought in our heads.  Speaking of the folks in New Guinea whom he has come to know well, he rejects the notion of genetic superiority in the West on the grounds that our medical advances have resulted in a shallower gene pool than those “backward” countries that have developed natural immunities, noting that

“Today, most live-born Western infants survive fatal infections. . . and reproduce themselves, regardless of their intelligence and the genes they bear. In contrast, New Guineans have been living in societies where human numbers were too low for epidemic diseases of dense populations to evolve. Instead, traditional New Guineans suffered high mortality from murder, chronic tribal warfare, accidents, and problems procuring food.”

In a word, intelligence is likely to be greater in those societies where the struggle to survive weeds out those who cannot “think on their feet,”  than it is in those medically advanced societies where those with low intelligence survive and  reproduce. He goes on to argue that

“. . .there is a second reason why the New Guineans may have come to be smarter than Westerners. Modern European and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by television, radio, and movies. In the average American household the TV set is on for seven hours per day. In contrast, traditional New Guinea children have virtually no such opportunities for passive entertainment and instead spend almost all of their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing with other children or adults. Almost all studies of child development emphasize the role of childhood stimulation and activity in promoting mental development, and stress the irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation. This effect surely contributes a non-genetic component to the superior average mental function displayed by New Guineans.”

Now, bear in mind that this was written in 1997 before iPhones and iPads became attached to virtually every child in this culture. The development of these electronic toys, many of which are now required in the schools — even, in some cases, provided by the taxpayers — has surely added grist to Diamond’s mill. These toys increase the inactivity and passiveness which he rightly associates with reduced mental development — of the left-hemisphere of the human brain, at least. I say “rightly” because all the data we have, including brain scans and MRIs of the human brain, reveal a lower level of activity while watching essentially passive media such as television than they do when being told stories, for example.

We like to think we are somehow an “advanced” civilization and it will not readily be accepted in this culture that we are not — and that those in a “backward” culture such as New Guinea could actually be smarter than we are. But, then, most of us don’t like to accept the evidence about the role humans are playing in climate change, either.  Indeed, we tend to turn away from unpleasant truths, especially since we have become convinced that progress is an inherently good thing, that if something can be done quickly and easily it is ipso facto better or more advanced than another way of doing things that is slower and takes more effort. This is a conviction that goes deep into our collective psyches and all the research in the world will almost certainly not convince the majority of us that what we call progress is in fact taking us backwards.