18. Our Connecting Machine

This is the next chapter of a book called “Pyramids and Trees: Attachment, Addiction, Empire, and a Nation Bursting Forth.

As a human parent, we have one real job:  To get our child addicted.  

…to people.  We call it connecting, and hopefully we connect to good people in a nicely balanced relational mesh.  If connecting humans is evolution’s strategy for our species, our biology and brains evolved with this end in mind: Connect to as many people as deeply as possible, while retaining individuality. 

That individuality is our own gift to the species.  The best humans are the ones who are most relationally connected to humans, without losing their own identity. 

This Goldilocks balance keeps our individuality healthy and makes us better contributors to the Whole species.  If we isolate too much, we are like a sheep who has wandered off from the pack.  With no science or reality to keep us in check, we become easily manipulated by whatever has our trust.  Even if we survived the manipulation, our own awesome discoveries and growth would do the human race a fat lot of good, since we don’t talk to anyone.

On the other hand, if we are too integrated, we have no sense of self and are pretty worthless.  We follow the pop culture without calling anything into question, and are just another easily manipulated check mark on an election ballot. 

A balanced human contributes to the building of human society and ordering the world together in harmony. 

To keep this homeostasis, we had to have a rock solid emotional foundation on which to build.  Evolutionary biology handed rock solid hardware, but it had to be programmed with rock solid software.  

This is how we did it. 

With each one of us, the emotional foundation was built in the first year of our life – the year of Magic.

To cram 86 billion neurons into your head, and then get that head out of your mom’s vagina before it killed her, evolution got creative.  It decided to give you an underdeveloped brain in utero, and you would have to finish development outside in the cold.[1] 

Infant brains are a bit like computers with BIOS[2] installed – hardware with a very basic framework of firmware, set up and ready to be programmed.

Over the course of a few years, through a series of leveraged trades, your brain transforms into fully operational software you’ll need to run C:\LIFE.

THE PROGRAMMING BEGINS

Whoever gives a baby’s brain attention and energy is it’s best chance at survival and development.  This is the baby’s domination plan for the earth.

And it’s genius.  If attention is every person’s gold, the baby’s got a fantastic game plan.   Which is good, since it’s the baby’s only option.

So all of that highly evolved skull-jelly is really primed for attention.  Human Positive Attention is the Great Stimulator for growth, and this baby is desperate for stimulation. 

The baby brain vets the sources around it for the best opportunity for stimulating attention, on a Great Stimulation Search.  The winner(s) – the one who stimulates it the most – gets the loyalty of the baby and the prize of attaching to and programming the brain.

Your little 7-pound newborn gelatinous body had almost no power, but all kinds of leverage.  Being your parents’ gamble for the future, you were a little vessel of themselves that they were highly invested in. 

You were their dictator, and no matter how badly you abused them, they had little choice but to serve your every need.  You screamed, and they came running.  You liked it.  They allowed you to exploit and violate all their normal routines and even their health.  Basically, they worshipped you.  And the ones who did it best won your highest regard.  Generally, Mom.  Sorry, dad. You can have silver.

THE GREAT SURVIVAL QUEST

Your first need was to find food.  Pretty key, so the brain stem took that one on and caused you to scream like crazy, even if it killed you. So you invested what you had – your unfettered emotions – by throwing them out into the cold chaotic world to see if anyone cared to respond. 


It didn’t take long for you to figure out that whoever was giving you milk was a superstar:  Mom.  You went ahead and forgave her for forcing you into a conehead during birth.

The smell and taste of mom’s milk stimulated your olfactory senses and taste buds –

— and your first two senses began to develop around this magical Liquid of Survival.  Your brain didn’t just connect to the milk, but to wonderful human giving it to you.  Your brain began to release oxytocin when mom showed up and cuddled you.  Along with her milk, you learned to distinguish the smell of her amniotic fluid and skin by two weeks of age.  Smell and taste were your most primitive forms of connection.[3]  Ideally, they were fine-tuned by your mom.

Through this openness to vulnerability, your sensory input became intimate with and deeply connected to your mom, your codependent savior-servant.

Score two for human connection.

The next battle to program you was for Touch.  Your brain also quickly figured out it should prefer the touch of this life-giving, loving, nurturing momma skin over other textures.   It was like a silky, warm blanket of comfort and protection that let your spazzing brain CHILL and helped your metabolic temperature keep homeostasis.  Just connect to Momma’s skin. [4]

So our touch senses also became regulated and balanced via an inextricable connection with mom.

Next came hearing.   This sense first developed by listening to 2 things – a rhythm of mom’s heartbeat and her voice.[5]  (That and some gurgling intestines, which is probably why we still like Halloween.)

Soon, mom started talking to you in goo-goo- ga-ga voice, intuitively and freakishly, modulating her vocal tones over a range of several octaves each sentence when she talked to you, [6] even though she never does that to adults (awkward).  

The ranges of pitch when speaking to various folks/pets.[7]

All this tone variation caught your spaz-brain’s attention like a wild episode of SpongeBob SquarePants.  You were an emotional mess-ball of snot, freaking out at all the unsafe things in the world, and a whisper wouldn’t do.  Mum caught your attention by spazzing out her voice to meet you in your wild emotional state. 

Captivating. First, she[8] mostly fed you on her left boob while speaking and singing into your left ear, which helped develop your right brain.[9]  At this point, you were only paying attention to basic tones, which seems to be why your right brain took the lead on musicality.  After a couple of months, she started holding you from behind, playing with you like a puppet and speaking into your right ear, about the time you were paying attention to words. This is probably why your left brain took the lead on words. [10]

Your auditory circuits are now firmly adapted for the reception of a human’s voice over other pitches.    You learned to associate a voice with the fulfillment of your needs.  You also learned to associate tone with mood, quite handy for survival.  A 1-year old child, while they don’t know our language yet, knows their mothers voice and intentions by their tone.[11]  Music is the foundation for speech.[12] All this positive, safe attention.

This lady was the ticket.  And you programmed your hearing and emotions via connecting with her.  4-Zip.

Last and greatest sense to develop: sight.   

This one took a while.  When you were born, everything looked like this:

And finally, this sight came into view:

These three dots started it all.

These three dots started it all.

You quickly figured out that these three dots were pretty special, because they accompanied every great gift for survival.  A face.  Faces were so important that a pea-sized region of your brain, called the Fusiform Face Area (FFA), is completely dedicated to deciphering the complex algorithms needed to recognize the tiniest of differences here.[13]

Mom, Dad, and your crazy uncle Roy got busy making all these goofy faces up close.  Same thing happened as with baby talk—exaggerated expressions caught your attention, and you were mesmerized:

I’m still a little pissed that mom and dad quit making funny faces.

These funny faces helped you exercise your FFA and primed your sight for social awareness. Just as zebras are connoisseurs of stripes, we are facial recognition wizards.  Unlike any other animal, we can tell apart virtually every human we’ve ever met just based on face and categorize hundreds of emotional states based on the tiniest variation in expression.

These faces were the only Netflix we had, and we binged.  We fell deeper in attachment, and our vision got clearer, with these faces as the pinnacle of our visual existence.

Faces are the most important object we look at, because understanding them is the key to a successful life.  We subconsciously traverse the world scanning faces and gleaning all kinds of information based on their expressions.  Thanks to mirror neurons, we even feel a bit of what they are feeling and match our own expression to theirs. 

All this training really paid off, so that now you can know the meaning to every emoji on your phone, and many more NOT on your phone.

Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to find the right emoji when you need it most.

This facial training, provided for free by mom and dad, connected you.  If they felt sad, you downloaded it.  If they felt joy, it was contagious. 

In a healthy home, those adults were emotionally stable.  Over several years, your connection to stable emotional adults anchored your volatile baby emotions and took you from

The more you attached to them, the more you would regulate your emotions like theirs.  With all your senses in sync, your neuropsychology was developed by and for those who poured life into you.

Attachment. 

Mom and Dad and Uncle Roy got your brain addicted to human stimulation, because the only chance you have at surviving is bonding with humans.

The depths to which social connection is intertwined with our existence have still hardly been explored.   New studies are consistently finding that our social interaction affects not only our psychological well-being, but even basic vital functions such as our hormones,[14] digestive tracts,[15] immune systems,[16] and life expectancy.[17]

We are hardwired all the way to our core for human connection. 


REFERENCES

[1] This is why our brains double in size in year one!  Fun fact:  IQ can be predicted by measuring baby’s head circumference at birth and again at 1 month.  More head growth in month 1 = higher IQ later.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4530288/

[2] Ask someone born between 1975-1990.

[3] Seriously, smell.  One study gave menstruating women shirts from different types men, and they were most attracted to the smell of the most symmetrical [generally, healthiest and most attractive] men.  Read it and weep: Human body odour, symmetry and attractiveness. A Rikowski and K Grammer; Proc Biol Sci. 1999 May 7; 266(1422): 869–874.

[4] See the videos from Dr. Karyn Puvis that explain sensory development. Start here: https://empoweredtoconnect.org/resources/understanding-sensory-processing/

[5] All that chaos/order/chaos/order homeostasis bit has created quite a few rhythmatic sequences in nature, like day/night, life/death, and momma’s heartbeat.  Which is why you like to groove to the beat.   Don’t you?  Don’t lie.

[6] Listen to yourself when you talk to babies?  Why?  WHYYYYYY??   You’re training that little dude.  Instinct.  You got it.  Just for fun, try talking to a baby like normal bass monotone and watch everybody freak out- including baby.

[7] Gergely, A., Faragó, T., Galambos, Á. et al. (2017). Differential effects of speech situations on mothers’ and fathers’ infant-directed and dog-directed speech: An acoustic analysis. Sci Rep 7, 13739 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-13883-2

[8] That’s 88% of moms who are right-handed. Southpaws, please flip all right-left hemisphere references hither forth.

[9] The hypothesis is that This is why, in 88% of people, left hemisphere only can talk, while righty can sing notes.  Cool, huh?

[10] This is all called the Mother’s Voice hypothesis, and has gained a ton of traction in recent years.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/animal-emotions/201701/mums-babies-and-their-brains-why-they-take-sides; also see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3439120/  

[11] One study was done that showed one year olds responded the same way to their mother saying things in English or greek, regardless of what was being said. https://medicalxpress.com/news/2012-01-english-greek-toddlers-tone.html

[12] Awesome study showing this concept: Brandt, Gebrian, & Slevc. (2012).  Music and Early Language Acquisition.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3439120/  For adults, see Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink.  describes a study done by medical researchers that found that by using a content-filtered audio recording of conversations between doctors and patients, they could predict which doctors were more likely to be sued for medical malpractice.   They took four 10-second clips of conversation between doctor-patient, filtered the audio so that they couldn’t understand the words, but could only hear the tone of voice, and in 40 seconds time could predict with high accuracy if you would get sued.  

[13] This pea-size part of our brain, called the Fusiform Face Area, has one job: to recognize faces, specifically, eyes, nose, and mouth.  This somehow connects us to states of empathy.  One study brain-scanned people watching a stick being broken.  Nothing.  Blank stare.  Then, they took another stick, drew a smiley face on it, and broke it – and their brain went beserk with empathy and shock.  

[14] https://www.socialconnectedness.org/social-science-101-this-is-your-brain-on-social/

[15] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-37298-9

[16]https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0024320500005063  

[17] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1745691614568352?journalCode=ppsa

17. Relationship Gardens

Note: This is the next release from a book.

Over millennia, our lifestyles co-evolved with our brain’s social capacity.  By the time we began settling in villages around 10,000 years ago, we had two million years of hardwired social superpowers that placed us in large social structures which maximized our social capacity.  

Given our max capacity of around 150 living relationships, it should be unsurprising that we’ve been organizing in noticeable social clusters of 100-200 people for recorded history: tribal villages, army companies, churches, and corporate teams.  Remote villages around the world are still the visual remnant of these clusters.  I recently visited these two rural villages in Haiti.

Notice that each one has about 150 residents, who know one another like family, but hardly know those in the next village, only ½ mile away.  This is typical in the developing world.


Our relationship garden is more complex than a single number, though.  Dunbar said the full spread looks like this:

Each of these friendships takes time and emotional processing.  Our closest relationships with our best buds take about 40% of our social time, and require years of shared experiences to grow.  Evolution did not wire us for quick friend turnover.   We can’t undo relationships or magically grow new ones overnight.  Dunbar’s evidence showed that, once we’re in our 20’s, our inner circle of 3-5 isn’t likely to change much, and if it does, someone must be shoved out in order to add more.[1]

This spread of concentric friend circles optimized our social abilities within a balanced framework of deep and broad friendships.  More than just maximizing network power, though, it stabilized our psychosocial brain within a “relational mesh.”  

Lots of diverse relationships makes each of us socially stronger and psychologically balanced, similar to how diverse genetics make us physically healthier.  Our relationship gardens keep us in psychosocial homeostasis.  Beyond just balance, having a common unified system of friends in a circle provides us a feeling of strength and support that 150 disconnected friends can not.[2]

This social support is monumentally important to not only our brains, but our bodies.  The top 2 factors in prolonging our lives have been found to be social integration in a circles such as this, and deep close relationships.[3]

As resilient as we are, our entire body system of hormones and trip sensors are precariously situated right in the middle of this mesh. To say we are affected by it is too simple.  We were built to live into it.  

To get here, we had to develop the hardware and software of a superior relator and communicator all along the way.  The social brain we inherited had long evolved to communicate broadly and deeply in community groups, millions of years ago all before we ever uttered a single word.  

This brain was the ultimate connecting machine.


[1] That’s because life actually DOES get faster to you as we get older.  Your 4 College Years (age 18-21) occupy as much of your perception as the 13 years from age 67-80.  VSauce can explain it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6LyCC6jjcx8 

[2] This study found that having friends who know each other gives us a stronger sense of support than having disconnected friends. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/10/201007085609.htm

[3]  See this awesome talk by Susan Pinker: https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_pinker_the_secret_to_living_longer_may_be_your_social_life?language=en Also, this study: Holt-Lunstad, J., & Smith, T. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review.. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227-237.

16. Words and Knowledge

This is the next release of a book which you can read here.

Cooking was the beginning of the end.  It provided us enough power separation that our species would become unstoppable.  The next hack was just a matter of time:  Words.

One day, about 100,000 years ago,[1] we figured them out.  Tim Urban[2] was on the scene and recorded it.

Words were revolutionary – abstract visual imprints on the brain that connected sounds with imagery.  Each word was an empathy container to let the other brain know exactly what we meant.  

It was an energy-saving hack to copy a thought into another human brain.  Words connected people by lighting up the same auditory synaptic pattern in each of the two brains.  They were the original copy-paste, allowing people to comprehend others’ thoughts at a higher resolution of consciousness than ever before.

Thaaaaat’s what he meant. Yep.

Words united people under a common understanding.  To do this, we both had to go along with some arbitrary agreement that we would pretend that THIS SOUND meant THIS THING. It took a lot of cooperation and playing along and agreeing.

This was made possible only by the abundance of food that the human race was experiencing, and trust.  We had the margin to take chances to cooperate.

Words allowed people to share more experiences, be more vulnerable, and relationships did this:[3]

But the system was never perfect.  Words were built on experiences, which invoke feelings.  Bob’s buddy had to UNDERSTAND a need and a feeling before he could know and care to throw Bob a rock. 

Words were also an extension of power, like little microloans of our personal story. Sharing makes us vulnerable.  So words, like friendships, were always built on trust.  Trust that our friend would repay the loan by reciprocating goodness one day.

We trust that the person we’re dealing with isn’t going to take advantage of us.  Words are like a cosigner on a loan that allows people to take risks.  Bob’s friend could have killed him with the rock. Words just made way for a bigger gamble of trust.  They opened the door for us to exchange or trade physical objects, like tools or food – which spiraled into global trade and development.  To date, no other animal on the planet has developed enough trust to begin trading.[4]

Nope.

Before words, we taught by visual cues, like how a wolf might teach her pups to hunt, or a crow may teach another crow to use a tool.  People died young, and education was sloooooooooooowww.[5]

After language, we could share and adopt increasingly complex information and pass it down to the next generation and all the other tribes around us without everybody having to relearn everything by watching.  All this was based on trust. 

Each generation’s base of knowledge could grow from a new higher starting point because they could make brain copies of what older people told them. [6]

So our knowledge compounded and spiraled.  We shared more, and every tribe grew more powerful.  If one person figured out how to make a spear, they could spread the knowledge everywhere and save the whole species a ton of work. Evolution sped up.   

So we entered this cycle:

By 6,000 B.C., we were engaged in complex bartering across long distances.[7]  The whole species became more efficient, more specialized, and more dependent on each person’s contribution. 

More parental investment evolved into teaching a crap-ton to our kids before letting them out of the nest.  Today, our Tribal Knowledge Growth Curve has been off the charts.   We now spend 25 years with the best education system in history just to learn how to be functioning adult homo sapiens.

Think about it:

Polar bears be like…

Humans? —

We train people by having knowledgeable (Powerful) people give attention to less knowledgeable people, pouring out the golden stream for the next generation to get enough to survive.

Specialized knowledge became our superpower, and we now exhaust ourselves for 25 years transferring our knowledge and skill through a tiny stream of attention to our little humans just to make them successful big humans.  Our kids store up two decades of this knowledge power before they can even become a net positive for our species.[8]

See that dip at age 14?  Those are 8th graders.

This specialized training becomes part of what it means to be a full human.  Knowledge and connection are forms of power rolled into our developing bodies.

Basically an Oyster’s mom leaves it a savings account worth $1 at a 0.000001% APY, and a human leaves their kids with a Power portfolio with CD’s, bonds, stocks, real estate, and options.  As a whole, we evolved to depend on this transfer, and became needy and helpless.

After tens of thousands of years of this cycle, today’s babies require more than ever before. 

We are high maintenance and highly specialized.  We have become helpless surviving alone.[9]  Even if you pit a human against a chimpanzee on a deserted island in a game of Survivor, the chimp wins hands down.  Pit 10 humans against 10 chimps, and the chimps still win.  It’s only when you put 1,000 humans together, that we conquer. 

To thrive, each of us must oversee a super-mega-ultra garden of living relationships that depend on words, commitments, integrity, and trust.

This brain’s just getting started.

The paradox here is that the most civilized human adults on earth are almost as individually helpless as our baby counterparts.

Humans power lies completely in our capability to communicate with large numbers of people very, very efficiently. We’re not oysters, we’re no longer even chimps, and we’re going to need to be able to have next-level connection skills to wield Human-Level-Power.

Give a person a bit of knowledge, and you will feed them for a day.  But give them the ability to acquire knowledge, and you will feed them for a lifetime.  People skills breed success.

You already knew this, right?

Lesson: If we are going to go from zero to advanced calculus in 25 years, we have to get along and develop enormous connection skills.  We can’t get distracted or bitch, moan, and debate every day along the way.

The most advanced humans would need the most advanced connecting skills on the best network of relationships to access the power and cooperation of others.   So evolution worked really hard to arrive here.

Dunbar’s Number

Today – and until we evolve more neurons – we are stuck at around 86 billion.  Impressive, but we still have limits on our social abilities and capacity for trust.  Anthropologist Robin Dunbar took the size of our neocortex, and, using fancy math, came up with the now-famous “Dunbar’s Number:” 

[drum roll…]

Roll…

Roll…

scRoll…

Ta-Da.

I know, disappointing.  That’s it. 

That’s how many humans you can stay friends with.  And you kind of knew this.  This is roughly the number of people, who, if you walked into a bar and saw them, you might actually have a drink with. 

Your brain’s relationship garden can only keep 150 plants alive.


[1] VERY blurry timeline on this. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_of_language  But we are definitely sure that it happened basically like Tim’s cartoon depicts.

[2] Waitbutwhy.com, Thanks, Tim. 

[3] These guys and girls came up with an index to measure relationship closeness. I’m betting wildebeests would suck on this scale.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4466912/

[4] Matt Ridley (2013).  When Ideas have Sex, TED 2010. https://www.ted.com/talks/matt_ridley_when_ideas_have_sex/transcript?language=en

[5] Also credit to waitbutwhy for this graph.  Just go read the post.

[6] These also compliments of Tim.  Great job, Tim!

[7] https://www.mint.com/barter-system-history-the-past-and-present#:~:text=Generally%2C%20trading%20in%20this%20manner,Online%20auctions%20and%20swap%20markets.&text=The%20history%20of%20bartering%20dates,various%20other%20cities%20across%20oceans.

[8] Kaplan, H., Hooper, P.L., & Gurven, M. (2009) The evolutionary and ecological roots of human social organization. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rstb.2009.0115

[9] Except this guy: The Man of the Hole. Unreal.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_of_the_Hole

15. How Humans Ruled the World

Note: This is the next release of a book. Follow it here.

You and I started out as little spermies, lost in a mess looking for home.  In a feat that I am still trying to wrap my head around, we were each gold medal winners in a wilderness trek against 300 million of our closest siblings.[1]

We were Mother Nature’s biggest double-or-nothing gamble at life yet: a HUMAN.  Never has so much collective order been leveraged into one birth.  But life moves forward when the Search to bond with the Other is stronger than the risk of death.  So every animal since the eukaryotes has really pretty much gone crazy about this thing called sex.  

Case: I give you the American Oyster.  She is the reproductive champ of the animal kingdom.  This lady lays 500 million eggs EVERY YEAR.   

She is also the worst mother of the animal kingdom.  Only 2-3 of her 500 million eggs, on average, will survive to reproduce. [2]   (Moms, if you ever get down on yourself about your parenting, just know it could be worse.)  Oysters are an extreme r-selected species, which means they are horribly inept and have to produce millions of copies so that a couple can survive.

It also means that, in baby Oyster World, you’re on your own, pal.  Gooood LUCK with that life thing.

We humans are the opposite – an extreme k-selected species.   We have, by far, the fewest number of offspring per year of life of any mammal – about 1 child for every 29 years we live, globally.[3][4]

R-selected = least mothering and least parental investment.

K-selected = most mothering and most parental investment  

Being K-Selected also means we all start out as the weakest, most helpless ‘little thangs’.

This ball of tears and mush is abso-freakin-lutely helpless.

Through social connection, though, something magic happens – the most helpless, needy balls of tissue on the planet somehow transform into the toughest, smartest, most creatively adaptive species on earth.  Now, we put lions in zoos for our toddlers to walk by and point at.[5]  All the other animals are under our control. 

I AM HOMOSAPIEN.  ALL OTHER CREATURES MUST BOW BEFORE HOMOSAPIEN.[6]

The ancient Genesis narrative told how the Gods created humans as animals, and then gave them the power to rule and subdue the earth and have dominion over the other organisms.  In fact, humans became so powerful so quickly, that we started accidentally destroying the other organisms like crazy. In the ancient mythic stories from all around the world, the gods flooded the earth in an attempt to kill humans because we were so destructive.

Together

Obviously, our power comes from working together. This is Metcalfe’s law.  More relationships = more communication = more awareness = faster growth = more collective power.  Not just a little more, but exponentially more. And over time, this compounds and spirals. 

…Well, up to a point.  

See, because 5,000 wildebeests are pretty dumb, right?

TOO MANY in a single network comes at the cost of deep individual relationships.  Collective power isn’t JUST lots of us in one place, but it’s also about how deeply the individuals are connected in a common narrative. 

In a wild world, this requires individual trust, something wildebeests don’t have.

Not with my trash can.

Trust grows in felt safety, the idea that your investment of attention is worth it with that individual.  If I pour out my attention to her, will she reciprocate it one day by giving me hers?

So a trust relationship, like a healthy human, can only grow in homeostasis.  Give and take.  Over time, reciprocity builds trust. 

Trust is the ability to throw your raw emotions and full self into the chaos of the other’s possession.  It enables us to lend others our power.   The collateral for trust is our observational experience with that person.  So trust takes deep observational skills with deep brains over time.  With each individual, it has to be grown and, once grown, maintained.  Like a happy vine. 

Relationships are living things. 

Invisible, but alive nonetheless.

Trust opens the door for deeper information transfer – power transfer.  It tells our conscious Will that the other person is okay to share some gold with.

Much more than for a wildebeest, each relationship becomes like a living organism to grow and maintain.   Trust is like a watered plant, as we must regularly revisit other’s stories and rekindle the flame as we update ourselves with their lives.  It’s like keeping up with the latest episode of the Gilmore Girls. 

As you might imagine, it takes an incredible amount of neural energy to tend to even a few deep relationships.  Multiply that by many friends, and this costs a lot of energy.  

One empathic mama.  Too much drama makes her very, very tired.

These connections were expensive.  Evolution had to select strategies:

Even though these connections were expensive, the return on investment would be worth it, because of what we could achieve together.  So primate evolution answered the call. Our brains began to spend a crapton of energy to observe individual distinctions among other primates.   We began to classify, sort, rank, and file observations as a way to build trust and co-operational abilities.   Our brain grew. 

For each 1 billion neurons, it takes about 6 calories (kCal) of energy per day just to operate.  So this 3 pounds of flesh is only 2.5% of our body mass, but consumes 25% of our energy.

Our brains became more and more dense as we became more and more social. 

The only way to drive up both number and depth of relationship would be more brainpower.

One million years ago, we were likely consuming about 1600 calories per day, similar to modern chimps. 

That’s 8-10 hours a day wasted foraging for raw food, just to keep the lights on upstairs.  Since that’s pretty much eating all the time, we primates finally hit an upper social limit.  We couldn’t eat more, couldn’t evolve more brainpower, and couldn’t evolve to be any more social than that. 

So we stopped evolving there, right?

Welp.  No.  

One day, another breakthrough – we learned to control fire and cooked some food. [7]

Fire and cooking meant hitting the energy lottery in places where food was abundant.  Now, instead of grazing all day (which I may/may not still occasionally be guilty of), we could free up hours a day for juicy gossip and fun things, enabling trust and extending our social group.   Over time, our brains evolved until nature presented us with this graph:

Brain size and social group size co-evolved to become larger, having more energy pumped into our bodies. Thanks to cooking, we can now eat 2,000 calories in 10 minutes, and our brain reigns supreme of the social connectors – all without sacrificing relationship depth.

If there is any trait of the human brain that makes it an evolutionary unicorn, it is our ability to observe and remember tiny distinctions among others in our species.  This leads to cooperation and trust.

Thus, we became the most prolific socializers, ever.

Selection pressures within our own human tribes came to demand that only the most cooperative of us would be most likely to reproduce. 

Do you really want to make babies with a loser? No, you don’t.  

Nature selected for the most socially skilled, empathic humans, with the largest neocortex (wrinkled part).  This selection compounded, and our snowball kept rolling.

We finally broke through in number and depth of relationships:

= EXPONENTIAL HUMAN NETWORK POWER

Wildebeest never individuated their relationships and grew trust.  Other primates, like chimps and orangutans learned to individuate, but never grew the brainpower to expand their social circles.

But more energy gave us the break we needed, and the snowball rolled until one day, we discovered the next hack, and the snowball would only speed up more.


[1] Imagine every single person in the entire United States lined up in a race.  That’s the race you WON, you badass spermie, you.  *Fistbump*  Note, this is the very male version of the story.  Some might identify better with the discretionary wisdom of the egg, tidying up your little eggy home.   You wisely turned all the bad guys away and only let the RIGHT one in.  *Fistbump for providing MUCH needed discretion.*

[2] Next time your kids are going bonkers in a restaurant and you’re feeling like a failure, just remember Ms. Oyster and think, “At least I’m not her”.   She puts out 2 functioning adults while the other 499,999,998 of her kids literally die.  Spaghetti on the floor might not be so bad.

[3] UN estimates the Global Total Fertility Rate to be 2.5 children per woman in 2015, while global life expectancy was 72 years in 2015.   72/2.5 = 28.8.  Does NOT mean you can only have kids at ages 29 and 58.

[4] Also, if youre in the subspecies Whitis Suburbananis, you have like 1.3 kids and live to be 95.

[5] Okay, THEY do.  I don’t.

[6] Ask someone born between 1975-1985.

[7] Suzana Herculano-Houzel, “What’s So Special About the Human Brain.,” TEDGlobal 2013. Fantastic talk, Suzana!

14: Attachment: Attention

Note: This is the next part of a book!

SECTION 3: ATTACHMENT

“Attachment is the foundation for mental health.” – Dr. Karyn Purvis


Ch. 14: ATTENTION

The human brain largely formed through a concept we now know as attachment.

What is the Something Bigger that you and I are attached to? 

That is the Human Question. 

And attention is our individual human answer.  Attention is where all the power of our 75 trillion cells is pointed.  It is a constant stream of consciousness always flowing towards something that receives it. 

You might say that all of the energy we consume becomes pointed towards whatever we give our attention to. 

The 11,000 watts you are burning right now are currently being burned so that you can sit in a temperate climate and read this book.  This book is the direction or flow of the entire you right now. If you were watching a cat video, the earth would be sacrificing those watts so you could bond with that cat.  But you’re not bonding with a cat video, obviously; the earth is paying for you to bond with this book.

In a few minutes or seconds, it will shift and you will focus your attention elsewhere, like your screaming kid or a work call. So attention is a meandering stream, always changing directions.

We can’t stop the flow. Trying to stop yourself from giving your attention to things is like trying to dam a stream with your hands or plug a water hose with your thumb.

Consciousness – attention – is the pinnacle of an individual’s existence and a magic gateway to higher levels.

What we give our attention to is, for that brief moment, our “why.” It is our purpose, albeit for a second. 

This girl is giving her attention to making an arrowhead.  Right now, all of her muscles, neurons, and tissues are working together in beautiful synchrony for one goal: 

a pointed rock. 

In one sense, she made it.  But in another, the universe did.  For the moment, she aligns all of her sunlight and earth toward this end.

This guy is giving his attention to flipping M&M’s in the air and catching them with his mouth to impress the ladies. 

Mother Earth’s 11,000 watts are paying for that, hoping for a return on the investment. It is also our investment of time and energy.  We give attention.  We pay attention.   

Then, something magical happens.  Our brains grow an emotional bond to its investments.  

Attachment

We grow hope for something in return.  Care grows.  It’s why you care about the stocks you own more than the ones you don’t.  You clean the house you live in, not your neighbor’s.  You invest in that which… you have already invested in.  It is a cycle of loyalty.

And, thanks to evolutionary hacks, these brains don’t really care whether the investment of attention is in something concrete or abstract, living or non-living.

And here we are, 8 billion ants scurrying around, each constantly investing this steady stream of energy.  It’s sort of like our power mountain is a volcano, and attention is high energy lava spewing out our eyeballs, except this lava is a stream of gold. 

She likes it.

Attention isn’t just the most powerful thing we have.   It is the culmination of everything we have in the present.

That which has our attention has our body and all its energy and power captive

That power is quite the prize.   Win Warren Buffett’s attention for a moment, and you now have a brief shot at accessing all that power he is sitting on. 

I know– Buffett looks more like Kim Jong Un with grey hair, but I didn’t want to redraw him, K? And yes, he has way more money.

Whatever has your attention has a shot at getting some of your bank accounts, your work, your skill, your knowledge, and your loyalty.   

Interestingly, this golden stream is extremely narrow.  For all the giant reservoir of data stored up here in our head’s hard drive, the stream flowing out is pitiful in comparison.  We have billions of bytes of stored data in our memory, but our perceptual bandwidth of conscious attention is only a few bits.[1] That’s all we can focus on at a time.

And this tiny stream is guarded by a bouncer:  our conscious will or volition.  This bouncer is the boss, the head executive of a large corporation.  Unfortunately, the bouncer is not a particularly good one.[2]

If anything wants our attention, it needs to convince the bouncer.  Sweet talk this guy, and he is a sucker, always diverting the stream of our attention elsewhere like a Black Friday shopper looking for good deals.  His job is monumentally important: pay attention to the correct things, and our reservoir will continue to fill.  We will grow and become more powerful. 

Spend too much time paying attention to the wrong things, and we will be drained.  Others will siphon our power away, cashing in on our lack of discipline.

That is why there is such an epic battle going on for your attention, both inside and out.

THE CORPORATION

Internally, your body is fighting for the gold.  Our nervous system is its own competitive hierarchy – a corporation – full of dutiful workers constantly seeking attention for their needs.

Assuming your name is also Larry, we’ll call you Larry, Inc.  Your body has lots of internal divisions.

This is the executive boardroom (which conveniently meets in your body’s top floor office):

Ladies and gents, the most complex organ ever created.

From the best we can tell,[3] your nervous system division reps (nerves) meet here all day with the executive team to tackle important company topics like dry skin, invading infections, bowel movements, wanting a college degree, and really liking sex. 

Here – in the brain – the big decisions are made, and the body’s attention budget is allocated.  Most smaller needs are taken care of within their own lower department.  We call these departments our subconscious

But the toughest problems, or those the lower body can’t fix alone, get their moment with the executive team: the conscious mind.

The Frontal Lobe. Execs meet here.

It’s Tuesday afternoon, and you, Larry, have a mild itch on your southern abdomen.  Let’s have a peek at the neurons meeting inside your Lobe:

Ultimately, the issues are filtered by the team. For each, they ignore it, table it, or take immediate action.  They rank priorities, also a bit like March Madness, with thousands of whiny contestants all the time:

The male dilemma.  Same finalists every time.

Here, the minor inflammation in the hips isn’t quite enough to present as conscious pain, so you, Larry, are never aware.  Neither does the infection issue, because the white blood cell team is so badass they almost always get the job done.  You thoughtlessly staved off an ephemeral urge to read a book for now.  So…hungry and horny battle it out yet again.

It is a very, very high stakes contest to capture the momentary abundance of the entire company by convincing the bouncer- the CEO – to take action.  The winner gets access to all the “voluntary” muscles of the body, the mind, and all the excess power under your control. 

The Lobe directs the whole body to go buy a cheeseburger, instead of making babies. 

But the attention battle is never over.

Say you fall and break a leg on the way to get your burger. 

The dynamic Lobe reacts and reprioritizes a broken leg over a cheeseburger.  It directs your hands to dial an ambulance, while your hypothalamus tells your stomach to shut his ass up and wait.  It taps all the resources under its power: voluntary muscles, networks of friends, 9-1-1 helpers, money, and transportation.

The same fingers that can type 911 could also be forking over $50 to someone on Venmo, or filling out paperwork for a mortgage, or typing out a Classic novel.  But in this moment, they’ve made their choice.  Larry needs help.  His leg is screaming and impossible to ignore.  And he is pouring out his assets to get attention.

We call this SPENDING.

If all we ever do is gratify our internal attention desires, our power does this:

Spent.

So we must give away attention as well.

The river goes both ways, and the CEO/bouncer/consciousness – must constantly delegate access to not only internal forces, but external ones as well. 

They want the gold, too.   And they are quite loud.  And they are smart.  Mesmerize the bouncer, and you have opened the gate to Larry’s assets.

It should be no shock that the battle for attention is humanity’s last battleground.   The fight to capture attention is fierce, with giant multinational corporations at war over our 75 trillion cells and their resources. We call it the attention economy, and the prize of the attention economy is the human and everything the human controls, even if for a second.

This is the March Madness, external conference. 

All for control of a few bits of information for a few seconds at a time.

The truth is, the tiny stream of attention is in constant flow directing deals, transactions, and tradeoffs.   Every day, we wake up and spend the entire day giving our attention in exchange for something.  We trade it to feel something, or to acquire something in order to feel something later. 

We give our attention to a cat video to feel amused.  We give our attention to a Rom-Com to feel warm fuzzies. 

Or, we think longer term.  We might give our attention to a calculus professor –

to gain more intellectual power –

to exchange that for a job –

to exchange that for a paycheck –

to exchange that for a nice house –

to exchange that for —

well, others’ attention.

Leverage.

You’ve gotta give money to make money, and the same is true with attention.  Long term thinkers who routinely give their attention to friends and calculus probably stand to be more powerful than people who give all their attention to cat videos. Not only would they become more powerful, but they would become more mentally healthy.

That’s because we were born with a wonderful, unchangeable neural circuitry that lives in its sweet spot when we give our attention to– and attach to–humans.  We were wired each this way from birth, at a level deeper than we can control.  It is how we came to rule the world, how we created such a mess, and strangely enough, the only way out of the mess.


[1] Brains are impossibly efficient.  The actual amount you process is widely debated, anywhere from 16 bits to 20,000 bits. But we almost universally agree on this point:  Conscious perception is a tiny fraction of the total information you can access. Can  you think of every single memory you’ve ever had – all at once?  In fact, your visual perception even sucks worse than you think.  Try out this neat trick with the playing card:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4898652/  Also, the bandwith of consciousness discussion, decent middle of the road explanation:  https://sites.psu.edu/psych256sp14/2014/03/09/the-bandwidth-of-consciousness/

[2] I mean, I should really give him/her some credit.  Brain pruning (discussed later) is pretty incredible.

[3] Pretty good explanation here: https://www.medicaldaily.com/human-brain-consciousness-episodic-memory-personal-narrative-social-structure-384757

[4] Okay, okay, it doesn’t.  Mine is worse.

13. Scaling Up

Note: this is the next part of a book.

We thought we were kings and queens of our mountain of stored power, and that all food and tools and domesticated animals and subordinate family members bowed to us. 

Certainly, there was some truth to the fact that we were perched atop a mountain, extracting power from things below, managers of our own little economy.

But the bigger truth was that we were actually on track to becoming a part of something bigger on the rise behind us.  

The Mountain of Order didn’t stop with you and me or cute little households. The snowball just kept rolling, almost as if individual humans were merely a passing thought of evolution. 

Today, we are part of families, cities, and nations.  We are members of sports teams, friend networks, corporations, and even the billions of us connected via communication.  You and I are but another rung on evolution’s bigger ladder.  Only recently have we realized just how helplessly we are but a contributor to a Bigger Story that is not about us.

Whether individuals are the highest form of consciousness, remains to be seen.  But we are most definitely not the highest form of order.

That’s because we can’t stop ourselves from continuing to order the world together.  

Just look at us. 

The famous psychologist Carl Jung described it as being “possessed.”  We don’t even know any other way to live.  Once the snowball got rolling, it just plowed over us and we became a part of this weird, unexplainable ordering force at work all along. 

We are but a bunch of ordering freaks – running around like ants, ordering stored power all day long.

 What a fascinating species. 

We call it “work.”  And we can’t get enough of it.  It’s in our DNA.

We order bricks and wood.  

We order steel, rubber and plastic.

We order metal and silicon.  

We order numbers.

We order ourselves.

We order words and relationships and workforces and cities and nations and militaries and governments.

At your job, you order something.  You may:

  • Order raw materials into buildings (construction)
  • Order digits (programming)
  • Order synaptic patterns (education)
  • Order molecules (medicine). 

You may order transactions (sales/retail), order people and tasks (management), or order finances (accounting). 

On the weekend, or in the evenings, you probably let loose and have a little chaotic fun.  But over time, we are net builders of order, all scurrying around directing power where we think it should go to build more, on this helpless runaway train of order.

But why?

Why do we constantly, constantly order everything?  

We put cups into cupboards, food in our bellies, clothes into closets, and pictures on walls.  And we like it.  We order water into pipes, electricity into wires, cars onto roads, and Enya songs on our playlist.[1]

We love it.[2]  We don’t post Instagrams of this:

Why care if everything is in rhythm, secure, growing, healthy, and powerful?  Why order?

The only answer we can give is so we don’t lose the order we’ve already built.  You may think, “No, I just work so I can pay the bills and not die.”  That’s exactly what I mean, you big ball of ordered tissue friend, you.

Essentially– we’ve invested so much in our cosmic game of double-or-nothing, we might as well keep rolling the dice.  

Getting better.

We call it a “survival instinct” or a thirst for power.  But 100% of us are helplessly hardwired with it.  Is it even us – the human individual – that is seeking order?   Here we are, a peculiar bunch of ants on a giant blue marble in space, scurrying around mindlessly to get the best exchange rate on stored sunlight.  

All to build something.


But what?  We’re all fighting, trading, and slaving away, and have no idea why.

The more we have been able to zoom out and conceptualize the whole of humanity, the clearer it is that we are helpless pawns in a larger epic growing. 

We are attached to something bigger.


[1] Well, you might.

[2] Which is why I’m beating my body into submission to order the words in this book.

12. Leverage

Note: This is the next chapter release of a book!

Our real consumption diagram looks like this:[1]

It would be pretty hard to eat 227,000 calories per day.  But you’re probably staring at your phone while putting gas in your car or reading in the air conditioning.  It’s hard to fathom that the products you have and their energy came almost entirely from living things.[2]

They did. 

We couldn’t eat more, so we found some hacks.  The uphill snowball of power had no brakes.  Why should it stop at the level of “organism”?

It had no reason to.

Power was evolution’s driver.  Every system on the pyramid had always managed to find ways to become more powerful by owning and merging with more resources, like molecules or spinach leaves. 

We couldn’t physically merge with more and more food now, because digestion is pretty slow. But we could abstractly merge with it.  Just as well.

 So one Sunday morning a few hundred million years ago, a Triassic Oak Tree made Triassic acorns, and Triassic Squirrels buried them.

Hard to tell, but not my artwork.[3]

They figured out that some energy sources, like nuts, did not decay as quickly as others.  The brightest, most powerful squirrels – and later, humans – STORED food power for themselves for later.  

Why let slow digestion limit us in acquiring power?  This was the first recognition of time; that there will be a future me that will be hungry again, but I can go ahead and get his food now.  It was also our way of giving time the middle finger.

Once I have the nuts, they become a part of my empire, a bigger entity than just naked me.

So we moved from burying nuts to hiding frozen food in caves, and the snowball grew as our growing brains began to think more about the future.

Storing food, though, has its limits.  So much maintenance and guarding.  Food rots.  And our highly evolved body reached a max food-calorie digestion limit of about 2,000 per day. Pathetic. We could way out-consume that.

So one Tuesday, about 2.6 million years ago, our great grandparents came up with another power storage hack:  tools.  We could merge our bodies with other objects besides food that would help us procure shitloads of food later.  Since we couldn’t eat tools, we decided to just carry them.

Stored order to leverage more order.

If we sacrifices our power and attention now in order to build (order) a club or an arrowhead, it would help us save even more energy later by its efficiency.  Genius.

So just like we had consumed food, we began to consume tools to leverage even more food for less energy. The tools became a part of us, like our stored food.  Bigger empire.  We were cute little cyborgs, and our tools went with us everywhere.

The original cyborg.

Tools were leverage.  If our bodies were like stocks, tools were like options, drastically expanding our own capabilities by leveraging a small bit up front to make for a way more lucrative future. .

Hammering coconuts?   

Worth it. 

Worth what?  Our now.  Our present attention and the order stored in us.

All investing in a glorious day when we could kick it back, relax, and hammer the shit out of some coconuts like a boss.  No one was there to photograph it, but we know it paid off with giant coconut parties. 

More energy to amass more energy. The evolutionary survivors are generally those who thought long term- and stored it up. They made it through longer bouts of chaos, like storms and winters.

BUILDINGS

One year, Coconut Bob’s great-grandkids began to think even longer term about his future and make bigger landgrabs.

So he called another meeting.

This mountain of order we were amassing needed to be protected from chaos.  Like a whole life policy for our portfolio. 

Worth it.

Our houses looked like little cell membranes, protecting the entire Empire and helping the system keep homeostasis in chaos.

If forging a tool leveraged a few hours of sacrificed now for a few months of more order, then building a building was the super-long-term play: a few days of sacrificed now for many, many years of potential order.

With buildings, the power snowball was really picking up steam.

And this was just the beginning.

An empire of empires of empires was on its way.


[1] Again, Geoffrey West and his 11,000 watt equation.  11,000 watts for 24 hrs = 227,000 kCal/day.  I looked forever and he was the only person I could find who had done serious calculations on this. Admittedly, it may be off by quite a bit. But, by quite a bit, we don’t really mean quite a bit, since we can easily access all the national and global totals of energy consumption and divide.  I did my own independently, and I came up somewhere north of 10,000 watts.  Not bad. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/19/magazine/19Urban_West-t.html

[2] This refers to all types of energy, not just electricity.  All in all, the vast majority of energy we use still comes from fossil fuels, which is – you got it – from living things. Renewable electricity generation is the first major energy sources humans have ever used that bypass living things.

[3] Please don’t sue me, Fox.  You’d win and my kids would starve.

11. The Food Chain

Note: See the entire book here.

Our appetite for power did not slow down with just our need to survive one more day.  Evolution designed us to amass as much power as possible, because we needed it just to eek out a life.  We had a a Power gas pedal, but no Power brakes.  There was no built in mechanism of contentment for when we had enough.

The ordering had become a runaway uphill snowball of complexity and power.  

All this power needed fuel.

So we giants came to rely on food: prepackaged complexities of proteins, carbs, and fats made possible by the sacrifice of less powerful things below.  Now, we rely on a daily vortex of energy constantly sucked from the earth.

Let’s take a look at the simple food chain that keeps you and I breathing at a baseline of alive.

Plants start us off, those heroes. 

Look at you, you photosynthesizing hero.

They freakishly convert about 3-6% of SUNLIGHT into BIOMASS.  MIND=BLOWN.   If you thought all this power and order stuff was getting weird before, just realize that plants figured out how to store power—from photons.

Remember, this plant itself is like you – a fantastically complex ordered system of systems of scaled up Evolutionary Gambling Winnings.  A bank account of stored order. Power.

And you need him.  Yes, you need his fantastic molecules of B12 and Fiber and Selenium and complex carbs, don’t you?  That’s why you’re eyeballing him.  I see you.

What ensues is not a simple lunch.  It is a hostile takeover.   A coup of unfathomable power exchange between two giants.  

The original corporate merger.

Winner declared.

The plant has already done all the hard work of assembling sunlight and earth into useful molecules, and you just roll into town and swipe it on your way out the door to yoga.  Next time you eat a leafy green, thank it.

Next, your body goes through the enormously complex task of merging with the newly acquired Order called “spinach”, and assimilating the useful parts to become part of our body. Far more intricate than any corporation.

Stored power is the foundation of our life.  But then, entropy. 

So our survival depends on us locating and extracting more stored power from wherever we can find it.  Now, here we stand at the top of the food chain, committing hostile takeovers of fried chicken sandwiches,[1] funneling our 95 watts[2] of energy from Momma Earth.   

But Mother Earth pay a lot more, still.  Since each organism consumes its own energy, and digestion isn’t perfect, it takes a lot more than 2,000 calories to feed us.  To keep it simple, we use the 10% rule.  After the first level, 10 percent of the energy from each level in the pyramid makes it to the next.[3]  

Take a fox.

If you have a 4-member food chain like this one, the sun must produce a constant 3 million watts just to keep a grey fox alive at a measly 30 watts[4].  Countless photons gave energy to trillions upon trillions of living cells, which all sacrificed themselves so this fox could eat just a few chickens.  Millions of years of biological engineering through death and life, all for a meal.  The fox had better be damn thankful for that chicken. 

Also, as you might imagine, a single fox would also have to cover a lot of territory to get its 3 million watts. 

Looking down on a flat map, it may look like this:

A blade of grass can thrive in a territory of square centimeter, while a carnivore like a grey wolf may require a territory as big as over 2,000 square kilometers.[5]  Suffice it to say, it take a ton of earth to keep one top-level carnivore alive.  Its why people plead with you to be a vegetarian.[6]

The suck one fox puts on the earth is enormous.  But a human? 

It would be really really great to think that, since we’re a little bigger than Mr. Fox, it would look like this:

So, about triple – about 8-9 million watts, right?

Wrong.  That would assume that all we did was eat. 


[1] Popeye’s or Chick-Fil-A?  I will never forget where I was the week of the Great Chicken Sandwich Twitter War of 2019.

[2] Did you know you can convert watts to calories? 95 watts for 24 hours straight is 1,960 calories per day, right at the 2,000 that the FDA uses to base a normal adult diet on your nutrition labels.  A new LED bulb, if it could eat, would only eat about 190 calories, or 2 Tbsp of peanut butter. 

[3] Except the first level—the plants only convert and pass on about 1% of sunlight energy that hits them.

[4] Okay, watts?  Calories?  Aren’t those different things?  Well, sort of.  Math nerds, lets square this away.  Watts measure the amount of energy transferred per second, where as calories are the amount of energy stored in something.  But as long as there is a continuous cycle of consumption, you can consider them the same thing.  Put it like this:  If calories were like how much water were in your city’s water tower, then watts would be the rate at which it is flowing through your faucet.  Those are very different.  BUT if your water tower is continuously being refilled faster than you can drain it, then its all a wash.  See what I did there?

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolf

[6] To be clear, I’m not pleading.  But I am pleading with you to not eat bluefin tuna or grey wolf steaks. Don’t.

10. The Quest

Note: This is the next chapter of a Book release.

Successful organic material continued its conquest. Each time it replicated, this new Order called life faced the Chaos of its random natural environment.  The most fitting copies survived to spread.

It was like March Madness:  DNA vs. the Universe. 

Each time, Order had to conquer chaos, even at the risk of death. [1]  Or our entire existence wouldn’t be.  The Force within that Searched for order had to be greater than the DNA’s own need to survive.  

Love had to be stronger than fear of death.

The pattern continued:  Get your shit together.  Throw yourself out into the world and die conquering.

It’s in our DNA. 

The only other choice we had was, be afraid and die afraid; never take any chances, and life stops there.  

Even for us winners, homeostasis can only last so long; this guy can’t keep his balancing act together forever. 

Keeping that complex dynamic organism alive is like trying to perpetually balance a pencil on its tip. [2]  It grows top-heavy in a chaotic random environment. Cells get damaged and the system comes crashing down to its death.

Keeping the big crash from happening is called “staying safe”, i.e., avoiding death.  There are lots of clever ways organisms can do this from the top down. And yet reality remains that single blood clot can kill an organism, or a man texting while driving drifts into the other lane — and poof.  One tiny mishap at the top, and the whole system kerplunks.  

Avoiding a crash doesn’t guarantee a system to live, either.  The traumatic death of a pencil crash is only one way to die.  The system can also suffer a death from a thousand papercuts — or starve.  This is death from the inside out.

So there would always come the time when each DNA would brave a chaotic, suicidal attempt at propagating life before the pencil fell.  It has no other choice.  It is the Quest that conquers Chaos by turning it into Order.  

Epic.

So every system rolls the dice.  The mandate of life is that we must take a chance against Chaos and wager it all to spawn something new.

Victorious order folds into order, folded into order. Over the long course of history, order continued to win just barely enough that life proliferated everywhere, always kept in balance by the threat of Chaotic death from every side.  Every time order won, it re-gambled all of its winnings by creating another generation of more powerful life.  Like a cosmic game of double-or-nothing, with the winnings piling up.

So this guy dying:

– is a WAY bigger loss than THIS GUY dying:

Over time, Order continued its march, becoming more ordered each generation, in what we now call the Evolution of Biological Complexity.[3]  There’s no such thing as JUST evolution.  There is only CO-evolution, with life battling chaotic forces.  

Order (life) evolved like a fractal, each branch defined by each environment’s unique chaos.

Okay, skip a few billion years. [4]  I’m hungry.  Let’s just say eventually-eventually- eventually, THIS HAPPENED:

The Biological Family Tree, Very Abbreviated Version[5]

There we are on the far right. (Not a political statement)

The whole time, a paradox was happening.

While this Chaos-Order battle of evolution created THAT weird tree-looking-fractal-thingy, it also simultaneously created this upside-down tree: a hierarchy within each one of us:

Each level of order in near-perfect balance, folded into the next to create a giant. Now, 75 trillion cells typing on a computer in a room of a house[6] on a street in a city in a country, all on Momma Earth.   And it’s all bound up in a wonderful state of homeostasis. 

Hi.  That’s me.  75 trillion cells, after coffee.[7]



[1] More than 99% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct.  And that’s just organisms.  Think about how many trial runs of early DNA didn’t make it!

[2] Apparently, about 1.3 seconds.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U3vAoJhIWms

[3] Some people still don’t believe in evolution.  If it doesn’t sound right that life could evolve to be more complex, then just look at how much we have evolved since 1950.  Is life more or less complex now?  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_of_biological_complexity

[4] If you’re wondering about these years, just Google, people.  Already told you.

[5] Why does it look like a brain?  That’s a different book.  

[6] Bonus points if you caught that I’m no longer in my classroom.  Turns out, I move around.  Daily.

[7] Fun fact of Order: if you unwound all the DNA in my body and placed it end to end, it would stretch to the moon and back – 175,000 times.

9. Homeostasis

Note: This is the next part of a book.

Through trial and error, DNA’s descendants got really, really good at making babies.   

A crucial key of a cell’s replication was it’s ability to fix its own internal errors before moving on.  Cells and DNA are not only self-replicating, but self-repairing.  A cell must get its own house in order before it is in any condition to go conquer the world or obtain any more power.  If it has damaged, missing, or disordered organelles or nucleotides, it gets sick and can’t replicate. 

This cell one sick puppy.

At it’s core, each single cell requires homeostasis.  Early life forms evolved to first have their own molecules in balance, before they could go light up the world. 

And they did.

Life spread everywhere. The pattern of self-repair that DNA started became the way of all life and the evolutionary mandate. 

Be healthy and in near-perfect stable order, or you will die.  (Okay, so you’ll die anyways, but if you’re healthy, you get to make babies first.)

DNA is a freaking pro.  The worst replication error rate we have found in human DNA is only 1 error out of 100 nucleotides, and it can be as little as 1 in 1 billion.[1] 

Overacheiver.

To survive the chaos, nature kept busy all these years evolving backup plans and redundancies to get the entire organism stabilized if something was off.  It wasn’t only DNA that had to self-balance.  It was every living thing scaled on it.

Every cell has to figure out how to repair damage.  Every tissue has to figure out how to heal.  Every organ and system and organism spent 3 billion years of life and death becoming what many doctors call “self-healing organisms.”

Homeostasis-finders. 

Balance-keepers.

Chaos/Order balancers.

With every warm-blooded mammal, an impossibly complex interconnection of hormones, trip sensors, temperature regulators and balancing mechanisms like cochlea and growth hormones and brain-muscle synaptic patterns and oxygen-based heart rate response systems and blood clotting chemicals.

Life is balance built on top of balance on top of balance.

Time for another yin-yang.

And why wouldn’t it be?  Every generation was just another contest with chaos – a slug fest of back and forth shots.



You’d better have a stable foundation or you’ll get knocked on your ass.

If order didn’t adapt to the punches that the random chaotic environments of nature threw at it, we would have all been extinct a long time ago.  The wild earth was too difficult of a puzzle to solve,  because there are millions of different ways to die in the wild.  She was a contestant that would not be easily beaten.  That’s why 99.9% of all species in history are currently extinct.  The winners were only those with the utmost amount of balance that creates the utmost amount of adaptation.

The least you can do is give them some credit for making it this far.

All of us live constantly on the thin skin of where chaos and order meet.   We are all Goldilocks creatures, with built in mechanisms and inner systems that challenge our own systems–

This is us.

– like coevolving left and right brain hemispheres, coevolving adrenaline and noradrenaline, or coevolving sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.  

Homeostasis was the only way we could consistently defeat the chaos. 

And with every success, we Ordered ones made our way and ventured out to gain more power – only to meet more chaos.


[1] https://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/dna-replication-and-causes-of-mutation-409/

8. Life

Note: This is part of a book release! Check it out.

So we don’t know how life actually started.  That part is at least as weird as how the universe started.  But somehow this quest of order continued with the rise of tiny molecules.

One Wednesday, about 4 billion years ago, a molecule named Adenine hooked up with its crush Thymine (juicy Jr. High gossip[1]) — and Cytosine and Guanine swiped left for each other.   Empowered by Daddy Sun, little molecules were born, and love ran free.

Then the pairs found each other and decided to double date.  Ok, it was more like polyamory.  I know this part is gross, but somehow they all eventually ended up in a big molecule orgy and made lots of molecule babies. We don’t (want to) know the details, but this whole thing combined and ordered itself into a self-copying, self-replicating machine called RNA.  

Please tell your mind is blown.

Consider the following:

These molecules were us.  Long before we were animals or even bacteria, we were combining energy and resources in apparent pursuit of order/power.   

And we found this recipe for how to get our precious power.  It goes like this:

POWER RECIPE (makes 1 dozen)             

Begin with starter batch of order. That’s me.  So begin with me.  

-Add 1 tsp of resource mass. (Steal ready-made resources from other ordered thing if possible.)

-Add 1 tsp of Energy. 

Digest.

There we were, little molecules pushing our way up the evolutionary Power Mountain, and push we did, powered by earth’s molecular food and the sun’s energy.  

Molecules bonding and surviving to create copies of themselves became more complex each generation.  Soon, there were trillions of pairs of pairs of pairs bonding with other elements and making more selves. 

After a long uphill climb–

Nature finally presented us with this:

Take a bow, you glorious wonder.

A cell. It was the original self-replicating computer chip that programmed all of life, built on the magnificent order of things below.  The first cells were probably something like cyanobacteria. There she stands, this reproductive mother.  The Queen of order, 3 billion years ago.

The jewel of her heart was DNA, the engine of life.  For simplicity’s sake, lets do this:

I can’t believe I just wasted 20 pages for this triangle.

All of life, bound up and intricately balanced in a blissful state of homeostasis.


[1] So the back story is, Adenine first fell in love with another dude named Uracil, had babies we call RNA.  Then, she ditched him for this newer hotter guy named Thymine.

7. It All Came From Somewhere

Note: This is part of a book release!

This is going somewhere, I promise.”  – Seth

[1] It all came from our parents, at least for us.  They themselves were already mountains of order of quarks rolled into atoms rolled into molecules.  Roll that in and let’s just say these fine folks gave us all the power we humans have:

Momma Earth spun out of his side over 4 billion years ago, like a piece of flesh.[2]  The ancient storytellers have long had a sense that we were born from the earth.  Native American Apaches told of Isanaklesh, the conception of earth as Mother. The Phrygians told of Cybele.  The Hindus have Mula Prakriti.

In the Genesis account, Chava (Eve) was the mother of all the living.  She was taken from the side of the dude, Adam. There was a pre-existing unity, then the girl was yanked out.

Now, life is born in that thin place where the order from the sun collides with the cold chaos of earth:  the biosphere. [3]

It’s as if the Sun’s rays impregnated Momma earth (gross, I know) with living energy, and she gave birth to algae, trees, animals, and us.  Maybe this is why the ancient mythologies insisted on earth being a she.  Fertile, that queen.

So, essentially, our material resources come from this girl:

But our energy comes from this guy:

And our lives are comprised of combining their forces into forms of power to create order.  And spend it. That pretty much sums up all human activity.

We might also say that

Power = Resources x Energy

Put another way, we get all the mass from the planet we live on, and virtually all our energy from the sun. [4]

99% of all energy on earth comes from this magnificent ball of nuclear fusion we happen to sit beside.[5]  And every living thing. Including you and I and your boss and your crazy in-law and your Aloe Vera plant and your dog and your real estate agent and the coronavirus, are all scrambling for a piece of it. 

Let’s take a sanity break.

There.

So we’re all fighting for earth and sunlight, even, unfortunately, at the beach. 

Quite the Prize, apparently.

On one hand, there’s a lot of it.  It’s a big earth, and Daddy Sun continuously smatters her with about 173 quadrillion watts of light energy.[6]  On the other hand, We capture only a tiny fraction of it, and with this little daily dose of photons in this tiny sliver of a biosphere, sprang all the life we know of in the universe.


[1] If you’re a young earth creationist, skip this section and let’s still love each other.

[2] 4.6 billion years ago, the earth and the planets spun out of the sun.  Pretty great.

[3] The biosphere pretty much contains every single living thing on earth, from the deepest ocean life to the highest flying critters, and its only 12 miles thick!  Compare that to the earth+atmosphere radius of over 4,000 miles!  If the earth were an NBA basketball the biosphere would be as thin as 3 sheets of notebook paper. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/biosphere/

[5] The other 1%?  Geothermal.  The sun gave us that too, a long, long time ago.

[6] Honestly seems like abuse to me, but I guess traditions were different 4 billion years ago.  https://phys.org/news/2011-10-vast-amounts-solar-energy-earth.html

6. Everything is Power

Note: This is the next part of a book release!  Table of Contents.

The weird gets weirder here, but then it will start to make more sense.  A lot of things confused me until the fateful day I discovered this:

Power = Order-Chaos.  

That little tidbit took me 35 years.  

Power is quite the strange result of particles slamming into earth at 300,000 m/s.[1]

Washington politics and Wall Street firms are just a compounding of 4 billion years of a relentless photon attack on a cold, chaotic rock.

Power is also what we get when energy (photons) combines with resources (earth).

P = E + R

Power always gravitates towards and spirals into more power, as if it has an appetite for more of itself.  Why?  Ask me in 35 years.

To get it, Power must consume more resources or energy. When it does, the power sort of multiplies and folds in on itself.  It becomes stored, and we call that….order.  

So, this is a cyclical chicken-or-egg thing, yes. Order is excess power stored efficiently.  Like folded laundry.  Or money in a bank account.  Or rollover minutes.[2] And really powerful power is…excess order. 

There is potential in the ordering itself. Confusing, I know.


Think of it like this:

Example 1: A black Labrador rescued from the Shelter costs about $150.  But this trained black Labrador guide dog for the Blind is worth about $50,000[3].  The real cost isn’t the muscle and skin and bones, but the training and ordering of the dog/s brain synapses and muscle memory into that of a legit guide dog.

Example 2: The word processor I am using is nothing more than billions of switches on a little piece of silicon.  The little piece of silicon is near worthless, except all of those switches happen to be programmed perfectly to be on/off in the exact order needed to make this computer function. 

So when you get a bunch of stuff ordered together, it is a storehouse of potential awesomeness ready to be spent.

Order IS power. 

If you’re a math nerd, think about it like this:  Power is the difference between the amount of order and chaos in a room.

Order – Chaos = Power.

If you’re an MMA fighter:  Power is how bad order pummels chaos.

If you’re a tidy person:  Power is the difference between a clean house and a disaster.

Power, then, is like the potential energy your Jr. High science teacher taught you about. 

If you roll a boulder up a mountain, you are putting energy into a resource.  Power.

— which may or may not turn into a crashing avalanche of destruction one day.

Almost everything we see, hear, smell, do, make, and experience, is a product of power. 

When you are saving money, you are doing this:

You now have the potential to spend it!  Good for you!  Now go, retire in Tahiti, you.

When you clean up your house, the trash is empty, and the dishes are stacked away, you are here:

Good for you!  You can now plop on the sofa and throw your socks on the floor like an animal while you drink a well-deserved pilsner.

When you relax and drink that brew, you are fueling up with more energy to spend:

Okay, you get it.  Those are all easy to see.  So let’s dive a tad deeper. 

Relationships are power.  You had to carefully order your stories to sync with one another’s.[4] We call it “liking” people.

It’s really, really important that we pause here to take stock that virtually everything we have is made of power.

Good health is power, because it means your body is maintained in optimal working order.

Education is power, because your synapses had to be ordered in a way that syncs with reality and the narrative of the Human Collective.

Reputation is power, because you had to be honest and give to others in order to build trust, and not take shortcuts.

Physical energy is power, because you are rested, restored and ready to put your body to service.

Creative energy is power because your brain is inspired and ready to make great new things. 

Emotional energy is power, because you can only listen to somebody bitch about their problems for so long before you have the life sucked out of you.   A to the men, sisters.

Positivity is power,because the default state of the human brain in nature is fear.  Positivity requires safety, stability, and emotional attachment.  These cost big time.

In fact, anything that must be worked for, fought for, assembled, created, restored, or put in order is power.  The work of previous generations who built our buildings and figured out calculus for us were passing down accumulating power, and we inherited it.

But all power came from somewhere.   We call these somewheres “resources”.  

Resources

Yes, this is getting annoying, but resources are just lower forms of power, in all the potential they contain.  Every resource can be used for whatever purpose we decide.

Energy is a resource because no one else has spent that particular energy yet.

A clear stream is a resource because no one else has extracted or used/polluted the water.

A tree is a resource because it is full of energy and potential just standing in the woods uncut.

Get it?  Okay, but let’s go further.  Unseen resources matter.  

A blank canvas is a resource because no one else has spoiled it yet.  Potential.

A quiet room is a resource because no one else is filling it up with sounds to be heard.

Visual space is a resource because you aren’t being distracted or —

An open calendar slot is a resource.  Potential time.

A listening friend is a resource.  Potential attention and care.

A Facebook network that you’ve not yet nagged with your kids’ school fundraisers is a resource because they haven’t unfollowed you.  Yet.

These resources are like mountains available to some of us, potential energy yet unspent.  

But one day…

               We finally ask those Facebook friends to buy our kids’ cookie dough.   Unfollowed.

 We dump our problems onto a listening friend.   Bluh.

We crank up the music and drown out the quiet.   Huh??

We paint the picture.  Done.

We drink the water.  Gone.

We spend the resource and let the boulder roll down towards chaos and emptiness.

In a healthy world, order and chaos are kept in balance. 

That damn yin-yang again.

Too much chaos kills us, and too much order is suffocating and oppressive.

You intuitively know this.  Do you really want to live in a house like this?

With— dear, God — polished floors?  No, no you don’t. And if you do, I don’t want to be your friend. Too much order produces communist governments and dictatorships.  Too much order breeds profectionists.[5]

No one should have too much order.   Because, what’s the point if you’re never going to spend it?

Health is a rhythmic balance.   

We eat and then go burn it off.  We breathe in, then breathe out.  We save money — and spend it.  We clean the house, then live in it.  We get healthy, then spend our health on a life of meaning. 

But why?

This, as I can tell, is the 8-billion person question.   

All of us are living towards something, whether we acknowledge it or not.   

You clean your house in order to raise a healthy family there or have friends over.  You drink the water in order to sustain physical health.  You crank up the music in order to fill your soul with emotion.

It all came from somewhere.   And it all is going somewhere.


[1] Those particles themselves aren’t even the beginning, but this has to start somewhere.  While we’re in the footnotes, look at a photon, for crying out loud.  Its already a few steps up the hierarchy of order.  Mind blown.

[2] Kids, we used to have these cell phones that…. never mind.

[3] https://puppyintraining.com/how-much-does-a-guide-dog-cost/

[4] Yes, that’s how we fall in love – or just find that friend we’re in sync with.  All we are doing is essentially aligning our narratives and feeling safety from the commonality.  More on that later. 

[5] I did that just to piss you off.

5. In the Beginning

Note: This is the next post in a book release called “Pyramids and Trees: Attachment, Addiction, Empires, and a Nation Bursting Forth. Newbies, you can start here or see the whole book in the Table of Contents.

“Hit the earth with enough photons, and eventually, it’ll grow a human.” – somebody

I’ll move quickly, so we can get to lunch.  

Roughly 13.7 billion years ago, the universe began in a flash.[1]  (Avoiding rabbit holes.[2])

This part is weird, because none of us have any real clue what went on the first trillionth of a second, or why.

Somehow, out of that flash came[3] two primeval forces: chaos and order. [4]  Lets just refer to them as the invisible forces such as gravity and friction (chaos) vs. the visible energy (photons) of the expanding cosmos (order).   I don’t pretend to understand this part.

But we humans were born in the midst of this continued struggle.  Life is essentially an 80-year battle against gravity.  

So far, out of this chaos and order struggle, order seems to have been the winner.  Hence iPhones.

 Ancient texts like the Enuma Elish[5] or the Genesis account describe creation as a process by which the gods turned chaos into order, or brought life from primeval waters.[6]  In these texts, there was either a fight between order and chaos, or sex (a.k.a. rape) between their representative gods[7], or a spoken word calling chaos into order. [8] 

At any rate, order triumphs, and now here we are in cities looking at mind numbing screens ordering Unicorn Farts. 

I don’t like pointlessly arguing details. So let’s just say that no matter who you consult, from the ancient storytellers to Stephen Hawking to the Dalai Lama to Muhammad to Billy Graham, they all agree that

— and a lot of shit happened along the way.  

Let’s eat.

Now. 

This is why psychologist[9] says, “We believe that the world is made of objects. I would like to propose that the world is made out of chaos and order.” 

You might say that this-

— represents you and me and all the ordered complexities life on earth. And now, all of life on earth seems to be on an unstoppable quest to turn chaos into order. 


[1] More like an expansion.  Ethan Siegel, The Big Bang Wasn’t The Beginning, After All; https://medium.com/starts-with-a-bang/the-big-bang-wasnt-the-beginning-after-all-81844b973333

[2] Or are they “rabbit trails?”  This was a rabbit trail.

[3] Or is it, “that came out of?”

[4] (I am not the lady selling healing crystals in the strip mall.  Just chill.  Science is amazing.)

[5] Babylonian. Marduk is a younger god – masculine power/strength/order – who slays the older goddess Tiamut – feminine grace/beauty/chaos – and out of this, voila!  The earth is made from her body.   Power bringing chaos to order.  They weren’t as dumb as you think back then.  See John A. Bloom and C. John Collins, Creation accounts and near eastern Religions. https://www.equip.org/article/creation-accounts-ancient-near-eastern-religions/https://www.equip.org/article/creation-accounts-ancient-near-eastern-religions/

[6]As evolutionary biologists would agree.

[7] Quit expecting footnotes for ubiquitous sources, you lazy bum.  Ancient Creation Texts.  Google, people.

[8] Genesis 1:1-3

[9] I won’t mention his name because he is controversial. But you can find him at www.jordanbpeterson.com. Or this talk, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOgSqHtTtHY

 

4. The Progress Paradox

Note: This is is part of a book release! See the whole book here as it releases.

One reason so many billionaires are planning their underground bunkers and trips to Mars – is because they can so clearly see the following paradox that renders them pessimistic at best, or hopeless at worst.  Many of them actually became wealthy believing they were bringing hopeful solutions to the world, until their solutions turned into monsters.

It goes like this:

Progress: In 1900, the average farmer could grow 25 bushels of corn per acre.[1]  Now, she can grow 175 bushels.[2]

Paradox: The average American now consumes 7 lbs of actual corn[3] and 42 lbs of corn syrup each year.[4] 

Progress:  In 1900, diabetes meant a 10-year old child could expect to live one more year.  Now, a 10-year old with diabetes can expect to live over 60 more years. 

Paradox: The diabetes rate soars tenfold[5], largely because of poor diet.   Now, 30 million Americans are spending $322 billion a year to manage a disease that still cuts 8 years off their life.[6]

Progress:  In 1900, 1.6 billion people didn’t own a car.[7]  But humans went to work and created billions of them so people could have a ride.

Paradox: Now, about 6 billion people do not own a car, while a mere fraction of us are pumping record greenhouse gases into their atmosphere.  If I were them, I’d be pissed.

Progress: Even though we couldn’t get everybody a car, we have gotten almost all of them cell phones.  As of 2019, over 5 billion humans owned one.

Paradox:  95% of parents in developing countries are worried about the ill effects cell phones are having on their children, who are fast becoming addicted to gaming and social media.[8]

Progress: The health care community has recently mapped the human genome, created the first catheter-based artificial heart valve, developed a vaccine for the Ebola virus, pioneered robotic surgery and 3D-printed custom artificial limbs.  

Paradox: Half of American bankruptcies are caused directly or indirectly by medical bills. 

It is the same tired story.  We produce awesomeness and then turn and stab our eyes out with it.

We discover nuclear energy and instead of creating enough electricity to power the world, we build enough bombs to destroy the world. We create plastic, and it ends up as garbage in the oceans.[9]

Google “Pacific Garbage Patch” if you dare.

We design life-saving epi-pens, and then begin price-gouging.  We lower violent crime, but suicides are at an all-time high.  We finally are getting others to stop killing us, but can’t stop us from killing ourselves.[10]

Now, we are more safe than ever, but less secure.

We are more educated than ever, but less certain.

We are more networked than ever, but less connected.

We have more cures, but are less healthy.

Each time we create new technology, we look like Clark Griswold so proud of his giant Christmas tree, only to realize it won’t fit in his living room, has a squirrel in it, and almost burns the entire house down.

Solutions that have created problems that beckon more solutions that empower us to create more problems.

It’s not that technology isn’t awesome.  It’s not that we’re not awesome.  Face it:  You’re awesome. It’s that have believed the wrong Story.

It wasn’t our fault.  The wrong story has worked for thousands of years. It’s the only story we were given.   But it never fails to spawn this predictable pattern:

…which scales into this predictable pattern:

Over time, that story has led the Human Collective to become slightly more powerful than good, a slightly that adds up to major disasters like climate change and mass starvation when you multiply it by billions of people for thousands of years.

I don’t know if a 500-pound man will die of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or something else.  But I do know that if he does not change, he will die faster than he should.  And I don’t know if a 500-pound world will die of climate change or mass extinctions or A.I. or nuclear war, but I do know that it will die if it continues this narrative. 

This cannot and will not be the way our story ends.  

It’s as if the Human Collective is being driven by a force that wishes us to live as long as possible, produce as much as possible, consume as much as possible, and yet have as little of joy, freedom, and quality of life as possible. 

Because it is. This is going to take a while, so take a deep breath, relax and let’s go all the way back to the beginning.


[1] http://www.lhf.org/en/teachers/learning_fields/crops__corn/#History

[2] http://www.cornandsoybeandigest.com/blog/usda-projects-record-corn-and-soybean-crop-2016

[3] http://extension.psu.edu/business/ag-alternatives/horticulture/vegetables/sweet-corn-production

[4] I’m being generous here.  http://www.worldofcorn.com/#cereal-and-food

[5] https://www.defeatdiabetes.org/diabetes-history/.  The

[6] See http://main.diabetes.org/dorg/images/infographics/adv-cost-of-diabetes.gif and http://www.webmd.com/diabetes/news/20101201/diabetes-cuts-years-off-life-span-of-americans#1

[7] Yes, in 1900, that was pretty much everybody.  I get it.  I hope you see the irony. Probably not a good idea for everybody to have one anyways, seeings how the global concentration of atmospheric CO2 has skyrocketed to over 430 ppm.

[8] https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2019/03/07/mobile-connectivity-in-emerging-economies/

[9] By 2030, there will be more pounds of plastic in the oceans than pounds of fish.

3. A 500-lb World

Note: This is the next post in a book release called “Pyramids and Trees: Attachment, Addiction, Empires, and a Nation Bursting Forth. Newbies, you can start here or see the whole book in the Table of Contents.

 

I have to tell you a bunch of depressing stuff, and then it gets even worse.  I already warned you.

 

A century aboard this runaway train of consumption, we, the Human Collective, are now a 500-pound society.

7.8 Billion People probably actually weigh more than 500-lbs.

That’s us.

Imagine you are 500 pounds, 50 years old, and you are taking twelve different medications.  One is for cholesterol, one for blood pressure, one for depression, one for diabetes, and a handful to offset side effects of the others.  All your major vital signs are in check, and your symptoms are controlled.  

Healthy?

You get older, turn 50, and you keep developing new symptoms — high triglycerides, low thyroid, and on. For each one, the doc just hands you new prescriptions. 

This guy knows something is off.

Each time, you take your prescription home, jump online and read articles and comment threads about your medication options. The debates on these threads can get intense.  PEOPLE YELL AT EACH OTHER IN CAPS. 

You make the best choice possible, because either option seems better than high triglycerides.   


The Human Collective has its fair share of symptoms. 

Climate change.  School shootings.  Political polarization.  Systemic racism.    

For each one, a lot of great people work hard to soothe the issues, and come up with some great solutions. But their medication still can’t fix the entire organism.  We whip out our Twitter and get caught in debates about synthetic solutions.

School shooting fix A or B?  

Debate, polarize.

Racist policing?  Debate, polarize.

Opiod epidemic? Debate, polarize.

It’s easy to forget about the elephant-in-the-room Big Problem because we gave up hope long ago. It just seems too difficult to expect humans to love each other, listen to each other, and get along. But the universe is tapping us on the shoulder.

Homeostasis is the key marker of health.   We all need it, right down to our hormonal glands and temperature regulators.  It’s the total balance of all systems working together in order, and it scales far beyond our individual physicality.  A human only has true health if the human system he is connected to is also in balance. 

Homeostasis for the Human Collective looks like peace, justice, balance, and stability

From 40,000 feet, we may appear controlled to some.  But in case you need them, or are sadistic, here are the really depressing vital signs of the collective.

Vital Signs

Exhibit A:  The United States, the wealthiest nation on earth, where I live. 

Murica.

 

Let’s just posit that there’s a bit of dissonance between Ground Level and 40,000 feet.  It’s the wealthiest nation on earth, except for this:

So, a bit of an asterisk.  Maybe we should expect this; after all, we have the best university system in the world, matched by the highest student loan debt ratios. We have tons of total cash, but very little homeostasis. 

A deeper look at our Collective health:[1] 

Physical Health:

40,000 feet: Life expectancy is up 8 years since 1960. Tobacco use is down.  More people are exercising.

Ground Level:

  • Life expectancy hit a ceiling in 2015, dropping each year since, the first drops since the 1918 Spanish Influenza outbreak.[1]
  • Health care now costs us over $3 trillion, approaching 20% of GDP. 
  • Two-thirds of adults are overweight.  One-third are obese.  We spent $32 billion on sweets in 2018, and $60 billion on dieting programs. 

Financial Health:

40,000 feet: The stock market is near an all-time high, total wealth is busting records, even after the initial COVID outbreak of 2020.  Before COVID, unemployment was down to its lowest in 50 years, and America remained perched atop the global economy.

Ground level: 

  • 1% of the population owns 40% of the wealth and is raking in.
  • Each passing year lately, if you are in the bottom 90%, then roughly $17,000 of your money ultimately transfers to people who are already worth over $8.5 million.[2]
  • For the rest of us, forty percent of us have zero savings and revolving credit card debt averaging $16,000.  
  • One out of five of our children live in poverty.

Psychosocial Health:

40,000 feet:  Well, looked and I can’t find any cheery stats on relational or mental health.  Just keep flying.

Ground Level:

  • Even before COVID, 42% of us reported chronic loneliness- an all-time high.[3] 
  • Marriage rates are at an all-time low in the modern era. Three of my 21 students live with both of their biological parents.
  • One-fifth of us (29% of women) are on psychotropic medications. 
  • One-tenth of us are alcoholics who drink an average of 50-70 drinks per week.[4]
  • Suicide is now the 2nd leading cause of death in teens.   Over 1 million of us self-harmed last year.

 

It’s not that everything is wrong. Some humans are doing better than ever, and they are so fun to follow on Instagram. Other people are overcoming incredible odds with joy despite being dealt a bad hand. If you’re reading this, you and your friends[5] may be doing fine for yourselves.  After all, you:

  • Are literate.[6]
  • Are presumably in a safe place.
  • Are nerdy enough that you read in your spare time, which you have.

 

But the Collective body is suffering.

A lot of us are hurting, or just bored. On ground level, we’re trying to live up to the shiny exterior.  Occasionally, we get a strange spark of life when a natural disaster like a hurricane breaks out.  Amid the devastation, survivors bond together to find all this meaning and purpose schmazz, helping each other through the chaos. 

They weather the storm together hand in hand. Its like those first three weeks of January when we’re crushing it at the gym and life feels good. Later, many of us are inwardly weirdly jealous of those days where life was an adventure and people cared.[7]

The storm subsides, we rebuild and go back to our old lives of unhealthy routines and the extra pounds start creeping back.

Chaos makes us better people. It’s a paradox.  

 


 

 

 

 

[1] Sure, these are handpicked, and yes, I could have handpicked different stats to show off a good side.   But it would have been a bit like telling you all the good things about a 1972 Ford Pinto.  Yes, the top 10% of parts on a Ford Pinto are running great, but that’s about it.  The real point is –let them sink in, and they should blow your mind.  As if you woke up in the middle of some bad nightmare where Biff Tanner was president.  Oh wait. 

[2] Also sounds unrealistic, I get.  https://www.salon.com/2017/03/08/how-90-percent-of-american-households-lost-an-average-of-17000-in-wealth-to-the-plutocrats-in-2016_partner/

[3] http://fortune.com/2016/06/22/loneliness-is-a-modern-day-epidemic/

[4] https://www.inc.com/jeff-haden/the-top-10-percent-drink-way-more-than-you-think.html; this one survey projected 73 drinks per week from the top decile (10%) of Americans.   I did some extra research and math, because honestly, that sounded like shady clickbait.  From the best I could find – too extensive and boring to list out – I was surprised to realize that it is probably accurate – and definitely at least 50 drinks.  Per week. 

[5] Check out cool maps of the interactions between different groups within a city.  https://www.ted.com/talks/dave_troy_social_maps_that_reveal_a_city_s_intersections_and_separations?language=en .  It happens online, too.  Social media algorithms have shoved us into filter bubbles. See https://www.rstreet.org/2018/07/17/everything-thats-wrong-with-social-media-companies-and-big-tech-platforms-part-3/  

[6] Around 60% of prisoners here are functionally illiterate.  So you’re probably not in prison. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2016/04/01/literacy/

[7] In my wife’s home state of Alabama, it was the 2011 tornadoes.  In our home state, it was Hurricane Harvey in 2017.  Houstonians bonded together like never before.  Everyone was magically nice and helpful all of a sudden.  My friends testified of how awesome neighbors were to one another.  Then, when life got back to normal.  Researchers have shown that crime trends downward after natural disasters due to altruism: https://www.chron.com/news/article/Crime-plummeted-during-Harvey-other-floods-So-12309705.php

2. Up Against Limits

Note: This is the next post in a series/book release called “Pyramids and Trees: Attachment, Addiction, Empires, and a Nation Bursting Forth. Newbies, you can start here or see the whole book in the Table of Contents

“Never marry a prostitute.”  – Jay Leno

In our misguided quest, our world has become obese.  Sickly obese. I don’t mean individuals. 

I mean the world.  Us.  Humanity.

The Human Collective is sickly out of balance from overconsuming.  

And inversely, we are starving, deficient from certain nutrients that feed human health.  Overconsumption is, ironically, an indicator of scarcity. 

Development itself has addicted us to a lifestyle of production and consumption that is unsustainable for the planet and is ultimately killing us from the inside out.  We are approaching 8 billion of us, all wanting Ferraris and iPhones, along with free time and healthy relationships.  The earth can’t foot the bill anymore. 

There is only one way home, and that path is found in seeing our true selves from the inside out, under the premise of a different Narrative.

Consider This

An adult human only needs a constant average of 100 watts of energy to survive.[1]

A typical hunter-gather was estimated to consume 250 watts of (100% renewable, organic, clean) energy while hunting.  By 1800, the average American was consuming a constant 3,000, mostly from burning wood.  Today, we consume over 11,000 watts of energy per person around the clock.[2] 

…which became an even bigger problem when the human population did this–

…and our curve of energy consumption exponentially ramped up in the middle of last century: 

At this pace, it would only take a couple of centuries before we’d need to cover entire surface of earth with solar panels just to keep up with the demand.  

One possible solution.

This is the reason why the richest man on earth is currently spending billions to get us to Mars[3], insisting that a cold, dark, lifeless netherworld is the only way out of this conundrum.

So disappointed that this is a billionaire’s idea of a getaway spot.

Unfortunately, energy consumption is only one dimension in which our narrative is up against limits.  Another is material consumption.  The 7.8 billion of us now devour 1.7 times the amount of total natural resources the earth can produce in one year.[4]

If everyone lived like Americans, we would need 4 to 5 earths to satisfy our lifestyle:[5]

COVID-19 was the first reprieve in the last century that Mother Nature has gotten from our incessant consumption.[6]  While many of us lamented that 2020 was the worst year ever, She was taking a deep breath of less polluted air.

Efficiency can’t seem to keep up with our appetite.  And it isn’t just for energy or resources.  The pinnacle of consumption is information, and our appetite for it is voracious.[7]  We are now inching ever closer to spending all of our time consuming it:

Source: loopventures.com

Not only do we eat it more often, but the information itself we now consume is super-ultra-duper condensed and thick, because we’ve compressed it and filtered it with computers and networks and compounding systems of people working around the clock. 

In concert with that, 20th century breakthroughs in computing capacity has done, roughly, this:

Computing capacity increased a trillion-fold from 1956 to 2015.[8] The only things limiting our information consumption now are the number of hours in a day, and our own biology. As Elon Musk said, the primary bottleneck of information traffic is now our thumbs and their ability to keep up as fast as our brain needs them to click.[9] 

A painful century for large-thumbers.

To offset these pathetically slow appendages, we just kept ramping up computing power.

Now, Artificial Intelligence is quickly becoming more intelligent than us and most of the educated people on the planet indicate that we honestly don’t know what will happen.  The late genius Stephen Hawking said that A.I. will be “either the best thing, or the worst thing, to ever happen to humanity.”[10] 

Comforting.

So Elon, in a desperation attempt, built Neuralink, a company working to bypass our thumbs by merging our brains with A.I. via a brain implant. Their motto is, “if you can’t beat em, join em.”

We find ourselves in a strange conundrum of liking-but-hating the situation, and definitely not feeling like we can do much about it.  No one likes trashing the planet or feeling exhausted from the rat race. 

No one person caused this. It’s no one’s fault. But we are in it together, stuck in cages on spinning wheels doing it just to survive.  Some are tired of hearing about it, so they pretend everything is great because of iPhones and Doordash. 

Meanwhile, the Human Collective gasps for breath.

Overconsumption is not an innocent little isolated issue, nor is it even the problem itself.  It is but the visible outgrowth of it.  It has roots, and it has spiraling effects.  It is connected to global wars, bioterror, nuclear bombs, systemic racism, and people flying planes into buildings.  The symptoms are too many to list because it is a whole-body problem.

The poor are stuck in spirals of poverty, and the rich are stuck in spirals of wealth.  Most people think it’s easy being rich, because most people aren’t rich.  But the wealthiest people are the most concerned, as they plan out their New Zealand bunkers and trips to Mars.[11]  They know that we are on this path, they can’t out-tech it, and there seems to be no answer other than to run and hide.

The first step back to health is to look in the mirror.


[1] Pretty amazing.  You burn as much energy as an old incandescent light bulb. Your brain is 25 watts of that.  One-fourth of all your calories are burned in that little 3-lb bowl of mush in your skull! 

[2]Geoffrey West and colleagues did some great work on this.  Start here:  https://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/19/magazine/19Urban_West-t.html For 1800 data – see https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=10 and do some math.

[3] Start here: https://qz.com/1615871/jeff-bezos-says-blue-origin-will-go-to-the-moon-to-save-the-earth/

[4] Lots of stats on this. Start here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2017/08/03/humanity-officially-consumed-more-earth-produce-year/#69f73c2759a4

[5] http://css.umich.edu/factsheets/us-environmental-footprint-factsheet

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/aug/21/human-consumption-of-the-earths-resources-declined-in-2020

[7] https://loupventures.com/defining-the-future-of-human-information-consumption/

[8] So many different ways to show this, but you already know we are on this steep, steep, exponential curve. One cool fact:  https://www.visualcapitalist.com/visualizing-trillion-fold-increase-computing-power/   

[9] Start here: https://www.wsj.com/articles/elon-musk-launches-neuralink-to-connect-brains-with-computers-1490642652

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/oct/19/stephen-hawking-ai-best-or-worst-thing-for-humanity-cambridge#:~:text=Professor%20Stephen%20Hawking%20has%20warned,future%20of%20our%20civilisation%20and

[11] Douglas Rushkoff, “How to be Team Human in the Digital future.” TED Salon: Samsung, September 2018.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Is1YUQVYkvY

1. Within

Note: This is the next post in a series/book release called “Pyramids and Trees: Attachment, Addiction, Empires, and a Nation Bursting Forth. Newbies, you can start here or see the whole book in the Table of Contents


So, the world is pretty wack. But that’s not a news flash, is it?  Regardless, I’m here to insist that its more messed up than you think, to tell you how it got that way, and that it isn’t going to end this way.  

But we should start here: The world is also awesome.

On one hand, what humanity has accomplished the past century is mind-numbing.  Sometimes I feel like we should just give the human race a giant trophy.

We made a world where you can sit on your couch and say “Alexa, order me a bag of Unicorn Farts” and they will magically show up at your door.

One of the most hopeful signs of life on earth.

It’s a world where you can go 500 mph in comfy chairs in giant metal tubes 40,000 feet in the sky, while people deliver you pretzels and ginger ale.

We have the best teachers, doctors, engineers, singers, sports teams, carpenters, and programmers, ever.  For God’s sake, my eyelid surgeon goes to eyelid surgery conventions and drinks cocktails with other eyelid surgeons. We, this bunch of overgrown apes, just put a space probe on a comet. 

Somebody raise a glass to humans.

There.

Statistics prove we are globally safer, healthier, longer living, less violent, more prosperous, better educated, and more tolerant than ever.[1] 

But statistics also say we are more lonely, more depressed, more anxious, and more suicidal than ever.

One columnist wrote, this “offers much evidence that the world, our feelings notwithstanding, is definitely getting better.”[2] 

Record scratch.  Pregnant pause.

Our feelings notwithstanding?  

So, apparently, everything is awesome, until you factor in those damn humans and their pathetic feelings.  The world’s a giant party for humans, except, deep down, most humans feel like this party sucks. 

Last century alone, we killed over 108 million of each other, just in wars.  Now, our mental health is at an all-time low, and collectively, we’re one big red nuke button away from ending it all.

Of course, some of the most educated and successful men on earth are brandishing their statistics, telling us we should just all calm down and quit being so damn spoiled.  After all, look at the wonderful innovation and safety that they have provided for us, with all our shiny screens and 5G and airplanes and whatnot.

It’s only from 40,000 feet up that the stats look great.  Not so much here at ground zero where my 17 little humans grind it out.       

Here – school – is where our society peels back the surface and listens to people in their purest: kids.  And their damn emotions. 

And here, at ground level, we find out that what humans wanted was never just better stats.   It was never just less violence, more education, longer life expectancy, better health care, or fancier iPhones.  It was never just to be more powerful, to consume more, or to be more comfy. 

Kids are but little humans who haven’t forgotten who they are.

Something within the human spirit, untethered from the necessity of consumer culture, gives us joy, the energy and drive to make our mark on the world.  Carl Rogers described it as an actualizing tendency, innate within us.  A kapok tree joyfully grows into what it is destined to become without ever taking a master class on how to be a good kapok tree. 

And so do we.

I recently traveled to Haiti multiple times to do some aid work. Despite their being in absolute poverty, I was weirdly jealous of their joy.  There they were, starving in the most undeveloped nation in the western hemisphere, holding a treasure in their spirits that I have not witnessed at scale in America since my childhood. 

A school in Thomazeau, Haiti

Each time our group left, we all climbed back into our posh metal tube, opened our bag of pretzels, and hung our heads in sadness that we were leaving such joy-filled friends behind, headed back to the rat trap.

Our collective societal joy is withering, and it cannot be replaced by fancy gadgets, better education, or even good counselors.  Joy comes from within.

And within is where we are suffering.

Proof in the pudding:  Adult white males are the most prosperous, powerful, and protected group in the United States — and they are 70% of our suicides.[3]  Turns out, there’s more to being human.   


[1] Harvard Professor Steven Pinker outlines each one of these categories very comprehensively in two recent books.  Too many stats to list.  If you want some compelling, well-crafted optimism, go for Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) or Enlightenment Now (2018).  He has mounds of stats that are true and real. I don’t debate them.

[2] Sub-Headline from Sarah Blakewell, Steven Pinker Continues to See the Glass Half Full, New York Times, March 2, 2018.

[3] https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/

Introduction: A Better Story

Note: This is part of a chapter-by-chapter book release of “Pyramids and Trees: Attachment, Addiction, Empires, and a Nation Bursting Forth. Follow the entire book as it unveils at pyramidsandtrees.com.

I am standing in my 4th grade classroom, watching 17 tweens sit in silence, scratching graphite bubbles on an answer sheet, careful to make their marks dark and neat.  A student from the Congo silently struggles to translate the English.  One girl squirms in her desk, trying to rid her mind of her fighting parents and her brother, who left for the Marines this week.  A boy quells the gamut of emotions welling up within him; it’s his birthday, and for the first time in his 10 years, mom won’t be there.  She left, because she couldn’t take care of him anymore. 

One girl needs to pass this test in hopes of breaking the cycle of alcoholism and gambling addictions that have hijacked her family.  Another boy wonders if his mom will beat him again because he failed yet another big test. Still one other writes with scars covering both arms from the abuse of her older brothers.  I reported it to Child Protective Services, but they did nothing.  They are overwhelmed like I am. 

I teach in a school of society’s leftovers, scraps tossed aside and left to rot while the powerful in the world get on with their life.

These are my kids.  And I am despondent as I grapple with the gap between what they have and what they will need for the life ahead.

An iPhone could easily do this math, but the state needs results from them, numbers on a spreadsheet to appease the demands of a system that has abandoned them and reduced them to conformity.  Their future bosses and landlords are 10 miles north of here, up by the lake in their flex-seated digital classrooms doing lego robotics. 

But here, we grind, in a grid of desks, always demanding an inch or an ounce more than these kids can give, day after day.  Our own jobs depend on it because the system which owns us needs them.  My family has to eat, and so does my principal’s.  Her job depends on us, and on up the chain.  

Education is now a government-subsidized training for the corporate world, a world that needs these 17 kids to scratch the correct bubble and has slowly suffocated any other possibility.  

There are no other choices. 

“Be a good little boy and mark the answer you’re supposed to so you can make a lot of money one day,” we say, carrot dangling.  The Accountability Economy is desperate for the correct combination of bubbles so their future employers won’t be sued. 

Wrong combination?  Dopamine access: denied.

Keep trying, little one.  Work will set you free.

We have evolved to cleverly disguise learning as fun, but every teacher knows the reality of the Bubbles, and works day and night to strategically maximize correct answers with minimal damage to our kids.  But despite their best efforts, they can’t hide the game.  

Robots are looking a lot more like humans, and these 17 humans are looking like tattered, tired robots.  Even though we all know better, we can’t seem to not keep recreating the same hauntingly familiar scenarios.

Arbeit Macht Frei.

One more grade.  Just a bit higher.  Another rung.  Climb, little one.  Now college.  Then grad school.  Good boy.  Study harder.  Higher scores for that fellowship.  A little more work.  Those quotas.  Keep going.  Your retirement account is almost there. 

One day, little one. 

One day.

This room is eerily void of the free, confident, brave homo sapiens.  They have been suffocated.   Where grows organic life, creativity, gratitude and adventure?  It is not here, not today. 

I question whether it will grow in any container where graphite letter combinations are the highest good.

Our gut knows this is not the path to human thriving.   James Cameron never made a blockbuster megahit about students sitting in desks bubbling correct answers, or about white guys getting promoted to a bigger cubicle. 

Something is off.   Innovation and greatness are not cultured in the confines of conformity.  They are bred and birthed in open space and opportunity.  

Something is missing.   Risk defines every great human story, and yet my classroom, your workplace, and my child’s playground are all carefully engineered to mitigate as much of it as possible.

Something is wrong.   Even when the bubbles are right.

Educators know this.  Parents know this.   Voters know this.  Mother Nature knows this. 

I don’t just mean something is wrong with schools.  Or something is wrong with families.  Or something is wrong with politics.  Or something is wrong with health care, or the environment.  

Something is wrong.

The fact that I know phrases like “Suicide ideations” and “school-to-prison pipeline” confirms it.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.   Life wasn’t.  Maybe it had no choice.   Maybe it did.   Maybe we’ll never know.   But we can know what is thriving, and we can know what is adventure.   We can know what is joy, and we can know what is justice.

And it is not here, not today. 

Our programs are better than ever, but the 17 lonely children in front of me testify of a different story.  One that has, for too long, dominated the narrative of the human race.  

A story of more loss than wins.  A story of more defeat than victories.   A story of inequality and oppression and injustice and loneliness and addiction and disconnection.  It is the story of power.

A Better Story awaits.   

The next great move of history won’t be decided by inevitable fate, but by the narrative we choose to live by.   And there remains a nation of people who insist in this Story:

Another world is possible.  Another world is necessary.   And another world is already here.[1]

It’s a new Story, yet ancient, whispering to us through the ages.  It is a song quietly sung, bearing life out of lifeless places, and even when drowned out by the noise of our machines, continues still.  A gentle hum offering life to those brave to hear it.

It is a story of pyramids and trees and the death march between for those who dare to be free.  It’s a story where grace conquers power and peace wins the day.  It’s a story of justice and freedom and rhythm and life and love for everyone.   

The greatest stories can’t be written in bubbles or binary code.

They are born in the wilderness.     


[1] –Shoutout to my friend Shane.

One Year Later…

A full year after I gave you the teaser,  I guess I’ll go ahead and start posting my project.  It took me a while to wrap things up when trying to push out this 23- pound baby.

See that weird looking upside down Tree-Thingy logo on the website header?

This

cover2

 

has been a long, long time in the making.  All my life, really.  I began writing it 4 years ago, one day while I was standing in my classroom administering a benchmark test and thinking about how to solve the problems of the world.  If you’ve followed my blog, you probably know I later walked out on teaching.  This is the back story as to why, except that its more like the whole back story on the Whole Big Story.  Not the little bitty seth/teaching story.  The Human Story.

I’ve been stuffing away thoughts and drawings and drafts and writing and rewriting and scheming and whiteboarding on and off  for 4 years.  Sort of like I’ve been pregnant with this idea-baby that won’t stop growing, and its 23-pounds now.  Getting my brain around this and putting it into words has been, by far, the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life.  So I might as well get started pushing.

Tomorrow.

A Theory* of Autism

What if autistic kids were actually among the most socially aware of all of us?

Last night, we played Apples to Apples with my family.  Later, when I tucked my 7 year old son into bed, I knew something was wrong.  He didn’t want me to leave.  After 5 minutes of haggling through his embarrassment and fear, he confessed his trauma:

unnamed

Little man had no idea what computer hackers are, but he intuitively gleaned this: there are some scary guys out there, and they might get you if you aren’t careful on your computer.   And we have computers all over the house.

My son is not autistic.  But as the old saying goes, “we are all somewhere on the spectrum.” And my son has enough of the characteristics that they haven’t passed me by unnoticed:  avoidance of eye contact, poor listening skills, hates varying his routine, constant squirming, fidgeting, quirky ideas, and a slight loner tendency at recess.  He isn’t the only one in the family.  In fact, he got most of these behaviors from me.

I am not a doctor, nor even an autism specialist.  I am an ex-teacher and counselor-in-training who has done my fair share of hanging out with kids with autism, filling out diagnostic observation forms, helping parents communicate with their child, and helping them adapt to the stressful world of school.  In my 10 years of public schools, I was on the front lines, and enjoyed a special kinship with these kids.  I usually feel like I “get” them, and we have often made great progress.   I noticed that over and over, the same theme kept coming back: the need for felt safety.

Over and over, the same theme kept coming back:  the need for felt safety.  

To be sure, autism is born from a combination of multiple sources built on a hereditary predisposition.   Despite conspiracy theories abounding, there is no one “smoking gun.”  I wish it were so.  That would constitute an easy fix, which is a understandably a hopeful pipe dream many parents to cling to.  Instead, we have found that a myriad of factors co-conspire to exacerbate autism’s symptoms.  Food intolerances, exposure to environmental chemicals, psychosocial stress, immune dysfunction, and even hormones all contribute to what I call “a full nervous system assault.”

causes

Suruchi Chandra, MD.  Autism Research Institute © 2013

If the 21st century has taught psychologists and neuroscientists anything, it may be the fallacy of the old “mind vs body” dichotomy.  Mind is body.  There is no obvious reason to suppose that the brain treats one of these types of stress separately.  This is where most of us get off.  We must stop thinking of the mind and consciousness as separate from our physicality.

But brains just see it like this:
brain

When a brain is free and calm, it marches forward.  We are built to be doers and risk takers who go out and face life with courage.  We tackle challenges and overcome adversity to make a mark on the world.

When the brain is under assault from stress, we retreat inward to find safety.  We ball up like a roly poly. 

roly polyNow is not the time to chance making a new friend.

Children with autism seem to be in a near-constant state of facing inward.  From what we can tell, each small assault coming at the child exacerbates an already-stressed brain, eventually threatening the safety of the entire system.  The brain’s systemic answer to collective assaults is to socially, mentally, and physically retreat into places of comfort: routines, stimulating relaxants, safe people, quiet rooms.

If only it were one switch we could flip.  But the evidence keeps telling us:  this is a whole-brain retreat.  Think of your computer running Windows on “safe mode.” This, I believe, is the function of the brain of a child with autism.

Factors

While my son isn’t on the autism spectrum, he has absence seizures.  And he is often a walking ball of fear.  At the age of 6, he would not go to a room alone, even his bedroom or the bathroom in our own house.  His toy of choice is not a race car or light saber, but a stuffed animal.  He demands his daily snuggles.  He climbs in our lap, begging for squeezes.

Seizures, like autism, seem to be caused by an abundance of factors bearing down to assault the nervous system.  One of his was an unexplained physical stress from contortion on his skull and upper vertebrae.  We took him for several rounds of manipulative treatment through an osteopathic doctor.  Each time the doctor did adjustments, his body visibly relaxed right in front of my eyes… and then his demeanor would change.

He would often go from spasmodic, goofy, joking, and squirmy to fully relaxed and yawning in a matter of a couple of minutes.  The doctor said yawning was common during adjustments, because the body was finally relaxing a bit.   One day, to my surprise, he walked straight out of the adjustment room and into the bathroom.  When I told him to hang on, he just calmly said, “its okay, dad.  I’ll go alone.”  As if this were normal.  It was like some alien had kidnapped my little spas-ball or nerves and replaced him with a chilled out little boy.  You could have picked my jaw up off the floor.

I was finding out that physical body stress had the same impact as emotional and mental stress.  Physical adjustments were actually reducing his fears. 

If that sounds completely crazy, good, because that means that I’m not alone.  But its only crazy if the mind and body are separate.  And they’re not.

Let me stress that osteopathic adjustments will not cure seizures or autism.   Despite promises of some shaman-doctors, neither will your favorite vitamin, oil, detox plan, smoothie, or air purifier.  But there are far too many indicators that multiple interventions in concert can move the needle, even if a little.

In short, when you have 20 different assaults from all angles, removing 2 of them (or slathering on lavender) probably isn’t going to do much.  But removing 10 or 12 might, even if only a bit.

 

Back to last night.

Here’s where it gets interesting for me.  After counseling him through his fear of computer hackers, I thought, “Good Lord, Computer hackers??  Seriously?  A person can’t even mention anything remotely scary-sounding without tripping this kid off.”

Ambient fear clings to my son like a dust-bunny on an ionized Swiffer.  If someone in the room is afraid, he adopts the fear immediately, and I am stuck trying to un-convince him.  Loud noise? Explanation demanded.  Tornado warning?  Forget it.  Today its computer hackers.  Tomorrow it will be rabid squirrels or bioterrorism.

I went off to bed last night with an even fuller appreciation of his fear-dust-bunny-clinging-Swiffer of a brain.

The light began to come on.

A brain under assault becomes a brain heightened to risks all around it.  It desperately needs to know if there is anything in the room it should be further protecting itself from.

I believe that an autistic child is a fear magnet. 

His (or her) brain is constantly scanning the room for threats to protect itself from.    If a single person in a crowded room mentions or even sounds as if they are afraid, my son’s radar is triggered.  An unfamiliar noise pops up?  He is on it.  New, unfamiliar environment?  He feels like this guy:

My boy may not know what a computer hacker is, but he has enough context clues to know — it ain’t good.  He may not even realize he is afraid, because this is his default state. 

He isn’t a good listener because he is actually a great listener.  He often missed our actual words because his brain is too busy deciphering the more basic features of tone, emotion, and other signs of threat.  In the brain’s economy, these are far more important indicators of safety than how to carry the remainder on a long division problem.  I’ve noticed that my son, like my students with autism, are always tuned in, even when they are missing large chunks of instruction.

Well meaning adults get frustrated because he isn’t listening, only to turn up the negative emotion and compound the problem.

For the longest time, we have thought that autistic children are the most socially unaware among us.  I posit that they are the most aware of all. 

After settling my boy in, I happened upon this article referencing this study:

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It immediately caught my eye.  The amygdala?  Altruism?  Seriously?  (If you are unfamiliar, the amygdala draws its notoriety and infamy for being the “fight-flight-or-freeze part of our brain,” lighting up when danger shows up).  The study indicated that extreme altruists seem to have an amygdala that is 8-10% bigger.  How could that be?

And then it hit me.

Fear is largely a social construct.  Aside from a few basic primal fears, almost all fears are taught.  If, then, my son is a fear-magnet, it isn’t because he is anti-social.  It is because he is hyper-social.

The researchers mentioned call the amygdala the “seat of empathy and emotions.”  

“If my son is a fear magnet, it isn’t because he is anti-social.  It is because he is hyper-social.”

Think about it:

Bigger amygdala = more empathy = more adoption of other’s negative emotions

When you fight, flee, or freeze, you are usually doing so based on social cues you are gleaning from those around you.  To contrast – psychopaths, criminals, and those with antisocial disorders have been shown to have less volume and lower activity in the amygdala.

No wonder he wouldn’t be running out to play with everybody at recess.  Its not because he doesn’t like people.  It’s because, for him, that is like running through a mine field of new possible fears to assault him.

A kickback might be, “Wouldn’t it be also true that a child with a heightened emotional sensitivity would glean positive emotions as well?”

Yes, but there is a caveat.   Unfortunately, brains care way less about positivity.  With all humans, positive emotions have been shown to “slide off like Teflon”, while negative emotions “stick like Velcro.”  This keeps us safe.  It is why we all remember where we were on 9-11-2001.

Over time, each and every negative memory becomes encoded with experiences.  The unknown world out there becomes a frightening maze of Velcro walls, with danger lurking at every turn.  Most every experience out there being connected to a negative memory our kids find it difficult to get past.  Their brains retreat inward to find homeostasis.

For kids barely on the spectrum, this appears as non-social or anti-social behavior.

As soon as I read the article, my brain jumped up and immediately began to wonder– If my theory of autism were true, then kids with autism should have a larger amygdala.

Turns out, they do. 

Researchers have long tended to believe that the amygdala is connected to anxiety, and that anxiety can be connected with autism, as if mysteriously.  Up to 40% of kids with autism have diagnosable anxiety.

But my theory is that all kids with autism have anxious brains, whether it expresses itself socially or not.

I’d like to hear your feedback on this.  Take a look at the research and see if I’m off.  Hit me up in the comments.  We’ll be listening.

 

 

*more of a hypothesis; not the same ring to it. 

So there’s that.

Hey blog/podcast world!  I’m still here.  The reason why you haven’t heard from me in a long time is, well, I’m busy.  But you knew that.  But what you didn’t know is what I’ve been busy doing.   I’ve been untangling this:

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This was my brain.

Turned out to be a lot of work.

Its been this way for my entire life and I figured I had better get started.  So, in all the time you’ve been at your real job, Ive been doing a lot of this:

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and this…

Rings Baby

and a crapton of this…

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Its been my biggest project yet, and the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  And its on its way.

 

Podcast #024 – Whole Relationships: Family is an Open Circle pt. 2

We are neurologically hardwired to form bonds with concentric levels of friends, family, and community groups.   But these groups are no longer surviving in our 21st century structure.  Old, polarizing, fear-based, tribal norms of ‘Us vs Them’ are driving us apart as we pursue happiness and power.  If we’re going to live as healthy people and families, we have to claim a new kind of connection to the people who matter most.

Podcast #023 -Whole Relationships: Family is an Open Circle

We are neurologically hardwired to form bonds with concentric levels of friends, family, and community groups.   But these groups are no longer surviving in our 21st century structure.  Old, polarizing, fear-based, tribal norms of ‘Us vs Them’ are driving us apart as we pursue happiness and power.  If we’re going to live as healthy people and families, we have to claim a new kind of connection to the people who matter most.

 

Podcast #021 – Whole Relationships: Pain

Physical and emotional pain aren’t really very different after all.  It all registers in our sensory receptors, causes an emotional reaction, and leaves us with the choice of what to do with it.   Some of us stuff it and seal it off, but it is still there.   Sometimes we allow chronic pain to restrict our freedom to be who we are and live according to our identity.   We need to be a student of our pain, think rationally, and choose wisely how we should react to it.

Podcast #020 – Whole Relationships: Solving Conflict

Here are the two steps to solving any conflict, any time.  With kids — family — at work — friends — anywhere.  Really.

Known. Podcast can be accessed through iTunes or any major search engine.  The RSS feed link is https://www.blubrry.com/feeds/sethnichols.xml 

Podcast #019 – Whole Relationships: Margin 2

Margin is the extra that we need.   We are a world of efficiency, and efficiency can often seem like the enemy of margin.   All healthy people and healthy relationships need space in every bank account that we have – our time, money, energy, and connections.   Putting some margin in every account allows us to truly live and have the full relationships we are designed for.

Podcast #018 – Whole Relationships: Margin 1

Margin is the extra that we need.   We are a world of efficiency, and efficiency can often seem like the enemy of margin.   All healthy people and healthy relationships need space in every bank account that we have – our time, money, energy, and connections.   Putting some margin in every account allows us to truly live and have the full relationships we are designed for.

Podcast #017 – Whole Relationships: Motives

Our brains are always at work making sense of people through ascribing motives.  But this ancient hack can fall short of serving it’s purpose in some major ways.  Here, I give 7 (or 8) principles that can help navigate the tricky terrain of making sense of peoples’ words and actions.

Podcast #016 – Whole Relationships: Truth

Whole relationships are based on trust and truth.  But what is truth?  The truth is, objective truth can’t be separated from our personal relationships, attachment, and our very humanity.  If we want to have functional relationships, we have to stop killing truth with the games that we play, and create margin for truth to grow.

Podcast #015 – Whole Relationships: Power

All relationships are power seeking power.   We often don’t realize it, since power comes in so many hidden forms, but everything we do and every interaction we have is based on this singular quest.  It is a universally human appetite that underlies every squabble and conflict under the sun.   Relationships will die if our power quest is left unchecked. There is a another more powerful force that feeds relationship: grace.

Podcast #014 – How to Grow Whole Relationships: Organic

Back to Podcasting and here is episode 1 of the next series!  If you are already a subscriber, you may need to unsubscribe and resubscribe as we switched hosts.

Episode 1 abstract:

Relationships don’t just happen.  They grow.  We aren’t machines.  Ancient cultures likened us to trees and fruit — this is us.  Every relationship with a spouse, a child, a friend, a parent, or a boss — grows from something into something.   The best relationships start with nothing on but our identity.  And from that they give and give – and become something the world desperately needs.

featured image © Mike Marlowe Gallery (and maybe a tad bit of attribution to the bridge builders as well)

Every Kid Needs a Trophy

Emotionally speaking, our kids today have one of the most challenging paths to adulthood of any generation in history.

My wife, Beth, finished the Cowtown Marathon in 2010. It took every ounce of willpower and determination she had to eek out a glorious 5-hour finish time in a puddle of sweat and tears.

Today, as we were cleaning out drawers, our 5 year old found her participants medal.

      “Mommy–did you get first place?!”

After a snarky laugh, the response came– “Sometimes, buddy, you get a medal just for not quitting.”

     ________________

Some people say our kids today are entitled.  That they’re too soft.  That they need a trophy for everything.

Maybe they do.

The race they are running isn’t the same one many of us coasted through 30 or 50 years ago.

Theirs runs
up mountains of expectations,
against the winds of financial hardship and class separation,
through rains of data-driven critique,
far from home,
alone from adult interaction,
lost in a cyber-world that threatens YouTube clips any time they trip or #fail.

Their race is not for the faint of Spirit.

Every distance runner knows that the worst part of any race is the head-game.  Of course they’re sensitive. But the fact that they are still running means they’re also courageous.  They may not be making record time. But just by their not quitting, we are witnessing cause for celebration.

It isn’t easy.  Disconnection and isolation can make even a comfy Suburban life seem impossibly difficult.

So cheer your kids on today.  They need you.  Resist those grumpy voices in your head from past generations that say you’re being too soft, that you’re encouraging entitlement, that youre making them too thin-skinned.

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Trust me when I say– life in the 21st century will make them calloused enough without your help.

__________________

After 15 years of youth work, I have come to this conclusion: our kids are entitled. They are entitled to every drop of our scant praise, our scarce love and our meager encouragement to keep on running.  They are entitled because they are our kids. 

The course set for them is long and hard.  And we may just be witnessing the miracle of the human spirit with every graduation, every new class, and every next step.

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So give your kids a trophy.  Let love flow freely, and critique run dry.  And with your little morsel of praise to nudge them on, who knows what mountains they may conquer next?

Spectators

It was a Tuesday night in December, and I was in Podunk, Texas, population 226. My students were playing basketball – the lowest-level of ball you can watch that you still have to pay admission for. This was 7th grade boys B Team, in a 1A school, in the middle of corn fields. About 16 fans were there, along with some crickets.

But there’s always that one. You know. That guy.

He was three rows behind me, yelling. Our boys were getting beat something like 12-8 and it was nearing the end of the game.

“Come on boys!!! Get your head in the game!!”‘

The yells got louder.

“You boys don’t even care– come on! You’re not even trying! Get your head in the game!”

“What you boys need to do is HUSTLE!!!”

Whose voice was this? I’m too curious. I know I should resist looking, but in a moment of weakness I turn around, and I’ll never forget the sight: a 400+ lb man, hunched over with a chili dog in one hand and a Coca-Cola in the other. Snapping.

“HUSTLE!!!”

We swim in a culture of spectators and judges.

Reality TV. Fantasy Sports. Talent Competitions. Social Media.

We’ve done it so much, it has us believing we’re somehow entitled to judge anyone actually doing something.

I sat the other night watching 9 year olds on Masterchef Jr. making Lobster rolls, and by the time it was over, I caught myself nodding with the judges and mumbling, eww, yeah, he DID brown the edges a bit…

Then it smacked me — this is A NINE YEAR OLD making LOBSTER ROLLS. When I was nine, I could microwave a Jimmy Dean biscuit.

Spectator culture has so many of us terrified of doing. My kids, as a rule, won’t even attempt anything that might end up on YouTube. Too dangerous.

And we’ve done it enough ourselves, it has us believing we’re somehow entitled to judge those we watch. After all, we paid.

Friends, no matter what you do– there will always be a fat guy in the stand, eating his chili dog, and reminding you you’re not good enough at something he could never do. Telling you you’re not trying hard enough. Laughing at your mistakes. Telling you how you SHOULD have done it.

Make no mistake– critique will flow most freely and sharply from those who CAN’T or WON’T do what you’re doing. Or from those who think they are entitled because they used to do it. Back then.

You have work to do. And you’re going to have to do it amidst the noise of the spectators. This is life.

You cant escape them. You will be watched. There are far more viewers than doers.

So, paint that picture.

Write that book.

Start that business.

Ask her out.

Play ball. Even amidst the yells, the critiques, the judges, or the comment feeds. Do your thing. Take a shot. And when you miss, turn and give the big guy a wink– and go get that rebound.