Category Archives: Change

Hobbit-Based Resolutions for 2016

Each year, I read dozens of books.  The Wisdom of the Shire: A Short Guide to a Long and Happy Life by Noble Smith was the final book I read in 2015.  As it happens, Hobbit wisdom provides us with advice which makes for great resolutions for 2016 and every year beyond.

The Wisdom of the Shire

Smith first read Tolkien as a child and adored the books so intensely that he re-read them all many, many times.  Therefore, it shouldn’t be any surprise that he took life advice from the Hobbits who seemed generally happy and content.  While living a Hobbit lifestyle may seem odd, Smith does a great job of detailing how Hobbits take pleasure in life and what this can mean for us non-Hobbits if we follow their advice.

Since I want you to read the book,  I will  present just a smidgen of the Shire  Wisdom here.

The first step to contentment is that your home must be a ‘snug’ place.  If your home does not feel warm and welcoming when you open the door, it is difficult to be happy there. *

Eat well of a wide variety of good food when you are hungry while also taking pleasure in your meals.  It is hard to feel content or to think clearly when you are hungry.

Get plenty of exercise, especially by walking everywhere you can.  Walking a wooded trail is a great source of contentment.

Grow a vegetable garden.  This provides you with good food along with exercise.  Pulling weeds can be quite meditative.

Sleep is vital to well-being.  After hard work, it is necessary to sleep long, dream-filled hours in order to process the day (through dreams) and recuperate and refresh your spirit along with your body.

Be open to new ideas and great adventures.  As my grandmother used to say when we were lost or something unexpected happened, “We are having an adventure!”  This puts a positive spin to life’s events.

In addition to his advice, Smith also includes in each chapter relevant tidbits from the Tolkien lore.  He concludes the book with a ‘quiz’ to determine how much of a Hobbit you are.  This quiz is really  for the deep-dyed Hobbit and LOTR fans who’ve read the books multiple times and seen the movies over and over.   I’ve seen the movies (once) and read the books (once, when I was 14), so I do not qualify.  But we can all use the Wisdom of the Shire to make 2016 a year of happiness and contentment.

*Advice in another book I read recently will help increase contentment in your home: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

The Bandwidth Tax

The brain has limited bandwidth.

Scarcity is the limiting factor that can make life more difficult whether the scarce resource is money, time, energy, etc.  It becomes more difficult to make appropriate decisions when the brain’s cognitive capacity is focused on that scarce resource.  Thinking of cognitive capacity as ‘bandwidth’ allows us to realize that there is only so much bandwidth available.  If we are already heavily using it, for instance, by trying to figure out how we will pay this month’s bills, there is little left over for other important decisions, such as planning how to save for a college education.

This issue of scarcity and how it affects decision-making is taken on by authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their book Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives. A major point of the authors is that scientific research has shown that scarcity actually reduces IQ: when scarcity pressure reduces bandwidth, there is too much going on to effectively process all that needs to be done or decided.

Mullainathan and Shafir devote a large portion of the book to discussing poverty and its relationship to scarcity and bandwidth reduction.  Many of those who are poor may appear to make unfortunate decisions.  It is not because they are incapable of making better choices, but because their cognitive bandwidth is over-taxed due to their inadequate resources.  In one experiment, “The poor responded just like the rich when the car cost little to fix, when scarcity had not been rendered salient.  Clearly, this is not about inherent cognitive capacity.  Just like the processor that is slowed down by too many applications, the poor here appear [italics in original] worse because some of their bandwidth is being used elsewhere.”  p. 52   “We would argue that the poor do have lower effective [italics in original] capacity than those who are well off. This is not because they are less capable, but rather because part of their mind is captured by scarcity.” p. 60

Poverty is a serious issue for the future since it affects the children.  “Nearly 50 percent of all children in the United States will at some point be on food stamps.  About 15 percent of American households had trouble finding food for the family at some point during the year.” p.147  Not only are children going hungry, but their parents have trouble parenting due to reduced cognitive bandwidth.  “Being a good parent requires many things.  But most of all it requires freedom of mind.  That is one luxury the poor do not have.”  p. 137  How can children do well in school when their cognitive bandwidth is occupied with hunger and a chaotic home life?   “An overtaxed bandwidth means a reduced ability to process new information…Our data…suggest that much of the correlation between income and classroom performance may be explained by the bandwidth tax… Absorbing new information requires working memory.” p. 158

Many of the poor are striving for  better lives for themselves and their children.  A college education is now considered a basic requirement for many jobs, but the cost of a college education has sky-rocketed at the same time as grants and scholarships have become more difficult to obtain and/or cover less of the cost.  Students are then forced to go heavily into debt, work while taking classes, or both.  These students are experiencing scarcity of money and of time. “…the financially strapped student who misses some easy questions looks incapable or lazy.  But these people are not unskilled or uncaring, just heavily taxed.  The problem is not the person but the context of scarcity.” p. 65

Poverty will be a multi-generational trap that is impossible to escape if nothing is done to reduce the load on cognitive bandwidth.  The poor have to constantly re-certify to get food stamps and other government programs. But the neediest often fail to do so because of the bandwidth tax: they forget.  This is a tax on poverty.  “To see the logic of taxing bandwidth, think about it this way.  Imagine we imposed a hefty financial charge to filling out applications for financial aid.  We would quickly realize that this is a silly fee to impose; a program aimed at the cash stretched should not charge them much cash.  Yet we frequently design programs aimed at people who are bandwidth-stretched that charge a lot in bandwidth.” p. 222   “…the bandwidth tax was sizable: roughly thirteen to fourteen IQ points, with an equally large effect on executive control.  These are … very large effects on cognitive function… the bandwidth tax plays a similarly large role in the lives of the poor everywhere.”  p. 161-62

Benefits to the poor, such as food stamps, should be paid weekly rather than in one lump sum at the beginning of month.  This smooths out the boom/bust cycle.  We need to “…create long periods of moderation rather than spurts of abundance followed by heightened periods of scarcity.”  p. 223   “The failures of the poor are part and parcel of the misfortune of being poor in the first place.  Under these conditions, we all would have (and have!) failed.” p. 161

There are a number of ways in which government and business could reduce the bandwidth tax on the poor.  If you are poor and have kids, having highly-subsidized day care frees up lots of bandwidth and makes life easier. “We’d be taking a cognitive load off.  As we’ve seen, this would help your executive control, your self-control more broadly, even your parenting. It would increase your general cognitive capacity, your ability to focus, the quality of your work… [H]elp with child care…is a way to build human capital of the deepest kind: it creates bandwidth.” p. 176-77

Jobs paying minimum wages require those with children to work two or more jobs in order to be able to pay the bills.  This situation is aggravated when these jobs do not provide consistent work schedules.  “In the United States, something as simple as inconsistent work hours…can cause juggling and perpetuate scarcity.  A solution would be to create the equivalent of unemployment insurance against such fluctuations in work hours, which to the poor can be even more pernicious than job loss.”  p. 178

In order to solve poverty, we must realize that simply having a job is inadequate.  “Now, rather than looking at education, health, finance, and child care as separate problems, we must recognize that they all form part of a person’s bandwidth capacity.  And just as a financial tax can wreak havoc in one’s budget, so can a bandwidth tax create failure in any of several domains to which a person must attend.” p. 179-80   Social programs and employment structure need to be redesigned: “…a better design will have to incorporate fundamental insights about focusing and bandwidth that emerge from the psychology of scarcity.” p. 181

Our cognitive capacity bandwidth is limited.  If it is taxed by inadequate pay, inconsistent work schedules, lack of childcare, unhealthy and/or insufficient diet, a polluted environment, inadequate social services and infrastructure, among many other scarce resources, it should not be surprising if the poor seem trapped in a cycle of poverty.   Mullainathan and Shafir have provided a method for reframing and solving this crisis.  Will we care enough to implement it?

“Too Big for our Brains”

You’ve seen it.  You may have done it yourself.  Someone cuts in front of you while driving.  How rude!  You yell at them, maybe cussing at them.  Behavior that probably wouldn’t happen among friends happens easily among strangers.   Why is this?

For around two million years, humans lived in small foraging groups of around 25 to 50 individuals.  When food was plentiful, the groups would gather together to exchange news and to find a mate.  A variety of research studies by anthropologists has found that humans can form optimal connections with no more than about 150 others.  Beyond that number, others tend to be viewed as strangers and, therefore, as potentially dangerous.

This data forms the basis of Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ucka book on manners for the 21st century  written by Amy Alkon whose advice is informed by solid scientific research leavened by pointed and humorous personal anecdotes.   Our brains are optimized for small-group living, but most of us live in cities and suburbs surrounded by strangers.  The group size we now have to deal with is too big for our brains. This makes it difficult to behave well towards strangers.  But an effective society requires that we figure out how to do just that.

Alkon’s primary recommendation is to turn strangers into neighbors.  Actually look at everyone you encounter: smile, be pleasant. When you really see someone and they really see you, it is harder for either of you to be rude.  “[R]udeness…almost always comes down to a failure of empathy–neglecting to consider how our behavior will affect others.” (p. 196)

Failures of empathy tread all over another person’s dignity and may cause that person also to behave rudely.  A negative cycle ensues.

When we view someone as a stranger rather than a neighbor, it is easier to treat that person as not fully human.  As Alkon notes, we have to find ways to connect with strangers in order to make them co-humans with whom we can relate.  Or, as I say to my students, “Build Bridges, not Walls.”

In this holiday season where the focus is on peace and goodwill, use empathy to break down walls and build bridges.  View others as potential friends rather than potential dangers. Turn strangers into neighbors.

 

 

Vegan Diets Cannot Save the Planet

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about the book The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith.   I won’t repeat what I said in that post except to note that humans are not meant to be vegans.  We need to eat animal protein (fish, shellfish, eggs, poultry, some red meat) in order to be healthy.  Fatty fish and eggs are especially important for proper brain growth, development, and health.  Refusing to eat them could result in decreased mental ability as one ages.

Another recent fad is the raw food movement. Now, I am not against eating raw foods.  However, I am against the concept that one should eat only raw foods, especially if that means only vegan raw foods (i.e. no sushi).

As neuroscientist Susanna Herculano-Houzel notes in her TED talk, cooking food allowed our human brains to expand in neuronal number and connections far beyond what would be expected for a primate our size.  If our ancestors had not begun cooking their food, especially meat, we would not be advanced much beyond chimpanzees in brain capacity and ability.

Human Brains Need Cooked Food

Vegan/vegetarian diets will also not save our planet from destruction.  Keith covers some of the reasons for this in her book, but ecologist Allan Savory’s TED talk provides yet another reason that humans need meat in their diets: in order to reverse climate change and desertification, we need to have large herds of animals mimicking the herds that once roamed the savannas and grasslands.

Herd Animals Can Reverse Climate Change

Savory’s thesis seems counter-intuitive.  Even he thought that before he tried it.  The results are amazing.

Points to ponder and remember:
1] We need cooked animal protein for healthy brains and bodies.
2] Managing herd animals correctly can save the planet.
3] Grasses (wheat, corn, rice, etc.) are for herd animals to eat, while the herd animals are for us to eat.

See you at the barbecue!

 

 

 

Natural Parenting

I define “Natural Parenting” as that which humans did for at least 2 million years and which, until recently, most modern foragers also did.  If this type of parenting worked successfully for millions of years, maybe we ‘moderns’ should think about modifying modern life to better incorporate natural parenting.

Aka parents are considered among the best in the world.

Some parents are doing a modified version of natural parenting called ‘attachment parenting.’  Mayim Bialik has written a book (Beyond the Sling)which discusses attachment parenting in great detail using her experience and that  of her husband in raising their two sons, along with some anecdotes of their friends.  And, yes, this is written by ‘Amy’ from the Big Bang Theory. She is an actual neuroscientist with a PhD: she studied the hormones of attachment .  Both her education and experience provide credibility for advancing the idea that attachment parenting is the way children should be parented.

As can be seen in a comparison of what I wrote in Natural Parenting and what Bialik writes in Beyond the Sling,  we have many points of agreement, particularly that breast is best and co-sleeping is a great idea that encourages breast-feeding on demand.

If you are thinking about getting pregnant or already young children, I recommend this book on attachment parenting as the natural way to parent with 3 BIG caveats.

1. A vegan diet is not natural for humans. We need a diet with about 20% animal protein. The reason her kids nurse for 4 – 5 years is that they NEED the animal protein of her milk in order to be healthy. Clearly, she enjoys this type of attachment so much that she has not considered the biological reason her children are nursing well beyond the usual age of weaning.

2. Homeopathy ‘treatments’ are psychological (placebo), not physical.  If they do no harm and make you feel better psychologically, I suppose they are not a problem.  However, if you think they will actually cure an illness, think again.

3. I cannot believe that a neuroscientist would so foolish as not to vaccinate her children! The non-vaccinating crowd is too young (under 55) to have lived through the horrors of epidemic diseases and do not realize that their ‘choice’ could have devastating consequences not only for their own kids, but for babies, the elderly, and immuno-compromised individuals who cannot be vaccinated and who will become ill when exposed to her unvaccinated kids.

Those caveats aside, much of Bialik’s advice on parenting is very good.  Unfortunately, modern work situations do not provide the flexibility that Bialik, as an actress, has to fully implement attachment parenting.  She realizes this as she gave up the opportunity for an academic career because it would make attachment parenting almost impossible.

Women who want or need to work, but lack the flexibility that Bialik has, encounter tremendous difficulties in being the parents they would like to be.  Attachment parenting is not even an option.  Liz O’Donnell makes this clear in her book Mogul, Mom, & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman. Twenty-five years after The Second Shift was published, women who work outside the home or as entrepreneurs are still doing the vast, vast majority of housework and childcare. This has to change. O’Donnell uses the stories of a wide variety of women to detail the problems and outline the solutions. One of the things that needs to change is the idea that childcare is a woman’s issue. It is a parental issue. Businesses and the school system must be modified so that both men and women can be fully-involved parents.

Attachment and natural parenting would have more of a chance to occur if parents in the United States were given paid maternal and paternal leave, as is the case in all other advanced countries in the world.  In fact, there are only 3 other countries in the entire world besides the US that do not provide paid maternal leave.  The United States also needs to provide better childcare options for parents. Having businesses and schools provide on-site childcare would be a tremendous help.  Expanding the childcare tax credit and updating the 1976 reimbursement levels to 2014 levels would also make life easier for parents.  It may also make sense to move from a state that does not support working mothers.

Natural parenting has been effective for millions of years.  If we want physically and psychologically healthy children, we need to modify modern society to enable natural parenting.

 

 

 

 

 

Positive Deviance

The Positive Deviance Initiative defines Positive Deviance as an approach that realizes “…that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges.”

This methodology has been used by the Initiative in a wide variety of contexts.  One of the first initiatives involved improving child nutrition in Viet Nam.   Researchers to villages with high levels of child malnutrition found that not all children were malnourished.  They studied the mothers with healthy children to see what these “positive deviants” were doing differently and then asked those women to teach the other women.  Malnutrition was reduced.

Another action involved altering cultural perceptions towards female genital mutilation in Egypt and other countries.   When women and men  listened to stories of local women who had not been ‘cut’, were not promiscuous, and were able to marry, attitudes began to change.  Change was further propelled by women who told their stories of how ‘cutting’ had ruined their lives.

A major problem in culture of honor societies, such as those in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is the negative attitude of men towards women.  Misogyny is rampant and fierce.  How can positive deviance tackle this problem?  Fortunately, we have an important example of positive deviance in Ziauddin Yousafzai.  

Ziauddin Yousafzai

 

Although raised in a very traditional family in a small community in Pakistan, Yousafzai valued education so much he decided to become an educator and open schools for both boys and girls.  His first child was a daughter.  Instead of ignoring her, he made sure she knew she was valued and that she received a quality education.  Thanks to this positive deviant father, Malala has become a voice heard world-wide making the case for educating all girls everywhere.  

Positive deviance is dangerous in regions controlled by the Taliban and like-minded men.  What can we do to find and support positive deviants?

 

A Call to Action

Just as I finished President Carter’s new book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, I heard the news about the killing rampage in Isla Vista, CA.   Here was a perfect example of what President Carter described: a man who used power and violence to punish women.

While religion has not yet been mentioned as an explanation for the killer’s rampage, attitudes in the US have been shaped by religious ideologies that value men over women.   This over-valuing of men permeates all aspects of our culture.  Many laws in the US control women in ways that clearly indicate that the law-makers  do not view women as adults equal to men.  When misogyny is rampant, violence against women is the result.

President Carter is a member of The Elders, a group of ‘independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights.’   One major focus of The Elders is on achieving equality for women and girls.   The Carter Center, founded by President Carter and Rosalynn Carter, lists 23 action steps that ‘can help blaze the road to progress’ and end misogyny.

Tony Porter called to men to get out of the Man Box.  The way we socialize men creates violence against women.  It is up to men to challenge and change male culture.  It is up to men to end violence against women.  It is up to men, the many men who truly care about women, to end misogyny. Let us heed President Carter’s and Tony Porter’s Calls to Action and end misogyny now.

 

 

 

Educated Girls

I recently finished reading two books by very different individuals who have a common goal: educating all the children in the world (especially girls, who are more likely to be deprived of an education).  The books are I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and The Promise of a Pencil by Adam Braun.

Malala was born into a very poor family in the Swat Valley of Pakistan while Adam was born into an upper-middle-class family in Connecticut.  Their lives could hardly have begun in more different circumstances, but both realized an important truth: individuals can have a powerful impact.  They didn’t need to wait for the world to change; they decided to act.

Malala, encouraged by her father (who, with much difficulty and privation, opened a school in the Swat Valley), became the voice for girls’ education in Pakistan.   Adam initially followed a conventional path by becoming a consultant at Bain, although it was never a comfortable fit: he was left feeling empty and unfulfilled.

Malala and her father defied death threats to continue her education and that of other girls.  They realized that educated girls could improve their own and their families’ lives and that nothing should prevent that education.

Adam, an adventurous traveler, discovered how desperately education was needed throughout the impoverished regions of the world.  He wanted to create a foundation to build schools in those regions, but his parents and co-workers felt that leaving his job at Bain was too big a risk to take.

When the Taliban shot Malala, it was truly a shot heard ’round the world.  Malala’s voice, which primarily had been heard in Pakistan, has now become the international voice championing girls’ education.  With the aid of Shiza Shahid, Malala has an organization to raise awareness of the importance of girls’ education.

 

 

 

 

 

After several months of a sabbatical from Bain during which he focused on laying the groundwork for his education foundation, Adam realized that he couldn’t return to Bain.  He plunged fully into his organization: Pencils of Promise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are two individuals who come from very different backgrounds, but who have common goals.  They want to live in ways that make a positive difference in the world by making sure that all children (but especially girls) receive an education.

As Malala states in her book, reflecting on being shot, everyone will die.  What matters is how you live.