Monday, June 27, 2005

Let's Nurture the Gene Pool

Nature vs. nurture, the age old debate, has received new input based on new equipment now available for the study of neurology. Just how important is genetics? How much of a role does environment play in how we fare in life? One thing is clear, by learning to nurture ourselves, we extend our own life span. The person who stays connected to self, to nature and to others lives longer. Posted by Hello

This is why a machinistic approach is completely contraindicated. It doesn't matter whether we are speaking in terms of how we relate to health, to self esteem, or to relationships, international or personal. To ignore quality and make decisions based solely on logic is detrimental. It ignores the innate plasticity of the brain that allows for life-long learning. The possibility of learning separates organized life forms from computers. A computer can only do what it's told based on the input it receives. Humans, however, have an ability to generate completely unknown responses that can potentially create worlds of possibility previously inconceivable. Your ability to learn is a wild card that you can count on.

In the 1940's, the scientific worldview about human development was leaning heavily towards the idea that environment was the main factor that determined a child's future talents. Scientists had not yet cracked into a way to unlock how genes might determine character traits, or susceptibility to disease. A then-famous-study of two groups of disadvantaged infants made clear the magnitude of the importance of nurture.

Psychiatrist Rene Spitz compared two groups of infants raised in two seperate institutions. One group was raised in a fondling home, the other group was raised in a nursery that housed the babies of women in the nearby prison. Both institutions were comparable in that they were clean, and provided adequate health care. The crucial difference lay in the amount of nurture. The babies in the prison nursery received lavish attention. Their prison inmate mothers showered them with affection and care during feeding, diaper changes and playtime. These babies developed normally despite the impersonal, clinical setting.

The foundling babies, however, received only little stimulation. In the foundling home, every eight babies had one nurse to care for them. Feedings and diaper changes were brief. Each baby was kept isolated from others to prevent the spread of infection. They had nothing to look at, little affection and minimal physical contact. The startling result was that a large number of them did not even survive until the age of two. The infants that did survive to become children had a surprisingly broad range of problems. Some were physically stunted, some were severely retarded, some were highly prone to infection. They were socially inept. Their behavior was characterized by withdrawal and apathy. By three years of age, most couldn't walk or talk.

Now, consider this: walking and talking is based on the ability to move. They had the muscles to do the job, they just didn't have the neural connections. Exposure to stimulation and nurture lays down the foundation for learning: if the brain is not engaged, it vegetates. This is how we learn to interact with the world around us. Spitz showed that early nurturing and stimulation was imperative for normal function.

Modern medicine is now focused, almost to the point of obsession, on decoding the genetic blueprint responsible for human behavior and disease. Everything from alcoholism to sexual orientation, and Alzheimer's disease to cancer is being related to some chromosome or other. What gets lost in the media shuffle, though, is that these genetic links merely define a predispositon, not a certain, inevitable cause. Genetics merely locates potential weaknesses and strengths, not definitive ones. Heredity is only one factor in determining the outcome of health and behavior. Given, the current trend towards sensationalism in news media reporting, it's easy to loose sight of this fact.

To give genetics so much power is to reduce the human species to the level of machinery. It denies the two most irrevocable distinctions between ourselves and other life forms. Human beings, alone, have the capacity to choose, to invoke free will. And human beings, alone, have the capacity to use conscious intention to the service of learning.

Animals choose, based on instinct, even affection, perhaps, but only if raised in domestication. Set a dog free, and it will probably choose to stay with it's master. At least most dogs come home eventually, unless misstreated. And some dogs will travel thousands of miles to be with a lost human companion. Animals, like humans, also have a capacity to learn, but it is limited to necessity. I have an older horse. I teach her new things all the time, because it's good for both of us. But left to her own devices, she would only learn what she had to for survival. She would not wake up one morning and think to herself, 'Today, I would like to learn French.' Animals do not channel their choices based on desire or ambition. They do not determine what they might like to do with their lives.

The FELDENKRAIS METHOD revolves around free choice. It's about using your intention to effect change. I do FELDENKRAIS with both people and horses. There is a difference only in that with horses, I am the one actively providing the stimulus for change. With people it can be done either way. I can provide the stimulus, or I can teach people the skill of working with themselves. That's what AWARENESS THROUGH MOVEMENT (ATM) classes are about. ATM teaches you to regroup, to reprioritize, to learn to focus on quality instead of viewing your body as a machine that will inevitably fail you. The ability to learn is as inevitable as the degeneration of ageing. The difference is, you have to exert free will to initiate it once you can just 'get by' without learning more. Do you want live life just making do, or do you want to live fully?

ATM is a process of learning to use our God given senses to the service of improving the quality of our lives. If the word 'God' rankles, think of it in terms of neurology. You can intentionally use movement with a specific level of awareness taught in ATM to foster the connection of neural pathways for improved function, learning and coordination. You could, alternatively, opt to use drugs instead. It depends on the situation. In some cases drugs are called for. In other cases, they are merely temporary pacifiers. It's an individual judgement call. I, myself, have thought long and hard on this: Do I want to tune out or tune in? Having experienced both, I choose to tune in. Not twenty-four hours a day, but as a practice. I choose to gradually refine my ability to respond to life rather than to deaden my senses. I have spent years of my life tuning out and the quality of my life deteriorated in a very predictable manner. The years I have spent tuning in have brought a completely different experience. Tuning in takes me to places I was never even able to conceive of in previous times. Why? Because we cannot know what we don't know, but we can sure intentionally endeavor to find out.

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