Stimulus Understanding

"A man doesn't learn to understand anything unless he loves it." –Goethe

There is a guy banging his head against a brick wall. When asked why he is banging his head against the brick wall, he pauses and says because "it feels so good when I stop." It is a silly story of truth for millions. We continue to bang our heads against the same brick walls, partly because it feels good when we stop, but also because we don't know how to do it differently. More often than not, our response to life stimulus remains the same. In order for any stimulus to really move us into a new place we have learn how to think in a new way and risk giving up the old brick wall.

In one of my favorite reads of late, Stumbling on Happiness, author Daniel Gilbert gives a thorough understanding of the way we are fooled not just by our memory of what has happened but also by our imagination when we project what will happen in the future and how we will feel about it. We humans don't really learn from each other. Whether it is planning to have a child or starting a new business, we simply refuse to believe that other people's experience will inform our own. I remember distinctly the advice I got from another local small business owner when I was starting out and I was convinced at the time that my experience would be different. Same for parenting; questions answered from more experienced parents just sounded jaded; little did I know how soon my own responses would resemble theirs.

The reason that we can't learn from other's experience is because it is the experience itself which is the teacher. We retain less than 5% of what we are told (lecturers take note), 10% of what we read, 30% of what we are shown, but what we teach we actually own. This of course raises the question, what is the point of education — to learn or to teach? As far as life lessons go, the answer is one and the same. Our education in life is at once student and teacher. This too is the rub, for how do we expand our capacity to imagine and re-think our life and relationships in a new way, when our personal experience is not broad enough to help us out of where we are stuck?

Learning is a two step process — discovery and mastery. We all have innate capacity for both. Keeping our capacity for discovery vital is one key to lifelong learning and the ability to make different choices with the same stimulus. Children have a penchant for discovery: that is what their days are about. Adults can lose sight of this part of the learning process as they strive for mastery in their life, which is the other half of learning. Mastery is essential; it is where our experience teaches both ourselves and others. It builds our sense of self and as adults defines our identity. But without the openness to discovery, mastery can turn into a short walk to a brick wall. In relationships it often looks like how we leave. Love demands that we continuously discover the other and our relationship over and over again.

President Obama was quoted recently on what keeps his relationship with his wife so vital. "Sometimes when we're lying together, I look at her and I feel dizzy with the realization that here is another distinct person from me, who has memories, origins, thoughts, feelings that are different from my own. That tension between familiarity and mystery meshes something strong between us. Even if one builds a life together based on trust, attentiveness and mutual support, I think that it is important that a partner continues to surprise." Recognizing the mystery that exists in every relationship is another way of defining a learning life.

It is true that we don't really understand anything until we love it, which is the continuous dance between discovery and mastery in the hours we spend at what matters most to us.


Third Dimensional Stimulus

"Stimulus is the missing third dimension in all theories of motivation." –David Freemantle

With all the discussion of economic crisis going on today, there is little recognition of the even deeper poverty of heart which like a creeping malaise impacts the very core of our wellbeing, our life and the meaning we derive from it. Recent studies by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that over the last twenty years over one in four of us have no one with which to discuss important life issues or to confide in compared to only 7% in 1985. Loneliness doesn't get much air time because it is still so stigmatized. Many people cannot discern loneliness from depression or anxiety and feel like describing themselves in this context describes them as social outcast or worse.

Actually loneliness has more in common with the physiological human functions of hunger, thirst and pain. The impulse for social connection, which is built in to our neural wiring, is rooted in the basic urge to survive. We are not wired to live alone, researchers say. "The need to deal with other people is so great, says Cacioppo, author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection that, in large part, made us who and what we are today." Most neuroscientists agree, he said, that it was the need to process social cues that led to the expansion of the cortical mantle of the brain. And yet loneliness grows in the midst of more social connecting devices than we may have ever imagined twenty years ago. This is in large part due to the confusion we all share about what constitutes real relationships. The "friends" and "connections" that we may be adding up online often serve to only distract us from the few real friendships and intimate connections that fill our real 3D time. It is easy to see how this happens, our busyness and the ease with which we conduct those two dimensional relationships favors them.

Real relationships are three dimensional. They use all of our senses and exist in real time. Not unlike the difference of playing basketball on a screen, or getting out and using your whole body. The real game is intensive and can be demanding. We are wired to play and relate with our whole being. The relationships that share your kitchen, your bedroom and your heart are the ones that make your life whole and full. Yet they also often require us to give of ourselves in ways that make us stretch and grow. Friendships and intimates often demand us to give up the need to be right and give in to the need to be related to the people we love. The give and take of keeping things real is the work of love and the satisfaction of being right is not nearly what it is cracked up to be. The number of relationships that have and continue to be sacrificed to our idea of how others should behave is both tragic and shredding the social fabric of our time.

The same three dimensional comparisons could be drawn about our sexuality. The numbers of people who pay for two dimensional sexual contact is staggering. Virtual sexuality carries none of the physical benefits of the act in 3D and often leaves you feeling lonelier than when you began. While the secrecy and clandestine fantasy that virtual sex affords might titillate, it will never heal. Demand the real thing in your intimate life and don't give your life energy away to stimulate a screen.

If the economic crisis has any upside, it is that it might just make us more aware of the wealth of friends and loved ones that have gotten lost in the speed and intensity of life in the fast lane. Shifting our energy back to the heart of our life relationships has the power to re-invent how you spend your time and how you think about your life goals. Reach out to the people in your life that you may have only been texting and share a meal. Call and chat with an old friend that you haven't spoken with. Re-focus your days with true 3D relationship time and enjoy a lasting stimulus in your life work.


Social Brain Stimulus

"Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing." –Rollo May

We are wired to connect to each other. Daniel Goleman's new book, Social Intelligence, has uncovered new research on social neuroscience has identified brain cells, termed mirror neurons, which actually link us, brain to brain in social interaction. The complex neural circuitry that activates in the brain in every social interaction from the smallest exchanges with a store clerk to the complex negotiations with our life partners not only helps you know what is happening in the interaction, but also cues you on how to respond to keep interactions civil and functional. This also explains why other people's emotional life is as contagious as the common cold. Studies have shown that a single individual who is either happy or sad can change an entire group's collective mood for better or worse in a matter of minutes. So it is not your imagination that you start feeling bad shortly after your partner or kid walks in shrouded in gloom. In my household of six, many of whom are growing adolescents, the mood factor is anything but stable. So while I might be wired with a social brain as part of my biological imperative, maintaining strong social connections is hard work and requires practice.

I think our relationship avoidant nature might have been one of the unstated impetuses for the Internet revolution. The digital communication devices that have come to dominate our social interactions don't ask anything of our social brain, which explains why people will do and say things on their emails and text messages that they would never do in a face to face interaction. Parental concerns over the obsessive texting that dominates teenage life with kids continuously splitting their attention from the people they are with and the continuous inane conversations that are buzzing the phones is just the tip of the iceberg. Research suggests that the idea of becoming a "crackberry" is not just a psychological phenomenon. The continuous rush of dopamine during instant communications can actually create a physical addiction with the classic withdrawal symptoms.

Ironically, it is our need for social interaction that drives our obsession to connect digitally. Continuous messaging makes us feel good and important, even if most of the communications that are exchanged is just banter. Flirting has taken on new meaning for the younger generation where instead of a look, they get a text message. The devices that we believed would enhance our ability to communicate and connect actually interfere with the real relationships we crave. The ease of two dimensional, digital communications make it natural to prioritize them over our real relationships, because they don't engage your social brain the way face to face encounters do. But the danger and risks of substituting digital relations for the real thing is deep and pervasive in our culture. The number of relationships that have been terminated by text message is a small marker for the lack of practice and skill building that the new millennial generation is cultivating in developing full relationships.

Sexuality too, is impacted by our new and growing dependence on digital communications. The new phenomenon of "sexting" where over 30% of more than 1200 young people reported sending nude photos is another manifestation of technological "connecting" without the wisdom of the social brain. The same girls, who would send their naked body over digital technology, would never consider stripping in front of the same eyes. Even more disturbing is the social brain asleep at the wheel, with a recent survey showing over 66% of 18-24-year-olds reported texting while driving, which is provoking many states to institute laws prohibiting cell phone use while driving.

Boundaries need to be drawn, distinguishing between the work of relating and the convenience of chatting or texting. We need to be vigilant to the human moment when we are right next to someone and create a virtual boundary around the machine in our hand. The skill of being present to the moment and the activities that develop our social brain functioning happen in the midst of attending to our primary relationships, face to face. Most of the messages that take us away from the people we love most are inconsequential and can wait.

Our relationships mold not just our experience, but our biology. The mirroring that happens in human interacting shapes us in ways as subtle as sharing humor and as profoundly as how our immune system activates in the continuous battle against bacteria and viruses. The social interaction we crave heals us. Now more than ever we need to teach and learn that the relationships that fill our real time, real life are the priority. They are the only means we have to learning that life is a social event, not a virtual one.


Intimacy Stimulus

"I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one's self on the earth is not a hardship but a pastime- if we live simply and wisely." –Henry David Thoreau

Franklin D. Roosevelt is most famous for his statement "there is nothing to fear but fear itself." He uttered these words in a scratchy radio broadcast to a terrified nation when, like now, all of the systems we had come to rely on were failing. Anxiety is the new norm in most homes today, as bad news seems to only get worse. The foundations of life have cracked for millions and our young government is taking decisive action to shore up the economic disaster, to stabilize people's living situations and create work opportunities. It is the new, New Deal. Stimulus plans of this magnitude are incentives, designed to incite us to action. They will not work if we all sit back and expect them to cause a response of their own accord.

The need for a stimulus plan in our lives is not just national, it is personal. It is in our individual lives where we must begin to reinvent ways of consuming, learning and loving that are sustainable. In times of fear and anxiety, we must harness our human instinct of fight/flight to our advantage. The statistics of wellbeing and happiness in the context of thriving families carries even more weight during difficult societal crises.

Often this is precisely when many relationships fail. Our fight response, which should galvanize us to search for better living conditions or new employment, can turn inward toward the people who are there to love you. Blame is the least helpful of all responses. The thought which works to keep me authentic and honest in my relationships during these stressful times is this one: In the last moments of my life, I know the only thing that will have any meaning and that will fill my mind and heart is the people I loved and those who loved me in return. It always helps me remember what matters most in my life.

Another more reliable measure of your economic wellbeing is right in your bedroom. Good sex is worth more than money. There is no other activity with such great impact on your physical, mental and emotional well being available to you during hard economic times. The Money, Sex, and Happiness: An Empirical Study, performed by two economists at Dartmouth and the University of Warwick, analyzed data on the self-reported levels of sexual activity and happiness of 16,000 people. The report concluded that sex "enters so strongly (and) positively in happiness equations" that they estimate increasing intercourse from once a month to once a week is equivalent to the amount of happiness generated by getting an additional $50,000 in income for the average American.

In fact, the economists calculate that a lasting marriage equates to happiness generated by getting an extra $100,000 each year. Divorce, meanwhile, translates to a happiness depletion of $66,000 annually. People who consider themselves happy are usually richer in sexual activity. So you see there are many ways to count your wealth and given that the old standard of stocks and bonds is so shaky. Using the real metrics of love and intimacy, which is what we are here to accumulate anyway, makes good economic sense in these troubled times and will provide the basis for a stimulus plan that can last.

Image by orangeacid, courtesy of Creative Commons license.