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It's The Conditioning That Kills, Stupid!

07/10/2015 8:22 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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So, you are really tired of all the bad news, right? Not to mention yet another college shooting in the US.

So, here is some good news for once. Scientists have now clearly identified the root cause of most of the mayhem in the world.

Harvard professor and one of the editors of the tellingly named report "From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development," Jack Shonkoff puts it explicitly:

"The foundations of a successful society rest on the health and competence of its population. It is just common sense to conclude that what happens early in life sets the foundation for everything that follows. What is exciting about the revolution that we are living through right now in biological science is that we are beginning to understand at the molecular level why that is true."

The foundation of everything that follows? If so, then we are really on to something here. Once we know the root cause of problems then we have the key to resolving them. Otherwise all our efforts at dealing with the troubles of the world will be at best symptomatic and superficial.

Firstly, let's be specific about what that "everything" might include?

Looking at our world, we can start with one of the most obvious issues we face: conflict. The main sources of conflict, and the violence that it so often leads to, are based on the usual suspects -- like our attitudes to nation, religion, race, ethnicity, caste, gender, sexual orientation, age... to name but a few.

"We have to be trained to be killers and rapists. We have to be trained to see skin colour as more significant than eye colour..."

We only have to look at our own childhood to know where most of our own beliefs and values about these matters come from. We were not born singing "God Save the Queen" or any other national anthem, or waving flags for this ideology or that.

We have to be conditioned to happily accept the roles of cannon fodder -- and canon fodder. And today too many of those cannons are nukes. We have to be trained to be killers and rapists. We have to be trained to see skin colour as more significant than eye colour or shoe size, or even shoe colour for that matter.

Who took all that trouble to train yesterday's babies to be today's contributors to this madness? We did. Who else? And who is doing the same for today's babies? We are. Who else?

For example, Paul Harris, professor of education at Harvard, is doing groundbreaking research on the brilliant heuristics that children use to try and figure out whom to believe, and what is real and what is nonsense. He finds that quite young children can quickly assess that germs or oxygen, which they cannot see, have a different level of reality from fairies and angels and ghosts and gods, which they also cannot see. Even at six years old they notice that they never hear anyone say, "I am a true believer in germs." Aha. All clear. Clever.

Sadly, by adolescence, the intuitions of these smart kids are drowned out in favour of whatever their particular society insists is true. Hence a significant majority of Americans believe in angels. Not because there are angels or not, but because we have instilled this belief in so many young heads, irrespective of the probability of angels being a reality.

It is not only that we are indoctrinated with "reasons" to fight with others. We are also trained to fight with ourselves. Someone somewhere kills himself or herself every 40 seconds --over 800,000 a year, a figure that has increased by 60% in 45 years. No, lemmings don't.

Babies arrive after enjoying 24/7 womb service for nine months. It is not like they are hesitant about expressing what they do and don't want. They may not have many demands, but whatever they want, they want it now. You may feel like jumping out of the window trying to keep up with them, but they are not giving up till they get it -- with powerful lungs to support their demands. So, how did so many of these wonderfully self-confident, assertive little customers get turned into self-hating, self-destructive, depressed, suicidal teenagers and adults wracked by unworthiness? Not without a lot of really unpleasant help from the rest of us.

"Who took all that trouble to train yesterday's babies to be today's contributors to this madness? We did. Who else?"

The ones who actually kill themselves must be the tip of a monumental iceberg of unhappiness, mostly unseen beneath the waves of hello and good-bye.

It is so clear that if we have been conditioned to be against our own nature, how can we not be against the nature of our neighbours, or against nature in general? Unless this changes, we are bound to live in conflict with ourselves, with others, and with the natural world around us.

What could be more insane than failing to respond to this understanding -- that the whole direction of human society depends on how we take care of the "early life" of our children? Especially when we can see that the direction we are headed is endangering the only home we have here on Planet Earth. With no plan B.

As that famous adage, puts it: "Insanity is to continue doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result."

Or as Osho originally explained: "The mind is always asking you to do something over again, something you have already done so many times before. And every time you see that by doing it nothing is achieved. What else can madness be?"

So, put simply, whether we are concerned about climate change, or that "black lives matter," or mass killings in US schools, or that there are now no less than nine ethnic, sectarian or separatist civil wars being waged in the area between Pakistan and Nigeria -- or the resultant refugee crisis -- or that in the US alone a woman is raped every few minutes.... Whatever it is we are concerned about, the seeds are sown in childhood. Unless we deal with the reality of childhood conditioning, we are going to continue putting Band-Aids on cancers and wonder why nothing changes.

The reason this is such a tricky issue is that we are trapped in the muddle of trying to use our already conditioned minds to unravel the problems created by our own conditioning. It is like the fish asking what the ocean is.

If we look at the work of Felicia Pratto, professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, on social dominance, social hierarchy, prejudice and oppression, we can see immediately how the causative beliefs and values, which we only learned after birth, are almost invisibly, and deeply, entwined in each of us individually and pollute every collective entity that we create. We will never manage to extract all those pernicious tendrils unless we deal with their roots. All of which is confirmed by the work being done on unconscious bias: showing that we tend to see ourselves as nice, colour-blind, gender-sensitive, unprejudiced people -- until we do the tests and check what is really under the hood.

A perfect example of the way this process affects every aspect of our lives is the recent research from Wharton and Columbia business schools. We all know that males are better at math than females. Just look at the number of women professors of mathematics. Don't even ask about black female professors. This study -- of a quarter of a million teenagers across 40 countries -- shows that this discrepancy in math skills has almost nothing to do with either gender or math. It is dependent on what the authors call "the power gap" between the genders in each particular society. What Pratto calls "social dominance". Where did we first learn to internalise and accept the values and beliefs that underlie that social dominance? In childhood of course.

"Unless we deal with the reality of childhood conditioning, we are going to continue putting Band-Aids on cancers and wonder why nothing changes."

Once we understand this a whole new doorway opens.

Look at the painful debate provoked by the latest college killings in Oregon. One side keeps repeating that guns have to be controlled because guns kill. The other side keeps repeating that guns don't kill, people do. So, control the people, not the guns. People keep dying and the divide between the two points of view is never resolved. Each side is both right and wrong: of course guns kill only with the help of people -- people conditioned, from childhood, to use guns to kill. It is the conditioning that is the killer.

Hence all the confusion about "why is this such an American phenomena?" It is because of the specific qualities of US conditioning. Simple. Then the whole debate changes. The second amendment's "right to keep and bear arms" is not the problem. The problem lies elsewhere.

The solution? In the next article we will examine how this understanding of the crucial role of childhood conditioning in determining the direction of our societies is the basis of an emerging childcare revolution that can change everything. Yes, everything. And there is no better, or more timely, good news than that.

By John Andrews M.B.,B.S. M.R.C.P

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