I’d like to tell a few stories that come from a few library resources, and what they mean when you put them all together.
Story number one is from Oliver Sacks’ incredible book Seeing Voices. Seeing Voices is broken up into two parts—the first of which deals with the history of American Sign Language and the struggle for language acquisition among Deaf children before its inception. One part that stood out for me was the suppression of Sign and the locking out of Deaf persons from some (ergo catastrophic) decision making about Deaf education near to the end of the 19th century; “More and more, English became the language of instruction for Deaf students, taught by hearing teachers, fewer and fewer of whom knew any sign language at all.” The second half of the book is about the fight for a Deaf president at Gallaudet University. If you haven’t heard of it, Gallaudet was the first Deaf university in the world and it’s a pretty big deal. The first Deaf president of the school, I. King Jordan, came into power in 1988. But here’s the story I most wanted to share from this book, it’s about two prelingually Deaf boys: Joseph (age 11), and Manuel (age 9). Both boys had reached (what in context was) an advanced age to have reached without learning any language—they were preteens, and completely languageless. In the first case, Joseph was overlooked in his own family (regarded as unintelligent, with “no real attempt” ever taken to teach him language). In the second case, although there was still a hefty communication barrier, Manuel “was much loved by his parents and older siblings and trusted by them with all sorts of tasks.” When both of these boys were given the chance to enter the world of language via formal education, Manuel learned Sign rapidly; “there was doubt as to whether he would acquire language fluidly at his age, but he has done brilliantly, and in three months, has already acquired fair sign and fair Italian, loves both languages, loves communicating, and is full of questions, and curiosity, and intellectual vitality.” For Joseph, the going was slow, and language acquisition came more strenuously. Although he did develop some Sign and was good with visual problems, he was not able to formulate questions, let alone formulate responses to them (one couldn’t ask him what he had done over the weekend, for example):
“[So] why the difference? Manuel is clearly a bright child indeed, and Joseph one of ordinary though not subnormal intelligence, but perhaps more to the point, Manuel was always loved, always involved, always treated as normal. He was completely a part of his family and community who saw him as different, but never as alien. Whereas Joseph was regarded, and often treated, as [a nonperson], Manuel was never left out—never felt left out. He did not suffer as Joseph did from an annihilating sense of “left-outness” and isolation. This emotional factor is probably of great importance in determining whether or not language acquisition will be successful near or after the critical age.”
Story Number Two. Less so a story than the others, but still significant: from Simon Sinek’s excellent book, Leaders Eat Last. Sinek describes how the biology of our felt work experiences (issues like stress, a sense of belonging, fear of layoffs, and trust in an organization) extend far beyond the borders of professionalism. People who feel limited control in their work (generally workers lower in the hierarchy) are four times as likely to die early, according to studies done by public health researchers at University College London: a significant increase in likelihood over those who feel a high degree of control. Furthermore, time and time again, Sinek points to examples where the ingenuity, productivity, and prosperity of an organization have a direct causal relationship with how safe people feel in their jobs and how much they love going to work. Companies that prioritize their people, who would sooner ‘sacrifice the numbers to save people, rather than sacrifice people to save the numbers’, are those that thrive through thick and thin.
“When the time is taken to build proper relationships and when leaders choose to put their people before their numbers, when we can actually feel a sense of trust for each other, the oxytocin released in our bodies can reverse many of the effects of operating in a high-stress, cortisol-soaked environment. In other words, it’s not the nature of the work we do or the number of hours we work that will help us reduce stress… it’s increased amounts of oxytocin and serotonin. Serotonin boosts our self-confidence and inspires us to help those who work for us and make proud those for whom we work. Oxytocin relieves stress, increases our interest in our work and improves our cognitive abilities, making us better able to solve complex problems… This is why people who “love their jobs” (a very oxytocin thing to say) can easily turn down a job that pays more to stay at a job they love… our bonds grow stronger, our loyalties grow deeper and the organization gains longevity. Best of all, we go home happier and live longer and healthier as a result.”
It’s fairly clear that the hormones released in response to feelings that we tend to think of as love, warmth, security, belonging, and autonomy (usually associated with feelings of trust, both directed toward us and outward toward others) are those that reduce stress, build stronger communities, and actually extend our lives.
And that brings us to our third and final set of stories (if the second can be counted as such).
If you haven’t tried kanopy—a free e-resource similar to Netflix with a great selection of indie movies, world cinema, documentaries, educational resources, and award-winning short films—it’s worth your while. Six items a month can be watched for free with every library membership, and there is some incredible content on there (I recommend The Silent Child, which won Best Live Action Short Film at the Oscars in 2018).
It was in kanopy that I found Professor Robert Sapolsky (P.H.D)’s master class on stress and growth (I watched episodes six and seven and they were so, so fascinating). Sapolsky tells many stories in those two lectures, but I wanted to share just a few, and hopefully, the theme of the post is coming together by now.
The first is about the Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944.
“World War II. Holland is occupied by the Nazis and for a number of reasons (the uprising of resistance among the Dutch against the Nazis), the decision was made to punish Holland and divert all of the food that winter to Germany. And suddenly Holland, with its reasonably good Westernized diet, plunged into famine. Over the course of that famine, something like 16, 000 people starved to death. Absolute disaster. And something very interesting came out of it. Suppose you were a fetus, a second or third-trimester fetus during the Dutch Hunger Winter. What’s going on? …You are experiencing this environmental stressor… [that] translated into the way your body works as an adult…”
Fifty years later, those persons who were second and third-trimester fetuses during the Dutch Hunger Winter were twenty times more likely to suffer from metabolic syndrome, and what’s more, the effects were passed down generationally. This is how it started in the scientific community. Studies were later conducted which confirmed that prenatal stressors have a far reaching impact into adulthood; “as an adult, you have a less-than-optimal stress response, you have elevated levels of glucocorticoids, basally, when there’s no stressor… as adults take longer to recover after the end of a stressor… and [have] more of a predisposition towards anxiety.” Negative effects were also seen in the areas of learning and memory. These are some wild ramifications considering, in the grand scheme, that this was a relatively short-lived stressor in the context of an entire life. On the flip-side, there can be positive repercussions bestowed via the fetal experience:
“The mother’s emotional state during pregnancy impacts fetal development. If she is happy, healthy, well cared for, and relatively stress-free, the whole brain can develop to its highest potential.”
I’m going to skip the story of King Frederick II of Sicily and his experiment to find the “natural human language” (spoiler: there wasn’t one), but it’s as fascinating as it is deeply sad. Most of us are familiar, owing to one atrocity in human history or another, that babies who are not held (but whose needs such as food, shelter, and warmth are met) will literally die due to this lack of human affection. Babies need to be held and touched. This takes me into story 3.2, about a psychologist named Tiffany Field who was able to increase the growth rate of severely premature babies by 50 percent, not by some massive technological breakthrough in medicine, but through touch: specifically ‘thumb rubs’ on the babies’ backs (because they were too small for anything else). Her method translates into a huge amount of lives saved, and with something so simple and so natural as a gentle touch. As an aside, this is one of the reasons why I think it’s really sad that teachers are discouraged from hugging children in their classes. I get it, but it’s sad—in Sinek’s book (mentioned above) he talks about the importance of a physical handshake, the importance of ‘bonding’ gestures that even adult humans partake in (a slap on the back between teammates on a sports team, etc.), so it isn’t just infants. My grade one teacher used to give every child in the class a hug each day without fail, and I looked forward to it every day. I didn’t know it as a six-year-old, but this exchange of healthy chemicals promoted stress-reduction and collaboration and enhanced cognitive function. Not bad; no wonder my printing improved so much.
Sapolsky goes onto discuss what can happen to children who are severely abused, trapped in (what he refers to as) “nightmarish” situations. In rare cases, children will develop what is called Psychogenic Dwarfism, and these children will literally stop growing; “there’s no obvious disease, there’s no malnutrition, there’s no parasites… you give them synthetic growth hormone—nothing happens; the whole system is shut down.” In one such case, a boy was removed from the home and taken to the hospital where he unexpectedly bonded with one of the nurses on staff. After only three months of this new and positive relationship, his growth hormone had returned to normal levels. But here’s the really amazing part—that nurse had a two-week vacation, and during the period in time when that loving human contact was suddenly out of reach—the boy’s hormone levels plummeted again, only to return when she came back.
These are biological, physical responses to love/ lack of love: love combatting stress and, in effect, neutralizing its negative effects. Everything from language learning and cognition to how soon we will die relies on it. If you’ve ever wondered why songwriters, artists, and peace-loving do-gooders everywhere are so obsessed with the subject, here’s a plausible reason; whether or not it is ALL we need, we do need love.
It’s more than just a feeling.