Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Are we starving for meaning?

Last week the Human Givens Blog featured a research intervention in Ethiopia that showed how the fulfilment of innate emotional needs was a prerequisite for saving children there from malnutrition. The availability of food was, by itself, not sufficient. Malnourished children who are also starved of a meaningful sense of connection with their primary caregiver lose their appetite for food. The internal, emotional logic seems to be: What's the point of eating in order to stay alive in a world where I am not welcome, or wanted? Happily, when reconnected with their mothers, these children regained their appetite for life, started eating food, and recovered.

Reflecting on this just a little, could there be a parallel in our own culture? We are drowning in consumer plenty but are we, at the same time, literally starving for an adequate sense of meaning and purpose? If so, what are the consequences, and what do we do about it?

If our sense of meaning and purpose is inadequate (which for many people in our scientific, self-centred, hedonistic consumer culture, it certainly seems to be), what reason is there to care about ourselves, each other, or our planet - not just today, but in the long-term?

If human beings are merely a by-product of a blind, uncaring, random process of evolution; if all meanings are concocted and therefore equal (so take your pick); what reason is there not to believe that he (or she) who dies with the most toys, having been to the most parties, having had the most fun - wins? It's almost logical (if you accept the underlying assumptions).

This is one reason why the theme of the 2016 Human Givens Conference is Seeking meaning in the modern world. People with a strong, authentic sense of meaning and purpose have a reason to care about tomorrow, and the motivation to make the changes necessary to ensure that tomorrow happens (whether they are around to enjoy it - or not). Developing our collective sense of meaning and purpose could therefore be, not just some kind of higher-order luxury, but actually crucial to our survival as a species.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Research in Ethiopia shows that emotional needs are indeed crucial for survival

In the new, expanded edition of Human Givens: The new approach to emotional health and clear thinking, published in 2013, the authors state:
The law of all living organisms is that, to survive, they must take nourishment from the environment so that they can continually maintain and rebuild themselves. Like all animals, we need air to breathe, water to drink, nutritious food and sufficient amounts of the right quality of sleep. These physical needs are easily apparent because, if they are not met, we quickly die - as many people sadly do in those parts of the world where clean water is scarce and food in short supply...

Everyone can accept that these basic physical needs should be met and that they are 'givens'. But psychologists throughout the ages have also determined there are other nutritional needs, emotional rather than physical, which are equally crucial for our wellbeing - and sometimes, even for survival too.
The final point about emotional needs being crucial for survival may seem hard to believe at first, but further evidence from Dr. Alessandro Conticini's 2009 intervention in Ethiopia backs this up, and raises some interesting questions.
Research has shown that the survival rate of malnourished children during food crises critically depends not just on the availability of appropriate therapeutic food, but also on the emotional and physical stimulations available for both the child and the caregiver (usually the mother). Studies have shown that the combined use of emergency nutrition support and emotional stimulation techniques provides for lower malnutrition rates, a higher rate of child survival, and quicker recovery from malnutrition.
Conticini's intervention is neatly summarised in this review by Helen Epstein for The New York Review of Books: 
In 2009, Conticini introduced a program to help mothers reconnect with their sick children. In Ethiopia, parents don’t traditionally play with babies or talk to them, and childcare tends to be limited to feeding and cleaning, but Conticini trained community nurses to teach the mothers how to make toys out of sticks, cloth, discarded toothpaste boxes, whatever they could find. A field trial of the program is underway, but when I interviewed mothers who had been through it a few years ago, many told me that the simple act of playing and laughing together had restored their children’s appetite and saved their lives. “I’d prepared the funeral shroud and told the church that he would be buried soon,” said one mother of the healthy toddler playing beside her. “Now I can’t get enough of him. I can’t quite believe he’s alive.” 
This is a really interesting and heartening discovery. It seems that these malnourished children needed attention and emotional connection with their mothers before the need for food would kick in.

But why, from an evolutionary point of view, would this be? Feeling our way into this situation for a moment, might emotional neglect by our primary care giver be interpreted as a signal that we are not valued or needed by our group, perhaps switching on Brodmann area 25 (the brain's depression gate) causing us to give up, and get it over with sooner rather than later?

Whatever the reason one message is clear: human beings are born with a constellation of interconnecting needs, and we need to attend to all (or at least more) of them if we are to survive and thrive.