Out of the Minds of Babes
To be human is to seek. We are at heart explorers, whether in a global or very circumspect sense. And for most of us, finding our place in the scheme of things is vitally important. Some find the answer to their quest solely in the realm of faith; others solely in the world of ideas; others, in the realm of sensations, pleasures, and such. Many of us touch on many of these along the way and, like patrons in a cafeteria, sometimes pick and choose the things that give or impute purpose and/or meaning. More often then not, we engage in this quest many times over the course of a lifetime. It is, in many ways and at many levels, very much a perennial aspect of our existence.
The great psychiatrist, Victor Frankl, who endured horrendous suffering in various Nazi concentration camps during the murderous reign of Adolf Hitler, came to believe that humankind's primary drive or striving in life is for meaning. This spin on human nature seems reasonable. We are (after all) a bipedal primate that evolved in a setting very few people call home today. For most of our existence as a biological family (genus) we lived a gatherer-hunter lifestyle. We have many adaptations, many ancient brain circuits suited to make this "lifeway" a good fit. And this propensity persists. We are still seeking to gather, to hunt. But for most of us, the search is not for food or other bare necessities of survival, but rather information, new ideas, novel experiences, and such. Perhaps our strivings for purpose and meaning is an outgrowth of this genetically based, environmentally amplified gatherer-hunter legacy. And to reach out, to explore, naturally inclines a thinking creature to contemplate his/her/it's existence. To seek out whatever rhyme and reason attends life and living. Finding or fashioning meaning is part and parcel of this process. As is the pursuit of novelty, part of which is no doubt a desire to be titillated, dazzled, and maybe even awed.
Of course, we make a lot of mistakes along the way to finding or forging meaning. We make connections that don't exist, sometimes see patterns where none (in fact) exist, and project our own desires, failures, weaknesses, and wishes onto other people and things. This feature of our "wetware" (brains) lends us to a kind of credulity that can lead us astray, sometimes with tragic consequences. Our history is filled with suckers and true believers who fell by the wayside.
The human saga is also replete with dark and sordid chapters born of the bitter fruit of faith gone terribly bad. Faith that moves from conviction to absolutism, from tolerance to intolerance, and from missionary zeal to murderous campaigns to root out and eradicate the "infidel".
On the other hand, men and women who took great leaps of faith or birthed and championed noble visions have helped birth or facilitate progress in many guises at various times throughout recorded history. The American civil rights movement is one sterling example.
When it comes to seeking, to faith and even (to) being awed, we can't afford to "throw the baby out with the dirty diaper". Humanity denuded of life-enhancing faith would no doubt be greatly impoverished in many ways. This is not to say that life-enhancing faith translates to being free of controversy or even clashes with those who do not subscribe to such a perspective. However, a person possessing a life-enhancing species of faith should be willing to "agree to disagree", as opposed to challenging contrary views with persecution or violence.
A tolerant, progressive faith then – one that accords purpose and meaning -- is a good thing (If only at a very practical level). But what exactly goes into forming and shaping the “template” (if you will) that a person follows to a faith – or for that matter to a mate, a career, etc? (The things and people that gives life meaning in whole or part?)
It seems almost a given that many diverse processes, influences and mechanisms underlie our quest for meaning in what we do, believe, and strive for in life. And there is evidence aplenty that indicates that the nature and outcome of our individual search is cast in infancy and childhood, then reinforced or redirected by circumstance, contingency, and a whole host of other players. For example, many folks who are taught or acquire a faith tradition have their image of the divine – however nebulous – influenced by a parent or other authority figure.
But is this template (“quest map”) formed in part or whole in childhood? Or earlier still? And if earlier, how much earlier?
Some would argue that the interaction of nature (genetics) and nurture that surely underlies and plays a role in our emergent quest maps begins in utero -- that is, in the womb. Scant evidence exists to support this and much to suggest that neurological development in the womb is not sufficient to facilitate the formation and storage of memories.
But what about first few years following birth? Say, birth to age 2 or so? (The stage of life called the “sensorimotor”) Evidence exists that indicate the brain’s memory storage system is very underdeveloped during the first two to three years after birth. However, some neuroscientists feel that memories are formed – possibly from the 6th month onward – but are inaccessible (This body nonverbal memories and images that cannot be retrieved to consciousness is often referred to as the “infantile amnesia” period).
Though these early memories may not be ones we can bring to consciousness, do they exert any influence on subsequent preferences, choices, desires, and such? I, for one, would tend to think so. But there is more: It is my contention that the quests we embark on in life – forms of novelty, risk-taking, pleasures, faith, etc. -- are not only influenced by these earliest memories and patterns, but that we generally seek out those things in life that are consonant with these embedded memory traces, images, and such.
If this is in indeed the case, then a prediction can be made: Folks whose choice in life are most closely aligned with these embedded patterns, preferences, and such, would tend to be more content than persons whose lives are at odds with these “pathways” (template). Furthermore, the greater the match between the template and one’s life, the greater will be the degree of contentment. Conversely, discontent should exist in proportion to the discord between the template and one’s life.
This is a testable hypothesis. One way to test it is to examine people who have well-documented infant histories from birth through adulthood. Special attention would be paid to people, events, foods, smells, and similar sensory-perceived exposures during the first 3 years of life. The next step would be to see if mate choice, career, hobbies, etc., complement or differ radically from the patterns & preferences expected given the particular constellation of exposure. One would then test for adjustment, depression, anxiety, etc. (Study participants could be age-, sex, lifestyle and culturally/ethnically matched) If those whose lives evince preferences and life patterns that tend to mirror “infantile amnesia” period exposure – and have a high level of life adjustment and contentment that is statistically significant --- while those who are less matched have correspondingly graduated adjustment and contentment disparities, then the hypothesis would tend to be validated. Replication studies would then be needed to done to verify the original findings.
Sounds complicated, doesn’t it?! In some ways it is. Science is a process that involves, in part, generating hypotheses and then hopefully testing them. Those that are validated (i.e., produce statistically significant results) and revalidated are deemed reliable (“proven”). We do not necessarily arrive at “absolute truth” but, rather, what famed astronomer Edwin Hubble called “successive approximations” (An increasingly reliable “picture” of all that is accessible to the tools of the scientific enterprise).
The hypothesis contained in this brief spiel must be tooled into a formal design for a controlled experiment and then carried out. Until it is validated or refuted, it is merely conjecture; something to ponder, kick around, and have a little fun with during lunchtime debates over such issues as: What gives rise to or informs the pursuit of a particular spiritual tradition or faith? Do people of faith generally nurture an image of the Almighty that reflects authority figures they were exposed to as infants? Are those who have the most contented marriages tend to have mates whose attributes line up with preferences and patterns formed in infancy and/or early childhood? Is an intense love of bread an indication that Mum baked the stuff while under the impression we were fast asleep?
Dr. Anthony G. Payne