When a thought leads to another and another and another…
My SIL has two cats who are her babies. They are uncannily “human” in the way they behave and respond to her and to various familiar faces. In fact, they respond so appropriately that it seems at times like they understand what we’re saying when we talk to them or when we talk about them in their presence. While they may not fully understand the words we are saying, they read our emotions from the changes in our facial expressions and vocal inflections. Simply put, they read between the lines.
Sheep, cats, and other animals are keen detectives at identifying nuanced shifts in expressions, not only of their own species, but those of humans. – Psychology Today
Going Back to Basics
Anyone who has ever had a baby or handled one for an extended period of time will also recall that babies do this really well. They read our emotions before they have learned to understand our words and they are very perceptive to how others are feeling. G2, for instance, reads vocal tones very well – even when he doesn’t understand the significance of what has been spoken, he detects the modulations in the voice and he understands the intent of the words. Unfortunately, many of us lose this skill as we grow older – perhaps not completely, but certainly to a significant degree.
The ability to read emotions is a good skill to have – you can detect when there is a conflict between the words communicated by an individual and what he really feels. So why do we become less perceptive at reading these unspoken cues? Well, I believe it is because we suddenly have an easier medium to understand – language. Once you understand the words that are being said, you no longer have to be so attentive to the facial expressions and the vocal tones. As they say: “use it or lose it” and that is exactly what happens to many of us.
This reminded me of my rock climbing days… At the beginning, I was the weakest climber in my group. I was always struggling to climb the routes the others were climbing because I lacked the strength to pull the moves they used with such ease. It was this weakness that forced me to find new ways to climb that did not require as much physical strength. I employed everything I had – feet, knees, elbows, and even my head, at times. If it could somehow help me stay on the wall for longer, I did it. Because of my weakness, I had discovered more tricks to climbing that my stronger friends could overlook. I called it “climbing smart” – using brains over brawn. Inevitably, the more I climbed, the stronger I became, but once I was strong, I started to get sloppy with my technique. Instead of climbing smart, I started using strength to climb because it was just easier.
It made me think how important it is to remember that no matter how good we become at something, even when we eventually find easier ways to do things, we must never forget the basics we learned that helped us to get there because sometimes these skills we learned along the way and used as stepping stones are useful abilities in themselves.
Sometimes Less is More…
There was a documentary called My Brilliant Brain where they investigated “The Accidental Genius” – individuals who developed savant-like abilities as a result of an “accident”. In the quest to discover how to bring out these savant abilities in “regular” individuals, one of the researchers explained that what we needed was not a “better” brain but a “brain with less”.
Professor Allan Snyder cites the example of a young autistic girl who demonstrated remarkable artistic abilities. She was late in the development of language but once she did, she lost her artistic ability. It is the presence of our higher brain functions that prevent access to these abilities. Only with the suppression of the higher brain functions – such as in autistic individuals or in individuals with brain injuries – can the potential be unlocked.
Recently, I attended a parent talk at my son’s school where they discussed the different “Mindsets for Learning”. They covered some of the work from Carol Dweck on the differences between fixed mindsets versus growth mindsets. More and more, I am beginning to observe that precocious children who develop earlier and appear more talented than their peers have a greater propensity for developing a fixed mindset, while those who struggle more in the early years learn the essential value of effort and hard work. Here lies another example where less becomes more – unless we succeed in correcting the mindsets of our precocious children so that they, too, understand the importance of effort and hard work. It is the perfect example of why it is not so much what we have that is important but what we do with it.
Learning Through Experience
Years ago, I read an article called “The Expert Mind” by Philip Ross comparing the differences between modern and historical chess grandmasters. Based on a point system used to distinguish a chess player’s ability, the historical chess grandmasters from 1911 ranked well below the level of the modern grandmasters from 1993 – some of them would not have qualified as grandmasters. Yet, despite their lesser scores, the historical grandmasters played far more accurately than the modern grandmasters.
The reason why modern chess grandmasters were so much better was because of “the advent of computer-based training methods that let children study far more master games and to play far more frequently against master-strength programs than their forerunners could typically manage”. Modern chess grandmasters had resources at their fingertips that the old grandmasters did not have. They could learn from all the mistakes of their predecessors instead of making those mistakes for themselves. The chess grandmasters from 1911 had to work things out on their own so even if they fell well below the level of modern grandmasters in technique, they were far superior than them in terms of creative power.
Otto von Bismarck is known to have said: “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” But there are instances when we can learn more from our own mistakes than from the mistakes of others because the experience itself is the lesson. I thought this particularly important for us to remember as parents because we often hope to spare our children the pain of experience by insisting that they learn from our past mistakes.
The Road Less Travelled
Like any river, our natural inclination is to follow the path of least resistance – to just go with the flow. Well, there no absolutes in life, but sometimes the road less travelled yields greater rewards.