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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Monday 4 June 2012

Action, Reaction, Consequence and Ownership

   - Joe Warmington

This morning I walked into a subway train; there, standing beside a door, was a woman somewhere in the late stages of the second trimester of her pregnancy.  In other words, big enough in the tummy to make standing a real strain on the back.  This woman was standing while all the seats around her were filled with 20 somethings and a couple of middle-aged men. 

I asked her if she wanted a seat.  She smiled a bit sardonically, then said “nobody offered, so…” as though that was all there was to it.  I then promptly raised my voice: “Can someone please give up their seat for a pregnant lady?”  Everyone looked up, stunned out of their Monday-morning mental fog; someone was challenging them to be active.  A man of about 50 got up; the woman took his seat, apologizing all the way.

A fella standing next to me nodded in approval, said “that’s the way to do it.”  Though it seems the thought of being proactive had either not occurred for him or he wasn’t willing to act on it.

What happened here?

You could very easily argue that the people who didn’t proactively get up were being selfish and that I was being helpful.  You could also argue that the others on the train were minding their own business and I wasn’t.  In terms of positioning, you can pretty much rationalize anything.  Reasoning is as much a product of behaviour as it is a precursor. To really get at why we do anything, you have to go down one layer further to what actually motivates action.

Chemistry is about what happens if you mix ingredients in differing quantities.  Done enough, you can replicate a given experiment and guarantee the same results.  The same holds true for neuro-chemistry, although there are obviously more factors than we can consciously follow all at once.  Our internal chemistry, impacted by external factors, is what makes us do (or not do) everything; from braving the dark to go pee to asking someone out for a date, from giving up a seat to asking for one in the first place.

It really shouldn’t come as any surprise that the neural circuitry that internally motivates us to act or not act is the same as it is in other invertebrates.  We all need to eat, we all need to reproduce, security and energy conservation matter to all of us – if you believe in evolution, why should it be otherwise?

Now think about the Eaton Centre shooting Warmington refers to.  A man walked into a crowded space and started shooting, hitting innocents as well as his intended target.  There’s not much different about this dominance behaviour – eliminating threats, reinforcing position – than there is among a group of chimps.  The significant difference is that as people, we have access to more harmful weapons than just our hands.  Basic selection-of-the-fittest wiring isn’t designed with handguns or worse in mind.

We like to single out people who talk out loud to themselves as being mentally ill, or not in control of their mental faculties, but how much control do any of us consciously have over our actions?  Fundamentally, is there much difference between a school clique, a gang, a tribe or a Political Party?  In terms of behaviour, is naturally passive or naturally aggressive behaviour any different in humans that it is in other great apes, or other species?

More often than not, its our limbic drives direct our behaviour rather than our executive function. 

It doesn’t have to be that way.

With information, effort and experience, you can learn to control your own impulses, both positive and negative, and harness your ability to do what you want it to, rather than the other way around.  Martial arts is a great example of this.

When you are in full ownership of your actions, you are by necessity more aware of how your environment impacts your impulses.  The reverse becomes true, too – by understanding the principals involved, you can figure out what triggers reactions in others, and come to manage those, too.

If knowledge is power, then ownership is empowerment.

The trick lies in being conscious of this.

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