Landing : Athabascau University

Keeping up with the pace of change

I just read a post by Grant McCracken (at http://cultureby.com/2010/12/the-time-warp-room-and-other-medical-breakthroughs.html) in which he talks about a room in a senior's lodge that is completely outfitted with furnishings and technology that is 50+ years old. The most interesting aspect, though, is that Alzheimers patients who spend time in this room need significantly less medication than their peers who are stuck unrelentingly in the 21st century. McCracken speculates that perhaps one of the major causes of dementia - with numbers growing to the point of the term "epidemic" thrown around - is not genetic or environmental, but cultural. In short, he suggests that one of the root causes of dementia is people being unable to handle large scale social change over the decades of their lives.

 

This made a connection in my head with the books of John Douglas. Douglas is one of the original guys who created the FBI Behavioral Sciences unit, and spent years going around to prisons and interviewing the worst of the worst held there. In one of his books (I don't remember which one, now. It's been years since I read them) he talked about some of the common characteristics of serial killer/rapists. The thing that struck me was that he said that many of them were highly intelligent men who do very well in a highly structured environment - they thrive in the military and in prison, where choices are limited and what they are supposed to be doing when is always perfectly clear. As soon as they go out into regular society where choices are approaching infinite and nothing is clear, they lose it and start killing.

 

It's change, choice, uncertainty that throw these guys for a loop, with disasterous results.

 

Harking back to my intro to Anthropology class (which I took around about the same time as I read Douglas' books), hunter-gatherer and simple farming cultures also tend to be quite structured, in that the expectations on each individual are quite clear, based on age, gender and to some extent parentage. Choices are limited, tasks are clear. There's not much room for creativity and innovation, but there's also very limited crime and mental health issues.

 

It's been the last two hundred years or so - and especially the last fifty - in which all the former predictability has fallen away. Age, gender, parentage, and other social markers have only limited influence on what choices are before you. Our lives are defined by change, choice and uncertainty.

 

This means that there's a wide door for creativity (which contributes to the pace of change) and many creative people have found ways to thrive in this new environment. But it also means that there are a whole lot of people who can't handle it, and either seek out environments that limit choice and uncertainty, and hide from it, or they lose their centre and become the scariest of criminals or residents of the psychiatric ward.

 

This is a simplification, of course. But the next question that I see is this; can we do better at teaching people how to deal with change, choice and uncertainty? There seems to be a sense that a person's ability to handle change is innate and fixed, they either have it or they don't, it's not something that can be taught. But we've proven that creativity can be taught. So can anger management and addiction control. Why not the ability to handle change and uncertainty? Isn't that going to be one of the most crucial elements of being able to not only survive but thrive in the next century or more?

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