EPISODE 8: THE POWER OF A REASON
Today I passed the California border ... heading south to San Francisco … by boneshaker.
Nearly 1,000 kilometers traversed and 8,500 meters climbed (Everest stands at 8,848 meters). I’m moving through the antiquity of the Redwood Forest. A cathedral for giants made of wooden columns, green arches and stained glass. Cycling is an ideal pace to pass through. It’s slow enough to notice nuance, yet fast enough to compare change.
There’s a stretch between Brookings, Oregon and Klamath, California where the climb is particularly strong ... especially after 60 kilometers. My legs were pained as I emerged from the forest shadows into a brief region of sunlight made warmer and brighter by its contrast. In that moment a butterfly … a monarch … joined me in its seemingly haphazard flight. It ambled through the bike’s frame, amongst the handlebars, around my body … all the while moving forward at the same pace as I. Minutes passed as did the meters, and still ‘George’ flew with me. Then, just as suddenly, he re-entered the Giant’s Cathedral. Monarchs are creatures that move across the whole of North America … across boundaries … seemingly indifferent to them in their remarkable adaptability (according to the Naturalist and friend Kate Nowak).
Sharing time with George and his kindred spirit diminished my fatigue. His brief presence gave my cells a moment of purpose to pedal. Meeting George was a spontaneous event to be sure. Was it random? Probably. Intentional? Unlikely. Meaningful? The cells of my heart, legs and mind seemed to think so.
Which brings me to the point of this blog: Adventure, as in life, needs A REASON.
On a Saturday afternoon about 40 years ago my grandfather was out mowing his front lawn … and died … and was buried next to Jimmy Hendrix, which was a mixed blessing. As much as I love Jimmy’s music, many of the flowers on Jimmy’s grave were not his. They migrated there from his neighbour’s. My grandfather was only 69 with no obvious illness. A couple years earlier he had retired from his 12-hours-a-day worklife.
Like many, my grandparents began their life together with next to nothing. They were first generation immigrants. When they married, she was 16 and he 18. Their livelihood was selling fruit and veg at the road’s edge in front of their 2-room house. My great grandmother, who was deaf and would later become blind (with even more determination), and who immigrated alone from the SW of England (an hour from where I, 100 years later, would raise my three gremlins), cut a hole in the house’s side through which she sold hotdogs to passers-by. Through tremendous effort, endurance and good fortune, that curbside stall became a chain of 8 grocery stores called Basket Foods in Renton, Washington. With that chain, my grandfather became a ‘pillar’ of the community - and indeed essential to many. Throughout life, his purpose was clear, and it was a purpose that mattered … in the sense that it intentionally had a consequential, positive impact on the lives of many others. But … his purpose died when he retired. And with that, his identity and heart followed soon thereafter.
The probability of death after retirement can come quickly ... and before that cognitive decline. A study of Shell Oil employees found that people who retired early - and lived to be at least 65 - died sooner than people who retired at 65. Why? It’s the why that matters. When people lose their ‘why’ … when they stop moving in their life, whether emotionally, physically or economically, many - if not most - report that their reason … the ‘why’ that moved them ... also stopped. And with that the ears of Death are pricked.
Which raises a fundamental question about the validity of ‘Maslov’s Hierarchy”. As many of you know, Maslov puts our ‘physiological needs’ at the foundation of our lives. And, of course, as physiological beings, this must be true: Our cells do indeed need Rest, Water, Energy and Warmth to survive. But Moslov’s foundational stage is at best incomplete.
Because our cells - it seems - also need a reason.
Imagine … you’re a solo pilot of a single engine plane, delivering letters across the desert. You’re living before the time of GPS and cell phones. Each time you take off, you know death is possible. One fateful day you find yourself facing that possibility. A tremendous sandstorm envelopes your plane. As an expert pilot, you survive the crash, but the plane doesn’t. As a non-succulent plant, your body isn’t adapted to the desiccated environment into which you now find yourself.
As the storm passes, you see that you’re imprisoned by dunes. After much deliberation you decide to walk towards the setting sun, which you know is the direction of home. You’ve little water. No food. Days pass. What do you think of? Is it the fear of your own death? To be sure. But is that all? For many it’ll be more. Likely, in that moment, you’ll think not of yourself. It’ll be something or somone beyond you.
The above story is a true one. They have been told many times before. While the conditions of each ‘survival story’ vary ... from desert heat to freezing ice-packs to stormy seas, the raison d’etre of each is the same: That there is a singular ‘reason’ … a purpose beyond them … that kept the person moving forward. Indeed, this has been confirmed by research: We will literally walk further across a desert when we focus on that reason. When that reason extinguishes, or proves to be purely in service of one self, one’s cells endure less … whether in work, in relationships or even life itself.
For instance, Rich Clarke and myself have shown that people will endure more pain - induced by placing their arm in a bucket of ice-water - when withstanding the pain is done to benefit others. Other scientists have shown that if I were to give you $10, and asked you to spend it on (i) yourself, (ii) another or (iii) to give it away, your brain will experience the most immediate reward if you choose yourself. But it’ll experience the most enduring reward if you choose to spend it on someone else.
A recent study asked whether compassionate love (a strong purpose indeed) might improve the survival of people who are mid-stage in a life-threatening illness (in this case HIV-AIDS). Giving compassionate love and receiving compassionate love predicted longer survival. But it was only giving compassionate love that remained a significant predictor of longevity when controlling for adherence.
Until 2 months ago, a Wisconsin couple were married for 73 years. In that time, each became the reason for the other. Then covid came. Because they were both infected, they were blessed to be able to share the same hospital room. But in that blessing, death came as one of the two died. 6 hours later, the other also died. This tragedy in beauty is not rare. I’m sure you have heard similar stories. But sit with it a moment. Consider the fact that little in terms of Maslov’s lowest level would have changed in those 6 hours for the living spouse. What changed … what was lost … was the reason for living.
So … while you can have all the ATP (energy), oxygen and H2O you need … and indeed all money and materials you could ever want, if you do not feel your cells have a reason, if you don’t feel like you exist, if you feel small and disconnected from the world … if you perceive yourself to not matter, your immune system will degrade, your brain cells will atrophy, your vitality will diminish. It’s in such a time that research has shown you’re more likely to become addicted to exogenous factors such as drugs and/or sex. In the extreme, even with a generous supply of Maslov’s fundamentals for living, you may even just stop … and end your own life. Which is why I argue Maslov’s Hierarchy is at best incomplete, and also why I believe the greatest gift you can ever give to another person is the gift of existence wrapped in authentic care.
(For those who might be struggling with emotional health and/or know someone who is, you can find useful information: https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline)
So essential is ‘the reason’ for our vitality that the human brain is keenly perceptually sensitive to its authenticity in yourself and in others. When perceiving it in yourself, the more authentic you feel (with true honesty) the stronger will be your self-esteem, even more so than your perception of power. So it’s not power that empowers you. It’s your authenticity.
Similarly, when you judge another to be authentic, it activates the neural networks in your brain that are responsible for Theory of Mind (the medial prefrontal cortex, temporoparietal cortex, retrosplenial cortex) more so than when you perceive their emotions. What does this mean? It means that your brain is more likely to unconsciously project the existence of consciousness onto another person when you perceive them to be authentic. I’ll repeat that, since it’s important: The more authentic a person appears (as opposed to emotional), the more conscious you perceive them to be!
So there is a direct connection between our reason and our vitality.
Which might explain why the human brain falls in love with those who are not simply passionate, but authentic in their passion … especially when their passion (1) transcends them, and (2) is pursued in actions and not just words. Yesterday we all lost such a loved-one. Someone who drew the respect of millions around the world. Justice Ginsburg passed from our lives from the effects of age and cancer at 87 years old. Her impact was unmeasurable. A role model for women to be sure. But also a role model for men. She modelled how to live life with wisdom and purpose … in action … for all of us. Our world is brighter because of her … a brightness that manifestly dimmed yesterday. But it was not extinguished! While her body may have succumbed to the inevitability of time, her reasons for moving her body forward for 87 years … her drive for compassion, equality and integrity … will be stronger in many of us because of her existence.
“It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something. That there is some good in this world, and it's worth fighting for.”
So why does our brain think that ‘the why’ is so essential? I suggest two reasons:
First, altruism. Being compelled to help another person has enabled our species to escape evolution’s hand of selection. When we are altruistic, we receive an ‘intrinsic reward’, which - like an orgasm - evolved to perpetuate behaviours that sustain us. The intrinsic reward of altruism comes from the feelings induced by a combination of oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin, which collectively are called the ‘happiness trifecta’. Oxytocin is involved in regulating empathy and social bonding; Dopamine in motivating movement; Serotonin in regulating mood. There is also an increase in endorphins, which reduces pain and improves performance. So altruism evolved to be good for you because it is good for us.
Second, it decreases uncertainty: When we perceive that someone’s purpose is in service of something larger than themselves, such a purpose increases their predictability and reliability, as their behaviour is grounded in a set of principles that transcend context. A recent study out of Harvard demonstrated that the result is trust. A counter-case-in-point is the current US leadership. Because his behaviours, which are in stark contrast to Justice Ginsburg, are grounded in ‘maximising self’, predictability decreases since his decisions change unpredictably from context to context according to his needs, and only accidentally according to the needs of the those who rely on him … i.e., the country. Again, the Harvard study shows that distrust … if not disgust ... follows. This example also demonstrates that your brain also seeks authenticity, not only from individuals, but also institutions, organisations and brands.
Brands, for instance, are a deeply influential aspect of our lived experience. Advertising drives $560 billion world-wide. Global Marketing in general was $1.4 Trillion in 2019. Every dollar spent is an attempt to deepen the brand’s relationship with its audience. And yet advertising (and marketing in general) nearly always misses the point, since it doesn’t aim at what is essential: True authenticity.
According to Boston Consulting Group, true authenticity is the number one quality that attracts audiences to a brand, who increasingly demand that companies stand for something bigger than profits. But building this connection comes with a challenge - fewer than 3% of brands are perceived as having a positive impact on people's sense of well-being (The Guardian). However, the benefits make this journey worth it. The most meaningful brands outperform their competitors in terms of awareness, purchase intent and premium processing.
The brain measures true authenticity according to 'unfakeable signals'. What is an example: When a brand spends time, money and effort to improve the human values and truths that are essential to its audience … independent of any benefit to the brand itself. Without these unfakeable signals, the brain perceives the brand’s purpose to be at best a slogan, and at worst opportunism, both of which diminish their audience’s trust and ultimately their loyalty, both of which are essential for the brand’s adaptability in uncertain times. A classic example of the latter is Pepsi. A deeper example is the social tech space. While they started with tremendous intention, a recent Netflix documentary by a good friend Tristan Harris and his colleagues explores the importance of maintaining a purpose that truly advances the human values and truths of one’s audience.
The Lab of Misfits has been working to apply Perceptual Neuroscience to Communications for a number of years, working with brands as diverse as Cirque du Soleil, L’Oreal and TJ Max in order to encourage and support a transition to true authenticity-in-purpose. Our reasoning is that when a brand or organisation quantitatively increases their stated purpose in the lives of their audience, there will be a real, lasting impact on our individual and collective well-being..
Which is why are very pleased to announce a new exclusive partnership with BCW, who are the 3rd largest Communications company in the world. The aim of our partnership (called Neurolab) is to help their most innovative clients take ownership of the ‘Human Truths and Values’ that matter to the world ... and in this way change it for the better.
So … now I’d like to come back to you.
I’d encourage you to imagine … for the next 5 minutes … that you’re the pilot in the above sand storm. Or you’re alone in the hospital fighting the cytokine storm brought on by COVID. Close your eyes and hold these images in as much detail as possible. The sounds, the smells, the fears. Feel the feelings, not just in your mind, but in your metaphorical heart. Take your time.
Now … when you’re ready ... I’d like you to ask a question of yourself ...
Who and/or what comes to mind … and why? Whoever he/she/they is/are and/or whatever it is, it’s likely to occupy Maslov’s foundational level of your life. The level that is essential for keeping your cells alive … or not. Is it what you wanted it to be? Is it who you wanted it to be? Would the thought of that thing and/or person keep you alive longer in a desert storm … or not? And remember, not all reasons are equivalent. We must take care. Some reasons create more respect, love and freedom for others; Other reasons can do exactly the opposite, or be exclusive to only those who belong to ‘a specific group’ or ‘way of seeing’. So there is wisdom in choosing your reason. Does it enhance or does it diminish life?
We often don’t ask these questions. Maybe because the answers - if ‘wrong’ - can shake the lowest level of our foundations. Because what if it/he/she/they would not propel us across the desert? What if my reason enhances me but eventually diminishes others? What does one do then? Sometimes awareness can be unkind, but it’s honest. And it’s in that self-honesty where the freedom to expand … or the freedom to constrict, deny and blame ... begins.
Let’s finish with a story that shows the power of a reason. A love of true love. From 1990 to 1998 I lived in Edinburgh, Scotland … earning my PhD and Fellowship at its Medical School where Penicillin - like most wonderful things - was accidentally discovered. Much of my day was spent in the ‘tissue culture suite’ growing brain cells in a dish trying to uncover the genetic, molecular and physiological factors responsible for brain growth and death. Across the street was a pub we frequented called ‘The Doctors’. Which means every day we would leave the lab and literally go “to the Doctors”. There we’d receive a bubbly pint of medicine. Next to the Doctors was a statue devoted to the loyalty that is engendered by purpose.
Over 160 years ago, a wee Skye Terrier became the most famous dog in Scottish lore.
On 15th February 1858 a local man named John Gray died of tuberculosis. Gray was better known as “Auld Jock”, and on his death he was buried in old Greyfriars Churchyard. Bobby was Auld Jock’s faithful companion, who worked with him as a night watchman.
After leading the funeral procession to John’s grave, Bobby tried to stay, but was sent away by the caretaker. He’d continue to return and eventually refused to leave, whatever the weather. Eventually, the local residents built him a shelter. There he stayed, guarding Auld Jock.
… and remained for 14 years … leaving only for food at 1pm each day
With the firing of the one o’clock gun from Edinburgh Castle, each day Bobby would run to the eating house which he had frequented with Auld Jock, and then return to the grave. Until, eventually, Bobby too died on January 14th 1872, aged 16. His body was laid in Greyfriars Kirkyard under his own red granite headstone near Auld Jock.
We would like to know what your 'reason' is. Please share it in the CONTRIBUTION section at the bottom of this page. Thank you so very much
Written by: Beau Lotto.
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