Monthly Archives: August 2011

Stunted Growth

“Do not worry about your problems with mathematics, I assure you mine are far greater.” –Albert Einstein

Have you ever looked at a person with mental or learning disabilities and wondered why we were blessed to be born normal and they were not?

I used to.

It comes as no surprise that in college, the subject of literature utterly fascinated me and captured my imagination. What may not be as obvious, however, is that my fascination with the subjects of human growth and development and psychology was equally unrivaled. Discovering why people were able to learn and why they were able to relate to certain concepts and constructs in our culture resonated with me at a juncture in my life when I began to question the norms and values in my own culture.

When I took Psychology 101 during my freshman year of college, I wrote my term paper on the subject linking autism to savant syndrome. What I discovered along the way was quite interesting to say the least. Savants, to my understanding, are able to perform great mental feats like detailed sketching from brief memory, perfect playback of music heard only once, and a computer-like mind for math among countless other things even though they were classified as mentally disabled.

The studies, so I read, went even further. Laboratory experiments were performed on “normal” subjects in which a certain part of the brain is temporarily disabled, and were administered tests both before and after electrostatic treatment. With a portion of the brain disabled, test subjects were able to perform at savant-like levels.

A few years ago, I had the privilege to work with someone who is legally classified as “disabled”. From an early age, people were willing to doom him to a life of an invalid, yet he was able to grow, develop, hold down a job, get a driver’s license, learn to read and write, and take up hobbies. And yet, he still lacked confidence in certain areas because of the “disabled” label attached to him. Understanding his dilemma, I told him, “It’s not that you can’t learn to do things, it’s that you must learn them differently than other people.”

And that’s what kick-started my fascination all over again.

We learn differently. Sure, the school system wants to make us learn the same way and on the same time table as everyone else and label us as “broken” when its plans go awry, but when all is said and done, we all learn differently and this can’t be dictated away. Savants can do the things they do because they’ve never been told that they can’t. “Can’t” doesn’t even exist to them, and it never will.

The “normal” human brain doesn’t remember raw information. When a baby’s mind develops, it learns how to break down and sort information as routines and abstract concepts made concrete constructs. What this simply means is that when we take in the world around us, information goes in and gets sorted. The “important” stuff goes in and the “junk” goes out. Savants can’t do this. They see the world exactly how it is, and because of this, they have trouble fitting in socially.

But is it really worth blinding ourselves so we can make small talk at the local coffee shop? And on that subject, what is the definition of normal, anyway?

The sad reality is that labels do not apply only to severe mental retardation, but to all walks of life as well. We’ve all heard the terms “ADHD”, “Dyslexic”, “learning disorder” and “Hyperactive”, and they all denote something negative. Why should we not use them when needed? Well, we’ve also heard the terms “Brainiac”, “Egghead”, “Geek”, and “Nerd”, and they describe the same exact thing: a pattern of behavior or character traits, not necessarily destructive, that are considered undesirable to the social norms of our society. To the former group, we drug them and tear them down until they are model members of school society. To the latter, we take away their creativity and push them as hard as we possibly can until they hate themselves and what they represent. Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t very real problems, don’t get me wrong. All I’m saying is that the “epidemic” is grossly exaggerated and misnamed.

We want our children to be happy and successful. We want our children to change the world and have the courage to lay claim to everything meant for them, to have everything that we didn’t have ourselves. How can they, though, when we explicitly tell them throughout their entire lives that there’s something wrong with them? In fact, why do we tell them they’re defective when before they were formed, God knew them and before they were born they were sanctified by God? (Jeremiah 1:5) Why do we condemn child-like (not childish) tendencies when “Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.” – (Luke 18:17)

Perhaps, then, the epidemic isn’t medical, but spiritual.

Given all the evidence collected, the mentally disabled are not the people who can’t seem to grasp basic social constructs or fit in with the masses without awkwardness. Maybe the mentally disabled are, instead, the people whose identities are so wrapped up in being socially acceptable, that they are willing to dumb down their own understanding and sell out their birthright just to fit in and plug into the world’s system. “Oh thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” says Jesus after Peter begins to sink when his eyes are taken from his love and put upon his fears. (Matthew 14:31) The choking of faith by social acceptance is, by Biblical definition, real mental disability.

In the past few months, I’ve met someone else who is classified as mentally disabled. Though he is older than me, I am mentally more mature than him. Whenever he goes anywhere that has rows of vending machines, he has already accepted it as truth that he will find several dollars worth of change in the coin slots, and amazingly he usually does. No, he’s never become wealthy from this, but given his scope and understanding of monetary gain, he is perfectly happy.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are struggling in misery to keep our head above the poverty line.

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Communication Breakdown

“Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true.” –Charles Dickens

Have you ever wondered, despite the people and news articles that tell us otherwise, if we as people are really communicating as we should with our fellow man?

I know I certainly have.

I suppose that the ubiquitousness of facebook has finally caught up to me and has caused a sort of stirring in my conscience. We are living in what is known as the “information age” and we, as the human race, are supposed to be all about communication, sharing information and cultivating ideas. But as I stare upon my facebook wall, I have to wonder aloud if this is what has really happened. It’s ironic, at least to me, because communication development has always been about shrinking the globe and bringing people together. How did we go from “These are the times that try men’s souls…” to “LOL G2G BRB”?

Perhaps part of it is the ubiquitous nature of communications itself. Today, we have a plethora of options. We have cell phones from which we can call anyone from anywhere and send short “text messages” if we so wish. And then, we have computers. We can text chat, video chat, send photos and videos. We can blog, tweet, and digg it. We can broadcast our woes and triumphs on facebook, Google, YouTube and MySpace. Considering all this, how could anyone be communicationally starved?

Perhaps we take it all for granted.

Consider centuries ago when landlocked people in poor communities were literally isolated from the outside world. There was no way anybody could know anything outside of what went on in their little town or village. For these people, the world was small and flat.

Then suddenly came the first printing press.

For the first time ever, literacy became a major priority in the modern world. People could visit far away places and listen in on the world stage without ever having to leave the comfort of their homes. The intellectual mind thrived and people who were thought to never have a talent for anything became writers; influential ones at that. But most importantly, people were communicating. Oceans were shrinking as great thinkers could travel abroad in their books through their ideas, and people were discussing these ideas en masse. The spread of these ideas did not go unnoticed by the status quo, who sought to discourage, ban and burn them, but people, once empowered with communication, would not relinquish it easily and would fight for the right to keep it, thereby shaping the world we know today.

The telegraph, the first nationwide electric communications system, was integral in the creation of the transcontinental railroad, the modern postal service, and the NOAA. The physical distance in location became irrelevant, and great minds were able to come together almost instantaneously to do great things that would later benefit the country. The invention of the telephone would simultaneously widen its impact and close worldwide gaps as well.

However, this is where communication would eventually begin to break down.

Soon, engineers figured out a way to transmit sound and picture through the air, ushering in, yes, a completely new means of communication, but sadly, a new mindset as well. Unlike print, in which readers realised they could partake themselves with nothing more than a ballpoint pen and a legal pad, radio and television was a medium in which content was piped directly into people’s homes, but no one could answer in return. This new method of communication gave rise to a handful of large, monolithic networks that exercised and abused their legal right to be solely responsible for what the people were allowed to see and experience. The people, by and large, had no complaints. After all, the people on television were talking directly to them and they had to do nothing but passively sit back and take it all in. Communication without the work. Win-win, right?

Sadly, no.

We did lose something in the deal. Unlike other means of communication before it, television and radio couldn’t and wouldn’t allow for listeners and viewers to contribute and respond to what they consumed. Unlike print media, a vast majority of people lacked the authority, funds and licensing to respond with their own radio programs or television shows. Instead, people turned to becoming movie critics, TV Guide columnists and music magazine editors. But by that time, why would anyone settle for reading about it when it could be splashed across the screen or blasted straight into your ears as intrusively as possible?

Fast forward to the present. We now have the Internet, a series of computers strung together over a vast and far reaching network. It takes nothing, nowadays, to post a video, play a song, write and article, and exhibit an art gallery for everyone to see, hear and read, an astounding feat considering the hurdles that had to be overcome. However, the damage has already been done.

One-sided mass media has conditioned us to believe some things that are detrimental to true communication. We believe that everybody has experienced the exact same things that we have because broadcasts and movie releases are simultaneous. We believe that merely experiencing the same things equals communication. We believe that only a select few people have the gifts and talents to create something truly moving or entertaining. And most damaging, we believe that this is the natural order of things that can and must never be changed.

But communications have returned full circle. We have the first true successor to the telegraph in terms of sheer usefulness, functionality and impact, and yet we as users are still stuck in the television and radio mentality. Because of this, we see a vast “friends list” and think that just because we are all experiencing the same thing at the same time, we are communicating. Original thoughts and rebuttals are seen as irrelevant now that we have the power of a mere “thumbs up/thumbs down” reaction. Why spend a day writing a heartfelt letter to friends and family when we can forward them a funny video or chain letter? Why bother communicating at all when we have a handful of “gifted” people to communicate for us? The question might as well be: why should we expend the energy to think about new ideas when we have people that are paid to think for us?

We gave up something wonderful when we exchanged symbiotic communication with people for one-sided passivity. Now that we have the chance to get it back, we are going to throw it away all over again because we would rather have a few select people tell us what we can and cannot see, hear and read just because we want things to be “easy”, and then cry foul when inalienable things come up missing.

We as modern people have fabricated excuse after excuse for how advanced we are and how ancient and beneath us old communication is. The truth is that communication defines us. Communication as we know it is one of the many things that separates us from animals. We haven’t modernized communication; we have replaced it. Look around. People are trapped in situations and circumstances in their lives like animals in cages, because when we readily give up the things that define us for an “easy life”, we are no better than animals. People like to look down upon the enthusiasts, hobbyists and autodidacts sharing their work and excitement among their closely knit communities, citing them as nerds, geeks and shut-ins, but they apparently understand something that the rest of us do not.

Perhaps the “nerds, geeks, and shut-ins” are perfectly normal and there is something missing inside of us. Perhaps we really are suffering a communications breakdown.

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