The ‘Q’ Gene
by Bill Dahl – All Rights Reserved 2011
The act of imagination is the opening of the system so that it shows new connections. Every act of imagination is the discovery of likenesses between two things which were thought unlike.[i] Jacob Bronowski – The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination
We live in a world that is obsessed with celebrating differences, distinctions and diversity. We agree that we should (and do) rejoice in the tremendous progress that has been made in championing causes to provide equality within societies and between peoples, where differences were formerly the basis for excluding and/or diminishing the universal dignity of others.
Yet, when one examine homo sapiens, it’s rather remarkable how similar we are. From a purely external perspective, the vast majority of us possess one head, two eyes, two ears, one nose, one mouth, eight fingers, two thumbs, ten toes, two feet, two legs and two arms. Diving beneath the skin, we find one heart, two lungs, two kidneys, one liver etc. — you get the picture. It’s when we plunge further into the human concoction that our certainty about what we claim to know becomes much murkier. They have even come up with a word (that most folks can’t even spell) to describe the study of how we know what we claim to know. It’s called epistemology.
When I examine the writings and research in the field of epistemology, it becomes rather obvious that one of the primary problems with the data is who we’re asking or observing; primarily children who can’t speak, and adults. It has been said that “very little is scientifically known about the phenomenology of the infant mind; about what it’s like to be a baby.”[i] So, that’s where I’ve decided to start; with recollections from my infancy.
For me, it all began at birth. According to my mom, I came into this world screaming my lungs out! Although nobody could understand what I was shrieking, here’s what was going through my newborn mind: Where am I? Where did all these bright lights come from? Who are these creatures? They’re squealing! Why is this being wiping me with a towel? What have I done wrong? Why do these creatures have masks on? What are they trying to hide? Are they going to hurt me? What’s that creature in the bed crying for? Who’s the guy at the end of the bed with his arms extended toward me who hasn’t shaved and has a cigar in his breast pocket? What kind of welcome into a new reality is this? Is this permanent?
From the moment we arrive in life, we possess the ability to question. In my case, (I have the feeling you may have had a similar experience), my mom and dad started making funny sounds in my face, grabbing my toes and fingers, and doing other weird stuff that adults do to infants that led me to smile and laugh — until somebody hoisted a device that caused a sunburst in my eyes, scaring the literal crap out of me, and caused to me to, once again, start screaming at the top of my lungs; “What the heck did you do that for? Was that supposed to be funny? Whose idea was that? Could you at least give me some warning the next time you might decide to do something that frightening? Do you realize I’ve only been here with you people less than thirty minutes? Once again, all questions.
I heard these creatures ask stuff like; “Isn’t he adorable? Is he healthy? What will we name him? Can I hold him? Doesn’t he look just like you?” (At this juncture, I was wondering if my name was he-him-you — What does that mean? Do I have a choice in this name thing? Can I change it if I don’t like it?). From the very first moments of my conscious existence, I heard questions from other people.
Within a few days, these people took me home. They laid me on a mattress in what appeared to be a wooden cage with vertical bars three feet high, spaced three inches apart, on all four sides – designed intentionally to contain tiny beings my size. (This certainly made me feel welcome). They covered me with a strange smelling, multi-colored blanket, and made more weird sounds and faces at me. Then, the guy reached up and spun this weird contraption attached to the ceiling above me. My bladder exploded (again) due to the magnitude of the shock and awe that ricocheted through my body. And yes, I erupted in a rage of screams and tears at the sight of those weird figurines attached to threads clanking and chaotically bouncing around above me. My “momma,” as she incessantly referred to herself, clearly unnerved, began excitedly asking the beer breath guy, “What does he want? Is he hungry? Should I pick him up? What do you think? (I started wailing even more violently as I was becoming even more certain about the fact that these two had actually named me he-him-you).
The guy – who still hadn’t shaved (now wearing some wretched scent he had splashed on his cheeks and neck) turned to his left and reached for something. The next thing I knew, a small black bear was being waved above my face, with the strange looking guy making all these really stupid cooing sounds. I went nuts! I was so terrified I lost my voice. My mouth was wide open, tear ducts had been completely drained, my heart was pounding as though it might break through my chest cavity, my face was purple — and no sound was coming out of me. I was so shocked I guess I regained my composure and passed out. I fell sound asleep from the exhaustion of it all.
Upon awakening (always a process for me), my first sensation was my right hand was clutching some curious, furry thing. It was quiet. I smelled something new. I felt thirst. My mouth tasted funny. Then, my stomach growled (first time). The stomach rumble startled my eyes to open at seemingly that exact, same instant, and there it was; a freaking black bear staring me right in the face! You can imagine the ensuing hysteria that accompanied my primal reaction…
We homo sapiens are a curious bunch. Our initial experiences at birth are just the beginning of it all. Beyond the obvious external similarities and a common internal plumbing arrangement, that appears to be where the diversity among us really begins. According to Wikipedia, the Latin translation for homo sapiens refers to a wise or knowing man.[ii]
What we say we know about our species versus other forms of life is that we possess “a highly developed brain, capable of abstract reasoning, language, introspection, and problem solving.”[iii]
Have you ever wondered why we were designed with all five senses located around the same area as your brain? I have. Our senses ask questions and send signals to our brain. Does this look safe, taste good, sound right, feel good, smell appetizing? Imagine waking up one morning and you have lost the ability to question. You would be incapable of any of the following:
Where am I?
What time is it?
What day is it?
What am I going to do today?
Where’s the coffee?
What am I going to wear today?
Where’s the bathroom?
Where are my car keys?
Try it. Put a note next to your bed that says “no questions.” When you wake up tomorrow, let’s see how long can you go without either asking yourself or another person a question? This would be both audibly and mentally. This exercise includes hearing one from someone else, as well as reading a question in the morning paper, a billboard you pass on the way to work or one posed on the internet. You’ll be awakened to how central questions are to our daily existence. We’re wired to question.
The human brain seems to play a central role in this inescapable capacity. That when I stumbled onto a guy named John Medina and his book entitled Brain Rules – 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School. John is a developmental molecular biologist and research consultant (I have no clue what that actually means other than he’s a lot smarter than I am). He’s also an affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine. In his spare time, (the guy doesn’t have really any does he?), John is the Director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University. (Makes my brain ache just thinking about all of the above). I waded into John’s Brain Rules book, wondering if his research could shed any light on our thesis that we’re born to question, as my experience at birth suggests above. According to Medina, we humans are powerful and natural explorers.[iv] Regarding infants, John writes; “Babies may not have a whole lot of understanding about their world, but they know a whole lot about how to get it.”[v] He goes on to illuminate the experience I had, in the moments and days I’ve shared above. Listen closely to the following: “Let’s look under the hood of an infant’s mind at the engine that drives its thinking processes and the motivating fuel that keeps its intellect running. This fuel consists of a clear, high–octane, unquenchable need to know. Babies are born with a deep desire to understand the world around them and an incessant curiosity that compels them to aggressively explore it. This need for explanation is so powerfully stitched into their experience that some scientists describe it as a drive, just as hunger and thirst and sex are drives.”[vi] (emphasis is mine).
There’s a real sense of freedom that comes over me as I read the above. It’s refreshing to realize that what seemed so diabolically odd to me at birth, turns out to be normal, healthy and a universal human experience. I have a very personal confession to make to you: We are born Questians.
The Discovery of The ‘Q’ Gene
I readily admit that I was born with a deep desire to understand. Medina refers to this as a drive. I possess a seemingly innate need for explanation. I’m an ordinary guy who celebrates his unquenchable need to know. I rejoice in our capacity for curiosity. I’m an explorer. I am humbled by the gift of being equipped to develop both understanding and meaning.
Think about your life for a minute. Can you recall moments or periods in your life where you felt a drive or deep desire to understand? Does the need to know continue to inhabit your life experience? Are you curious about things? Has your experience in life been inhabited by the ongoing development of your understanding of the world around, and within you? If you’re honest, your answer is “of course.” What might this mean for your own identity, your interaction with others, your worldview and your future? What are the implications for how this awareness might impact or refresh your perception of other folks who inhabit this planet?
Here’s the point: I hereby announce the discovery of the ‘Q’ gene to the world! This strand of nucleic acid inhabits each and every homo sapien that is birthed into this world — that would include you! Yep, you’ve got it too. We all do. That includes your friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers – anyone you can think of. We’re all infected with this genetic propensity.
Congratulations! You’ve just been provided with a discovery that will help you recognize this fundamental and essential aspect of your composition as both a unique individual and as a member of the human species. Say it out loud as you read this self-affirming declaration: I’m a Questian! Say it again- – louder this time. How do you feel realizing that you are one who was birthed with a deep desire to understand? One who possesses an innate need for explanation; a creation engineered with an unquenchable need to know; an explorer; one who is composed with the capacity for curiosity, and gifted with the propensity to embrace the ongoing challenge of developing both understanding and meaning – for yourself and others – throughout your lifetime? If you’re anything like the vast majority of people I have had the opportunity to discuss this discovery with, it’s a cause for celebration.
Unconvinced? Imagine that you were incapable of being curious, interested, exploring and searching for meaning and understanding. Translation: Life would be vastly less lively than what you’ve experienced up to this point. Frankly, life would be terribly boring and you wouldn’t even be capable of understanding the meaning of it.
I‘ve also heard people say: “Yeah, I get it. But I wish I would have had this realization ten or twenty years ago. It’s too late for me. I’m a slave to routine. I don’t even have time to think!” Listen to what the experts say: “Researchers have shown that some regions of the adult brain stay as malleable as a baby’s brain, so we can grow new connections, strengthen existing connections, and even create new neurons, allowing all of us to be lifelong learners.”[vii]
From infancy to childhood, adolescence to adulthood, middle-age to senior citizen status, we carry the vast potential of the ‘Q’ gene – each and every one of us. There are no exceptions. How we do and what we do with this reality has profound implications for you, your life, and the cultures/societies in which we live, work, play, learn, grow and contribute. It involves a quest to reconsider how we presently understand the way meaning is made, and how we know what we think we know. You should be aware that this quest is risky business – it possesses the distinct potential to change you. Listen to the results of the research:
“The dynamic interaction between learning and development concerns the fundamental change in how meaning is made or how we know what we think we know….In-form-ative learning simply adds to the form as it is, whereas trans-form-ative learning “puts the form itself at risk of change.”[viii]
We will explore this subject later in this writing where we illuminate how Questian propensities can be nurtured and enhanced.
Let’s simply agree that we can all recognize two drives that inhabit the human species today. The first is a biological drive – the one that produces the yearning to eat, drink etc. The second drive is external and comes to us typically in the form of capturing rewards and avoiding punishments. If you refrain from driving too fast – you won’t get a speeding ticket. Work hard, achieve your performance objectives and you will earn a bonus. Yet, there is what has been referred to as a third drive [ix] – that is pertinent to activating the ‘Q’ gene within us. This third drive is laced with the human need for gratification and joy. The ‘Q’ gene is composed of a uniquely human drive that is activated by doing what we choose to do for (primarily) the joy of it. Becoming aware of and acting upon the privilege of triggering your ‘Q’ gene improves your health. It also improves the groups we humans tend to form like friendships, businesses, schools, neighborhoods, cities and the like.
Before we get ahead of ourselves here, in the next chapter we’re going to explore what we call “The vaQuum” – a growing body of evidence that recognizes the unavoidable facts that support both the rising need and value of Questians in society today.
I realize that at this juncture, you may be asking yourself, is this possible? Before you turn the page, ponder the plausibility of the following:
“Once barriers — which consist in a sense only in man’s ignorance of the possible — are torn down, they are not easily set up again.”[x]
NOTES – Chapter 1 – The ‘Q’ Gene – Chapter Header Quote
[i] Bronowski, Jacob – The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination, Yale University Press, Copyright © 1978 by Yale University. P. 109.
NOTES – Chapter 1 – The ‘Q’ Gene
[i] McGinn, Colin Mindsight – Image, Dream, Meaning Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA Copyright © 2004 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College, p. 121
[iv] Medina, John Brain Rules – 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School, Pear Press Seattle, WA Copyright © 2008 by John J. Medina, p. 3.
[v] Ibid – p. 269
[vi] Ibid pp. 264-265
[vii] Ibid pp.271.
[viii] Taylor, Kathleen, Marienau, Catherine and Fidler, Morris Developing Adult Learners – Strategies for Teachers and Trainers, Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint San Francisco, CA Copyright © 2000 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 13.
[ix] Pink, Daniel H. DRIVE – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Riverhead Books, A Member of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2009 by Daniel H. Pink, pp. 2-3 – citing the work of Harry F. Harlow, Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin.
[x] Cooper Ramo, Joshua The Age of the Unthinkable – Why The New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It Copyright © 2009 by Joshua Cooper Ramo – Little, Brown and Company New York, NY). P. 96.