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Friday, January 7, 2011

Dogs and Children



Say what you want about Malcolm Gladwell (playing fast and loose with data and statistics, using extraordinary anecdotes to tug at readers' heartstrings, too biased, etc.), he is a damned good storyteller with a keen eye of observation unlike anyone else's. One does not have to believe or agree with every single point of his in order to appreciate that.

His essay "What the Dog Saw" is one of the few pieces of writing that are deeply, deeply stuck in my head. I don't think I will ever forget it. It was one of the most fascinating revelation that a dog sees through people --- not what they say, but what they think --- by observing their body language, and one's body language betrays what is really on one's mind, emotions that oneself is largely not consciously aware of. In other words, a dog may know more accurately how you really feel than you do.

The last paragraph is etched in my brain. It made an incredible point that struck me like lightening the first time I heard it on the audiobook, and I have mulled over it many times since then.

He stopped. He had had enough of talking. There was too much talking, anyhow. People saying, "I love you," with a touch that didn't mean "I love you." People saying, "There, there," with gestures that did not soothe. People saying, "I'm your mother," while reaching out to a Chihuahua instead of their own flesh and blood. Tyler looked stricken. Lori shifted nervously in her seat. Bandit growled. Cesar turned to the dog and said "Sh-h-h." And everyone was still.


I am an above-average observer of people's emotions. More than occasionally, I can correctly anticipate people's reactions and thoughts. The skill and habit come in handy while driving to help me spot cars who are about to cut into my lane (but they bring a certain burden as well). So it is hardly a surprise to read that people would say things they do not mean or feel, and that people often have simultaneous conflicting feelings. All that rings true. However, what I did not realize is that the subconscious emotions emerge in people's faces, tone of voice, body language, movements, and other signals.

Humans may very well be worse observers of humans than dogs. Why? Language interferes. The poor integration between the "thinking brain" and the "emotional brain" (Joseph LeDoux) has made language as much an unintentional liar as a communicator. It hides and represses (to others as well as self) one's feelings. Yet feelings express themselves outside of the thinking-language paradigm anyway, which dogs can see clear as day, because dogs are not distracted by human language and the game it plays. Dogs see who you really are.

Only today did I suddenly realize, children too, just like dogs, see through people's unspoken thoughts and feelings. As the prefrontal cortex matures with age and increases its grip on the rest of the brain, this clarity recedes as the brain's social coordination and impulse control become sophisticated along with language skills.

Another fascinating observation in "What the Dog Saw" was that some people are more conflicted than others. They can fool themselves and other people, but they cannot fool dogs. I now realize that they cannot fool children, either.

Some people are not conflicted. They are what is called "authentic." Most people are somewhere on the spectrum, between the extremes of authenticity and repression/conflicts.

It may seem that I am implying that the "thinking brain" is bad and detrimental to one's authenticity, and that this repression of the "emotional brain" is utterly undesirable. Not true. Nature cannot be defined as good and bad, favorable and unfavorable. Hypocrisy improves social cooperation among humans and, in turn, their chance of survival. It is good for the species and sometimes bad for individuals' mental and emotional health.

Some people are hypocrites; some are conflicted within themselves. Some people are more authentic because they have a less robust prefrontal cortex function and are more impulsive; they think less before they speak or act. Some people are more authentic because they are not conflicted for whatever reason, because they have little need to repress themselves; they have zen.

Dogs and children can recognize who is who.

(For an explanation of the photo above, see Gladwell's blog.)

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