The Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 could be a turning point in history. It could be the event that shocks us into a new vision of ourselves, our past, our future, our mission, and our destiny. Or it could be the prelude to a long decline. Will that turning point be for better or for worse? Will it be a new beginning, a new opportunity to see what we've achieve with brand new eyes and to build on our foundations brilliantly? Or will it be the end? The beginning of the Chinese Century?
The answer depends on something that may sound totally irrelevant. Our perceptions. Our view of things. Without a vision a people will perish, says Proverbs. Why? Because a vision of a goal, a destination, a promised land, a view of a destiny that can uplift all of human kind, opens a vast reserve of energies. Not the energies that come from solar panels, wind farms, nuclear plants, coal, or oil. The energies of the human spirit. The energies of your spirit and mine.
Energies? Surely that's just an idle metaphor, sloppy motivational rhetoric, fluffy feel-good poetry. Right? Wrong. The energies I'm talking about are a matter of biology.
Nearly every form of multicellular animal we know competes for dominance in a pecking order. That includes lizards, lobsters, chickens, puppies, and you and me. And those competitions are almost always about who can lift himself the highest. Who can aim for the top and achieve it. Who can aspire to the skies. Lizards challenge each other with contests to see who can lift his body and his chin to the greatest heights. When the showdown is over. the winner turns a bright green, goes to the highest object he can find-a stick stabbing toward the heavens or the peak of a rock from which he can be the master of all he surveys. The loser turns brown and literally tries to crawl into a hole and die. He digs a trench, flattens himself into it and attempts to hide. Often he pines away and dies within two weeks. Why?
And why the total color change? Because this contest to see who can rise the highest and who can look up the farthest radically reworks a lizard's biology.
To see that biology at work, let's spy on the height loving rituals of another animal family, one that separated from its common ancestor with reptiles over 600 million years ago. A common ancestor that in all probability already had a reach-for-the-skies fetish built into its genes. This time, we're talking about lobsters and crayfish. Two crayfish go up against each other to see who can raise his body and his head the highest. The crayfish who wins the lift-showdown goes through a massive central-nervous-system-shift. His synaptic receptors for the neurochemical serotonin are altered by his triumph.
As you know, serotonin is the hormone boosted by the human anti-depressant Prozac. But, surprisingly, serotonin is not always an upper. In losers, it‘s a downer. Here's why. Nerve cells pass chemical signals to each other at the synapse, a junction point where the walls of two cells face each other over a tiny distance. One cell wall sends a chemical like serotonin. The other cell wall receives it. As you know, the receiving cell wall's chemical catcher's mitts are massive and intricate molecules called receptors. But here's what you may not know. Receptors can be unplugged like Christmas tree bulbs and new ones can be popped into their slots. And the new receptors can be very different from the ones they replace. One of the forces that insures that the new receptors will be the very opposite of the old is winning and losing-who comes out on top and who does not.
The new serotonin receptors of the victor interpret serotonin as the ambrosia of the gods, a chemical energy shot that gives the triumphant crustacean confidence and dignity. His serotonin receptors give him a positive way of seeing the world around him. How can we tell? Winners see solutions to problems that losers are blind to. What's more, winners' resistance to disease goes up. And the winner's reworked neurochemical receptor system gives him an erect posture, a posture of leadership. For the winning crayfish the chemicals of high spirits and of lofty aspirations strut their stuff.
But the serotonin receptors in the loser go through the opposite of this lofty confidence-creation. They spiral the creature they serve into a nose dive. The loser's newly screwed-in neuronal receptors interpret serotonin as a signal of shame, a signal that tells their master to abase himself, to crawl humbly before his betters. Thanks to a radical remake of his hormonal receptors, the loser interprets the world as being in a state whose very name is derived from the image of pressing something down--depression.
In technical terms, serotonin becomes a stimulant for the top animal and an inhibitor for the crayfish that he's just defeated. What's more, the loser's system is shot through with octopamine...a chemical that makes him timid. Even worse, the losing crayfish's system is flooded with stress hormones. In the short run, those hormones make the defeated crayfish's perceptions sluggish, his emotions dreary, his body slumped, his resistance to disease diminished, and his attitude one of bleak acceptance. In the long run, stress hormones are poisons. They can kill.
Shih-Rung Yeh, Russell Fricke and Donald Edwards, the researchers who illuminated the neurochemistry of these who-can-reach-higher dominance contests, remarked that it's as if each crayfish--the winner and the loser--has gone through a brain transplant. My colleague and sometime conspirator in the generation of new ideas, evolutionary biologist Valerius Geist, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science at the University of Calgary and President of Wildlife Heritage Ltd., calls this a change in phenotype, a body-shift. It's also a shift that can happen to you and me
The bottom line? The crayfish that lifts himself the highest wins. The crayfish or lizard with the animal equivalent of the loftiest vision goes through a brain and body shift.
There's a powerful message here for nations and civilizations. Nations that look up go up. Nations that look down go down. Research on the fans of winning and losing sports teams show that when your team and mine wins, we, like lizards and crayfish, go through a biologically based lift. But if our team loses, our biology knocks us down a peg. The implication? When we sense we are part of a group with an exuberant future we're neurochemically primed to climb. But if all we see is gloom and doom, our neurochemistry can help give us what we wish for. It can shift us into the hormonal posture of a loser.
If America can find its next big goal and aim for it, if America can see its next way of climbing to the heights, if America can shift its perception from decline to the peaks that lay ahead of us, to the next big challenge, if we can lift ourselves with all our might, we can enjoy the bio-boost that surges through winning crayfish and lizards. We can see obstacles as challenges and difficulties as opportunities. And we can make massive contributions to humanity. But if we insist that we've reached the end of our run and that it's all downhill from here, down is where we will go. Our internal chemistry will make it so.
Your obligation and mine is to generate America's next high aspiration, America's next towering vision. And that's not just fluff and rhetoric. It's biology.