‘We’re all mad here.’
The Cheshire Cat was right. As a child I was always frustrated by that statement in the book and yet totally intrigued by it. How annoying it must have been for Alice to be stuck in a world where no one makes any sense, and yet be trying to make sense of everything and everyone. For abnormal to be the norm… is it still abnormal then?
The older I get, the more I see the parallels in my work, and our own waking world. Sure, we may not have talking caterpillars sucking on hookah pipes or rabbits running around with waistcoats and antique timepieces complaining of their lateness, but as a species and as a society, we are all a little bit mad. At least in the extent our delightfully complex brains seem to often go against all rationality, and yet can also be hilariously predictable in some of their learned biases.
I’ll say it upfront – I’m not a tertiary trained or registered psychologist. I studied zoology but was always most fascinated by animal behaviour, and the anomalies that popped up often. Why does a lyrebird bother to learn over 30 different calls? We assume it is to impress a potential mate and display their incredible fitness and abilities to sire good young. So why occasionally do you hear females do this too? Not often, but it does happen. Just likes the mimicking? And how do you explain such incredible feats as seabird migration? Alaska and back in a year – and coming right back to the same beach or island you were born on, to have your own chick. Not only why, but how does that happen? It was things like this that drew me into behaviour – from tiny insects all the way to blue whales.
And then I started teaching students visiting zoos.
Our work was centred around encouraging pro-environmental behaviours in school students – to inspire young people to take on targeted actions we’d selected at the zoos, all to help alleviate threats to animals in the wild. And that’s when I truly fell down the rabbit hole and realised just how much and yet how little we still knew about human brains.
I’ve heard it mentioned that we know more about dark space – galaxies, stars, planets – than we do about either the deepest oceans or our own brains. In the words of many a Keanu Reeves character, ‘woah’.
I loved teaching kids. I loved trying to find those hooks – those ways into their heads to engage them in the first place, working with their questions, their interests and in amongst all of this – trying to introduce ideas and challenging them to go beyond just talk. Sometimes it worked. Often it didn’t. I went back to university to learn how to do it better and came away with a Masters in Teaching – including undertaking a thesis on the very students I was still teaching at zoos in amongst tutorials. I realised just how much a zoo affords them, and that it is far beyond the academic knowledge or the behaviours we were trying to facilitate.
And I fell further into Wonderland, becoming truly fascinated by so many ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions – how we can challenge norms, increase pro-environmental behaviour (as that’s the main game for the zoo) and why our societies and individual humans often go against their own intentions and rationales.
In my work I am fortunate to be able to continuously learn more about these fields. To delve further into psychology, behaviour change and education. It’s taken me far further than pro-environmental behaviours, to looking at how the health industry does this to stop behaviours like smoking, or overeating (and they’ve been at it far longer than the environmentalists), and looking at how the corporate marketing machines do it to encourage us to buy-buy-buy their brands and products. And all the while looking at the psychological theories behind these campaigns, advertisements and programs.
We are all mad here. But there’s definitely some method to this madness. This blog is me trying to make sense of that madness, share examples of those methods and hopefully keep me in Wonderland for a little longer.