Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to have had the ability to share my views with the public through the media. Yet even more fulfilling have been the one on one interactions with people who approach me to ask me questions about germs and our relationship with them.
But one question recently offered me an opportunity to explore our bond with germs on a deeper scale. It was a short one with an even shorter answer but opened up a discussion I never thought I would have.
The question: “Why do you want us to have a better relationship with germs?”
My answer: “Self-actualization.”
The quizzical look on the person’s face revealed the expectation of a different response but as we ventured further into the topic, a different perspective was unveiled.
Self-actualization is a relatively new term in the human lexicon, based on a branch of philosophy called “Organicism”, which is still best outlined in a text from 1903 called L’hérédité et les grands problèmes de la biologie générale. The essence of this theory was fairly simple yet the implications were profound:
“…life, the form of the body, the properties and characters of its diverse parts, as resulting from the reciprocal play or struggle of all its elements, cells, fibres, tissues, organs, which act the one on the other, modify one the other, allot among themselves each its place and part, and lead all together to the final result, giving thus the appearance of a consensus, or a pre-established harmony, where in reality there is nothing but the result of independent phenomena.”
While “organicism” was enough to placate a number of theorists, for researchers such as neuropsychologist, Kurt Goldstein and psychologist Abraham Maslow, this definition wasn’t enough. An individual had to be aware of how all the different parts worked together to bring about a healthier self…or as they coined it, self-actualization.
Both researchers set out on a path to identify just how we could be more self-actualized. Goldstein took a medical approach focusing on language while Maslow took a humanistic one. Both, however, came up with similar conclusions:
In order to have a better life, we must first identify the individual parts that
make up our lives and then figure out how these parts work together.
More importantly, there is a need to understand whether the relationship
can be changed by outside influences.
From a biological perspective, Maslow offered a rather intriguing look at how self-actualization works in our daily lives. His target was not some abstract component of behaviour but rather one that has become all the rage in the health world: Vitamin D.
Back in 1973, in his book, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Maslow noted that Vitamin D is a needed nutritional supplement to keep babies from catching colds and suffering other illnesses. Deprivation not surprisingly led to sickness. Replacing the vitamin with a poor surrogate led to the same problem. Essentially, in order to live a happy and healthy life, one needed to ensure that the body (and the mind) were supplied with proper supplements and not subjected to either deprivation or an unsuitable replacement.
In essence, by changing one component of a healthy life in a negative way, the entire existence suffers.
Up until a few decades ago, this theory may have had little in common with the world of germs. After all, for most of history, germs have been our enemies. But with the identification of good germs, probiotics, and the microbiome, our view of the microbial world has shifted. Only a small percentage are truly enemies while the majority are either beneficial or even essential to a healthy life.
Today, we know that health is directly related to germs. The makeup of our gut microbiota can influence a number of different health factors, from body weight, to management of chronic conditions to psychological state. While we continue to learn from researchers, the trend is unmistakable. Much like Vitamin D, germs are a necessary part of our existence and if we are deprived of them or worse, given improper surrogates, our happiness and health is in jeopardy.
But self-actualization is more than just knowing, it is also acting. No matter how much you might know about Vitamin D, if you don’t take the supplement or get some sunlight, the knowledge will do you no good. The same exists with germs.
Unfortunately, for most people, that is a problem as there is almost no availability of information on how to keep a good rapport with our microbial counterparts (although The Germ Code is available for pre-sale). This gap leaves many with questions, concerns and in some cases health issues that might be managed or resolved by simply changing the relationship.
As The Germ Guy, I try to fill that gap the best way I can. Promoting the use of good germs and means to avoid the bad ones is only the beginning. Bringing light to new revelations in the scientific literature increases awareness; highlighting new trends helps individuals decide on beneficial actions; and linking germs to some of our most popular cultural phenomena brings the microbial world closer to our reality. It’s all in the name of helping self-actualization and bringing about a happier and healthier life.
The talk led to some thinking on the part of the asker and ended with another form of self-actualization. This person, who is an expert in a different field of science, decided to start an expert blog. The goal, like mine, would be to help people self-actualize in that specific scientific realm. I was thrilled.
I also learned one other aspect of self-actualization that I hadn’t given much thought. By acting on our own motivation and striving to better one’s life (and perhaps the world’s), we can also inspire others to do the same. While my work will always focus on germs, I am happy to know that the impact reaches far beyond the microbiome and into people’s motivation. That in itself is perhaps the highest honour.
I would love to hear your thoughts.