Michael Mendizza

Writer, Filmmaker

Reacing For A New World – Carly and Me – 3.5 Months New


Learning and Education, Parenting

Carly, born Tuesday, July 29, 2014. Today is Friday, November 14, 2014, 108 days, almost three and a half months new depending on how we calculate the equinox. There is a distilling of awareness and attention, a distinct and growing capacity to balance, to see, to be startled by a sharp sound or emotion and reaching to grasp. Carly’s attention, how stimulation moves from her eyes into her brain creating intention, extending down her arm, past the elbow and wrist to the outreached hand, tiny fingers grasping is today’s lesson.

Holding a stuffed multisensory, multicolored firefly just in her reach, I wondered what she was experiencing. Of course her body and brain are exploding with new cells, neurons and synaptic connections. So are mine, I hope. Holding Carly near I mused, daydreamed really, about an interview with Frank Wilson some years ago.

Frank Wilson was a Stanford neurologist and the author of ‘The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture.’ More brain power is devoted to the thumb and hand than the entire body beneath the neck. How is this brain power developed? Playing with three dimensional objects like the dangling firefly. Wait, let me repeat, more brain power is devoted to the thumb and hand than the entire body beneath the neck.

Frank explained that every physical movement creates an inner image of the body’s position in three-dimensional space, a form of kinesthetic imagination or embodied cognition we call proprioception. Upon this embodied imaginative foundation we later add symbolic and metaphoric forms of imagination. The important distinction are the different forms of inner imagery, one embodied, physical, and the later symbolic, abstract, metaphoric. The first is the essential foundation for the second.

The sensory-motor centers of the brain create images of the external world. The limbic midbrain creates resonate representations of what is happening inside the body as we experience the world outside. These two distinct forms of imagery combine to create a primal form of kinesthetic imagination. Carly reaching for the dangling multicolored object is developing that proprioception, an instant by instant knowing of the body’s moving position in three dimensional space and the essential foundation for an Olympic gold medal, and more importantly, for a well-functioning intellect. If her kinesthetic imagination is not fully developed the abstract, symbolic and metaphoric mental images, what we call higher education, based on that weak foundation will also be weak. Remember the developmental sequence; sensory-motor first. Upon that, our emotional, relational, centers develop, and upon these two, language and abstract systems unfold, the lower providing the foundation or context for the more complex, from the concrete to the abstract.

Imagine, if you still can, a child with a rich three-dimensional sensory foundation and a child that skipped or was deprived of this three-dimensional foundation and leaped ahead to two-dimensional symbolic abstractions. One chased the dog on a grassy hill and the other rode in a stroller touching a screen. Which of these two children would you expect to expand their capacity for critical and creative thinking, empathy and problem solving? Easy – the child who experienced and developed a brain relating to the natural three-dimensional world.

Carly and I prefer carrying to pushing or lying in a trendy three-wheel stroller. I can feel her soft face next to mine as we make funny sounds together, not loud, just between the two of us. As we walk I rub her feet knowing that tiny nerve endings move up from her paws to every part of her body. Forget all the brain stuff. I do it because it feels good. Lying in the stroller means Carly is not being touched. Convenient for me, indeed, but sensory deprivation for Carly and sensory deprivation for me too, but most adulterated adults are too enchanted with themselves to notice.

If we have pleasurable sensory stimulation, that’s the brain engrams, the templates that will be stored, and they will be images of pleasure. If they are painful there are going to be images of pain. And pain evokes violent responses. But there is something else that invokes violent responses, and that is the absence of pleasure, and that is really different than the sensory event of pain, and most people don’t appreciate that distinction. In fact, more damage occurs with the sensory deprivation of pleasure than the actual experiencing of physical, painful trauma, which can be handled quite well in individuals who have been brought up with a great deal of physical-affectional bonding and pleasure, which carries with it emotional trust and security. 

So we really have to look at the trauma of sensory deprivation of physical pleasure and that translates into the separation experiences, the isolation experiences of the infant and the mother. That’s the beginning, the origins of violence.

Interview with James W. Prescott, PhD

More damage occurs with the sensory deprivation of pleasure than the actual experiencing of physical, painful trauma. This one sentence holds the key to early childhood’s social-emotional-sexual development and everything that is built on this foundation. 

Candace Pert, PhD., recognized for her discovery of the ‘pleasure molecule,’ describes how we are born to feel good. The developing brain is designed to experience pleasure, affectionate touch and movement. The very best, optimum developmental foundation is when happiness and joy integrates all the sensations Carly is experiencing. A child denied pleasure and happiness develops a brain that is neuro-dissociative, one that fragments rather than integrates experience. Pleasure equals happiness. This then forms the experiential context that gives rise to our social-self-image, who we think we are. And this image of self, our social coping strategy, becomes the casual paradigm that shapes our interpretation and interaction with the world. Please, let it be happiness. Let it be joy and laughter.

The integrative nature of pleasure and the dissociative effect of pain were demonstrated years ago when newborn monkeys were separated from their mothers and raised in isolation. The pain and pleasure systems of these mother deprived monkeys were impaired causing maturing juveniles and adults to compensate for their early sensory loss with super-sensory or hyper-stimulation, i.e., chronic touching, stereotypical rocking, hyperactivity, attention deficits, touch aversion (hyper-reactivity) and self-mutilation (impaired pain perception), all behaviors with strong parallels in many of today’s children and adults. 

Which is richer in terms of sensory experience? Being held close to mother’s breast or sucking artificial formula from a plastic bottle? Being strapped in a plastic stroller or carried on dad’s shoulders? Digging a hole to China or watching the Disney Channel? Legos or building a clubhouse for scrap wood? Catching frogs in the ditch or The World of Warcraft? Neighborhood pick-up games or adult organized Little League? Day by day, sensation by sensation the full spectrum experiences offered by a natural three-dimensional world have been replaced by sensory deprived counterfeits.

Nate Jones, a Formula One racing specialist, began to notice that boys coming to work in his shop during the early 1980s were physically awkward compared to every generation before. Why? Then it dawned on him – catalytic converters hit the car industry the same year Nintendo hit teenage boys. The three dimensional natural world was reduced to a two dimensional counterfeit.

Nate’s hypothesis was supported by Frank Wilson’s book. The important link between sensory stimulation, which nearly always involves the hand, brain development and creative thinking, was further supported when the head of Pasadena’s prestigious Jet Propulsion Laboratory read Nate’s essay. He too had seen the same physical and imaginative awkwardness, not in young car mechanics but in the pick of our nation’s top universities. The social, emotional and imaginative capacities of our brightest graduates did not match that of earlier generations. These young men had skipped playing in the mud, digging to China and catching frogs. Instead they rushed into two-dimensional flat screen abstractions, and by so doing deprived their early brains of critical three-dimensional stimulation, the essential foundation for full spectrum embodied cognitive AND symbolic imagination.

We come full circle. More damage can occur with the sensory deprivation of pleasure than the actual experiencing of physical, painful trauma. Crawl before you walk. Play in the mud, build sand castles and tree houses before you build rockets to Mars. The early sensory world lays the templates for our entire social, emotional and sexual life. It is this sensual foundation or lack of it that shapes our later thoughts, beliefs, our politics and values. That is what I learned with Carly today; that happiness and pleasure, touching and being touched by nature, creates a completely different foundation for full spectrum, three dimensional imagination and empathy. And upon that, our personal, social and global environmental crisis rests.

Michael Mendizza