Child of the Dream

With all my chattering about how attentive Carly is, and she is, at the same time Carly is often eyes-wide-open-vacant, dreamy. Sitting at her buffet this lovely morning there it was - the stare. Bread and egg in her hand, Carly was off in another dimension. I had to bring her back with a direct look and smile. She giggled.

Themes: 
brain
brain development
parenting

Nate Jones: Bringing Brain Science Home, Epigenetics at Work

We have domesticated our children by restricting what they do with their hands. A domesticated brain is fundamentally different than a wild brain.Technology compressed the living world into a two dimensional flat experience. Since the 1990’s this flat, dead experience has increasingly shaped the developing brains or our children. Nate Jones, sitting in his dusty tire shop, a backdrop for the Long Beach Formula One Grand Prix, describes how the domestication Chris writes about changed the brain of the young men by changing what boys do with their hands.

The Developing Brain Part Six

Nate Jones: Bringing Brain Science Home, Epigenetics at Work

Our featured interview with Nate Jones, a tire mechanic, is a ‘must see’. It is as or more important than any in The Academy and has deep, even profound implications for anyone interested in how children grow and learn.

Yes, the brain develops and there is a lot of talk about how this happens. The best teachers apply abstract concepts. Bev Bos translated the latest neuroscience into water, sand, clay, paints and swinging movement. Frank Wilson, MD., says, yes, indeed the brain developed over millions of years by interacting with a living three-dimensional world. For humans this interaction, touch and movement were led by the hand.

For 30 years Chris Mercogliano was the co-director of the Albany Free School. Chris wrote In Defense of Childhood where he marched back through time and demonstrated how fear, the changing family and technology conspired to ‘domesticate’ childhood after World War Two. Domesticate means to tame, to control, limit and constrain. We have domesticated our children by restricting what they do with their hands. A domesticated brain is fundamentally different than a wild brain.

Wild in this sense means a brain that developed by interacting with three dimensional objects and living nature. Technology compressed the living world into a two dimensional flat experience. Since the 1990’s this flat, dead experience has increasingly shaped the developing brains of our children. Nate Jones, sitting in his dusty tire shop, a backdrop for the Long Beach Formula One Grand Prix, describes how the domestication Chris writes about changed the brain of the young men by changing what boys do with their hands. The interview is an hour. That is a long time in our nano-second attention deficit world. Nate is a great story teller. Sit back, grab some popcorn and enjoy the ride. Your views of what is fundamental to every child’s developing brain will never be the same.

Themes: 
brain
brain development
three dimensional learning

The Developing Brain Part Five

Frank Wilson, MD., The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture

Fifth in our Developing Brain series is a fascinating and paradigm shifting interview with Frank Wilson, MD., author of The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture, which is actually part one of two related interviews, paired with Nate Jones, a racecar tire specialist. The concept developed in these two interviews is that the body and the way it moves has a direct impact on the capacity and quality of what we imagine, imagination in this case being how we relate to imagined challenges in three dimensions. This capacity is directly related to a child’s early developmental experiences. The prevailing notion is that thought is independent from the body. We immobilize young children in confining rows of chairs and have them give attention to highly abstract symbolic processes, 2 +2 = 5, I mean 4. Look at children today and they sit or stand, head bowed, thumbs pounding on a phone or tablet for eight to ten hours a day. Why is this important? Frank and Nate share a number of fascinating insights about this.

Themes: 
Embodied imagination
brain
brain development

The Embodied Self

The Embodied Self
Frank Wilson

It is a common knowledge that there is something called a flow state that happens to people. Well, that has to do with the body. It is a kind of hypnosis, but we associate hypnosis, almost, with an artificial state of contraction of awareness in which you can be induced to pay attention to or to believe something about yourself that really isn’t true. But, there is another kind of altered state that comes about through a fully conscious exercise of some skill in which you experience a new state.

What you’re saying was another one of these minor epiphanies for me. There is a term that dermatologists and plastic surgeons use when they are sort of warned off by a patient who comes to them who is terribly concerned about a specific wrinkle. There is an article in today’s New York Times about a woman who had her nose operated on five times, until they got it right. The medical term for that is body dismorphic disorder. There are various expressions of it. It means that there is something wrong with my body, and bulimics, people who have eating disorders fall into this class of body dismorphic disorder. I don’t like my body; it’s not me; I don’t feel . . . But, that all pretty much stops at the skin, or it stops at the profile.

What I’m saying is, and what I am noticing is that people who really spend time with themselves physically and they come to enjoy and kind of fluency of movement, and they recognize an expressivity in how they actually move can come to believe that their body isn’t really behaving the way it should and they become alienated from it. As a neurologist, there was another place where I discovered this, and this was with patients that I was seeing at Stanford, with Parkinson’s disease. There are people who suddenly discover that their body doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. They have a hand that shakes and they don’t want to go outside, anymore, because people will thing they are old. A woman who was a patient of mine was a third-grade teacher, who would not go in front of a class anymore because she could sense that people looked at her differently, that it wasn’t her. This happens very, very quickly. I’m now—it’s not that I’m missing an arm or a leg or a hand or an ear, or I, you know, have some ugly cancerous lesion on my nose, it’s just that I don’t look graceful, anymore. As far as I know, in medical literature, there is absolutely no attention paid to this, at all.

Those things go together. I don’t think you need to artificially separate them. In some people it really is just that it doesn’t sound like me; it doesn’t feel like me. That’s very, very difficult to deal with. But, I don’t think we need to dig too deep here into this whole issue, but the point is that we really are given a body, and it’s a biomechanical wonder. It’s a sensory wonder. You know, you go outside and people use words like “delicious.” The way I was running today, I was moving in a way that was really delicious to me; I got completely lost in that experience. Or, tennis players who will talk about a game that they played, or a musician will play in a certain way, and they’ll say, “I don’t know; something happened, and I’ve listened to the recording. It can’t be me; I don’t play that well.”

So, we’ve used the word, and it is a common knowledge that there is something called a flow state that happens to people. Well, that has to do with the body. It is a kind of hypnosis, but we associate hypnosis, almost, with an artificial state of contraction of awareness in which you can be induced to pay attention to or to believe something about yourself that really isn’t true. But, there is another kind of altered state that comes about through a fully conscious exercise of some skill in which you experience a new state. I remember a music teacher who told me that many of his students would become very anxious about playing; they would have stage fright, so they would become inhibited as soon as they thought somebody was watching. He would teach them a technique to become sort of enraptured with the experience. Then he would explain to them, he said, “This is not a trick so that you can play better; this is so that you understand that the playing of the music is a gift to you as a way to enter into the state of higher consciousness.” And, I believe that that is really one of the potentials that exists. Whenever you see an artist—I’ve had many opportunities to watch artists work, not just musicians, and you can’t interrupt them. They get into a state in which, as the saying goes, the house could fall down around them, or it could burn down around them, and they are not interested. They don’t pay attention to that because they have become so engaged with whatever it is that they are doing. It is a fusion of the physical and the emotional and the cognitive in which all of those things are going together in a way that you can’t artificially induce. It is completely self-induced, and you can’t tell when it’s going to happen. But, people who have the experience can and do work toward that experience in which they forget the technicalities and they simply say, “I know when I feel like this, I’m doing it the right way because nothing else makes me feel this way.”

Cultivating imagination and lifelong passion

Cultivating imagination and lifelong passion
Frank Wilson

Most of formal education consists of systematically interfering with every spontaneous interest that a child has, and I don’t think that’s a good thing.

There is a collection of letters that was just published by Richard Feynman’s daughter—Feynman, who became famous in American culture over the shuttle disaster that was caused by the O-rings that malfunctioned. He had been involved in nuclear physics for his whole career. He was involved in the Manhattan Project, and so on. So, not the sort of guy who is a household name, even as a Nobel Laureate, but there were a lot of people who knew him. From the time that he won the Nobel Prize in Physics, for the rest of his life, as now becomes obvious from this collection of letters, is that people wrote to him saying, “I have a son or I have a daughter; how do I get them to become interested in physics?” And he gives the same—not, I don’t think, imitating [Einstein], but he gives the same answer. He said, “The best thing that you can do is let this child exercise their own intelligence, follow their own interests because if they are going to become a nuclear physicist, they are going to find it. If they are not going to become a nuclear physicist, you can’t lead them there.” So, over and over, again, he gives the same kind of message, that it’s critically important to develop the intellect, that the sort of spontaneous experience of following one’s own interests as a child is not interfered with. Most of formal education consists of systematically interfering with every spontaneous interest that a child has, and I don’t think that’s a good thing.

The famous movie in which Ronald Reagan played the football player who lost his leg and says, when he discovers that he’s lost his leg, “Where is the rest of me?” We all have a sense—and it’s an obsessive sense in a fashion-oriented world—that if there is any part of us that isn’t absolutely perfect, then we can’t even go outdoors. We are really preoccupied with our appearance. The physical body is an object of, really, very close attention. Masses of people wouldn’t be making obscene amounts of money selling stuff to people who are worried about their appearance if this weren’t so. We are also very preoccupied with image. We have television; we have digital cameras; we now, as my wife and I have discovered, we now can see our new granddaughter over the internet, because we have this little device that is attached to the computer. So, we pay a lot of attention to physical appearance and we connect that with some sense of self.

I became aware of the fact that in dealing with people who are performers that there is another kind of self that has nothing to do with looking good in the fashion magazine sense. It’s a self that is realized in fluency of movement. I was told something really quite striking by a woman who is the head of the piano department of Julliard, Yoheved Kaplinsky; she was telling me that some of her students have this sort of native raw talent, this really genius at the instrument, at the piano, that, really, the teacher can only stand out of their way. They (the teacher) understand this business about interference. She said, “But, there is something quite striking; that a student like this can come to you and they play a particular piece of music with extraordinary musicality and physical fluency, but you can see in it the beginning of something that is going to grow into a problem. If you’re not careful with a student like this, just changing the fingering of a passage, of a single passage will alienate that student from the piece of music. They’ll play it and they will look at their hand or they’ll feel it kinesthetically and they’ll say, “This is not me. I’m the way I played it before; that’s me.” So, it’s a quite literal physically incarnated sense of self that is achieve through years and years of perfection of and sensitivity to how the body actually moves.

Now, most of us never really . . . I mean we get out of bed and we walk down the street and we stumble around, and we don’t think about ourselves as ballet stars when we present ourselves to the public. But, the fact of the matter is that that’s also something that is innately true of us. All armature athletes worry about does their golf swing look right, or does my tennis swing look right? We go to the gym, and do I look right when I am lifting weights, because I don’t want people to laugh at me, to think that I’m no good. So, we do have a sort of native sense that, yeah, the way we look when we move counts. But, we don’t see that underneath that, over a period of years and years, as we grow, that the thing that we refer to psychologically as “me” is intimately bound up with how we use our bodies.

Embodied education

Embodied education
Frank Wilson

If you divorce a child from experiences that arise out of his natural curiosity for handling things, building things, taking them apart and trying to draw plans for how something might work better, then that kid is going to lack a certain type of competence that we have taken for granted.

To answer your question why do I think it’s important; it’s because I think that we need to understand why that experiment didn’t work. It’s pretty clear that if you look at a long experience of how kids who turned out to be very productive; the high-achievers, the life-long-learners, and so forth, that a very high percentage of those kids are kids who were brought up this way, with real physical world experiences and with opportunities to challenge themselves with tasks that required that they learn how to get better at something that involved the hands. And whether “getting better at” means getting better at a puppet, getting better at juggling, getting better at some athletic endeavor, getting better at playing some musical instrument, getting better at drawing, designing cars, etc., etc., etc., there was something about this that the child really gained control of. The curriculum was not one that was entirely brought in from the outside, because the questions were questions that came out of the experience of trying to make something happen with your own ends. And, they are not questions that necessarily ever make it into a book. You know, a child sees a problem and he says, “How do I fix this?” He plays with it and he has his own particular set of questions based upon his own perception of what he doesn’t know and what he or she does know. What they have to solve, the problem that they have to solve in order to get the thing to the next level of where they are trying to take it.

So, the problem is that is sounds so simple that it is almost insulting to talk about it. I guess it’s like in the election campaign; “It’s the economy, stupid!” Well; it’s the hands, stupid! If you divorce a child from experiences that arise out of his natural curiosity for handling things, building things, taking them apart and trying to draw plans for how something might work better, then that kid is going to lack a certain type of competence that we have taken for granted. Now, I’m not going to argue that, necessarily, by starting kids on computers earlier that you’ve caused brain damage. That’s an argument and a case for somebody else to make. But I do know that they turn out differently. The kinds of skills that they have tend to be quite specific to computers, such as you know, developing viruses, developing spyware. I didn’t mean to be so black about that, but the fact is that these kids like to go into neuroscience; they like to go into computer technology of various kinds because those are the skills that they learn when they start very early. I’m not against that, but there are lots of other necessary skills, and not everybody wants to sit there and write code for the rest of their life. It doesn’t give them joy. Kids need to have an opportunity to sort of be free-range experiencers of the world and discover what gives them joy, what makes them “lose time,” what makes them get lost in some kind of mental space in which their creative juices and their imaginative sense of the world sort of comes into some kind of spontaneous, self-directed exercise.

It’s hard to teach that. The Bloom people said, unfortunately, when you look at the kids who really grew up this way, and who took over their own education, is that the school system doesn’t really offer many ways of doing that. There are lots and lots of examples of oasis of sanity, where kids do have the opportunity to do that, but it’s a little scary because you don’t know what’s going to happen. If the parents that [say] I really want my kid, who is how 8 years old to become chief justice of the Supreme Court, they are going to be a hard sell for the case that maybe what you need to do is to be very Zen about that and just walk away from it, and if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.

How the hand defines the ‘self”

How the hand defines the ‘self”
Frank Wilson

It looks like evolution expected us to be active pursuers of information, not to simply be sitting there quietly and having stuff stuffed into us. That’s overstating the case a little bit, but in general it seems to me that, based on my clinical experience, that it is not a stretch at all to say if the hand is really important to intelligence and to this sense of accomplishment that adult life is supposed to bring, then you ought to some evidence of a respect for that fact in what we offer to children as part of their education.

The second thing, and this is really derivative; the second thing is that it seems to me that the hand is really important as an object to think about in the developmental process, generally. And when I began to look at that question through let’s say the eyes and the experience and the research of people like Benjamin Bloom and the Montessorians and the Waldorf people and the Fribble kindergarten people, and on, and on, and on. It seemed to me that what they were saying was, what their experience was telling me was that this is really truth, that educators—people who are interested in the development of children, who pay attention to what kids to with their hands and who afford them opportunities to use their hands—get the kind of results that I would expect if it is really true that the hand and the brain are a system, and that they develop through life in a way that somehow or other yields this product of an autonomous, sentient, conscious thing that we call the “self.”

Now, if you think like that, or if you make inferences like that, you can’t look at this “crashed-and-burned” institution that we call education and not think well, maybe part of the problem is that the people who are the theorists in education have, like the cognitive psychologists that I just met, looked at the hand as if it were sort of an incidental [player] and not, in fact, a central player. The truth is that there is no way for you to actually address the brain directly. You can do it if you drill a hole in the head and drive an electrode in, but as a matter of practicality, despite what lots of people say is talking directly to the brain by doing the following thing. You’re not talking directly to the brain. The brain is part of a responsive organism that receives information in a certain way. It may do it actively; it may do it passively. It looks like evolution expected us to be active pursuers of information, not to simply be sitting there quietly and having stuff stuffed into us. That’s overstating the case a little bit, but in general it seems to me that, based on my clinical experience, that it is not a stretch at all to say if the hand is really important to intelligence and to this sense of accomplishment that adult life is supposed to bring, then you ought to some evidence of a respect for that fact in what we offer to children as part of their education.

When I met this guy, Nate Jones, after the book had been published, what is said was that he had begun to wonder what was wrong with the kids that were coming to him just to learn how to fix cars in a car shop. There is nothing fancy about that. This is just—this is Norman Rockwell Americana. Well, if it’s Americana, how come the kids coming to a guy like Nate are in-educable? Why does he say, “I can’t teach them how to do anything.” And, he asks himself, you know, is it in the water? Is there something? Or is it watching television? What is it? And he spoke with his wife and his daughter, both of whom are primary school teachers, and they offered the possible suggestion or explanation that maybe it was because kids don’t do anything with their hands in school. They are literally—they are just dissociated completely with the kind of stuff that I’ve been talking about. So, he took that and said well, you know, kids really need to be . . . I mean, I can see that. I did that when I was a kid. Incidentally, I’ve asked the same question at a meeting of computer scientists and engineers, who looked at me blankly when I said kids need this in the schools. They said, “No, they need courses in calculous.” Then I said, “Well, tell me a little bit about what you did when you were a kid.” One hundred percent of them were doing all the things that Nate is talking about. They grew up handling stiff, taking things apart, and they simply just do not credit that experience at all because they don’t look back. They forget what it was like to be there and to go through this long developmental process. We’re saying, wake up! You know, that wasn’t simply trivial. Woodshop, metal shop, drawing, none of that stuff was unimportant. In fact, that’s how you got to where you had to go.

We were just getting around to talking about Nate Jones. The realization that came to me was that if it was really true that hands and life go together, and that the experience of someone like Nate Jones, who is asking the question well, how come kids just simply can’t master these relatively simple skills? He then asks the question of himself maybe the fact that they haven’t had hand experience might have something to do with the fact that they simply can’t figure out how to take on these tasks. If you then look at the education system and you look at what’s happened over the last, I suppose, 15 years—people are always arguing about what’s wrong with the education system. That’s been going on for a very long time. Nevertheless, it’s clear that there is, with the exception of quite specific programs like Montessori and Waldorf and other kinds of sort of low-tech, if you will, low-tech educational strategies for kids, that we’re after something very different in terms of the yield of a formally organized education system. It is, apparently, the ability to pass tests.

Now we’ve got lots of people riled up because they are seeing that kids are disaffected from the educational system. Lots of kids drop out. There are criticisms of all kinds. More recently, there is a very, very interesting counter trend, which a guy like me is really very vulnerable to saying, “Ah-hah! I told you so,” without really knowing the details. That is that many of the admissions specialists in the so called “elite” colleges and universities in this country are taking very, very seriously the very different set of experiences that kids who’ve been home schooled and who have been brought up in alternative programs, the skills and potential that they seem to be bringing to college education. There is a paradox in this. It is that for the last ten years or so, people like Jane Healy and people like the Alliance for Childhood Health have been trying to wrestle with this case that is made that there is a digital divide: That kids who are deprived of the opportunity to learn with computers from an early age fall behind and never catch up in the education system.

Well, this sort or sudden perverse view of this problem that you get from talking to people who are admitting kids to college is that the digital divide actually works the opposite way, that the parents with lots of money, who are determined to get their kids into Harvard are spending money to keep them away from computers and to get them into home school programs, get them into—even if they are not particularly religious-minded, into Christian schools, where they have these other activities that are being given to them as an alternative to the wickedness of getting on the internet. For whatever reason, it seems that there is some validation coming very quickly that this wholesale investment in communications and electronic technology as a surrogate for real experience was a mistake. I am not unwilling to say that I think the educational world was sold a bill of goods when the suggestion was made that kids really need to be wired up to the internet at the earliest possible age.

Hands really are our lives in a fundamental way

Hands really are our lives in a fundamental way
Frank Wilson

If I was involved with people’s hands, I was going to be involved with their lives. That’s just the simplest, most economical way to say it. For at least the group of people that I was dealing with, their hands weren’t just involved in their lives, their hands really were their life in a fundamental way.

My perspective on this material comes out of twenty years of working with people with hand problems. It was really over that period of time the accumulated both diversity and kind of central tendency of all of these stories that—out of all of this I was beginning to see that there was some kind of fundamental principle that had to be true for all of these stories to hang together as they did. So, that truth, to me as a clinician, was that if I was involved with people’s hands, I was going to be involved with their lives. That’s just the simplest, most economical way to say it. For at least the group of people that I was dealing with, their hands weren’t just involved in their lives, their hands really were their life in a fundamental way.

I think I began the book talking about the fact that when I showed videos of people with hand problems, I was astonished that somebody in the audience would faint, that they could be so emotionally connected with that truth, that it would really just completely knock them flat when they saw somebody who couldn’t do . . . And, these were not bloody, broken hands; these were hands that just weren’t functioning.

So, the first thing that seems to me to respond to this question of why do you think this is so important, this hand/brain stuff? It’s not so much hand/brain stuff. I’m a neurologist, so that’s kind of the platform from which I view things. You know, not in a limited way, I hope, not in a way that says this wonderful aphorism: “If the only thing you have is a hammer, then everything you see is going to look like a nail.” If you’re a neurologist, you can’t look at people without thinking about, well, what’s the brain got to do with this? In a certain way, I’m kind of a contrarian in that sense because I am not nearly as much interested in the brain as I am in the body. I see the brain as being very important to the operation of the body, but when you stand back and you talk about developmental issues and you talk about human behavior and intelligence, you’re really talking about the construction of a life that really draws on everything that the body offers. It draws on what people make of their own experiences, and that’s . . . So, to try to distill that point; it is that it doesn’t surprise me at all, as an neurologist who has dealt with people whose lives depend on their hands, that the hand is really fundamentally important in human development and how people develop, whether they happen to be ending up as people who really can’t get along without their hands in life.

Mirror Neurons

Mirror Neurons
Frank Wilson

If we are predisposed to learn how to do something skillful by watching somebody else do it and to imitate it, then a great deal of signaling of intentionality; what am I going to do next? resides in our ability to actually infer from the movements that somebody else is making, what it is that they are planning to do.

 

Well, let me just say something quickly about the issue of language quite apart from a long-running and a very interesting and rather technical debate about formal languages based on hand movements, by which I am referring to sign languages. There is now very good evidence that one of the ways that higher primates are predisposed to learned skills—this includes monkeys and chimpanzees and probably lots of other animals—is that we are neurologically predisposed, behaviorally predisposed to watch the hands of peers and adults who are skilled. There is a new body of research in what are called mirror neurons. These are neurons in the central nervous system that become active when I am observing you doing something with your hands. We learn to read each other’s hands. We learn how to imitate hand movements. We learn by . . . You watch any kid, you know, who looks at a pitcher, or any kid, more typically I think, watching somebody who’s laying licks on a guitar. Kids love to be able to do that. Air guitar, which now it’s a sport of its own; it seems like it couldn’t possibly be serious. But, in fact, the communication of a sort of musical sensibility just simply through bodily movements—and it isn’t just pelvis gyrations—it’s also do the hands really look like they are doing what they are doing? I suppose that’s born of the fact that rock music has become so loud that nobody actually hears it, anyway, because you go to a concert and you put ear plugs in. So, it is not that the music is really incidental, but apparently there is an ability to experience pleasure simply from watching the movements.

If we are predisposed to learn how to do something skillful by watching somebody else do it and to imitate it, then a great deal of signaling of intentionality; what am I going to do next? resides in our ability to actually infer from the movements that somebody else is making, what it is that they are planning to do.

Interestingly enough, there is a whole school of learning for gifted athletes that consists of their learning to disguise what they are going to do by not giving what poker players call a “tell.” You have to be able to actually deprive somebody of the information that they will get by, if you will, informed watching, intelligent watching.

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