Thursday, December 19, 2019

Where We Are Happiest

In the constant turmoil of our cells -- in the irrepressible plasticity of our brains -- we find our freedom. ~Jonah Lehrer

According to new research, it seems that anti-depressant medications work by stimulating neurogenesis, which is the division of neurons. In other words, they make depressed people feel better by creating new brain cells. When our brains stop growing, we tend to feel depressed and newly born brain cells make us happy.

Up until the 1990s, the leading theory held that the human brain's store of neurons was fixed from about the age of five-years-old, that brain cells didn't continue to divide like the rest of the cells in the human body, but we now know that our brains and bodies can really be considered a single organ in which all of the cells are continually being renewed. This means that we are always, each of us, in the process of evolving into something new.

The condition that seems to slow neurogenesis (with the caveat that all of this research is, by necessity, done on animals) is when we are in a state of "captivity." This makes sense because captivity is generally an environment that doesn't change, which reduces the need to adapt, so brains simply stop adapting. People suffering from depression often talk of feeling "trapped." Up until quite recently, depression was mainly found in adults, but its incidence among children, even very young children, has spiked in the last few decades. This seems to be connected to a loss of the relative freedom that previous generations enjoyed: children are being subjected to developmental inappropriate academic pressures unheard of in the past and their opportunities to play, especially outdoors without the restrictions of ceilings and walls, has been greatly reduced.

Of course, freedom is an abstract concept: who but the dead can claim to be truly free? We are all always confined in some way, by laws or morals or the limitations of our own minds and bodies. So perhaps freedom isn't the right word to use in discussing the opposite of captivity. Perhaps a better antonym for our purposes is something like "variety" or "change" or "re-birth." If we've evolved to keep evolving, to renew ourselves, at least at the cellular level, then it stands to reason that we would be happiest (another abstract concept) when engaged in an ever-evolving environment.

The environment of the classroom -- a place of sitting still, of listening, of repetition, and of rote -- is a relatively unchanging place, one that moves methodically, that allows only certain proscribed forms of engagement, that cuts out everything that isn't deemed "instructional." It assumes a one-way flow from the adult to the child. We have evolved to evolve so most of the children most of the time still manage to adapt, neurogenesis continues to take place, although I suspect at a much slower rate. Alarmingly, however, more and more children are failing to adapting. We are now up to one in five children between the ages of 3 and 17 who are suffering from some form of mental illness, such as depression and anxiety (depression's close cousin), and the percentage is on the rise.

If the disease is caused by an artificially static environment, of captivity, then the cure must be change, variety, and re-birth. Thankfully, we know what to do. Classic, unfiltered childhood play provides the perfect conditions most necessary for neurogenesis, which is brain growth, to occur. Our greatest "freedom" is found while engaged in self-selected actives in open-ended ways, continually adapting to our world and the people we find there. And that, not accidentally, is also where we are happiest.

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