Wednesday, December 07, 2022

The Myth Of The Brain

We've been conditioned to equate our self with our mind, which we've been taught to think of as residing in our brains. Bodies, Thomas Edison asserted, are there to "carry the brain around." There are even those so convinced that their brains contain who they are that they've had this particular organ cryonically preserved (frozen) in the anticipation that some day in the future we will be able to re-animate them by implanting their mind in a new body.

Anything is possible, I suppose, but cognative psychologists, neuroscientists, and biologists and are increasingly locating this thing called mind, our self, throughout our bodies. 

The ancient Egyptians and Greeks believed that our minds were located in our hearts. Others have located it in the spleen. Neuroscientist and author Antonio Damasio theorizes that the mind emerges from the process of mapping "the state of life" in our own bodies. When our mind represents our own internal states, feelings emerge, which is, according to him, the emergence of consciousness. It comes not from appreciating the outside world, but rather from appreciating what's going on inside our body in a two-way "conversation" between the nervous system and the rest of the body. 

There are many, including author and psychologist Christine Caldwell who believe that our current plague of modern bodily problems, like addiction, high blood pressure, diabetes, and general aches and pains, are directly caused by this artificial, yet psychologically very real, separation between mind and body.

Neuroscientist Candace Pert encourages us to think of our minds as a kind of circulating flow of information throughout our bodies, and our nerves and blood vessels are the highways conducting that flow.

In other words, it would be impossible to separate the brain from the body without losing the fullness of our minds, no matter what the science fiction writers imagine.

Yet as author and professor bell hooks noted, "many of us have accepted the notion that there is a split between the body and the mind. Believing this, individuals enter the classroom to teach as though only the mind is present, and not the body."

But that isn't how children enter our classrooms, especially in the early years when they have not yet learned to divide themselves. They come to us fully embodied. Unlike us, who tend to walk around like bodies carrying brains, they arrive fully enmeshed with the environment through every bodily sense. Unlike us, they are listening to the complex conversation going on within their bodies, their whole, undivided bodies, and therefore understanding the world in ways that many of us adults simply can't comprehend.

When we rush them into what we all "academic" learning, like literacy or mathematics, we are unwittingly teaching them to divide their mind from their body. When we insist that they sit still, eyes forward, we are telling them that their bodies are secondary. When we punish them by taking away recess or play time we reinforce Edison's false notion that that body is only there to serve the brain. 

We have been so conditioned by the myth of the brain as the seat of the mind that most of us have to really concentrate to connect to our bodies.

It's said that one of the things that distinguishes humans from other lifeforms is that we are capable of knowing that we are intelligent. Indeed, some, like Damasio, define the human mind as the ability to possess this knowledge of knowing. After all, he points out, we know that bacteria and plants are intelligent, we can tell by their behavior, but since they don't know they are intelligent, they can't be said to possess a mind. (This notion is not supported by many indigenous ways of thinking about bacteria-people and plant-people.) In some ways, we are born like the bacteria and plants: we do intelligent things, but we don't know we are doing them. Our minds are something that develop over time. In other words, these brand new humans are cognitively more like the rest of the living world than they are like those of us who have been taught to divide our minds from our bodies.

I will stop short of asserting that this makes young children superior to us, but it should cause us to pause and consider what we are doing when we unthinkingly teach children in a way that causes them to neglect and devalue their bodies in the narrow quest of academic learning. 

When children play, they show us the "bodyfulness" of their minds at work, flowing, conversing, and learning, the way it is done by the rest of the living universe. Don't we owe it to them, and ourselves, to take that seriously?


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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