Tuesday, February 06, 2024

Wiring Their Brains for Now

As a very young child, I knew my way around our house like I do the back of my hand. To this day, a half century later, I can still recall the nooks and crannies of that house. I looked it up on Google Earth awhile back. It's still there and while it's possible that walls have been moved within it, from the outside it sits in the same footprint it always has, in both reality and my mind. 

The neighborhood, too, is more or less the same: the streets are still there, the houses, even some of the trees are the same. It's a more mature suburb than it was in my youth, and I'm sure some of my childhood shortcuts have been severed, but I could still find my way around Winston, Macon, Wembley, and Christopher streets with no problem.

A few years ago, I revisited another childhood home in a suburb of Athens, Greece. I took the train from downtown, got off at the right stop, then followed the route from memory until I was standing in front of it. 

For most of my life, when in a new place, one of the first things I would do was get hold of a map and make a study of it. Before driving to a new place I would draw a tiny map on a piece of paper along with step-by-step instructions as a guide. I prided myself in rarely getting lost and if I did, I took even more pride in figuring out how to get back on course.

Today, all of that has been replaced by GPS. I don't know if my own sense of direction, of where I am in space, is eroding, but I do know that children today are growing up in a world in which these abilities are anachronistic. 

My instinct is to bemoan the loss of this capacity the way others bemoan the loss of the ability to read and write in cursive. What if they lose their phones? What if they can't get reception? What if they need to read a letter from an elderly person who still handwrites and posts them?

Composer and conductor John Phillip Sousa bemoaned the advent of machines that played music, recorded and otherwise. He worried that when people could just push a button or turn a crank to hear music they would no longer have a need for learning to make music for themselves. And he was right: there are far fewer amateur musicians today than there were at the turn of the last century. And I would assert that we, both as a culture and as individuals have lost something significant. Socrates worried, and he was right, that the widespread use of the new fangled phonetic alphabet would mean that humans would outsource their brains to manuscript form and would lose our ability to hold vast amounts of information in their heads. We know about these concerns because his student, Plato, wrote them down using the phonetic alphabet.

That said, I'm not about to give up my GPS, even if I do regret that my sense of direction is eroding. I enjoy Stevie Wonder, Stevie Nicks, and Vladimir Horowitz performing for me, on demand, in the comfort of my own living room. And reading and writing with a phonetic alphabet is central my way of life. Still, and there is no denying this, all of these technologies -- navigation apps, recorded music, literacy --  no matter how useful, have directly led to the atrophy, or even non-development, of other wonderful skills and abilities. Would my life be more complete if I could play an instrument? What if I could, like so many Ancient Greeks, recite the entirety of Homer? I still have some directional skills, I can still write in cursive, but I genuinely can't recall the last time I've found a need for either. 

The real education of life itself is, at bottom, always about replacing one set of knowledge or skills or abilities with another. Our most distant ancestors could track prey, build fires with friction, and sort edible plants from poisonous ones. Their senses of smell and hearing were more acute than that of modern humans. They were physically stronger, had better endurance, and were more agile. Of course, today we live longer, never get lost, have access to the collected wisdom of the ages, and can bellow "Jolene" in duet with Dolly Parton any time we feel so moved.

A great deal of what is "taught" in standard schools, I think, falls into the category of tracking prey and reading maps: cool stuff, but ultimately useless in today's world, except in the spirit of preservation. One can argue, like people do who believe we must continue to teach cursive to young children, that these old processes are valuable in that they "wire" the brain in ways that will be otherwise lost. Of course, GPS also wires the brain, as does literacy, as does everything with which we engage. 

"We have a hundred billion neurons in our brain," writes theoretical physicist Carlo Rossi, "as many as there are stars in a galaxy, with an even more astronomical number of links and potential combinations through which they can interact. 'We' are the process formed by this entire intricacy, not just the little of it of which we are conscious."

Our brains, in other words, have the potential to be wired for almost anything, yet are not wired for the vast majority of things. We've evolved to engage with and learn those things that support our survival, not in a theoretical world, but the one in which we find ourselves. Among the infinite possibilities, play is the behavior that best puts us in touch with our environment and what it requires of us. As adults, we're stuck with our old, outdated knowledge because the world, as it always does, is passing us by, yet we arrogantly imagine that we the ones to prepare children for the future. Some of it will survive into the next generation, but much of it will be rendered irrelevant. Much more important, I think, is that both we and our children learn how to learn those things we need or want to know, to make specific connections from the infinite potential we have within us. The most efficient way to do that is through play.

I continue to take pride in my ability to find my way in the world, but when my father says, "Go north on Main," I have to ask him, "Is that left or right?" You see, in the world in which he grew up, knowing your compass directions was necessary whereas I only had to know which turns to take. 

When we stop teaching and allow children to play in the real world, which is to say with life itself, we allow them to make the connections that are required of them, to wire their brains for now. 

And, inevitably, the day will come when they shake their heads in concern over youth who cannot read a map or track prey or play the piano. 


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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