By Research Scholar Jose Luis Perez Velazquez
We live in a paradoxical world. In a time when everybody cries for freedom, where liberties are championed, we live in conditions that constantly enslave us. From social media to technology, we do not seem to have time for ourselves anymore, our beliefs and opinions being manipulated as needed. At the same time we are becoming more vulnerable than in past times. Vulnerability to disapproval and criticism by others, to frustration due to events gone against expectations, is due to our “self”, or ego as it is popularly conceived. Our society is a culture medium for the development of selves, it incessantly continues to breed and feed each individual’s self and it all starts with the current emphasis to instill self-esteem starting at a very early age in schools and beyond. But a vast sense of pride, self-esteem and its accompanying ego, enhances vulnerability; it may not be a coincidence that in this time and age it is not difficult to do or say something that will be perceived as insulting by someone. Self-esteem is fine, but with the culture medium of society for ego development it can get out of hand, thus the need to comprehend, starting from as an early age as possible, what this self, this sense of personal identity is all about.
Today we are witnessing a realisation of the importance of mental health. The COVID-19 pandemic has made even more evident the great problem of mental health —neuropsychiatric disorders are the number one health problem in the world—, and it is of interest, perhaps even somewhat sad, that a pandemic was needed for many to realise the importance of mental health.
The nervous system determines behaviours, so it seems to me of crucial importance to start teaching basic aspects of brains and behaviours to children.
One fundamental solution to these phenomena, and many other troubles that affect our societies such as wars, racism, violence and so on, is education. It always struck me that children have a class of physical education even since primary school, but I have never heard of a class on mental education. If teaching what we can do with our muscles is good for children, why not teach them what they can do with their minds. Are we forgetting that minds move the muscles? The nervous system determines behaviours, so it seems to me of crucial importance to start teaching basic aspects of brains and behaviours to children. Educate them about what they have inside their skulls, its great power as well as its limitations, not so much in terms of neuroanatomy and neurophysiology (those interested will have time later on to learn these excruciating details), rather the basic aspects of how nervous systems determine behaviours and how reality is interpreted by the several “ventriloquists” housed in our brains (see the accompanying cartoon at the end of this text, based on a poem by the polymath T. Melnechuk that captures nicely the neuroscientific problem of the self).
So why do classes like the one I am proposing here (see below for details about this class) not exist? Perhaps the general idea is that mental education is achieved through the many other courses youngsters have to take, but these are mostly aimed at filling their minds with data and knowledge. This is fine, but, as Jean Piaget and his colleague Seymour Papert taught us, some of the most crucial steps in mental growth are based not only on acquiring new skills (or new knowledge), but on acquiring new managerial, executive ways of using what one already knows. Thus the fundamental importance of teaching to think; it is not so much putting data into the kids’ heads but rather teaching them to “manage” that data, to think about it.
And especially teaching to think about who they are, to understand who is that self, that sense of personal identity we all carry on our backs from early childhood, and how it emerges and develops, and how reality depends on what is in our minds, perchance a new kind of society may arise; one that has more understanding about our created reality, one that is more free. Understanding about, for example, why racism is a natural consequence of what the genes have imprinted in our brain —which will lead to the control of these inherited tendencies—, or about beliefs and fears that torment some of us along the trip of our lives.
This blog presents a proposal: the creation of a course on mental education that can be taught to children, as early as possible, along with the already existing classes on physical education (gymnastics and so on), so that on leaving school youngsters will know what they can do with their muscles and with their brains. Because the knowledge children obtain in the rest of the curriculum is fine, but without teaching them how to think, some of that knowledge may get out of hand.
This blog presents a proposal: the creation of a course on mental education that can be taught to children….along with the existing classes on physical education.
Let us describe briefly some specifics of this class on mental education. I had the idea that it could be a children’s version of the class I taught at the University of Toronto on consciousness and self-awareness. It is true very young children may not know about neurons and brains, but they do know that bodies contain organs. In the same manner one can teach them, using easy descriptions, that the heart pumps blood through the body and that the stomach digests the food, they can be taught that what they perceive as reality depends on what is between their ears and above their eyes: the brain. It could be a fun course too, as they would learn the remarkable stories of multiple personality disorders, or split brain patients. And some games can be played to show how deceptive our perception is; or, for instance, running an equivalent of Solomon Asch’s conformity experiment —which shows how social pressure from a majority group could affect a person to conform, and we see a version of it every day— would make children not only have some fun but also understand a most basic aspect of human nature: herd mentality, which sometimes through history has caused tremendous calamities, and by the way we have witnessed in this pandemic time. In sum, it would be an extremely basic neuroscience course with additions from other fields like psychology and even philosophy.
The main objective of this course would be to make the young generations understand what most people are seeking through their lives: a sense of personal identity and, concomitant with that, a sense of purpose in life. If they are trained to think and cast doubt on what they perceive around in our bewildering world, the chance is that they will be better able to free themselves from the slavery of the media, of the politicians, of the social media. As the writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno declared: “El triunfo supremo de la razón […] es poner en duda su propia validez” (The supreme triumph of reason […] is to cast doubt on its own validity). This would be, in part, one aim of the course, along with this other thought of the scientist Maria Sk?odowska-Curie: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less”. This course would not only help kids cast doubt on the validity of our reason, as Unamuno advised, but also on the validity of the tendencies that genes carved in our brains. Because for the first time in natural history, an organism has appeared —Homo sapiens— that is able to go against the (blind) will of the genes due to the power of our intellects, courtesy of our genes that endowed us with big brains. As an illustration, teaching from early ages how our brains are attuned to finding differences in the faces and features of our conspecifics (the very interesting neuroimaging experiments that demonstrated how parts of the brain involved in emotion and aggression become activated only by watching for a fraction of a second a person of a different race) will help youths comprehend our inherited tendency towards making snap judgements, imprinted by the genes which only “seek” maximal reproduction; and a comprehension can lead to a solution, which can also be taught with simple words describing, for instance, how portions of the brain can control other parts, those ventriloquists aforementioned. Since this is not meant to be a technical blog, let me now stop the detailed description of what the contents of the course would be, although those interested can of course contact me for further details.
The main objective of this course would be to make the young generations understand what most people are seeking through their lives: a sense of personal identity and, concomitant with that, a sense of purpose in life.
There are already some efforts to teach educators some main concepts in neuroscience, for instance here in Spain the Web del Maestro CMF has a blog on “the fourteen suggestions of neuroscience for teachers.” And there is one organization (Fundacion Carme Vidal) that informs teachers about neuropsychopedagogy. We see then that neuroscience is having an impact on teaching. All this is fine, although a class like that one we have in mind should be best taught, probably, by a professional neuroscientist, or related specialties like psychology and psychiatry. I am sure that some scholars of the Ronin Institute would make excellent teachers for this course, as part of the curriculum would include the teaching of what we can find through scientific research; and this, naturally, involves revealing the true nature of academia: the sooner children know about it, the better. And just like physical education is taught in almost all years from primary age to the end of high school, this course should be taught for several years so that the ideas permeate children’s brains. But of course, this is all a (very) long term project, an idea that, in my opinion, would create a fairer humanity and alleviate the state of mind that accompanies that almost constant strive against the frustrations and other predicaments of life.
Jose Luis Perez Velazquez was born in Zaragoza (Spain) and received an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and a PhD in Molecular Physiology & Biophysics. He worked as a Senior Scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and was Professor at the University of Toronto. Currently he is a Research Scholar at the Ronin Institute and lives in the natural paradise of Asturias, in Northern Spain.
This post is a perspective of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Ronin Institute.