Megan and I were sitting on a small wooden bench outside her one-room house, grateful for the sliver of shade sequestered against the wall. In the distance, the sprawling network of buildings that make up Lama Foundation were illuminated by the midday sun. Behind us, on the other side of the house, we knew, lay mile after mile of wilderness, and to our right, down a steep embankment, was a lush crease of aspen trees. Up the hill on our left lay the half-completed Dargah, undoubtedly one of the world’s more unique burial shrines.
Pema and I had just driven up the mountain and the three of us were lingering as a family for a stretch before I headed back down alone. Though Megan and I are separated, a bond of love and trust remains and these moments are precious to us, we, who used to share nearly every waking minute together. While Megan and I chatted, Pema was eager to show off the bow and arrow Silke had made for her from a willow branch. Orienting the bow in her left hand, not without some effort, Pema took the arrow in her right hand and placed it on the string. Drawing back, she held the tension briefly between her left and right hand, then let fly a short, but graceful arc of flight. Only two days prior, on a long walk on the deserted mesa, I had found a small arrowhead which I later showed to her.
I often begin my stories with a brief sense of place, identifying what lies north, south, east, west, perhaps the temperature, or the position of the sun. It helps me feel embodied in the story, which for me unfolds more like a description of a painting than a series of events. It’s particularly relevant this time around, though, as is the small, but exceptional coordination of Pema’s two hands placed, not symmetrically, but in concert upon the bow and arrow, left and right, and the exquisite sense of forward movement thus propagated. As Pema walked into the brush to find her arrow, I turned to Megan excitedly. “See?!” I said, “This is why I want to teach.”
Ask any three year-old which is forward and which is backward, and they will unfailingly point in the right direction. Ask them which direction is up, and they will look to the sky, which is down and they will touch the earth. Simple enough. Then ask them which is left, which right. Usually they will hesitate a moment, then eyeball you to see if you give away the answer. If you don’t, they’ll sometimes refuse to answer or, most commonly, take a guess. At best they have a fifty-fifty chance of answering correctly. Ask them repeatedly (as I’ve been doing with Pema for years), and you will see a pattern. Ask a four year-old, a five year-old, or six. By seven, the majority of children seem to have left and right mastered, but even at six I observe the momentary hesitation, the peripheral looks to friends or sympathetic adults, hoping to find the answer from someone else. Left and right, it turns out, is not a concept that is easily grasped.
Having said some such thing to Megan, she countered with, “Yeah, but maybe it’s more of a conceptual challenge than a lack of real understanding. Maybe it’s a language problem.” I tightened my expression, shrugging her off. “Yes,” I replied, “perhaps. But children don’t seem to have any difficulty with the concept of forward or backward, or those words, nor up or down, nor, for that matter, old and young, clear and opaque. Why should this be different?”
At first this peculiarity of left and right might appear to be simply an interesting observation, but I’d like to suggest that it is an excellent doorway into observing and understanding the neurological development of children, that is, human beings. In other words, yourself.
In his book The Tell-Tale Brain, V. S. Ramachandran, the visionary neuroscientist, describes an experiment with one of his patients. He asks the man, who is utterly blind, to identify where an object is in his field of vision. The man, who has lived for years with a lack of eyesight, at first objects, stating the obvious - I can’t see anything. I know, Ramachandran says, but just try. Curiously, the man was able, quite to his own surprise, to identify precisely where the object was. Repeating the experiment in different locations, Ramachandran was able to identify that the man, perfectly blind, was able to locate the object with almost 100% accuracy. How is this possible?
The brain, it turns out, has multiple feedback loops for visual patterning. In other words, a healthy sense of sight is actually the healthy functioning of many distinct neurological pathways all happening at the same time. Some are conscious, some are unconscious, but they all inform each other. The result, which any healthy adult experiences as a simple fact of life, feels unified, like one thing, but it’s actually a multiplicity of concurrent events. In the patient’s case, his conscious neural pathways had all been damaged by an injury to his head, but at least one unconscious pathway was still intact, as were the physical apparatus of his eyes. Though the man had no conscious awareness of it, he could still, in some sense, “see”. He just didn’t know that he could.
You may be beginning to wonder, given the context of a blog about outdoor experiences with children, where exactly this is going. So it is perhaps worth mentioning that this is probably my most ambitious project to date, something that grew out of my conversation with Megan as we sat in the shade of her mountain home. If my aim is true, I hope to lay down the foundation of why teaching young children in physical, outdoor settings is, I believe, the best way to educate not only their bodies, but their minds. On the surface, much of what Silke and I do looks like playing in rivers and forests with children, but I’d like to share a picture of the inner workings of that education, something, like Ramachandran’s patient’s latent eyesight described above, much more hidden, almost unconscious.
Next time you are with a friend or lover, ask them to stand still and then take a long, close look at their face. Hold your focus on one location, their eyes or nose. Hold it for five, ten, fifteen seconds without shifting your eyes. Try for a minute. What you will notice, if you can resist the urge to shift focus, is that your friend’s face begins to melt into a strange obscurity. Peripheral elements like the cheeks and lips, or hairline, drift into the background. Colors and peripheral scenery blend together and even the focal point begins to form images that seem, somehow, not quite right. Hold this focus for minutes and it starts to get psychedelic and uncomfortable, almost fearful. Yet, we know nothing is really happening. Our friend’s face is still perfectly round and healthy. With a quick blink or a shake of the head everything is back to normal.
A healthy eye operates a series of movements, called saccades, every few seconds. Even when we hold a focal point, the miniscule muscles of the eye shudder, or sort of vibrate, and this constant movement forms complete images in our brains, which in turn produces them to our awareness. The images we “see,” the form and shape of our friend’s face, the room we occupy, the trees or shrubs outside the window, or the motion of butterflies through a landscape of wildflowers - all are formed by observing multiple perspectives and changes. Static images tend to be lost to us.
Try looking at the night sky. Whether you’re in an urban setting with a few hundred stars, or, like myself, in a rural area with an inexplicably intricate surface of milky white light, if you focus on one star and hold it, you will probably notice that the whole field of imagery falls into disrepair. Stare at one star for long enough and it simply disappears. The eye, or rather the neurological function of eyesight, when presented with one color or image will actually project the opposite in its place. We observe this whenever we look at the sun, or a simple black square on a white piece of paper. Hold that image for only a few seconds and then turn away, or even close your eyes, and the shape and form of the image is, somehow, still there. It is not a pigment or a remainder of light left in your eye, but a function of your brain.
If you wish to see the fullness of the night sky, you will have to first look at one star, then another, shifting regularly, performing the eyes saccades, to keep the entire image in your grasp. Thankfully, this takes little to no conscious effort. It is what we are doing all of our waking life, and the result is a visual-spatial world if immense richness.
Alfred A. Tomatis, a famous, but unconventional otolaryngologist (an eye, ear and throat doctor) advanced several important theories in his career. Having been born in 1920, the bulk of his work predated the current widely-held understanding of the brain as a plastic organ, that is, an organ of change. Until quite recently, scientific consensus believed the brain to be static. Because neurons do not repair and reproduce as vigorously as most of the other cells in our bodies, and often not at all, it had been widely held for years that the brain, though remarkably diverse and complex, was more or less a fixed structure. Input information, and, like a computer, the brain kicks out the results. Today, due to the work of Tomatis and many others that view is changing.
Tomatis began his career like any other otolaryngologist, treating patients. In his case, that included several notable opera singers. In time, he observed something remarkable. The men and women who were regarded as the best singers had something in common. They heard the best. That led to his theory, that speech and sound formation are largely led, developmentally that is, by listening. In other words, the sounds we hear inform the sounds we make.
Tomatis’s work had implications far beyond the opera world, most notably in children and adults with hearing and speech impairments. In particular, he noticed, it was the higher pitches that our ears tended to misinterpret, and the result of this lack of “correct” hearing was a disorganized voice. But he went further, because people with hearing and speech impairments often had a whole range of cognitive impairments which were often diagnosed as learning disorders, autism, sensory and motor-skill difficulties, and even mental illness. Hearing impairment led to a disorganized voice, which led to a disorganized mind, which often led to estrangement and isolation.
Tomatis developed a therapy, now known as the Tomatis Method, which used the work of composers like Mozart and Bach, along with recordings of the patient’s own mother’s voice, to create an individualized therapeutic approach to teach his patients to hear better. His patient’s hearing was improved, but what happened next was shocking. By training the ear, he found, not only was speech and language improved, but a whole range of cognitive functions. People who were regarded for much of their lives as developmentally slow, even imbeciles, were suddenly capable of reading and accommodating the subtle cues and strategies of social bonding. They were transformed. Further, because many of these people had been ostracized or neglected, they also commonly suffered from depression and a variety of other mental illnesses in response to their cognitive lapses and social estrangement. His technique, which was simply designed to improve a person’s ability to recognize and distinguish sounds, particularly in the upper ranges, was so successful that even people without noticeable hearing or speech problems began to seek him out for help with their learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, autistic spectrum disorders, sensory processing and motor-skill difficulties, depression, and other forms of mental illness.
Not surprisingly, the medical and scientific community found his theories and results hard to swallow. Improve someone’s hearing and they suddenly become smarter and more sociable? It was too easy. But most of all, because his work implied the growth and regeneration of the brain itself, something doctors and scientists at the time could not accept, his theories and therapeutic approach were mostly sidelined as “alternative”, considered controversial, and remain so today. Yet, with the growing consensus around brain plasticity, there is an expanding network of doctors and therapists who practice his method or who are developing their own methods based on a refinement of his work.
Tomatis himself wrote several interesting books and countless articles, but I first read about his work in Norman Doidge’s The Brain’s Way of Healing. The follow-up to Doidge’s bestseller, The Brain That Changes Itself, the book is full of interesting case studies about the burgeoning field of brain plasticity - the dawning scientific and cultural awareness that the brain is, contrary to a century’s worth of established theory, actually quite maleable. It is worth a basic explanation of this concept.
Until quite recently, scientific consensus held that the brain was largely a static organ. A person had the chance to educate and inform its development through childhood, during which several key developmental stages had been identified, but by the age of twenty or so - you got what you got. That turns out to be entirely false. The brain is a highly responsive organ, like a muscle, and while it’s true that neuronal cells do not regenerate easily (though sometimes they do, even in seventy year-olds), the use of the organ is a constantly changing and dynamic event.
As Doidge puts it - neurons that fire together wire together. Each synapse, each connection in the brain, is enhanced with repeated use. There are observable physical changes, like the thickening of neural connections, that make the connection more likely to connect again in the future. In other words, the more you think something, the more likely you are to think the same thing in the future. This follows for every aspect of brain function, i.e. motor and sensory control, but also things like memories, ideas and even emotional responses.
But the converse is also true - use it or lose it, as Doidge says. If, for example, you are not using the full extent of your brain’s visual or auditory regions, those neurons, like an atrophied muscle, tend to wither. The connections are no longer robust. Perhaps you were excellent at algebra in ninth grade, but unless you’ve been using those skills since then, chances are the connections are rusty. Further, neurons in underdeveloped locations are often taken for other tasks. If you are not a good listener, your brain might, unbeknownst to you, co-opt those listening neurons to, say, read a complicated spreadsheet. If you’re entirely deaf, vast sections of your auditory regions might be used for visual tasks.
But here’s the important part, and why this is so relevant to child development - neurons are used for many purposes. Thoughts are not so much the linkage of one neuron to another, but an entire constellation of neurons firing together. It is the pattern of firing that produces specific thoughts, intentions, and motor control. Often these “constellations” involve neurons in many and distinct regions in the brain, so that by strengthening neural connections for one task, we often inadvertently strengthen others. This is why Tomatis’s patients, after learning to hear better, suddenly developed the increased mental function that aided them in spectacular ways. The fluidity of the brain’s function is what we’re after.
The easiest and most direct route into a young child’s brain is through sensory stimulation and the development of motor skills. Young children quite literally do not have the physical regions in place for higher order mental functions like abstract thinking or ethical choices. But we can lay the groundwork for those functions by helping them build a fabric of neurons that is fluid, awake and alert. We do this by moving our bodies, by climbing trees and feeling the texture of the bark. In shoes, our feet become one-dimensional sensors of weight distribution. Barefoot, they become rich organs of sensation as we ooze through the mud. Looking far into the distance we see the mountain tops. Focusing close on the ground we discover colorful wings on beetles and moths. We wade through rivers and roll on tummies, listening to the wind shake the leaves. We watch storm clouds approach, then veer off to the east, or help to find sticks for the fire. By giving children a rich physical environment to explore, we set the stage for cognitive development later in life. The purpose of outdoor education is not simply to romp and play in the woods. It is to develop alert and active minds, minds that later on can be used for a whole range of functions. We want to turn on every neuron.
I have a movement practice, something that has developed organically over the fifteen years I’ve been doing it and which I simply call “stick”. The piece of wood I use, actually the woody stem of an old houseplant, is about two inches thick and three and half feet long. I twirl this stick, sort of like a baton, from hand to hand in multiple directions. The motion, like a dance, is intricate and full-bodied, so that my feet and torso are guiding the movements of my upper limbs and body as I twist and spin and try not to fall over. The motion of the stick, which is sometimes spinning very rapidly, passes fluidly from hand to hand, around my back, through my legs and over my head as I variously kneel, squat, stand and jump.
I am a little shy about this, so I tend to do it outside, far from anyone else. Still, friends and neighbors occasionally see me performing my little routine and whenever they do they tend to be transfixed. “Wow, Joe!” they often say, “Is that some kind of martial art?” From the outside it may appear so, but from the inside it feels like I’m about to fall over all the time. It’s not uncommon for me to lose my grip on the stick and send it flying awkwardly through the air. It’s awkward because that is precisely the point - I’m trying to fall over. Or rather, I’m trying to just barely not fall over. By moving and twisting in every possible direction, I hope to reach the boundaries of my balance and strength and thereby slowly spread the conscious control of my body further, like water seeping into a sponge.
Several months ago, I determined that I could safely manage to stand upright on the sides of my feet, i.e. bow-legged, ankles down towards the ground. Now, I can squat in such a position and then stand back up. Over time, by waving my arms and throwing off my center of gravity, I will further test and gain my balance, further and further.
This practice grew out of a simple desire to exercise and train my body without paying for a gym membership. Like most modern humans, I don’t need the bulk of my body’s potential physicality, but, like many of us, I find the maintenance of my physical body is vital to my mental and emotional health. But what has surprised me is that, like Tomatis’s listening therapy, this practice has without a doubt improved my mental function. Never before in my life have I been capable of holding the richness of awareness and experience as I do now.
Hark back to how I began this story, Pema’s left hand on the bow, right hand threading the arrow on the string. Left and right, tension, and yet her curious inability to identify which is the left and right side of her body. I have asked her dozens, perhaps hundreds of times about this. My intent is not to quiz her and elicit the correct answer. I simply want to learn for myself what she does and does not recognize. What amazes me is that in the roughly two years that I have been watching, asking and casually informing, she has not improved in any way I can discern. She knows that there is a left and a right, but when I ask her to identify them, whether her left hand or the left page of a book, she still has something like a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right. I have since asked many three to six year-olds and found much the same lack of awareness. And, keep in mind, no such problem with front and back, or up and down.
I invite you to ask any child this light-hearted and simple question (never forcefully, as if there is a right answer) - which is your left hand? Or, which is the left page of a book? Do you see the bird on your left? Touch their left hand, give them something to hold, a texture, a movement. Look for opportunities, as I do, to lightly and casually remind them. And continue to ask. Almost any child can be taught to recognize the letter A in the matter of a day. But I think you’ll be surprised at how confusing this division of left and right is for them. I am.
When Pema first picked up the bow and arrow Silke made for her (she is right-handed), she held the string, not the bow, in her right hand and the arrow in her left. She focused on getting the arrow, which had a crude v-shape on the back, onto the string. Somehow, she knew that was critical, but even after observing several other children hold and shoot an arrow successfully, she appeared to have no sense of the proper orientation of the objects, bow and arrow, in space.
As I watched Pema turn the objects around, holding them variously in awkward and uncertain ways, it dawned on me how complicated the spatial arrangement of the world is, and how much we, as adults, take it for granted. We tend to look at the world through our own eyes, forgetting that children have not yet developed the sensorial or spatial focus that we have. They are not little adults. They are children, and they are only beginning to learn.
While Pema focused on the string and the v-shaped crotch of the arrow, she had no sense that the bow, much less the arrow, didn’t even face forward. If she had managed to get the arrow on the string and to produce tension, she would have shot herself in the knee. I watched her for some time, pleased at her determination. Finally, I began giving a coherent instruction. “Put the bow in your left hand,” I began.
Walking the Mental Landscape
I walk often. By “walk” I mean something more than just the locomotion of my body, for I’m not referring to the short, and sometimes long, distances I roam with Pema and other children, nor the movements back and forth of the basic chores of life. When my activity is simply walking, which is a considerable amount of my waking life, I am doing much more than moving my body. I am exploring my mind.
Homo-sapiens, it could be said, were designed to walk. Our bodies evolved into this form of motion hundreds of thousands of years ago, and there’s considerable anthropological evidence that this standing posture had much to do with our physical and mental development. Our hands, now free, evolved into incomparably delicate tools capable of fine motor skills most other animals merely dream of. Unlike other apes, this posture also allowed us to roam extensively, covering distances in a matter of hours or days that no other ape could afford to do. The sensory input of our hands, as well as our eyes, now placed high atop our bodies, helped develop and awaken the organ of our brains. Our rambling lifestyle exposed us to novel environs such that, even as much as 100,000 years ago our ancestors were living in lush rainforests, arid deserts, frigid mountaintops, coastal regions and almost every imaginable landscape.
The precise history of human evolution is not really of consequence. However the story goes, it’s evident that for hundreds of thousands of years a human’s primary mode of transportation was his or her own body, and that meant walking. The last hundred years or so, since we’ve had access to motor vehicles, bicycles and other modes of transportation, even horses, has had little effect on the physical make-up of the body. Evolution moves slower than that. This being the case, our biological systems - veins, nerves, intestines, heart - are all still fitted to our erect posture and ambling movement. Walking, and not just any physical activity, is uniquely fit to our bodies, therefore our minds.
I have the great fortune to live in a beautiful and remote place in the world. From out my door, without stepping foot in a car, I can walk in almost any direction, along quiet dirt roads with juniper and pinon, cottonwoods and sage, coyotes, jackrabbits, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, and all sorts of wildlife. If I have the inclination, I can walk along the Rio Hondo, down into the Rio Grande Gorge and into a vast tract of wilderness that essentially doesn’t end. This landscape, if you’ll walk with me down this road, is my mind.
Joshua Foer is a memory champion, literally. Using a method derived from an ancient mnemonic system, one which allowed bards and poets to memorize epic stories word for word, like Homer’s Odyssey or the Q’uran, Foer was able to defeat some of the most lucid minds in the world in a range of memory tasks, a subject he subsequently wrote about in his international bestseller, Moonwalking with Einstein. The US Memory Championship, which Foer won in 2006, is staged with a series of tasks designed to test the limits of a person’s memory, i.e. memorizing the sequence of a random set of cards, a set of names and faces, random numbers, etc., and the participants are judged on their accuracy and speed.
Foer’s method, which he calls a memory palace, involves imagining a house, ideally a location you already know, like your own house. When faced with the task of memorizing an impossibly long series of cards, in order, he suggests places each card in a location within that imaginary house. With a well-defined “palace,” one can set each card in a specific location, say the eight of hearts on the upstairs bedroom windowsill, then the jack of spades on the pillow, king of clubs at the top of the door, and the rest down the hallway, through the bathroom, downstairs, into the kitchen, etc. When asked to repeat the sequence, one simply walks through the house and recounts the cards. Easier said than done, sure, but with a little practice, even the most forgetful person can use this method to memorize vast strings of cards that would astound any passersby. With a little practice, even you could recite a novel-length story without referring to the original document. Given a lifetime of practice, like any hafiz, you might be able to repeat the entire Q’uran, word for word, without as much as one mistake. Generations ago, when computers did not exist and even books were rare, such people were priceless.
In 2017, Psychology Today reported a new study published in the academic journal Neuron which compared the brains of memory athletes to folks given six weeks of training in the memory palace method, also called loci. The regular folks not only achieved similar feats of memory, but made physical changes to their brains. This is precisely what Norman Doidge was writing about - brain plasticity. It is precisely the affect Alfred A. Tomatis, the otolaryngologist, discovered when he observed his patients not only hearing better, but performing better at a whole range of cognitive tasks, including mental health.
Let’s return to walking in a real palace, or, if you will, a real landscape. If you’re anything like me, you may not be all that impressed with Jonathan Foer’s feats of memorization. Memory, after all, is only one aspect of mental function, important to be sure, but I want creativity and intelligence, not mere rote memorization. And what I really want, and want to help children develop, is wisdom.
In a recent article in Scientific American, award-winning psychologist Robert Sternberg voiced his concern about the influence of standardized testing on American society. “Intelligence,” he argued, “that is not…moderated by creativity, common sense and wisdom is not such a positive thing to have. What it leads to is people who are very good at advancing themselves, often at other people’s expense.”
Asked point blank, “Do we know how to cultivate wisdom?” he responded thus:
Yes we do… Wisdom is about using your abilities and knowledge not just for your own selfish ends and for people like you. It’s about using them to help achieve a common good by balancing your own interests with other people’s and with high-order interests through the infusion of positive ethical values. You know, it’s easy to think of smart people but it’s really hard to think of wise people. I think a reason is that we don’t try to develop wisdom in our schools. And we don’t test for it, so there’s no incentive for schools to pay attention.
I often find myself worn out from the week, from work, or just the over-stimulation of the kids I am with. Though I live a somewhat alternative life, I am still subject to the hectic pace of raising a young child. To reduce the impact of stress on my mood and behavior, I walk frequently, and I am very aware of the affect this has on my mind. Like the memory palace, I walk the landscape of the earth around me, places that I have passed through many times before, but which I have populated with memories and thoughts from dozens, hundreds of walks. By the time I return home, even if I left in downright anger or pangs of sadness, I usually return at peace. I’d like to describe why.
It is my opinion that, in the four walls of my bedroom, which doubles as my office, I am constrained by certain patterns of thoughts. The objects I see remind me of tasks to do, places to go, or items I need. Much of the time it is quite cozy, but there are plenty of times when I feel stuck and, no matter what I do, I cannot break out of certain mental habits. I become stuck in the same thoughts, the same walls, the same stains on the couch. Who hasn’t had this experience?
My mind, thankfully, inhabits a larger landscape than my office. It simply requires me to visit it. By walking my physical body through that landscape, connecting to an ancient source of movement that keys up all my biological systems, I do not necessarily solve all my problems, but I do open up the fullness of my mind. I see trees and hillsides that remind me of moments long ago, thoughts I had last year. I see grasses swaying in the breeze, recalling to my attention the suppleness of my own body. In the spring there are apple blossoms, and in the fall purple asters. After thirty minutes or so, what seemed so pressing and unfortunate back in my office (crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch - the sound of my feet in gravel), is obviously only a small portion of my life. Given the chance to visit the full landscape of my mental faculty, I am afforded the opportunity to re-prioritize, or, as the case may be, simply to take a break from a thought process that wasn’t serving me.
I am familiar with many of the trees and bends in the paths, the houses, electrical lines and stones. I love nature, but I love broken glass and plastic bags stuck in branches too. My mind, that’s how it is. I remember where I saw a tarantula, and when that one cottonwood tree lost its branch. In the spring, I remember the months of dry, click-clacking branches, and in the fall I remember the faint scent of olive blossoms. This memory palace, if you will, is populated not with a mere sequence of cards, but a sequence of images and memories, sounds and odors, slopes and even grades. It contains intricate instructions (left foot here, right hand there) for how to transform frustration into joy, or (right foot here, turn around this way and smell) how to allow a subject to drift into the unconscious while listening to birdsong. My memory palace is the landscape of my neighborhood, the landscape of my body. It is my mind, my gymnasium, my dark and silent night. I move in it. I watch the pattern of raindrops, connecting physical neurons in my brain to physical locations in space and time. My brain needs silence, just like it needs activity. So sometimes I set things down, over here, by the pinon that once had an owl in it. Then I walk away.
“Forest school is great, you and Silke are great,” Megan said, brushing us aside politely. “But the thing I’ve always thought, the thing I remember so much from my trips to Japan and China was that education was physical. Even in the monasteries, well before they taught meditation or anything, they taught the children to master their bodies. Only later did they introduce stillness or anything like a mental practice.”
My whole face lit up, mostly in excitement, but partly in consternation. “Megan,” I said incredulously, “That’s the whole point! Do you really think we’re just taking the kids into the forest to play around and get dirty?”
Genome, Microbiome and Emotions
In April 2003, the Human Genome Project, a joint venture of scientists from all over the world, orchestrated by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Education, announced the complete map of the human genome. A massive scientific breakthrough, it had huge ethical and philosophical implications for humans as, for the first time, we literally had the instruction manual for human development. Almost immediately, however, it became clear that human DNA was only part of the picture.
In 2008, the NIH initiated another project, the Human Microbiome Project, an overarching study that potentially dwarfs that of the Human Genome Project. In an article written in 2012, they published the following: “The human body contains trillions of microorganisms — outnumbering human cells by 10 to 1.” In other words, though a small portion of our bodies’ weight is bacterial, the majority of the cells, and therefore the DNA, we carry is not human.
In his book I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong describes the history of microbial science and the dawning awareness that each human, far from being a single entity, is a biome to herself. Not only are we populated at every level of our body, inside and out, by a multitude of bacteria and other single-cell life forms, but many of the basic digestive processes and chemical syntheses required for the support of human life are performed by bacteria - not our own cells - and the DNA they carry.
In 2012, Nature published an abstract of a study they published the same day. In it, they state:
The human body contains about ten times as many microbes as human cells, and most of them live in the gut. The new study, published today in Nature, shows that, between them, those microbes contain 3.3 million genes, dwarfing the human genome's 23,000. [That is, less than 1% of the genes in the human body are human. More than 99% come from bacteria and other microbial sources]… Fewer than one-third of the genes catalogued in the paper are well studied, and about 40% look like poorly studied genes from known bacteria. Finally, more than 25% of the genes have never been seen before, which suggests that unknown species may be living in our guts.
What, you might be asking, does all this have to do with kindergarten education?
A growing body of data…shows that microbes in the gut influence behavior and can alter brain physiology and neurochemistry… Researchers have drawn links between gastrointestinal pathology and psychiatric neurological conditions such as anxiety, depression, autism, schizophrenia and neurodegenerative disorders—but they are just links. - Scientific American 2015
In other words, the bacteria that live in our bodies, and especially our guts, not only digest our food, but actually contribute to the chemical and physical syntheses of cognitive function. Take a second to reflect on that. A “gut feeling” turns out to be an apt term. Yet, before I get too far, it’s worth repeating the last line - “they are just links.” As with any scientific study, including those I referred to earlier, we should be cautious about making sweeping generalizations. Even the most entrenched scientific theories, like the immutability of particles, sometimes turn out to be wrong. But more important than this, as with any theory, new or old, it must be born out in practice.
Thankfully, we don’t have to wait for the hard science to catch up. We can test our theories through daily practices and note the effects, positive or negative, they have upon us. Precisely why things happen is not always as important as that they do. So far I have been alluding to the development of a child’s motor skills, sensory apprehension and control, and their cognitive ability. Surely, these are vital for any healthy child, as they are for any healthy adult. But emotions, to my way of thinking, are the most important field of personal inquiry.
Recall Robert Sternberg’s comment quoted earlier. “Intelligence,” he argued, “that is not…moderated by creativity, common sense and wisdom is not such a positive thing to have.” I could not agree more.
In 1997, I took the SAT’s for the second time. My high school counselor, seeing that I had scored fairly high on my first test - even getting a perfect 800 on the math section - encouraged me to take the test a second time. I had not done poorly on the English portion, but if I did just a little better I would qualify as a National Merit Scholar, which would aid me in obtaining scholarships, college entry, etc. I suspected it might be of some advantage to the school too, a locally prestigious high school that sent many graduates to Ivy League schools. My brother, who had graduated the year before, had also been a National Merit Scholar, and that year the school graduated several others along with me.
I rarely speak about this, because it sounds like boasting, which it is. But I raise this in light of Sternberg’s statement, which I think is perfectly appropriate to the trajectory of my life after high school. I didn’t go on to do anything remarkably destructive, nor anything that remarkably good, but, aided by the egocentric idea of my own intelligence, I set about a college career and ensuing vocation as an engineer with rigor. I applied myself. In 2002, I graduated from college with the highest awarded salary of anyone in my class. I would have gone on, in all likelihood, to be a very successful engineer. Fortunately for me, I fell into a depression instead.
I was no monster, of course, but I had no real wisdom, no real insight in life. I simply had a high functioning intelligence. My entire academic career, that is, the social fabric of my life, had up to that point given me the impression that what I wanted was a high-paying and competitive job. No one, not in high school, college, or elsewhere, had ever tried to teach me wisdom, or to question the prevailing social custom that job equals money equals happiness. But wisdom is hard to come by, and nobody is to blame.
What was most painful, however, was that no one ever taught me about my emotions. No one even tried. It was as though the most fundamental aspect of life - how I feel - was something that I was just supposed to pick up along the way. Not mathematics, of course. That was taught every year, with proper strategic courses orchestrated from grade school to high school, so that by my second year in college I could tackle the really heavy stuff, like Calc IV. Um…hey guys…what about sadness? Joy? Anyone?
“If you look at the hard neuroscience that has emerged in the last year alone, all the fundamental processes that neuroscientists spend their lives working on are now all shown to be regulated by microbes.” That is John Cryan, a neuroscientist at University College Cork in Ireland, quoted in the same article in Scientific American I referred to earlier.
Emotions, as we all know, are famously hard to describe or control. In the West, we tend to refer to them as being formed and guided by our hearts, using this conceptual break to identify the difference between an emotional feeling and a mental thought. Scientifically, however, emotions and thoughts are not so distinct. Both are constellations of neurons, firing in conjunction with chemical signals in our blood. Many Eastern philosophies, like Buddhism, eschew the dichotomy between thoughts and feelings. Sitting patiently on the shore of consciousness, the Buddha watched thoughts go by, including emotions and sensations. In his estimation, all are objects for the awareness.
I like to say I had a mid-life crisis at twenty-two. It took me years to recover, but having got that out of the way, at thirty-seven I’m now running on all cylinders. My intelligence is no longer hijacked. I would not characterize myself as wise, but I will say that my priorities are in tune with my gut. I listen to my microbes. I listen to my hands. I even listen to my hair as it blows in the wind. I treat each one like good friends. I take them for walks and show them my neighborhood. Look, this tree - last fall it shook its brown leaves in a heavy wind and I watched it, gently transfixed by the sound and its movement. It was sunny and just beginning to cool down for winter. My eyes, they moved all around it, and I even heard the different tones in some of the leaves. Each shape, I guess, makes a slightly different sound. A few weeks later, I was walking by and I noticed one of its biggest limbs had broken off, which then lay at its side. My heart sank. But guess what? The tree just kept living, as if it was no big deal. Imagine that, a whole limb. Then, as winter receded, beautiful lime-green leaves erupted all over, but the dead limb still lay on the ground.
There are as many ways of educating children as there are children in the world. I only have one story, one version of the truth. In my story, the children explore the sensuous world with their hands and ears and eyes. They roll and tumble and get comfortable on their bellies. They walk. They even complain about it, and they don’t mind it if I’m grumpy on occasion. We learn by following our curiosity, turning it into creativity. Mud mixed with sand feels so gritty. How lovely it is to make a merry little duck of it. The insects, if you look really close, have spectacular coats of color. A song can lift our hearts.
When I first started working with Silke, I was amazed at how effortless this all was for her. After thirty-odd years of teaching, everyone knows she has a gift with children. What amazes me is that few people know why. They think we take the kids outside to play and romp in the woods and rivers. And, surely, we do. But this is not merely play. This is actually the most direct route to wisdom, to emotional integrity, to intelligent and well-guided people. The purpose of all this physicality is the awakening of consciousness.
I still ask Pema on occasion which is her left hand, which is her right. I’m not really looking for any specific answer. I just want to know where she’s at. I want her, when she’s ready, to know where she’s at.
Silke, in her work with children, refers constantly to the four directions - north, south, east, west. This has a lot to do with her interest in indigenous spirituality, which holds the directions as sacred, populating them like a memory palace with all sorts of animals, colors and characteristics. Often, the four directions become six with the addition of up and down, sky and earth. Sometimes we even have seven, the inner dimension.
Each day at Taos Earth Children, though we explore vastly different landscapes - desiccated canyons with dry bones, rivers with marshy shores, flat mesas with, at first appearance, little more than sagebrush, or sometimes lush aspen groves - we begin with a song:
Down is the earth (reaching down with our hands)
Up is the sky (reaching up with our hands)
There are my friends (a symmetric movement beginning from the heart and arcing into two opening circles toward the rest of the group)
And here am I (returning hands to chest)
The earth is firm beneath my feet (stomping vigorously on the ground)
The sky is high above (reaching straight up and parting hands in two symmetric arcs down to our sides)
And here I stand so firm and strong (hands to chest)
All things to know and love
I wish to be clear that everything I’ve written is from my personal point of view. I have alluded to Silke, who I hold in great esteem. She is a major player, but not the sole influence on my thoughts on child development. While I suspect that she would agree with a great deal of what I have said, hers is the considerably more advanced pedagogy and I would regret anyone taking my words for her thoughts.
Taos Earth Children is an outdoor kindergarten in Taos, NM. You can find out more about the school at www.taosearthchildren.com.
I have focused, in some sense, on my interest in teaching children, but it is no mistake that much of what I’ve written is valid for myself and, I believe, many adults. My interest in education extends far beyond that of children, though I don’t really see myself as a teacher. Like my work with children, I see myself more as a playful part of the common exploration. The children are learning about what it is like to be a child. I am learning what it is like to witness and occasionally shepherd young children into human beings. In most cases, I am the one who benefits most.
It is my belief that a village is the best model of education, whereby we each have the chance to witness and learn from each other - child from elder, elder from child, man from woman, laborer from accountant, webmaster from farmer. Education, in its most ideal setting, should not be about peer groups. It should be a social setting for the benefit of all.
I am actively working to make this happen.
Ramachandran, V.S. The Tell-Tale Brain. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2011. Print.
Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 2007. Print.
Doidge, Norman. The Brain’s Way of Healing. New York: Penguin Books, 2015. Print.
Foer, Joshua. Moonwalking with Einstein. London: Penguin Books, 2011. Print.
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Wallis, Claudia. “Is the U.S. Education System Producing a Society of ‘Smart Fools’?” Scientific American, 31 May 2017. Web. 12 June 2017.
“NIH Human Microbiome Project Defines Normal Bacterial Makeup of the Body.” National Institutes of Health, 13 June 2012. Web. 12 June 2017.
Yong, Ed. I Contain Multitudes. New York: Harper Collins, 2017. Print.
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