Saturday, January 22, 2011

Clear Channel

Exchanging Looks

Some of the best moments with my nieces and nephews are the least concrete. The events that precipitate them are lost to memory, no words were exchanged, but for some reason a particular meeting of the eyes and mind can be recalled with all its initial vividness, rich solid moments of knowing. We’ve all had those times when a clear accord in understanding is communicated in a barely perceivable expression, yet it feels as clear and wide open as a billboard. Having nieces and nephews offers the pleasure of seeing growth through every stage, and the moments when that eye connection happens span the years. Part of the larger organism of the extended family, we are actors and audience in the play of family events, our roles determined by biology, so every moment of personal connection is a moment of grace, a transmission of understanding that can happen with any age since it relates to the ageless mind beyond the face.
It happens with my students as well. Something comes up that I know will have personal relevance to someone. I look at them and they see in my eyes that I know their connection to it. And it can be much more diffuse than that, but the moment of understanding feels true in the way that verbal statements never can. Graham Green wrote in his novels about how as we got to know a person better we couldn’t help but love them. Often people can have a long history of time spent together and yet grow in understanding. To really see how another reacts to something, what things attract and repel them, requires attention. Too often vision blocked by an inner narration that’s already decided who the other is and tends to see only what supports the ideas of the character created.
In the class discussion last night my students said their peers often preferred relationships at a distance to actual meetings, preferred Facebook friends to friends in person. It seemed clear that was felt as a loss. Though we may not recognize what’s missing because it feels so much safer, the visual dimension is where we really connect, not limited by the words at our disposal or prechosen images posted on a website. In the realm of embodiment, friends mirror each other. The more closely they pay attention, the more still they become. Endorphins are released. Understanding grows and is communicated through the eyes. It’s a realm both subtle and deep, more available to memory. Without physical presence, experience becomes less vivid. Like a personal fog, this loss of vitality is isolating.
Human beings recognize thousands of facial expressions. It may be the first knowledge we accumulate as infants. Once we’ve moved on to words we forget how much is communicated through the body and face. If we get too involved in our inner narration, too isolated within our technology, we may lose the most important channel for understanding we have. Seeing.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Cosmic Evidence

Expanding Knowledge

In our long-standing concept of knowledge there are vast realms of information that are not considered. Most education focuses attention on specific sanctioned bodies of information that everybody is supposed to know. Educational disciplines have their own vocabularies that signal the focus of that course of study. Success within any particular group is narrowly defined and staying within its boundaries is necessary to be accepted in that group. Boundaries between groups haven’t been very permeable. With the focus on external motivators and measuring up to limited standards, many cognitive capacities go undeveloped. The last two decades’ dramatic increase in the understanding of the brain have given us guidelines for how to develop our intelligence that it would be irresponsible not to use. This will involve a reconstruction of some core concepts.
The separation of body and mind is an illusion that restricts our growth. We think and understand through the body’s experience of living in its environment. Physical experience underlies our knowledge of weight and balance even philosophically. It’s the body that knows what weight and balance are. Our perception is constructed of expectations like gravity, and light from above, which we are unconsciously adjusting in relation to as we move through the world. The more we move, the more we educate our potential metaphors. Knowing the degree to which we think with our bodies, how much sense does it make to sit all day focused only on text based learning. Project based learning can reach into all disciplines making connections between them. Making use of the interests and predispositions of individuals enables them to align what they learn with existing knowledge and integrate it with their overview. Since so much of memory is spatial, having more varied learning environments wouldn’t ask so much of a limited visual space.
Even on a chemical level, specific kinds of exercise create optimum mental health. As John Ratey’s book “Spark” points out, physical education should be focused on fitness to improve brain chemistry and ability to learn. Cardiovascular activity improves mental and emotional health, not just physical. The dopamine stimulated focuses interest and attention. The research is there and all schools should be paying attention.
Our entire conception of what is considered knowledge should be overhauled to proceed by the understanding that, though we are structured on the same principles, each brain is a highly plastic structure with circuits constructed from the individual life experience. This means it grows and strengthens with use, just like the body, and more important, it means one’s own experience is the primary knowledge, mapped spatially in the hippocampus. Whatever adds to the map is useful information. Personal tropisms develop the natural ability of the individual and create highly specific circuits of reference. Pain and pleasure, fear and hope should be seen as knowledge. They are information about the state of balance in the body/mind in regard to what is happening to it. The culture allows only some kinds of emotional information even though the presence of feelings signals an unconscious appraisal that might be utilized. Repression of pain and fear disregards its information and potential for guidance.
Why are we stuck in the idea that everybody should know the same things? We can learn more from others with different backgrounds than our own. We benefit from their primary knowledge, the lessons of life particular to the individual. The enlargement of knowledge should include sharing what we learn and how we got there with others.
People with different perspectives are far richer in information that can enlarge our own sense of the big picture and how things work in it.
We’ve been held back by the fixation on a prescribed body of received knowledge that often lacks the inner context that will help the information stick. Having success in life determined by how well you learn the same thing as everybody else doesn’t make use of the wealth of individual capabilities in the human population. If knowledge can be allowed to grow organically, intelligence would be the birthright of every individual.