After hearing Carla Hannaford quoted many times, I decided that it was time to read this book and I was not disappointed. I started summarizing and excerpting books years ago to share with staff, but one of the primary benefits was to slow down my reading and to allow me the time to think more deeply about the implications of the author’s words. If you follow our blog, you have come across the understanding that thinking is not all in your head. We would have little difficulty with that if we didn’t already “know” that that all learning takes place in our brains. Changing our thinking, our beliefs, and our actions is much more difficult than learning when it does not require unlearning. I hope that the following excerpts cause you to pause as they have me.
We have missed a most fundamental and mysterious aspect of the mind: learning, thought, creativity and intelligence are not processes of the brain alone, but of the whole body. Thinking and learning are not all in our head. On the contrary, the body plays an integral part in all our intellectual processes from our earliest movements in utero right through old age. It is our body’s senses that feed the brain environmental information with which to form an understanding of the world and from which to draw when creating new possibilities.
Neural connections can be altered and grown only if there is full attention, focused interest in what we do. In three weeks we can get ten times more proficient at anything if we are emotionally engaged with focused interest. Self-initiated movement, exploration, interaction and physical experience for the joy and challenge of it, facilitates neurogenesis (nerve growth) for a lifetime. (This has been proven over the last decade when it comes to treating amblyopia. Intensive visual tasks for 20 minutes are more effective than hours of patching without a challenging, engaging activity.)
What we know, feel, learn, and think is shaped by how we know, feel, learn, and think. How we do these things is in turn dependent on the sensory-motor systems though which all our experience of the world and of ourselves is mediated. These sensory-motor systems shape our experience, and are shaped by it. So the story of how these systems unfold is a vital key to understanding learning.
Our proprioceptive sense constantly sends feedback to the brain that readjusts the balance of our shoulder and neck muscles in order for the eyes to remain level while reading.
Touch, hearing and proprioception are important organizers of the visual aspects of learning. Vision is a very complex phenomenon, with only a small percentage (less than five percent) of the process occurring in the eyes. The other over ninety-five percent of vision takes place in the brain from the association with touch, hearing, and proprioception.
It’s easy to forget, or ignore, how much of vision is learned. We have to train ourselves, through books, movies, and art to see three dimensions in a two-dimensional space. We could call this visual literacy.
The eyes must be actively moving for learning to occur.
Words can only be understood when they provoke some kind of image in the mind of the learner. If students cannot access the underlying images, the words are not comprehensible; there is no context or visual understanding.
Computer scientist David Gelernter makes this point emphatically: “Emotions are not a form of thought, not an additional way to think, not a special cognitive bonus, but are fundamental to thought.” Gelernter goes on to assert that emotions are also “inextricably tied up with bodily states. The bodily state is part of the emotion, feeds it and helps define it. This means that ultimately you don’t think just with your brain; you think with your brain and body both.”
One of the most important things a teacher can do, especially with students with disabilities, is to bond with them. CAT scans show that children process information through their emotions first, and information that is the most emotional and emotionally relevant to them, is what students will learn. On the other hand, insecurity and fear can bring learning to a screeching halt by shutting down higher brain connections.
Another unnatural challenge has to do with learning to print block letters as the first step in writing. Printing is a highly linear process that takes us away from the more continuous rhythmic flow of language, both as it is experienced in the mind and as it is expressed through the hand – as in cursive…. Part of the problem is hand development, and asking children to perform the complex process of printing, way too early. In order to print the child must first crawl for a good long time with hands forward, to develop the bones in both the hand and to gain upper arm strength…. If you look at an X-ray of hand development, you will notice that the very intricate bones of the area near the wrist – the carpals, are not fully developed until about age twenty. The more developed these bones, the easier to hold a pen or pencil to print. If the child has had a lot of sensory-motor activation of the hand, printing can be more easily taught at about ages eight to ten.
Children who have looked at books in the home may have already acquired some foveal focus if the process was their choice and free of stress and pressure to perform, however, most children are not physically ready to read at age five as is now mandated in our schools.
Having been flooded a number of times, flood analogies come to mind. Trying to rush development is like trying to pump the water out of your basement before the level of the ground water goes down. You waste a lot of time and effort if you start too soon because the water keeps coming back in. You are eventually successful when the water (or the child) is ready. It is easy to fool yourself about the influence that you had be starting early. If we try to push children too early, we can also create failures as some children become confused and frustrated who would have done fine when they were ready and interested. Combined with this is the opportunity cost of what these children could have been doing and learning to enrich their experiential background prior to the vicarious experience that we get through reading. There is so much that can be experienced and learned in an interesting, interactive classroom. They can even go outside the classroom where most real learning takes place.
You may think that it is a contradiction for me to disparage in any way the potential to learn through reading but we learn very little when we read about things we don’t already know quite a bit about. This book is a good example. It would have glossed off me forty years ago when I knew that all learning took place in the brain. Decades of experience has enabled me to take information from this book that I could not have understood earlier in my career.