The first time it happened, I thought I was about to be the victim of a masterful, elaborate practical joke. I got a call one day from a Nobel-prize winning scientist at the facilities office at the Stanford Think Tank where I was the manager. Professor Prizewinner, a visiting scholar on sabbatical, was calling to complain that there were no lights in his new office. Interested in him and his work more than his complaint, I decided to make the service call myself. I walked over to his office, knocked and entered. He was intently immersed in the data on his computer screen and barely acknowledged my presence. Sure enough, the office was dark. I flipped the light switch next to the door and immediately flooded the room with light. The professor didn’t even notice. And astonishingly enough, he wasn’t the last visiting scholar I ended up making similar calls to show how to flip on a light switch!
This illustrates one central problem with math and science that leads to Nobel Prizes: they appear to be primarily left brain activating, extremely narrow enterprises. In a left brain-dominated world, where math and science are constantly being foisted on early learners, the result can only be imbalanced, poorly integrated neurological development. It’s like our psyches grow up lopsided and rarely, if ever, recover. In most developed countries this imbalance begins in preschool and carries on up through graduate school. And it can sometimes make it difficult to find our way in the dark. Let alone acquire Big Picture wisdom.
The Right Way to Learn
To combat this imbalance, which I instinctively knew was not working well for me (my gut, heart and right brain told me so!), I enrolled in and dropped out of five different graduate schools.
If I wasn’t so fearfully concerned about earning a living and being able to survive in the world, my sense is I would have personally been served way mo’ betta by enrolling in a Mystery School right out of Junior High!
But back in the day, math and science were somewhat balanced with music theory and phys ed and art. If they had added a little wilderness vision-questing and perhaps fort-building and garden-creation to that curriculum, it would have been a boon to my early brain development. But alas, I had to wait until I became a senior citizen to fully take up these latter studies.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
We’ve all learned the wondrous magic of learning to draw, write, paint, poop and trade stocks from the right side of the brain. But what those right brain proponents frequently fail to tell us is that along with all that sublime creativity, something wicked this way comes. Something dark, unbidden and foreboding. Buried memories of all the overwhelming, unmanageable things that ever happened to us. As UCLA neuropsychiatrist, Alan Schore frequently and compellingly declares: “The right holds the secrets!” On the right side of the developing infant/toddler/preschool brain are recorded all the traumatic experiences that often make up the unconscious human shadow. These memories – a night when no one quells our crying, an errant elbow in the sandbox, throwing up on the merry-go-round – recorded and buried as image and emotional sensations (often without benefit of language), long for integrative expression and resolution. That longing regularly drive artists, writers and musicians, and even a few psychotherapists to drink. These treasures, buried alongside all the pain, is one reason artists often pay a heavy toll for their art: we are only rarely able to excavate the pleasure without the pain.
Defense Wins Games
Focusing on math and science then, could be seen as a great defense, one that allows us to live and survive in the world without having to get our hands dirty or our hearts broken open over and over again. There are however, problems with this bit of defensive imbalance, neatly summed up by transplanted USC neuropsychiatrist, Antonio Damasio. Here’s Antonio on yours and my brain:
The overall function of the (whole) brain is to be well informed about what goes on in the rest of the body, the body proper; about what goes on in itself; and about the environment surrounding the organism, so that suitable survivable accommodations can be achieved between the organism and the environment. (Descartes’ Error, p. 90)
Once Again, Without Feeling
It turns out that a brain with an imbalanced bias to the left, one that can’t find the switch to light the dark, is a poor informant indeed. Whole worlds of energy and information are simply not available to it, primarily the world of … emotion!
To combat this imbalance, scientists have done an interesting thing: they have used the left brain to reduce emotions to the Big Eight in order to study them in great left-brain detail. Take a look at Professor Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion there on the right. You can see the Big Eight: anticipation, anger, disgust, sadness, surprise, fear, trust, joy. Feeling anything yet?
Neo-Evolution or Bust
As Institute of Medicine medical ethicist, Harvey Fineberg obviously points out in this fun TED Talk, having a brain that is a poor informant is not good for keeping us on a clear and steady evolutionary path. It prevents us from being able to adapt easily to the complexity of our ever-changing world, from being able to actually FEEL emotions, rather than only reducing them to objects for study.
My solution: encourage kids to ditch math and science class in favor of feeling their way through life! If they feel any great left-brain-math-science draw later in life, they’ll have a much stronger, better balanced foundation to stand upon.