Your Brain is a Rain Forest

Your Brain is a Rain Forest by Thomas Armstrong – Reprinted from Ode Magazine

Imagine for a moment that our society has been transformed into a culture of flowers. Now let’s say for the sake of argument that the psychiatrists are the roses. Visualize a gigantic sunflower coming into the rose psychiatrist’s office. The psychiatrist pulls out his diagnostic tools and in a matter of a half an hour or so has come up with a diagnosis: “You suffer from hugism. It’s a treatable condition if caught early enough, but alas, there’s not too much we can do for you at this point in your development. We do, however, have some strategies that can help you learn to cope with your disorder.” The sunflower receives the suggestions and leaves the doctor’s consulting room with its brilliant yellow and brown head hanging low on its stem.

Next on the doctor’s schedule is a tiny bluet. The rose psychiatrist gives the bluet a few diagnostic tests and a full physical examination. Then it renders its judgment: “Sorry, bluet, but you have GD, or growing disability. We think it’s genetic. However, you needn’t worry. With appropriate treatment, you can learn to live a productive and successful life in a plot of well-drained sandy loam somewhere.”

The bluet leaves the doctor’s office feeling even smaller than when it came in. Finally, a calla lily enters the consulting room and the psychiatrist needs only five minutes to determine the problem: “You have PDD, or petal deficit disorder. This can be controlled, though not cured, with a specially designed formula. In fact, my local herbicide representative has left me with some free samples if you’d like to give them a try.”

These scenarios sound silly, but they serve as a metaphor for how our culture treats neurological differences in human beings these days. Instead of celebrating the natural diversity inherent in human brains, too often we medicalize and pathologize those differences by saying, “Johnny has autism. Susie has a learning disability. Pete suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

Imagine if we did this with cultural distinctions (“People from Holland suffer from altitude deprivation syndrome”) or racial differences (“Eduardo has a pigmentation disorder because his skin isn’t white”). We’d be regarded as racists and nationalists. Yet, with respect to the human brain, this sort of thinking goes on all the time under the aegis of “objective” science.

The lessons we have learned about biodiversity and cultural and racial diversity need to be applied to the human brain. We need a new field of neurodiversity that regards human brains as the biological entities they are, and appreciates the vast natural differences that exist from one brain to another regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and other important mental functions.

Instead of pretending that hidden away in a vault somewhere is a perfectly “normal” brain, to which all other brains must be compared (e.g., the rose psychiatrist’s brain), we need to admit that there is no standard brain, just as there is no standard flower, or standard cultural or racial group, and that, in fact, diversity among brains is just as wonderfully enriching as biodiversity and the diversity among cultures and races.  Read more . . .

Nurture Shock: Chapter 5 – The Search for Intelligent Life in Kindergarten

I wonder what would my mother would have said if she read this chapter? I have to say that this chapter and the research cited leaves me cold. What is the benefit of putting a young child – esp. a kindergartner – in a gifted and talented program? I think the benefit is for the parents, not the child.

This is another opportunity for me to talk about the movie The Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of the Achievement Culture. Our children are under a tremendous amount of stress in this culture. Why add to it? The other side is not pretty – depression, anxiety, eating disorders, dropping out of school. The trend has been to push push push our kids. Those who learn outside of the box and negatively affect the school’s test scores fall thru the cracks. Those children could be our creative geniuses. We need to find ways for those children to succeed. Creativity is lost in the public school system.

Some of our most creative giants in recent history had learning challenges: Walt Disney, Charles Schwab, Greg Louganis, Vince Vaughn, Henry Winkler, Whoopi Goldberg, Jay Leno, Paul Orfalea (Kinko’s), to name just a few. When do our children have time for creative pursuits? They are literally on the race to nowhere taking honors classes, then AP classes, participating in a team sport which means hours of practice and games. Why start the rat race in kindergarten?

One of my favorite books is Smart Parenting Revolution by Dawna Markova. I’ve had the pleasure of participating in two workshops with Dawna, a brilliant woman who completely embraces the different learner. Her book helps parents understand their child’s Thinking Talents and Mind Patterns. Instead of focusing on a child’s IQ, Dawna looks at how your child is smart, what are your child’s strengths and how can you best support those strengths? And her goal is to have a smart card for each child which will follow that child from to school to school. Every teacher would then know how that child is smart and what they would need to do to support that child’s strengths.

My oldest daughter tested into the Gifted and Talented program in 3rd grade. It wasn’t until I read Dawna’s book when she was 18 that I fully understood how her brain worked. Dawna used the research from Ned Herrmann, author of The Creative Brain, to describe the 4 quadrants of the brain: analytic, procedural, innovative and relational. After figuring out your child’s thinking talents and where they fall in the four quadrants, you will have a better understanding of your child’s strengths. It wasn’t until I read this book that I fully understood my daughter’s intellect. She has thinking talents in all four quadrants – only 3 to 4 percent of the population falls into all four.

I went on to map the rest of my family and that information has really helped me be a better parent. I suppose getting that information from a test at age 5 is valuable but it’s what you do with that information that matters. The emphasis should be on discovering the strengths and talents of all children especially those who don’t test well at age 5.

Next week – The Sibling Effect

This Week’s Recipe – Billie’s Tomato and Feta Salad (Billie is a fabulous cook who also introduced me to Dawna Markova)

3 pints cherry tomatoes, halved
12oz feta cheese, crumbled
1 small red onion, cut into 1/4″dice
1/4 c extra-virgin olive oil
3 tbsp white wine or champagne vinegar
2 tbsp minced fresh basil
2 tbsp minced fresh parsley
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper

In a serving bowl, gently toss together all ingredients.  Serve immediately or chill, covered until ready to serve.  Makes 8 servings.