Insecure Attachment & Obesity, Pre-K & Entitlement, and Classrooms & Digital Tech—Imprisoning Minds In the Object World (part II of II)

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As promised at the end of part I, I’ll start part II by talking about the following three articles. In my opinion, when taken together, the following three articles paint a picture of minds imprisoned within the middle object brain (a topic I introduced in part I). Here are the three articles:

How Parenting Styles Can Lead to Childhood Obesity

A New Entitlement? The Right to Preschool

Obama Secures $750M in Pledges to Get Kids Online

Here’s a brief, one line summary of each:

1) Parenting Style & Obesity—Early insecure attachment relationships between parents and their children can lead kids (and later adults) to satisfy their need for attachment through objects—like food—as opposed to through higher order cognitive (as well as spiritual) experiences such as love, compassion, empathy, and camaraderie.

2) The Right to Preschool—Increasingly conservatives are now agreeing with liberals that pre-K and preschool should be framed as rights and entitlements. (For more on the topic of rights, see my December 4th, 2013, blog post entitled Should Philanthropists Have the Right to Impose Rights?)

3) Getting Kids Online—The Obama administration wishes to spend 100s of millions of dollars to bring online, Internet technologies to kids via the classroom.

OK, so what? As mentioned above, I would suggest that taken as a whole these articles point to an alarming trend within our society: imprisoning minds within the object world of the middle brain. Allow me to take a pass at explaining my position.

Attachment researchers have been warning us for years now that in cases of insecure attachment, people will often use all manner of objects as attachment substitutes: food (as the above article points out), inappropriate sex, consumer goods, drugs and alcohol, and the list goes on. Yes, these are in fact the various addictions that tend to plague society in general (and keep philanthropists up late at night).

In her 2004 book entitled Home-alone America—The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and other Parent Substitutes, social critic Mary Eberstadt talks about the many forms parent or attachment substitutes can take—food, inappropriate sex, violent music, behavioral drugs, illegal drugs, alcohol, consumer goods, etc. And, yes, Eberstadt suggests that even day care can be (and is) used as a parent substitute. Attachment researchers, such as Jay Belsky, suggest that when poor or extensive day care (more than 20 hours per week) is used by parents, insecure attachment is a likely outcome. [1] But now both liberals and conservatives are suggesting that day care—in the form of pre-K or preschool—should be an entitlement. Add to all of this the very real possibility that extensive use of online, screen-based Internet technologies will only serve to imprison kids within the middle object brain and we have a formula for disaster.

In his 2010 book entitled The Shallows—What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr presents data from various brain studies that suggest that extensive use of screen-based Internet technologies could prevent us from accessing the upper context brain (see part I for more on the upper context brain). Again, according to Goldberg and Barkley (both mentioned in part I), access to the upper context brain is key to the development of robust EF skills. Carr, like so many others, cautions us that extensive use of screen-based Internet technologies could have the blowback effect of imprisoning us within the middle object brain. A similar message is delivered in Robert McChesney’s 2013 book entitled Digital Disconnect—How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy.

As Henry Giroux makes clear in his 2011 book entitled Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism, for democracy to survive we need people to be in their reflective, perspective taking, mentalizing, future thinking, critical thinking upper brains. When Giroux talks about a culture of zombies, I would suggest that he’s talking about a culture of people primarily imprisoned within their middle object brains. This would be a culture filled with people whose lives are chiefly characterized by field-dependent behavior (talked about in part I): teen cashiers unable to make change, using food as an attachment substitute, mindlessly buying objects, surfing the Internet for data that has little chance of finding its way toward knowledge or wisdom. Ironically, Giroux promotes the ideas of universal day care and pre-school (which is the position that the above article takes). [see note 1] I’m not sure how one is able to advocate for the upper brain skill of critical thinking while at the same time promoting something that has the potential to keep us from that very same critical thinking skill set, namely, day care and pre-K. I guess this is the downside of promoting a particular ideology in a throughgoing way: you have to take the bad with the good.

Once again, I will provide you with a quote that I have used many times before. In his article entitled The Fractured Dream of Social Parenting—Child-Care Policy Lessons and Losses, conservative social commentator Allan Carlson frames the process of institutionalizing child care in the following way:

[T]here is mounting evidence that … child care may be a human activity that cannot be industrialized. The psychological evidence is overwhelming, and still mounting, that children in extended day care—even very good day care—are on average more aggressive, less sociable, and less emotionally secure: traits that, ironically, undo the key socialist goal of enhanced human cooperation.

Carlson’s article appears in a special issue on childcare entitled The Child-Care ‘Crisis’ And Its Remedies (Family Policy Review, Fall 2003). The evidence that Carlson points to comes from attachment researchers such as Jay Belsky (mentioned above). Even Sir Richard Bowlby (John’s son) has spoken out against use of poor and/or extended day care (i.e., more than 20 hours per week—see note 1).

But maybe it makes no sense to single out day care and pre-K. Let me finish up by mentioning two other paths to possible imprisonment within the object brain: organic issues and trauma.

I recently attended a workshop on Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high functioning autism. The presenter mentioned that the TV series The Big Bang Theory profiles a character, Sheldon Cooper (played by Jim Parsons), who has Asperger’s. In the recent Valentine’s Day episode, Sheldon takes his girlfriend, Amy Farrah Fowler (played by Mayim Bialik), on a romantic train ride. Sheldon ends up talking to a man at the next table about trains for the entire evening. Sheldon completely forgets the context of the evening: a focus on romance and on his girlfriend Amy. Sheldon is blind to the many social cues his girlfriend not-so-subtly delivers (which consists of a lot of rolling of the eyes). Sheldon is locked in the middle object brain. And this is typical of the autism spectrum disorders. But let’s review: Sheldon is a brilliant physicist working at Caltech. OK, we could argue that that is TV fantasy. But is it?

Here in New Mexico we have many, many Sheldon’s working at the various national labs. Clearly you can be very successful and spend very little time in the upper context brain. Temple Grandin, a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University and author of books such as Thinking in Pictures, would argue that her autism gives her the ability to uniquely access the middle object brain, an advantage she uses as she designs animal handling equipment. In a recent phone interview Grandin announced: “Half of Silicon Valley’s got mild autism, they just avoid the labels.” Many corporate titans today are on the autism spectrum: Bill Gates, the late Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, and the list goes on. In his 2007 book entitled Nerds—Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them (executive summary available), psychologist David Anderegg argues that the power brokers of the near future will have some form of high functioning autism. Anderegg imagines a time when high functioning autistics will be the new “neuro-typical” and those of us who are able to access critical thinking skills will be the passé “neuro-path.” I guess one man’s (object) prison is another’s palace. But here’s an example that does not have such a rosy outcome: trauma.

As the Bruce Perry model (talked about above in part I) suggests, trauma has the ability to lock us in the middle object brain. In extreme cases it can lock us in the fight, flight, or freeze responses of the lower brain. With so many vets returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), being locked within the middle object brain should be of growing concern to all of us. As an example, reliving experiences are typical in cases of PTSD. Reliving experiences occur when the person relives the traumatic experience as if it was actually happening in the here and now. During a reliving experience, the person is no longer able to gain access to the upper brain centers and their ability to offer up a sense of time, perspective, and context. This is an oversimplification but a number of therapies designed to treat PTSD have as their focus getting the middle object brain reconnected to the upper context brain. And, sure, behavioral drugs do offer up some temporary relief. When I get a migraine (see part I), I run for the pain reliever. Taking a pain reliever may not link up my middle and upper brain centers but it does allow me to rest and recoup. I’m also able to reflect on what I may have done to trigger my migraine. Similarly, reducing triggers is a key approach in the treatment of PTSD.

Hopefully the above discussion will get us asking the question: “How much middle object brain disconnected from upper context brain are we as a society willing to tolerate?” [2] If the answer is “a lot” then I think we are on track and no further corrections are necessary. If the answer is “a little” then I think it behooves us to spend some time with the brain science behind the cognition or consciousness model talked about by such neuroscience researchers as Damasio, Goldberg, Barkley, and Perry (who I mention in part I). If the answer is “a little” then I think a good place to start would be to look at those processes or conditions that promote or lead to middle object brain disconnected from upper context brain. Some of the processes or conditions that this post points to are extended overuse of behavioral drugs, all manner of parent or attachment substitutes (such as food, day care, inappropriate sex, consumer goods, etc.), extended overuse of screen-based Internet technologies, and trauma. And there may simply be organic reasons why a person may spend time in the middle object brain (Temple Grandin being an example here).

Fortunately I do think the above question is being looked at. As an example, consider the following article:

Do Schools Need to Teach Kids How to Grow Their Attention Spans?

Translation: Should schools be responsible for freeing kids from the prison cell that would be the middle object brain? Good question. Should this be the responsibility of our schools? The MZ or mentalization (e.g., mindfulness) crowd says “yes, mindfulness should be taught in the schools.” But what about parents, families, and communities? What role should they play? If we accept the idea that secure attachment is the foundation upon which robust EF skills rest (a position we take here at the Foundation), then it is clear that middle–upper brain connections start early, maybe even before birth. [3] So, please give some thought to minds imprisoned within the middle object brain. If you agree with Anderegg that we are entering a period of “nerds rising,” then maybe there’s not much to think about. To get you thinking (if you so desire), here’s how the above article starts out:

It’s not like we expect the attention span of kids to be particularly long. In school they’re exposed to new ideas, worrying about tests, wondering about their crush, thinking about lunch, and all of it probably at the same time. But add to this a smartphone and all the social media that can be accessed therein, and the problem of distractibility seems to have reached the tipping point. This week Britain’s shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt suggested that schools there should explicitly teach attentiveness and concentration skills to counteract the influence of apps like Facebook and Instagram.

Here’s something to think about: as the USS Nerd leaves port, will you be on the dock or on the deck. Interestingly, Anderegg suggests that many of the kids who bully nerds do so because they intuitively know that their feet are firmly on the dock.


[1] – Don’t get me wrong. Day care is possible. But certain conditions and requirements must be met. I’m pulling the following from a lecture that Sir Richard Bowlby delivered back in 2005 up in Canmore, Alberta Canada (executive summary available). At that time Sir Richard sat on the board of a Childminders Project in Britain. (In the UK, child care providers are often referred to as childminders.) Here’s a bulleted list of how Sir Richard described the Childminders Project he was associated with:

  • Childminders are well paid with salaries starting in the $50,000 range.
  • Childminders have only three or four charges. One of those charges could be the childminder’s own child.
  • Childminders go through extensive training and are registered.
  • Childminders and their charges are closely monitored by psychiatric doctors and nurses.
  • On average, children only stay at a childminders center for 20 hours a week or less.
  • Once a child–childminder relationship is established, every effort is made to not disrupt that relationship. Consistency and predictability is the order of the day (in keeping with Bowlbian attachment theory).
  • Psychiatric doctors and nurses make sure that children only form secondary attachment relationships with childminders. Childminders are never to act as primary attachment figures. Parents are expected to maintain their role as primary attachment figures. Role reversal is discouraged and the psychiatric staff will take measures designed to reestablish parents as primary attachment figures.

As Sir Richard told us during his lecture, a properly running childminders center is incredibly expensive.

[2] – What would be the harm in allowing more and more people to live their lives out of the middle object brain? I just finished a book that I think offers up one possible answer. This 2014 book is entitled Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science and was written by physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. I briefly mentioned this book in my January 28th, 2014, blog post. In their book Sokal and Bricmont present the following quote by linguist and social commentator Noam Chomsky. Suffice it to say that, in my opinion (and I’m not alone here), there is a connection between the rise of postmodernism and more and more people living life out of their middle object brain. I think this Chomsky quote speaks to the possible danger that could result if too many people “decide” to live their lives out of the middle object brain. Simply, context and content would be the purview of an elite priestly caste (as it was before the rise of scientism). Here’s the Chomsky quote from 1993 in its entirety:

Left intellectuals took an active part in the lively working class culture. Some sought to compensate for the class character of the cultural institutions through programs of workers’ education, or by writing best-selling books on mathematics, science, and other topics for the general public. Remarkably, their left counterparts today often seek to deprive working people of these tools of emancipation, informing us that the “project of the Enlightenment” is dead, that we must abandon the “illusions” of science and rationality—a message that will gladden the hearts of the powerful [e.g., the new priestly caste], delighted to monopolize these instruments for their own use.

[3] – Just before this post went hot I ran across the following article: Not Just Baby Talk: Chatting Spurs Brain Development. Again, attachment researchers have been saying this for some time now. Essentially this article suggests that when parents talk to their infants early on, this “conversation” allows the brain to develop in such a way that later in life it will be easier for the child to access the upper brain language systems. So, the next time you see a commercial for a major resort where the entire family is communicating via cryptic text messages, in your mind play the sound of a prison door shutting on the middle object brain. As I have blogged about before, researchers are finding that there is a connection between the development of robust language skills and the development of robust Executive Function skills. I’d be remiss if I did not mention that many dog owners also know that the key to an obedient mindful pet is, well, talk. And research bears this out. For more on this topic see the 2000 book entitled If Dogs Could Talk—Exploring the Canine Mind by ethologist Vilmos Csányi. Csányi talks about how canine researchers are using the Strange Situation Assessment (typically used with toddlers) to assess attachment patterns in dogs. Talk isn’t just for humans; most higher order animals (like dogs and horses) will “get” what you’re saying. They may not agree but they get it. And, for now, higher order animals do not carry smartphones. For now, you have to talk to them (which may in part explain their growing popularity, even to the point of being viewed as substitutes for children).