TRUER WORDS: “Endangered Minds”

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Today’s Truer Words come from the 1991 book by education researcher Jane Healy entitled Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It. Healy writes:

While the adult community sanctimoniously bewails erosion of academic rigor and achievement … it perpetuates the practices that are shortening children’s attention spans and rendering their brains unfit to engage in sustained verbal inquiry.

As the result of exhaustive research (and personal experience as a teacher herself), Healy essentially suggests that increasingly children are showing up to school with brains that are damaged and unable to learn beyond simple levels. Healy argues (as I have in earlier blog posts) that kids are now locked within the concrete, object-oriented middle brain. These kids have no effective means to access the “new brain” or the neocortex. [1] Access to the neocortex allows us to tap into such Executive Function skills as empathy, perspective-taking, planning, appropriately focusing and shifting attention, mental modeling (i.e., creating cognitive maps), and mental time travel. Healy warns that where goes knowledge and use of syntax and grammar, so too access to the neocortex. Poet and social critic Robert Bly makes the same connection in his 1997 book entitled Sibling Society. Bly puts forth the idea that kids are not learning “the language of language”—proper grammar and syntax.

As I have blogged about before, John Bowlby essentially argued that early safe and secure attachment (if all goes well) is the foundation upon which robust Executive Function skills rest. Even though Bowlby specifically focused on the development of open and flexible Inner Working Models (one of the EF skill areas) in his work, he tangentially mentioned other EF skill areas such as empathy and focusing attention (i.e., information processing). I’m guessing here but I would suggest that Bowlby’s secure attachment–EF skills connection inspired psychology researcher Mary Main as she (along with her husband Erik Hesse) developed the AAI or adult attachment interview.

During an AAI, the interviewee provides small narratives in response to questions designed to trigger and activate the attachment behavioral system. The linguistic elements and structures of these narratives are then analyzed. Linguistic elements and structures that are normally associated with EF or executive function—such as coherence, empathy, perspective-taking, reflectiveness, and maintaing proper temporal boundaries—tend to indicate that the interviewee has had an early history of safe and secure attachment. In contrast, narratives that contain a preponderance of linguistic elements and structures normally associated with the middle brain—such as concrete thinking, non reflectiveness, black and white thinking, incoherence, confused temporal frames, and canned speech—tend to indicate that the interviewee has had an early history of threatening and insecure attachment. As Joseph Chilton Pearce puts it in Evolution’s End (see note #1 below):

To nurture the human is to nurture intelligence, of which language is foundational. Thus the bonded child [e.g., the securely attached child] is generally more intelligent than the unbonded one. Close parental rapport, monitoring, and sanctioning events in the child’s experience, determines to an immeasurable extent the depth of that child’s cognitive ability, sensory awareness, general alertness, and educability [my emphasis].

So, what’s happening in society that kids are becoming “brain damaged” or locked within the object-oriented middle brain? Here’s a list pulled from Healy’s book (which, remember, was written back in 1991):

  • socioeconomic factors
  • environmental pollutants and toxins
  • increased use of competency-based teaching methods (i.e., “teach to the test”)
  • increased use of Ritalin for ADD
  • increased use of TV
  • increased use of computers
  • disintegrating families and communities
  • increased use of day care
  • increased levels of relational insecurity

In 1991 there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, only a handful of TV channels, no iPads, no smartphones, no texting, and the list goes on. If childhood brain damage was already bad in 1991, imagine (using your EF skills) how bad things are today. It’s a staggering thought. Consider these Truer Words from Healy:

Unless the adult community decides to help us wrap these growing brains in the mental garments of language, refection, and thought, I fear we will continue to see increasing numbers of children categorized as “educationally sick.”

Healy gives us this “bottom line”:

Clearly, to be well prepared for reading, writing, listening, and speaking, children need to interact with increasingly advanced language during the years of childhood.

Here are the factors that Healy identified back in 1991 that block children’s attempts to access the upper brains of adults:

  • busy schedules
  • uninterested caregivers
  • decline of thoughtful dinner-table conversation
  • lack of appropriate language models in the media [especially now in social media]
  • elementary-level textbooks that contain a “thin, watered-down syntactic gruel”
  • increase use of TV and other nonliterary activities such as drill-type homework

Healy asks this thought provoking question: “Should we change the curriculum? Must we alter teaching methods and the pace of instruction to accommodate growing numbers of ‘different’ [damaged] brains?” The new Common Core teaching curriculum answers this question by saying in essence, “Yes, we should chase these damaged brains around, accommodate them the best we can.” Is this truly a good idea? Common Core may ultimately end up severing the already tenuous language connection between adult and child. (If we accept that Common Core represents and expresses a postmodern worldview focused on liberation, this may be the point: to sever the language connection that binds the generations.) Rather than placing the problem within (and normalizing) these damaged brains, why don’t we look at those societal structures and processes that are damaging children’s brains in the first place. As Healy puts it:

Perhaps the America popular culture ought to take a hard look at its own curriculum. Because the kind of “coaching” provided by early [attachment] environments has so much to do with a child’s adjustment to [traditional] school learning, everyone has an obligation to our children—and to our future teachers—to provide them with experiences likely to build the skills they will need in the classroom.

I’ll leave you with these final words by Healy:

Prefrontal development [of the neocortex] is not completed at least until late adolescence, or even adulthood. Thus, the way a child learns to use executive functions is doubtless highly dependent on the experiences the environment provides. Adults who show children how to put thought ahead of action, delay gratification, and use language as a tool for thinking and planning [all EF skills] help provide the fundamental training ground of the brain’s executive.

So, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Internet, digital society … you get the brains you deserve. For an updated look at many of the themes Healy presents in Endangered Minds, see Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book entitled The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Welcome to The Shallows.


[1] I’m only part way into Joseph Chilton Pearce’s 1992 book entitled Evolution’s End—Claiming the Potential of Our Intelligence (a book that Robert Bly points to in Sibling Society), however, the following observation by Pearce seems appropriate here. Pearce writes:

If we get stuck in a defensive posture and focus the higher system [e.g., the neocortex] on the needs of the lower [reptilian brain], the bulk of that higher system must simply idle along until the coast is clear. If the emergency (or rage) persists, as in chronic anxiety or paranoia, that highest system can actually atrophy since so little of it is needed by or adaptable to serving our lower system. Thus we find highly anxious, insecure children [i.e., those children displaying insecure or disorganized attachment patterns] at risk intellectually, and paranoid adults operating on minimals of intellectual power, subject to serious errors of judgement.

The AAI (adult attachment interview) can assess for patterns of attachment anxiety and insecurity leading to a closing down of the higher brain systems, those needed for such cognitive processes as reflection, empathy, coherence, and perspective-taking. See the text for more on the AAI. Simply (but no less profoundly) authors such as Healy, Bly, and Pearce are suggesting that more and more kids are showing up to school with their higher order brain systems—those critically necessary for school success—in varying states of idleness and atrophy. Sure, chronic anxiety may be a core cause here, but I think it is society’s job to ask one overarching question: “Where is all of this chronic anxiety coming from?” Here are a few possible sources researchers have pointed to:

  • long and/or multiple military deployments
  • divorce and general family discord
  • deteriorating economic conditions
  • extensive use of day care
  • crumbling community structures
  • rise of the online digital world
  • environmental toxins
  • mechanized and institutionalized birth practices
  • a trend toward overmedicating children as young as two and three years old (especially those in foster care)
  • a trend toward devaluing and even criminalizing natural outdoor spaces