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On brain understanding and mental health

I recently had a conversation with two people, one adult and one teen, about intelligence. I pointed out that modern research is showing that to a certain extent “intelligence” (however we define it) is determined by our genes. Just like our height, the color of our hair, and other clearly physical characteristics, we’re given a physical brain at birth that is all we have to work with for the rest of our life. Of course, raise a child with “tall genes” in poverty with an extremely restricted diet, and he’s unlikely to achieve his full height. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have “tall genes” that his children, raised with a healthy diet, will be able to express.

When I pointed out this fact about intelligence, the adult responded that talking about intelligence, even in this way, sounds like bragging.

What is intelligence?

brain scan

Modern science shows us that brains are different, and we need to stop pretending that they aren’t if we want all kids to be able to reach their potential and live fulfilling adult lives.

It’s true: as a culture, we are very uncomfortable talking about intelligence as an attribute. First of all, we can’t seem to come to a popular definition of intelligence. What the average person might view as intelligence is not necessarily what shows up on an IQ test. But even when we get past that, we react very differently to a mom talking about her child’s sports prowess and a mom talking about her child’s academic achievements.

So why talk about intelligence at all? If Gardner’s theory is true, don’t we all have multiple intelligences, and isn’t this a good thing? Although brain research hasn’t actually given any support to Gardner, I do like his approach in the sense of reminding everyone who works with children that all sorts of skills and interests are valuable in this world.

What I think is interesting and important about talking about intelligence, though, is that by talking about it we can promote self-understanding, which in general leads to happier people who find fulfilling work and meaning in their lives.

Strengths and deficits

I find it sad that we persist as a culture in denying that people’s brains are different and that this is meaningful. Imagine that we as a culture denied that height had anything to do with being a good basketball player. No one admitted it, and every single child was expected to be able to excel at basketball if he or she really wanted to. The short kids would pretty quickly get the message that they simply weren’t trying hard enough, which would lead to the obvious conclusion that there was something wrong with their general ability to achieve.

Just as damaging would be a culture in which every tall person is expected to be phenomenal at basketball. (My very tall brother-in-law tells me that this is actually pretty true of our culture!) What if a tall person simply hated basketball or simply wasn’t good at it, no matter how hard he or she worked? These tall kids would receive an equally damaging message that they have some problem with their general ability to achieve.

But I don’t like math!

When I was a child I took some sort of aptitude test and received the results at school. I remember looking at that piece of paper that said that I should look forward to a future as a mathematician. Math? Sure, I was good enough at math, but I had no interest in it. I wanted to be a writer. It’s not that my verbal skills were particularly bad, but they certainly didn’t test high enough that I had a “should be a writer” note on my test results. Now, let’s not even get into the question of why students in my school received this piece of paper to take home, rather than having it sent to the parents! But past that, if an adult had explained the results to me our conversation might have led me down a very different path.

“These results show that you have a very high aptitude in math. That means that math probably comes easier to you than average. The test shows that you have pretty average verbal skills, and I want to make sure you understand that it’s fine to be average. You’re doing well. This test doesn’t tell you what you enjoy, just how easy or hard certain tasks will be compared to people in general. Many people end up pursuing careers in things they enjoy but have to work hard at it.”

Instead, I remember looking at dismay at the piece of paper, wondering what am I going to do? I don’t want to be a mathematician! I want to be a writer. And that was it, the end of any education I got into how my brain works.

Mental health from self-understanding

Though I can’t say I would have made any different choices in my life, I am certain that my feeling of well-being would have been enhanced by understanding myself as a person, which starts with understanding oneself as a brain.

This is how I’d like to see us use our growing understanding of how the brain works in education and parenting:

  1. Kids should learn that every person is born with a physical brain that may have strengths and deficits
  2. Kids should learn that how we use our brain affects how it develops over our lifetimes
  3. Kids should learn that far from limiting your options in life, understanding your brain can lead you to greater growth and achievements

With those little pieces of knowledge, we could raise children to withstand all the uncertainty, self-doubt, jealousy, and unnecessary comparisons that kids struggle with every day. Few short kids feel bad that they aren’t star basketball players—they would be unable to proceed with life if they let a simple fact of their biology stop them. They figure out that it’s a goal they can’t achieve, and they find something else.

Yet when it comes to other possible careers, so many kids are uncertain whether they can attain goals that they secretly have.

So many kids suffer from self-doubt as they try to achieve something they don’t seem to have a natural ability for.

So many kids suffer from the jealousy they feel—and the jealousy that others feel toward them—because our culture pits kids against each other rather than celebrating the hard work and achievements of each individual.

It’s a lot to work against. My own children, who have grown up with a homeschooling mom who has tried to raise them with a “growth mindset,” say things about themselves that stem from culturally instilled ideas about their abilities and deficits. It’s frustrating to hear my kids limit themselves like this.

This is a task that needs to be championed by more than just a few parents, a few teachers, and a few psychologists. All of us need to agree to stop paying attention to which kids are “smarter” than others, and, conversely, stop insisting that all kids are the same.

We need to stop assuming that a bored kid who refuses to do easy, repetitive homework is lazy. We need to stop making one-size-fits-all educational decisions like standardized high school exit exams that keep some kids from demonstrating their very important skills and interests. We need to start emphasizing how fun it is to work hard for a goal, whether or not you achieve it.

The data is in: The outdated idea that your genes determine your destiny is wrong. The newfangled idea that you can do anything you set your mind to is wrong.

We need to put our modern understanding of brain health squarely in the middle of how we parent and teach.

Posted in Culture, Education, Parenting, Psychology.

3 Responses

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  1. Lisa Sullivan says

    I am an occupational therapy student and wholeheartedly agree with what you are saying. I am a non-traditional student who has grown children of my own and as I am doing my pediatric learning in a public school, I am aghast!!!! Aghast!!! I want to scream and pull my hair out each week. It is not so much that the teacher is bad, she is not, but the curriculum. 3,4, and 5 year olds who can’t sit still being made to. Being asked to look at a ‘rubric’ for where they are making mistakes. Excuse me? There is no down time, no play, and they are expected to learn so they will compete against the rest of the country on standardized test (so funding to their school does not go down). WHAT!!!!! What had this nation come to? What are we doing to our children? This is not learning! This is hell! And where is the responsibility from the parents? Every brain is different! Like fingerprints! This is not a cookie cutter process. Parents need to take an active interest in what learning is. What and how the mind learns. What their children innate interests and abilities are and not what society tells them their children need to become or learn. We are sinking fast down the rabbit hole. I will scream and advocate ad an OT!!! This is not the way. Remember my name. Lisa Sullivan…I plan on making a difference

    • Suki says

      Hi Lisa, I hope you keep your passion and resolve. Those kids need you! Thanks for sharing what’s happening in your school.

  2. Suki says

    KQED’s Mind/Shift (a great blog) featured a story on this: . They also emphasize that it’s important for kids to know what’s going on in there because it’s the least talked-about part of their body!

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