Remaking Our Brains

BLOG #15, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
REMAKING OUR BRAINS
April 15, 2015

This was the weekend of our annual Conifer Kiwanis Reading Celebration for the third-graders who attend six mountain elementary schools here in the Colorado Rockies. Also for a large consortium of homeschoolers.

Before we honored the kids for their reading improvement, I gathered close to 90 third-graders on the floor around me, and urged them to make reading central to their lives. Since I poured thirty years of observation and research into my 1992 book, TV on Trial, and one of my main doctoral concentrations had to do with the relationship between reading and writing, and since those areas have remained central to me during my entire academic teaching career, I felt this occasion offered me a golden opportunity to plant seeds in these young minds.

I pointed out to them that there are two ways they can feed their brains: Reading and Electronic Imagery. Reading has been with us clear back to ancient times, but most significantly since the advent of printing, some six centuries ago. Electronic imagery is much more recent: around the turn of the twentieth century with the advent of moving pictures.

Today, electronic imagery has become so ubiquitous it increasingly has pushed reading onto the ropes, with some even questioning whether it can survive at all.

So, I pointed out to the third-graders that there are two significant differences between reading and electronic media: Reading is a creative process; electronic imagery tends to be creative only for those who create it. Reading is connotative. In other words, every time a person opens a book and begins reading, something exciting happens: that person’s brain shifts into its creative gear as the reader cranks out non-stop inner imagery that has the potential to actually change the brain into a powerhouse.

I introduced two contrasting word processes: “denotative” and “connotative.” Denotative has to do with the dictionary definition of a word. Let’s take, for instance, the word “father”; the dictionary definition is “a man who has begotten a child.” That’s all there is to it.

But the connotative process is so explosive it borders on the mind-numbing, for it has the potential, over time, to remake the brain. I pointed out that as you read the word “father,” if you have a loving father you adore, the mental image you create will tend to mirror that; but what if you have an abusive father? That would contribute to a much darker mental image. And no two readers ever create exactly the same mental imagery from the same words! For each individual is one-of-a-kind. That is why cloning would be such a terrible thing. As a person reads, word after word after word triggers the creation of mental imagery in the reader’s brain. So much so that just one book has the potential to create seismic differences in the reader’s outlook on life. But that’s not all, by any means. Each author writes in a different way from other authors; this is why Google enables teachers to catch plagiarists so easily, and why it borders on the impossible that an anonymous writer can long remain anonymous. The reader reads works by Alcott, Tolkien, Blume, Milne, Seuss, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Twain, or Martin Luther King, Jr.—; those stylistic differences are stored in inner templates, each of which may be drawn from when the reader begins to write herself/himself.

Depending upon whether the reader reads from a wide variety of books, stories, essays, etc. written by authors worth reading as opposed to stalling out on mental pablum; the former is likely to develop into a powerhouse and the latter into straitjacketed narrowism.

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But what if individuals read no books and little of anything else, and instead feed the mind with electronic imagery (the norm for untold millions today), what happens to their minds? When one is watching television, cinema, video, or other electronic genres, whether one person is watching a given source or a billion people are watching it, every last one is internalizing the same picture! Reason being that the receiver’s brain has had nothing to do with the image’s creation—someone else did that. In fact, the receiver’s brain is completely bypassed: BAM! The image is blasted into the receiver’s brain. But it is not internalized for it is a foreign object. It is a self-standing entity that just sits there. Over time, as these foreign objects take up more and more space in the receiver’s brain, that person all but loses the creative potential that individual was born with.

In the collegiate freshman composition classes I’ve taught over the years, I’ve seen replayed the two species again, again, and again. When I tell a class, “Take out a blank piece of paper. We are going to write. . . . Now write!” It matters little whether I give them a subject to write about or let them choose, the results are the same each time: the reader, having all the internalized imagery of many authors’ books and stories synthesized into the memory banks, stylistic templates too, can hardly wait to start writing—and then the pen races across the page. The non-reader, almost invariably, just sits there glassy-eyed, like Bambi on ice. Since there is precious little in their brains that wasn’t created by someone else, there isn’t much they can draw from. And since they don’t read, they don’t know how to write either. Structurally, they are equally at sea. Since electronic imagery explodes at them from all directions, little of it structured, their thought-processes tend to be equally unstructured and disjointed. This is also true when they speak in public.

Furthermore, even in the business world, non-readers are handicapped. Studies have shown that when employing CEOs test them to see which applicant would be the best fit for a job, they are often given a task composed of, say five, steps in which to reach desired completion. Deliberately and unannounced, the CEO leaves out a step. So a reader moves from step to step: A to B, B to C, C to D, D to E, and E to F—only D to E is left out. The reader reaches this abyss, is puzzled , but doesn’t give up. Since the reader has developed a part of the brain scholars call the “library,” in which the brain talks to itself, the applicant, much like a spider, launches filaments out into the void, seeking for a terminus on the other side. Sooner or later, one of the filaments touches solid ground; the applicant now bridges to the other side and moves from E to F, and completes the task. The non-reader never can complete the task. Even when both applicants are college graduates with 4-point grade A averages, the results are still the same. A neighbor of mine, an executive himself, and a veteran administrator and employer, when I shared this study with him, explained, “So that’s it! I’ve long wondered why some top graduates could problem-solve and others failed so dismally. It makes sense!”

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Sadly, our society has yet to recognize just how essential reading is to life and career success, even in areas that are not generally considered as demanding a reading background.

A NEW “LOST GENERATION”?

BLOG #40, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
A NEW “LOST GENERATION”?
October 2, 2013

The most famous “Lost Generation” was the post-World War I generation who came of age in the war and Jazz Age that followed. The term was coined in a letter Gertrude Stein wrote to Ernest Hemingway, “You are all a lost generation.” Hemingway then incorporated it into his 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, that captures the attitudes and life style of the hard-drinking, fast-living, hedonistic, and disillusioned young expatriates living in Paris (authors such as Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, e. e.. cummings, Archibald Mac Leish, Hart Crane, and others).

These writers considered themselves lost because the unbelievably brutal so-called “Great War” had stripped them of their illusions, turned them away from religion and spiritual values, and left them in a twilight world in which nothing made sense. Not surprisingly, it segued into theater of the absurd writers such as Pinter, Ionesco, Brecht, and Beckett, who wrote plays in which little or nothing made much sense.

On the front page of the weekend Wall Street Journal (September 14, 15), was a jolting article by Ben Casselman and Marcus Walker titled “Help Wanted: Struggles of a Lost Generation.”

In it, the writers postulate that the economic meltdown of the last five years has created a group of young people who have come of age during the most prolonged period of economic distress since the Great Depression. Only this time, unlike the earlier “Lost Generation,” today’s young people are lost because the economic underpinnings they assumed their education prepared them for, are no longer there now that they have graduated and are looking for such jobs.

They are worse off in another respect: they are saddled with student loans that, in good times, they could gradually pay off, but in bad times (think no job at all, minimum wage, or part-time jobs), they don’t see how they can ever pay them off! The writers note that the unemployment rate for Americans under the age of 25 is two and a half times higher than the rate for those 25 or older. But even that rate ignores the hundreds of thousands of young people who are going back to college, enrolling in training programs, or just sitting on the sidelines.

The writers, backed up by Pew Research studies, feel that today’s young people are likely to suffer long-term consequences for their current inability to get full-time decent-paying jobs: “Economic research has shown that the first few years after college plays an outside role in determining workers’ career trajectories: about two-thirds of wage growth, on average, comes in the first ten years of a person’s career. In weak economic times, graduates are likely accept lower wages and work for smaller companies with fewer opportunities for advancement. And in many cases, they never move off that second-tier track.”

They also note that our weak economy is leading to potentially seismic societal changes: “An
entire generation is putting off the rituals of early adulthood: moving away, getting married, buying a home and having children.” 56% of 18-24-year-olds are living with their parents.

In earlier times, young people could at least look forward to a strong recovery, however all the current projections are for a long weak economic recovery, and by the time it finally does happen, the bloom will long since have been gone from the degrees of untold thousands of young people caught in the backwash of today’s global fiscal collapse.

In Europe, it is even worse today for this age-group: “Over 23% of the European Union’s workforce under age 25 is unemployed, and youth jobless rates in the worse-hit European countries approaches 60%.”

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Although Casselman and Walker’s economic study contains plenty of doom and gloom, it appears to me it is nowhere near as bad as the generation that graduated in 1929 and had to face the Great Depression when things were so bad life could be summed up in that generation’s six-liner: “Brother, can you spare a dime?” (A dime could get you a simple meal back then.)

Perhaps we shall need to re-evaluate the entire educational construct. With four years of college now costing $100,000 – $200,000, it may be necessary to come up with an entirely new method of preparing our youth for their adult life and careers.

NON-READER’S DOOMSDAY

What I say today goes for both sexes: the results are the same. As I said earlier, I studied the effects of television for thirty years before I wrote Remote Controlled. Reading/Writing was one of my four doctoral areas of concentration. And I’ve continually explored the interrelationship between reading and writing during my entire academic career (as teacher and administrator), so this is anything but a new subject for me.

Here, in a nutshell, are my findings:

1. If you do not read, relying instead on the digestion of electronic imagery, you are incapable of creating your own mental connotative pictures. In short, you cannot imagine or think original thoughts.

Why? Because if you read, see live drama, or hear radio drama, no two people will create the same mental pictures, because each person responds to word-association according to known experience. Such imagery is stored in your brain as part of your own thinking apparatus. But, if you watch TV, video, cinema, or other electronic imagery, whether one person watches that image or three billion do, every last watcher gets the self same image—because it is pre-fab: someone other than you created it, so it is blasted into your brain’s archives, by-passing your own thought-processors. Over time, tragedy strikes, because being that everything in your brain was created by someone else, you have virtually nothing original to draw from. You’re a zombie.

When given a writing assignment, you’re all but paralyzed. When assigned a term paper, since there’s nothing original to draw from in your head, you cheat—you have to, or fail. You cannot even structure coherent sentences or paragraphs, for all you have in your head is the chaotic jumblings of media and advertising. I’ve seen it over and over in 34 years of teaching: the reader, having many stylistic templates of favorite authors to draw from, can hardly wait to begin; the non-reader just stares glassy-eyed at that blank piece of paper, hoping for a miracle. And today’s epidemic of cheating/plagiarism is threatening the validity of our entire academic system, as untold thousands are submitting research under their names, that were created by someone else.

2. The Chinese have a saying: “If you haven’t read in three days, you aren’t worth listening to.” Just listen to electronic junkies around you, or receive their text-messages—note how vapid, inane, and devoid of structure it is.

When you grow up and get a job, inevitably the day of reckoning will come: when you can no longer hide the fact that you are brain-dead.

3. Nor can your non-reading electronic junkie speak coherently and persuasively. Reason being: there is nothing structured or coherently organized in his/her head.

4. Nor can s/he handle complex thought. Only in simplistic sound-bytes. Recently an international conference of some of the world’s leading church leaders concluded that they question whether democracy and civil liberty can long exist without a literate reading public (routinely digesting newspapers, magazines, and books). For non-readers, being incapable of complex thought, are easy prey to demagogues, extremists, and would-be dictators.

5. They also make lousy employees. Fortune 500 CEOs often determine finalists for key positions by giving top candidates challenges such as five steps to achieving a solution (Steps A, B, C, D, E), and then deliberately leave out a step. The reader has developed a part of the brain scholars call the “Library,” in which the brain talks to itself. When the reading candidate reaches a missing step, she stops, thinks, and then sends out filaments much like a spider, eventually synapsing to the other side, then finishing the test. The non-reader could sit there for a hundred years, incapable of crossing.

6. Furthermore, all the studies reveal that the more hours a day you expose yourself to electronic imagery, the dumber you get—at any age! Because, again, it’s all second-hand; worse yet—well, let me quote Ted Koppel:

“Almost everything said in public today is recorded.
                              Almost nothing said in public today is worth remembering.”

It’s all, to use an academic term: “Majoring in minors.”

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Next Wednesday, we’ll start applying all this to our boys and girls. Stay tuned.

We’re Losing Our Boys. . . And Men

How I wish they’d been wrong—but they weren’t.

About twenty years ago, Newsweek did a cover story on boys, pointing out widespread concern about something scary that teachers were seeing in classrooms across the country: boys bailing out of the educational process at an ever earlier age.  Mesmerized by the pied pipers of the media and sports, boys were all but ceasing to read, write, or grow intellectually.  If this trend continued, pundits warned, boys will bail out of college and higher education as well—and that would have devastating consequences in terms of the future of our nation.

Ever since reading that study, I’ve been intensely aware of the problem whenever I’m in the presence of students, young or old.  I speak and read to elementary students quite often, and it’s almost always the same: girls are excited about authors, books, ideas, and growth; boys generally make little effort to stifle their yawns.  Of course, thank goodness, there are exceptions—but that’s what they are: exceptions to the norm.

I strongly suspect most parents don’t realize the price their children will pay during the rest of their lives for permitting the media center to replace the home library, the electronic tentacles of cyberspace to replace the daily story hour.  Studies reveal that if a child doesn’t fall in love with reading by the third grade, it’s not likely to ever take place at all.

As to the price we’re paying at this moment in history, just listen to David Brooks (The New York Times, Feb. 17, 2010):

“We’re looking at an extended period of above 8% unemployment.  The biggest impact is on men.  Over the past few decades, men have lagged behind women in acquiring education and skills.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at age 22, 185 women have graduated from college for every 100 men [my italics].  Furthermore, men are concentrated in industries where employment is declining (manufacturing) or highly cyclical (construction).  So men have taken an especially heavy blow during this crisis.  The gap between the male and female unemployment rates has reached its highest level since the government began keeping such records.”

Brooks notes that “men who are unemployed for a significant amount of time are more likely to drink more, abuse their children more and suffer debilitating blows to their identity.  Unemployed men are not exactly the most eligible mates. . . .  For decades, men have adopted poorly to the shifting demands of the service economy.  Now they are paying the price.  The working class is in danger of descending into underclass-style dysfunction.  For decades, young people have been living in a loose, under-institutionalized world.  Now they are moving back home in droves.  We need to redefine masculinity” [my italics].  For the first time in American history, women will be holding down the majority of our jobs—besides being the primary caregivers, as daughters, mothers, and wives.

At the rate we’re moving, it can only get worse for men—and for the women who depend on them.

I do have some answers, but they are long-term and will be anything but easy to achieve.  There can be no quick fix to a problem of this magnitude!

I shall continue the dialogue on this issue with next Wednesday’s blog.

Stay tuned.