WISE — Most people assume that humans living in the 21st century have 21st century brains.
But according to Jeff Perry, what’s actually inside your head and the heads of your spouse, your child, your boss and your best friend is probably more similar to the brain of a Neanderthal man than you would think.
During a Thursday night workshop aimed at teachers but open to the public, Perry, who is superintendent of Wise County schools, gave an overview of what scientists and educators now know about the human brain.
Eighty percent of what humans do is based on subconscious instincts, urges and thought processes, Perry told the crowd. Learning a little more about what’s happening and why can help teachers tailor lessons to take advantage of the way the brain works, not work against it. The same knowledge can help parents relate to their children, and could even come in handy for routine interaction between adults.
WIRED FOR A BYGONE TIME
“If you had to think to survive, you’d never make it,” Perry said, pointing out that the human brain does everything from controlling breathing and blinking to choosing which parts of the body to pump blood to in cold temperatures.
Scientists believe man has existed for about 2.5 million years. For most of that time, life wasn’t easy, Perry pointed out.
Only in the past few hundred years has man been able to stop worrying about an ample food supply. But for close to 2 million years, each time a human saw a piece of food, their instinct was to eat it, because there was no way to know when more sustenance would be available.
For millions of years, life was dangerous for man. Humans that focused too long on one sight or concept ran the risk of being attacked. Those with short attention spans and suspicious natures passed on their genes, leaving modern humans with trouble focusing and, especially in males, suspicious and sometimes aggressive natures, Perry explained.
Only in the past half-century or so has society expected everyone, of all sexes and races, to be able to read, Perry pointed out. And reading is no simple task. However, nowadays, every child is expected to learn to read at a very young age, and all students are to progress at “grade level.”
“Kids walk upright and have opposable thumbs, but they’re still animals,” Perry told the crowd of about 60 adults who attended his class. Humans still need healthy physical activity, bumps and scrapes and even schoolyard scraps to develop their brains, social skills and muscles correctly.
He urged teachers to videotape themselves teaching, noting that it’s essential for educators to have control over “nonverbal” forms of communication, like facial expressions. The slightest glimmer of frustration or anger on a teacher’s or parent’s face can go a long way — it only takes people 33 milliseconds to process facial expressions.
Like the expectation that everyone should be able to read, modern medical practices that make birth a relatively safe process have only been around for a blip of human history. The rest of that time, being born was very dangerous, with plenty of complications that cut off oxygen to the brain occurring routinely.
Presumably to protect itself from those risks, the brain began developing twice the amount of cells it would need. A newborn infant has the most brain cells it will have in its life, and the brain begins weeding those down with the first breath of real air.
Many of those brain cells are “blank,” not assigned to any essential function. And as the child grows, based on the child’s environment, the brain decides what those cells should do, Perry explained.
So if, for example, a child get struck every time he or she cries or tries to talk, the brain won’t assign cells to language. It’ll let that portion of the brain die off, and re-direct energy to the motor cortex, so the child can fight or run away from trouble.
By the time a child reaches kindergarten, that process is well underway but not irreversible, Perry said. “They have the ability to get there — you just have to show them the road.”
Instead of, for example, telling a child who hits another child and takes a toy instead of asking for it to “use your words,” a teacher should show the child the right way to behave, and model that behavior repeatedly over a period of time, to help the right neuropathways form.
Everything in a child’s life affects the way he or she learns, according to Perry. So for teachers and parents alike, understanding young people’s culture and life experiences is key. That’s because knowing a little bit about what young people have experienced, from Spongebob Squarepants and Hannah Montana to the language of text messaging, can help adults find handy ways to help kids remember concepts.
Having kids visualize a new concept, speak about it out loud and actively relate it to two other concepts seems to help solidify learning, Perry noted.
“If a kid gives you what seems like a stupid answer, trace back the steps of how they got there,” Perry said. Going down the train of thought can help identify where things went wrong, and get them on the right track.
Your brain: Big job, small package While teaching a crowd of teachers and a handful of interested citizens about “brain-based learning” techniques, county schools Superintendent Jeff Perry peppered his students with facts about the complexities and mysteries of the human brain.
The brain weighs 3 pounds, and is about the size of your two fists clenched side by side. It’s only 2.5 percent of the weight of an average human body, but uses 20 percent of the body’s energy. The brain is 78 percent water and about 13 percent fat, which is why young children need high-fat diets.
Brain cells and the connections between them die off fast in childhood. An eight-month-old has 1,000 trillion synapses, or connections between brain cells. A 10-year-old has only 500 trillion.
CONTACT IS KEY
Social interaction is essential for all humans, not just children. According to Perry, engaging in one 20-minute conversation per day that isn’t related to work can reduce stress by 8 percent.
Laughter and conversation help the body be healthy — a person who’s had a good laugh generates more T-cells, boosting immunity, while talking to other people helps with oxygen absorption.
Isolation has just as measurable an impact, Perry told the group. The same portion of the brain that processes physical pain when you touch a hot stove is the section that takes over when people start to feel socially isolated or depressed.
Without positive physical contact, touching from a mother or other nurturer, children’s brains don’t develop to their full potential, Perry said. He noted that children raised in Eastern European orphanages who had no physical contact ended up with brains 20-30 percent smaller than usual.
The brain also needs a purpose within society — that’s why retirees or people who have lost a spouse sometimes die shortly after those life-changing events. To preserve the species, the brain learned to start shutting down the body of someone who feels he or she isn’t productive in society to preserve food and water for the rest of the group.
Staying active and engaged is key for people of all ages, Perry said.
ROUGH AND TUMBLE
Some things children do, like spinning on swings or taking swings at each other, might seem strange or dangerous, Perry acknowledged.
But did you know that when a child takes a turn on the merry-go-round or spins in circles, he’s actually going through a necessary process that programs the part of his brain that controls equilibrium?
Fighting is a no-no on the playground, but all species of baby animals fight each other, Perry pointed out. From that physical activity, they learn social skills, develop muscles and hone coordination.
He’s not advocating that teachers let kids go at each other on the playground, but he urged against taking recess away from children as a punishment, noting that healthy physical activity is key to proper development.
Ever get a “gut feeling” about something?
Cells called “peptides,” which Perry says are “like little cell phones,” pick up subtle messages you’re not even aware of all the time and transmit them to the brain.
Those cells are very in tune with danger, and can discern threats you don’t even consciously notice.
Eighty percent of peptides are in the abdomen, so “gut feeling” is actually a surprisingly accurate term.
Did you know that when you feel stress a different part of your brain actually takes over?
The body responds very physically to stress, because it feels like it’s under attack. Blood even starts clotting to avoid excessive bleeding when you feel stress, Perry noted.
The back part of your brain, the more reptilian, instinctual part, takes control when you start to feel stressed, and starts filtering your thoughts for you. It won’t process extraneous information — it’s looking for the threat.
So when you’re running late and looking for your keys, sometimes you can’t find them, even if they’re right out in the open.
Your brain sees the keys, Perry explained, but it chooses to skip over them, because it’s putting priority on looking for something that could hurt you, like a snake or a gun.