V.S. Ramachandran, the iconoclastic, baritone-voiced neurologist at UC San Diego, is probably my favorite brain researcher. He regularly finds elegant ways to investigate many of the things I dropped out of a conventional Ph.D. psychology program at UCLA years ago, in order to go and study at ITP – a newly-minted, graduate start-up school in transpersonal psychology. Unlike this superficial perspective on transper- sonal topics, Ramachandran applies rigor and discipline to what is often considered to be the metaphysical, and he has great fun doing it. Watch this talk on the nature of enlightenment, or listen to this recent research on the human ability to see energetic auras. What stands out for me in this work is that parents and teachers appear to have great power to encourage and support kids in the development of such capacities as synesthesia, the ability to see the color of days, numbers and emotions. Current estimates are that one in thirty people have developed this ability, although most keep it secret.
Seeing is Disbelieving
Besides seeing the color of emotions, another benefit of teaching kids to see the unseen, I would argue, is that it increases the odds of growing an expanded, more complex neural network in the vision area of the brain. How the brain processes what our eyes see is not the same for everyone. As researchers at University College London have recently discovered while scanning brains viewing a Ponzo Illusion, more is better. The more connections in the visual cortex we have, the more accurately we are able to discern the differences in, not only optical illusions, but actual differences and distinctions in the real world. Turns out we can help kids grow the brain’s “eyes” differently from yours and mine – we can help them grow eyes that can clearly see.
Learning to see what isn’t there can be a powerful motivator of curiosity as well. For example, one might wonder why astrology, long discredited by mainstream science as folderol, is embraced and followed by roughly 100 million Americans? Turns out several Vanderbilt scientists, studying something called “seasonal biology” – so as to professionally distance it from astrology – have discovered that “seasonal imprinting” may help explain why people born in the winter months have a higher risk for bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia and seasonal affective disorder. Seems like there might actually be something to Ptolemy’s first century research, and his sun signs, and his Tetrabiblos.
Blinded by the Bias of the Incremental
Teaching kids to see the unseen also works to move them away from “the bias of the incremental,” fostering the illusion of safety in only focusing on small changes. Practicing seeing what isn’t evident encourages kids to be contrarian thinkers and take creative risks, and to have fun and benefit from the states that play and humor produce in the brain. Practice with seeing the unseen would leapfrog learning in ways that are currently trying to be addressed and advocated for by Paypal co-founder, Peter Theil and 200 of the country’s most innovative leaders at this Palace of Fine Arts dinner in San Francisco this week.
Once we’ve managed to optimize growth of the visual cortex at the back of the brain, the real magic then comes when we begin to build out the front of the brain, the OFC (Orbital Frontal Cortex). This is the brain area that I’ve written about previously, responsible for so-called Executive Function. Building out this area together with the back of the brain sets a kind of neurological tension in place that creativity expert Robert Fritz describes wonderfully in his masterwork on creativity, The Path of Least Resistance. He calls it Structural Tension. And structural tension tends to move in one direction: towards creative resolution.
So, learning to see the unseen, noticing what’s not apparent, then developing the capacity to envision it, that’s step one. The visionaries among us easily take this step. Many unfortunately, lack the ability to take the next most important steps – the Executive Function steps – being able to plan, organize people and take action, day after day, designed and intended to bring the creative vision into reality. This inability for action is what Henry David Thoreau recognized when he offered the following encouragement: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” For parents, the good news is we can begin building those neurological foundations in the nursery.