Why This Book Now?
It’s a new day for the human brain. Every hour, it seems, cognitive and neuro-scientists are making new discoveries about the three-pound human organ that makes nearly everything about our lives possible. And in these very same hours, infants are being born into a world in which computers, the Internet and smart phones have transformed the kind of “brainwork” our daily lives require. Facts are now at our fingertips, literally.
We’re free. Free from equating being smart with having a head full of facts. Free from being obsessed with knowledge and acquiring it. Free from a childhood, or a lifetime, of tests of how much we know. Free from having to know things. Or, we should be.
But we’re not, are we? Nearly every one of our institutions—schools, the health and mental health system, the legal system, politics, the media, science, the courts—is organized around knowing. Knowing what’s true, who’s right, what’s going on, what’s good for you, what you should do. Having the facts, providing the evidence, explaining how things work. These institutions even claim to know why people don’t know what they don’t know!
Knowledge may well have been freedom in the 19th and 20th centuries as Frederick Douglass famously said. But there’s little evidence for that equation today. To rephrase psychologist James Hillman who wrote a book entitled, We’ve Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse, I say, “We’ve had The Information Age, The Digital Revolution and The Knowledge Explosion and the world’s getting worse.”
For all the knowledge-gathering, evidence-based practices, diagnoses, assessments, evaluations, predictions and pontifications, are we any closer to peace in the Middle East or elsewhere, to bridging what educators call the achievement gap between white middle class children and minority and poor children, to eliminating poverty, to ending violence, to stopping the destruction of the planet?
Some might say yes, that science and diplomacy especially are bringing us closer to solving these intractable problems. Others might argue that these are issues of politics, beliefs and culture and have nothing to do with knowing. I’ll respond to both sides—and show how sticking to a knowing model of problem solving is retarding progress of science and diplomacy, and how knowing as a way of engaging the world underlies and overdetermines politics, beliefs and culture. It accounts, in very large part, for the developmental dead end civilization has reached.
There’s no shortage of pithy quotations from successful and revered wise women and men, from centuries past to this morning’s media, about how creativity, imagination, discovery and invention are essential for nations and their people to thrive. There’s also no shortage of op-eds, books, blogs and radio and TV talk about how America’s major institutions are stifling creativity, imagination, discovery and invention. Why the disconnect?
To get a glimpse of the muddle we’re in, let’s look at two of those pithy quotes from the wise. Commenting on his trade, the great artist Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” And the brilliant theoretical physicist Albert Einstein advised, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Both Picasso and Einstein are pointing to the same trap we’re in—once we know how to do something, we become less willing and able to do new things. We get stuck doing what we know how to do. Imagination reigns supreme when we’re little—when we don’t yet know that we’re supposed to know. We take risks. We learn how to paint, draw, sing, dance, talk, even think, because we “paint” “draw” “sing” “dance” “talk” and even “think” without knowing how! Before we know, we do. We play, we perform, we pretend our way to growth, learning and knowledge. This is the fundamental developmental process of the human species.
To remain an artist as an adult, then, we can’t let all the knowledge we’ve accumulated about art, color, perspective, how things are supposed to look, etc. take over, or suppress our imagination and stop us from doing things with paint and pencil that we’ve never done before. And it’s the same with thinking. By the time we’re adults, most of us know how to think, and for a big portion of our lives, that way works pretty well. But not always. And when it doesn’t, we need to let go of “I know what to do” and generate new ways of thinking about the situation. “I know” only keeps us dumb.
Over the last two decades there has been a lively intellectual debate over the status of knowledge and the continued viability of the knowing paradigm as the way to interact with and engage the natural and social worlds. Philosophers—especially those immersed in language, science and the foundational of mathematics—ponder how we know what we know. They call this area of philosophy “epistemology.” (They also ponder what there is to know, and they call this “ontology”). Social scientists wonder if human life is knowable in the ways that plants and rocks and animals are. Perhaps, they suggest, we humans (and that includes the scientists) have varying “ways of knowing” and “a social epistemology.” Even some hardcore natural scientists believe knowing may be limited and that there are some things about ourselves and the universe that we cannot ever know, no matter how hard we try.
Occasionally the debate spills over the walls of academia and enters public dialogue through the media. Terrific examples of this are some of the TED Talks available free online. In fact, the most-watched TED Talk (downloaded 20 million times to date) is “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” by Ken Robinson—who says, “Yes, they do.” But we need much more than TED Talks to get people thinking in new ways. We can’t wait much longer.
The current human predicament is precariously paradoxical. We live in a mass culture obsessed with the need to know at a time of such instability and unpredictability that knowing is of little good. If there is a way out of this predicament—and there is—then people need to hear about it and take part in what is no less a conceptual revolution than the Scientific Revolution, which is what gave us the knowing paradigm in the first place.
The Overweight Brain illustrates with dozens of examples how knowing keeps individuals, groups, organizations and governments stuck, mired in muddles, buried in facts, spinning our wheels, uncreative and un-artistic in living our lives. Most importantly, it offers a way out, a powerful tool to become smarter, a new proven approach to life that lightens our load and heightens our capacity to transform our world—which, of course, includes ourselves.
This new way, this proven approach to life, is development. Not the old idea of development as a series of stages individuals go through. But a new conception of development as becoming who we are by performing who we are not. That’s right. The way out of the straightjacket that knowing envelopes us in is to perform. To pretend. To play. After all, babies do it—and they sure grow and develop!
Somewhere in the history of human civilization play and learning got separated. Until recently, this was unfortunate for lots of people, but it wasn’t devastating. Now, it is, because play is rapidly being removed from our culture. Many children have no recess, physical education or free play time in school. Most well-to-do and middle class teens have lessons after school (which can turn playing at something into working at it). Most poor teens have none and no places to play. Adults work, or are looking for work. Play has become a luxury that, in hard times, we can’t afford. The decline of play in our daily lives is happening in spite of all the research that shows play is vital to healthy human functioning.
Psychologists have long known that babies and pre-school children learn and develop through their social, imaginative and improvisational play. We adults encourage them to play and play “at”—to try new things, to stretch, to do what they do not yet “know” how to do. We praise them for playing grown up by creatively imitating what those around them do without regard to correctness. We delight in them performing as characters other than and beyond who they are. We beam with pride when they dance in front of the TV or on the stage in a kindergarten play. What we’re doing (and this is truly awesome when you really think about it) is relating to them not just as what they are capable of at the moment but simultaneously as who and what they are becoming. And that’s exactly and precisely how they become!
Most psychologists and educators appreciate the value of play for how it facilitates the learning of social-cultural roles. Through acting out roles (play-acting), children “try out” the roles they will soon take on in “real life.” I agree 100%. But I believe that there’s more developmental mileage we get from playing than that. And it has to do with what the brilliant psychologist Lev Vygotsky identified as the paradox of play, specifically, pretend play. Here’s the paradox: when children are pretending, they are least like what they are pretending to be! When they play school they are least like teachers and students because teachers and students in school are not playing at being teachers and students; what they’re doing is acting out their societally determined roles. But children playing school, or Mommy and Daddy, or Harry Potter and Dumbledore, are not acting out predetermined roles. They’re actually creating new performances of themselves—they’re at once the playwrights, directors and performers. They’re creating their development and learning (with our help and support, of course).
Even more, babies and toddlers are playing and performing and pretending pretty much full time all day long, not only when they’re doing what adults call pretend play. They babble and we respond as if they’re speaking our language. We relate to them as speakers when they’re not (yet). We perform conversation with them. They scribble on paper or books (or walls) and we smile in delight and tell them how beautiful their picture of a tree or of Mommy is.
The linking of play with theatrical performance—and then linking that with development—is an exciting and very promising new area of research and practice. Hundreds in the US and around the globe are working to understand the developmental potential of play in this new way, as performed activity. And something especially important about this work is that it goes well beyond early childhood in recognizing the varieties and value of developmental play and performance throughout the life span. From organizations of play researchers and play advocates, to community organizations offering play and creative activities, to scholars, educators, youth development workers and life coaches, people are playing with play.