Sunday, March 28, 2010

Blind In My Mind's Eye

Blind In My Mind's Eye

"All the exams the scientists gave [study subject] MX confirmed his claim that he was missing his mind's eye."
"Perhaps the most remarkable thing about MX is that he did not need years to develop this new skill [of routing visual information through other brain parts than the mind's eye in order to develop an intellectual concept to replace the mind's eye images he lacked]...Perhaps his blind imagination was always available to him, ready to be used."
- Carl Zimmer, Discover, March 2010

"In your mind's eye..." has been spoken to me only a few times in my life, but I have read it on several occasions.

Unlike MX, who lost his familiar and much appreciated mind's eye suddenly at the age of 65, I never had one. Rather, it might be more accurate to say that my mind's eye is nearly blind.

Do a little experiment with me. Picture in your mind, one at a time, each of the following:
(1) the face of your mother;
(2) the face of your spouse (if this is not appropriate, the face of your father or one particular friend);
(3) your favourite pet in your life (if this is not appropriate, the face of your doctor).

Were you able to bring those faces up as you read them? I can't. When I try it's as if I have a blind spot where the face should be, yet I can get a general idea (not clear) of what I would see with my periphery vision if I were looking at these people with my real eyes.

As I write this my wife is on a different floor of the same house as I am sitting in, yet I cannot picture her face in my head, in my mind's eye. I could pick her out of a crowd of thousands of real people, yet I have no image of her face in my head.

Though my dreams have people in them, I can't recognize any of them. They have no faces to me. I dream in thoughts, not in images. I may have the odd image flash through my dream, but it's nothing like a movie.

Moreover, when I have wakened I can't remember my dreams. Even when I wake up knowing that I have just been dreaming, I have only experienced remembering what I dreamed about a dozen times in my life.

If you can do these things as part of our experiment, you have an active mind's eye.

Who cares? Science now knows that when you sleep you consolidate and fix in your brain your experiences of the previous day. Which experiences you choose to review while asleep determine which you can draw upon easily the following day or days.

When you studied, as a student, during the days before an exam, you created an easily accessible place you could get to if that information were requested on the exam. You created those quick-access locations in your sleep on the days following when you studied. What's that? What does it mean? I honestly don't know. It did me no good to study before exams because by the time I had the exam booklet in front of me I had forgotten what I studied. Even when I sat with my notes in front of me, studying meant little because I couldn't remember what I had read a few minutes after reading it.

That bit of consolidating and fixating of recently read material for later retrieval may well be one of the functions of the mind's eye. It's not used just when you are asleep, as our little experiment showed.

The great sculptor Michelangelo, when asked why he pounded so hard on a large rock, allegedly responded "Young boy, there is an angel inside of this rock and I am setting him free." Michelangelo could see David inside the rock. I would only ever see rock.

As a child I dreaded those rare occasions when we had art class. Art class always meant painting, where a large blank piece of paper was placed in front of me. While my classmates happily created their masterpieces, I continued to see only blank paper. No image ever came to mind that I could transfer onto the paper.

An image would have had to be in my mind's eye. It wasn't there. Ever.

Study subject MX lost his mind's eye at age 65. Before that he used to lie down in bed before going to sleep and review the events of his day, like watching a filmstrip or movie clips. When he lost that ability, he quickly adapted by using other parts of his brain to accomplish formerly mind's eye tasks.

I never had a mind's eye. Yet I always felt the need to create in my mind, something, so I could make sense of my world. MX had a mind's eye, lost it, then used other means to compensate.

People who have all the physical connections for sight, yet are blind, often have what is called blindsight or blindimagination. Though blind, many can navigate their way through a room crowded with furniture, for example. Do we all have blindsight or blindimagination ability but not use it? Or do we use it in ways we have not yet discovered?

The researchers who studied MX, Adam Zeman, a neurologist at Peninsula Medical School in Exeter, England, and cognitive scientist Sergio Della Sala, of the University of Edinburgh, continue to study how the brain manages visual information. In this field of study, it's still early days.

My experiences, those of MX and the studies of Zeman and Della Sala clearly demonstrate that children need to be offered a variety of learning styles because of the differences in their ways of learning. In education, a one-size-fits-all style of teaching means some children will miss out. Innocent and unknowing children will be blamed for being at fault for not learning as they should. Some schools address the need for different learning styles, most do not.

I couldn't even count on all my fingers the number of times "not working to his potential" appeared on my report cards, nor the number of times my mother was told in parent-teacher interviews that I was lazy. The schools I attended as a child had ways to assess my intellectual potential, but lacked the means to put it to use.

To my teachers I was lazy. Except in physical education where I was also weak and uncoordinated, which somehow also got to be my fault. The role me lack of a working mind's eye played in any of this will not be known for some time.

Suffice to say, I managed to work around the detours to reaching my intellectual potential, though many years after completing my formal education. I still can't throw a baseball straight or walk a balance beam without falling, even when cold sober and in the best of health. Maybe the brain can only adapt around one detour and has to choose which will take top priority.

At age 67 I am no longer called lazy. However, some people still don't appreciate why I sometimes can't follow simple spoken instructions or written directions. I have solved some of the most profound mysteries of life, yet I still can't find Waldo.

No one today wants to teach a man who is smart enough to have found evidence of what God really is and what the afterlife means. He's scary. Yet no one wants to teach a man who is so dumb he can't put together a child's puzzle. They are the same man, same brain, different abilities.

My education continues to be based on my own initiative. As a student, I am still a dunce, an oaf who is "too lazy to learn." Other adults, many of them, may not have the motivation I had to learn. So they don't. You meet these people in stores, or driving the streets with you, or at voting stations.

When people have trouble learning because what they need to know is presented in ways they can't understand, many just give up. Teachers need to recognize learning differences before that happens to their students. More importantly, teachers need to be trained on how to recognize the needs their students have for different learning styles. They have to understand and have the skills before they can put them to use on their students.

Before the kids drop out of school, and sometimes out of socially accepted behaviour.

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a fancy sounding title for a book of ideas and solutions everyone can understand and teachers and parents can use.
Learn more about the book and the TIA project at

Monday, March 15, 2010

One Step Back from the Edge

One Step Back from the Edge

A person should not have to learn the most important lessons about life from experience. Most of them can be taught, if we know enough to teach them to our children.

Not knowing those lessons, not knowing how to cope with the adversities that life throws at every one of us, means we must suffer pain. Not just the pain of each tragedy, but also the pain associated with the stress of having a severe problem (or a bunch of them) and not knowing what to do about it.

My sister didn't know. She smoked herself to death from cancer at age 54, never understanding why she had to live alone, on welfare, never having anyone she could trust or depend on. Never having a friend in her life. Never having any happiness in her marriage because she didn't know how. Never being able to hold a job because she didn't realize employers need skills and employees who can get along with each other.

Her children don't know. Her daughter, my niece, at one time displeased with me because I told her about lies her mother had told about her and about me, suggested that I should kill myself. Her son, my nephew, joined an extreme religious cult where he feels loved and respected.

No doubt my father chose a remote rural area to rent the apartment above a general store when I was a baby because he didn't want his family to suffer the indignities he had suffered as a child. He and my mother didn't know that children learn from each other by playing together. I rarely saw any other children and never played with one until I was nearly six years old.

My parents understood that parenting consisted of providing food, shelter and clothing to their children. And punishing them when they did something wrong. It never occurred to them to teach a child what the child needs to know to avoid getting into trouble. My parents didn't teach their children anything. Except how to eat with a knife and fork and how to use toilet paper.

My mother, who never worked a day after she got pregnant with me, eventually needed to hire a cleaning lady once a week because she couldn't keep up with dusting, cleaning and laundry. No one knew why. Chronic fatigue syndrome, now recognized as a widespread problem, was just called laziness in those days. My mother never talked about it.

The same way she never talked about why she chased me around our house at couple of times when I was 10, brandishing a broom and threatening to kill me if she caught me. I hadn't a clue about why she was angry. But I didn't let her catch me either. I couldn't spell "menopause" let alone understand what it meant. All I knew was her words.

My father, a naturally clever man who never managed to pass grade nine, found considerable success in business. He became an alcoholic because he had no idea how to cope with the stresses associated with his business success.

He adopted the advice of someone he worked with as a young man. It was: Never learn how to do something if you don't want to do that thing. My father disliked working with his hands. One of his employees, a mechanic, bought him a simple screwdriver one day because he thought my father should be able to tighten a screw himself. My father never taught me any skills. He didn't have any mechanical skills or interest in learning to do things with his hands. He never used the screwdriver either.

My father's father had a thriving florist business until the First World War destroyed it. My father was five years old when his father committed suicide.

Suicide is not genetic, but it tends to run in families. I didn't want to become an alcoholic or to kill myself, though I knew no coping skills because I had never been taught any. By anyone. Lacking coping skills, I now know, is the leading cause of alcoholism, suicide and many other severe problems.

As I knew nothing about being a father, in fact I was afraid of little children, I avoided having much to do with my own children when they were young. Their mother raised them through those first few critically important years of their lives. She taught them everything they knew. They became everything she was.

She believed that success at work was more important that success as a parent. She believed that money was the sign of success. That's what the society we lived in taught. She left our kids with me when they were about ten years old and went out to be successful as a school principal and a savvy investor. She had money, a great car and an impressive house. She had taught those values to our children.

She died of cancer at age 44, having spent her last year alone, at home, rarely receiving a visitor. Neither her children nor her business friends had anything more to gain from her, so they abandoned her. When she died, our daughter didn't even hold a funeral because she thought no one would come.

After their mother died, our children decided they wanted nothing more to do with me. They wanted money and I didn't have much. I didn't believe that money was the most important thing in life. They thought I was stupid. My daughter told her children--whom I was never allowed to see--that all their grandparents were dead. Only one was.

Sitting on a loading dock on a break from my first summer job at age 15, I overheard two men talking. One said to the other, "I never have conversations with young people under age 25. They never know enough to talk about." As I thought about that, I realized that he was right.

I had no skills or hobbies. I had learned nothing from books or newspapers. In fact, I could barely read. I didn't have friends I could learn from. My teachers repeatedly told my parents I was lazy. It never occurred to them that I couldn't read. It never occurred to them that I had a learning problem caused by restriction of blood flow to my brain at birth--I was born breech. I can think as well as anyone, but I do it slower and my capacity to learn at any one time is more limited than most.

I have a very mild form of cerebral palsy, undiagnosed until recently, as a result of that birth problem. When I went to school, every kid was either good, a trouble maker or lazy. My teachers had little trouble placing me in that third category. In reality, life in schools is little better for kids with problems today. "Special needs" is a category for kids with severe and fairly easily recognized problems.

I passed through high school without ever reading a book all the way through. I received a certificate after a three year course at college without ever having read a book all the way through. I passed through teachers college without having read a book all the way through.

I went to York University, in Toronto, and received my B.A. without ever reading a book all the way through. I received a Master of Education degree from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, at the University of Toronto, without ever having read a book all the way through.

That's survival. That shows how a person can learn to cope with challenges and problems if they learn how in time.

I also taught elementary school for 17 years, around the same period I was taking university courses. A few times the children I taught were reading books for reading assignments that I had not read myself. I was functionally illiterate. I didn't know that because no one had told me.

In fact, I was functionally illiterate until after I left teaching and had started my own business with my wife.

Although I had written long papers in my university and post graduate courses, most of what I wrote had come straight out of my head, not from books. I discovered how to snatch quotes from relevant texts without actually reading those books. I only started to learn how to write something that people other than professors would find interesting in the late 1990s.

In 2005, my book Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems was published. A social problem is any problem that is experienced by enough people in a community that it becomes a community problem. Like drugs, violence, addictions and so on.

I found solutions to problems most people believe are unsolvable, consequences of the way life is in the 21st Century. How? Because I wasn't tied to what others had written in books. Books by so-called experts who told how tragic social problems are but offered nothing in the way of solutions.

The solutions begin at home. They begin when each child is born. They begin when a child is taught what he or she needs to know, when they need to know it.

That begins when young adults know about children and how they develop. It begins when adolescents and young adults learn the skills of parenting.

That's the message I want to take to the world.

Here's one comment written a few days ago by a member of one of my internet groups, directed to me:

"During all these years as, member of the group had the I privilege evidence that you are extremely cultured and have an excellent text.

With you I learned an enormity of things. And reading your mensages I know sail that for all the areas of the knowledge."

That was written by a friend in Brazil, one I know as Maita. "Maita" in Portuguese, means "little mother."

Maita's real name is Maria Alice Baptista de Oliveira. That's Dr. Oliveira, a pediatrician with decades of experience at bringing babies into the world and teaching mothers how to look after them.

Maita is one of many people, some of whom are medical doctors, some professors, people in every field of life including factory workers, who live on six continents, who believe that there is a better way to raise children than most of us have been using over the past few thousands of generations.

It's a complex world we live in. A complex world creates complex problems. Those complex problems require solutions so complex they are unmanageable.

The only way to change anything is to prevent the problems from arising in the first place.

That's what Turning It Around is all about.

Until recently I have been experiencing stress--not at a controllable level but at a primal level beyond the control of my conscious brain--stress that has taken me to the edge of sanity and suicide. I have stepped back from that edge. I survived. Again.

Stress can be the cause of many physical diseases and organ failures. But it's also an effect. Stress results when a person lacks the emotional resources to cope with problems in their life. Knowledge about stress and the coping skills needed to avoid it are teachable. Teaching them is easy, cheap and would not meet any resistance because it helps whole communities.

I want to teach people the skills they need to cope with problems that seem insurmountable, that seem beyond their control. That begins with teaching children, right after they are born.

That's who I am. That's what I do. If you want to help spread the word, you are welcome to join us. It doesn't cost anything. All you have to do is talk to people. It's that easy. But nothing will change until we get enough people talking to each other about this.

Lots of people are talking about this, but it's a big world with lots of problems.

As adults we don't necessarily always learn from our experience. Some of us make the same mistakes over and over, causing ourselves and others around us a great deal of grief. However, life lessons we learned as children usually stay with us and shape our lives.

Teaching children what they need to know about life and coping with it are as important as learning to read and do arithmetic. We need to teach the children. They want to learn. They want to know about life.

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for teachers and parents who want to know what children need and when they need it, rather than what adults believe children should be forced to learn.
Learn more at