Only Brains Innocent of Sex Hormones Can Learn??

14 07 2008

“Shortening childhood means a shortening of the time before the brain’s complete re-sculpting occurs,” says [ecologist Sandra] Steingraber. “Once that happens, the brain doesn’t allow for complex learning.”
She adds that the brain can only build the connections used to learn a language, play a musical instrument or ride a bike before it gets flooded with the sex hormones that come with the onset of puberty.

Cock of the Snook to this blog for printing Steingraber’s learning science, but not for just swallowing it whole without even chewing on it a little . . .don’t see a citation though surely she got this idea somewhere, and she might even have impeccable sources that would make me think twice. Without that to go on, I can mock it freeform without qualm. 🙂

So she’s ecologist and mom but not a cognitive psychologist, right? — nor can she speak from experience (yet) as a mother of children who’ve actually arrived at puberty, early or any other way, only to be tragically rendered learning disabled due to this mind-addling sex hormone flood (??)

And if puberty really makes complex learning impossible, why don’t we just cancel school beyond age 10 or 11 (never mind college and grad school!) and save ourselves all the taxes and grief? Is she writing a book advocating that, now that her chemically protected, television-untouched tykes are in School all day learning only goddess knows what?

I guess we all ride our own hobby horses. For me it’s so obviously our Tyranny of Time — you know, SCHOOL and its associated SLEEP DEPRIVATION causing so many of our culture’s interconnected education, family, social and health pathologies. (More on sleep research messing with learning here.) Funny to read in her own words, that this oh-so-careful mother of an ecologist isn’t bothering to create an alternate ecology for her own children healthier than School.

Probably I should go back to the Teresa Heinz Kerry blog tour collection and see what we can spring forward with . . . more on that here, thinking about the “body burden” we put on women and children and also here, about educating our own “parents’ palate” to help improve the health of learning environments at home and school.

UPDATE – I just decided this would make a provocative response for this fortnight’s Thinking Parent essay: “Does Every Child Need to Go to College?”

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17 responses

14 07 2008
Obi-Mom Kenobi

Not only did I learn two foreign languages well after the age of 20, but I learned to snowboard and wakeboard in my mid-30s and picked up the piano at almost 40. If I’d know that it was impossible, I wouldn’t have put forth so much time, effort and interest. What a dolt I must be.

PS – The kids next door would like to vote for canceling school attendance after the age of 10, most definitely.

14 07 2008
JJ

Well, I hate to be the one to seem indelicate but — were you ever fully bathed in sex hormones? 😉

14 07 2008
Crimson Wife

I seem to remember from the cognitive psych classes I took in college that there is in fact something to the idea of a “critical learning period” for languages that ends at puberty. It’s not that someone *CAN’T* learn another language as a teen or adult (millions of us can and do) but that it’s significantly more difficult, especially when it comes to the accent.

On the other hand, puberty brings neurological changes that make certain other types of learning easier, especially things that require a high level of abstract thinking like algebra. So there’s a trade-off from a cognitive developmental standpoint.

14 07 2008
Life On The Planet

The only hormone my brain is soaked in is the CHOCOLATE hormone.

I guess my neurons are good to go?

14 07 2008
JJ

Clever LOTP, using chocolate as sex hormone antidote to keep your wits about you . . .

15 07 2008
JJ

John Holt’s book “Never Too Late” tells of him taking up the cello fulltime in his forties, semi-professionally. Again, not to seem indelicate but does this ecologist’s educationese therefore have the logical effect of disparaging the Father of Homeschooling as some kind of sexless innocent on whom puberty never descended?

“Choose Nine Books for Your Gift Box”. . .my nine books-in-a-box in no particular order are. . .John Holt’s “Never Too Late” because it keeps us parents humble as learners instead of letting us kid ourselves that we’re teachers. His late-life love affair with the cello was my late-life flirtation with the alto saxophone . . .

And btw, political frames — including but not limited to everything we discuss about learning and home education — use ordinary words in subliminal ways to trigger reflexive hopes and fears in adults, and by relentless repetition RESHAPE OUR ACTUAL BRAINS without our knowledge or consent. It’s done behind the scenes of our own life story as we live it, with no accountability. Surely that’s evidence of complex learning past puberty, of how collective power of story delivered through the culture is more universal and more effectively “public education” — teaching the public what to think — than our school systems ever accomplish for kids.

In Freedom and Beyond (1972), Holt openly questioned and analyzed the free school movement, and in particular what educators really mean when they use the words freedom, discipline, authority, and choice. Most importantly, it is in this book that Holt decides that bringing more freedom into the classroom is not the solution to educational problems; he recasts the problem as a social one rather than a technical one. He writes:

“People, even children, are educated much more by the whole society around them and the general quality of life in it than they are by what happens in schools. The dream of many school people, that schools can be places where virtue is preserved and passed on in a world otherwise empty of it, now seems to me a sad and dangerous illusion. It might have worked in the Middle Ages; it can’t work in a world of cars, jets, TV, and the mass media…. The beyond in the title Freedom and Beyond means, therefore, that we must look beyond the question of reforming schools and at the larger question of schools and schooling itself. Can they do all the things we ask them to do? Are they the best means of doing it? What might be other or better ways?” (Freedom and Beyond, p. 4)

And unfortunately our post-pubescent hormones offer no protection against this constant reshaping of our brains through cultural authority!

The only thing that can protect us is taking charge of the reshaping ourselves, not leaving unexamined “authority” in charge, to tell us what we think and believe and what we’ll do or not do, like the Manchurian Candidate, which I plan to rant about in another comment thread today. That power of story purports to teach post-pubescent Americans not only about communist brain reshaping but also the life-and-death dangers of “megalomaniacal motherhood.” What complex frames to think and learn more about! Hmmm, I feel a self-righteous rant coming on, hope my poor motherhood-addled female brain might regain some semblance of learning aptitude in my menopausal future? 👿

15 07 2008
Nance Confer

I was just thinking that! Old broads are smarter. Just look at us! 🙂

Nance

15 07 2008
JJ

[smirking] Favorite Daughter and I watched Fareed Zakaria’s interview with Barack Obama Sunday and after that, he interviewed three “economists” about our current state of affairs. One of the three was Lawrence Summers, remember Nance? You and I ranted about him a few years back when as Harvard’s president, he blithely pronounced his brilliant women scientists and professors rightly second-class because of their biology (including no doubt their hormones??)

Anyway, an expletive escaped my lips and FavD naturally wanted to know what I knew, and then that’s the frame through which we listened to the guy. He was Bill Clinton’s secretary of the treasury, did you realize that? (I hadn’t.) Two smart men who are pretty stupid about smart women, it seems.

So because I now harbor a very solid frame of thought about BC’s lifelong, mother-muddled subconscious disregard for the Feminine, I told FavD it made perfect sense to me that Larry Summers shared that same attitude, and probably it just reinforced the seeming rightness of the whole men-think-better story in his brain, when smart female professors went ballistic on him . . .

15 07 2008
Dawn

Crimson Wife – I think I’d heard similar things. Regardless, drawing conclusions that are as damning as Steingraber’s seems irresponsible and sloppy. Brain development is such a complicated subject and I’m willing to bet there are few people in the actual field who would make such claims. There’s nothing in her background to suggest that she’s qualified to reach the conclusion she did and it was irresponsible to present her claim as a settled matter.

15 07 2008
Dawn

Does Elisheva from Ragamuffin Studies read this blog? I bet she’d have something to say on this.

15 07 2008
Nance Confer

“Anyway, an expletive escaped my lips . . .”

***

Shocking! 🙂

Nance

15 07 2008
JJ

Hi Dawn, I don’t believe I know Elisheva, but please do invite her over to take a look and weigh in. 🙂

15 07 2008
Obi-Mom Kenobi

“were you ever fully bathed in sex hormones?”

Fully bathed? BaaHaaHaa. I think I must swim in them on a regular basis. 😉

15 07 2008
Elisheva Levin

It’s interesting that Steingraber said what she said, but it’s simply not true. At least in the sense that it appears above. I will have to read her whole piece to get context, I suppose.

There do seem to be critical periods for developing certain neural systems–such as the ability to see certain shapes–but the brain is plastic (we call it neuroplasticity), and the old saw about use it or lose it is true of dedicated neural nets. Or to put it in more neurological terms–the neurons that fire together, wire together. Complex learning continues for a lifetime, and although the flood of sex hormones can interfere with learning and memory temporarily, so can the absense of sex hormones. (Thing of that mushy mommy brain when the hormones drop suddenly after childbirth, or think of your brain on that certain day of the month). It is thought that rather than the presence or absence of certain hormones (which can act as neurotransmitters), it is sudden changes in amounts that can wreak havoc on the system–temporarily.
So guys, the next time your woman gets that manaical look on her face and says: My nerves really can’t take that right now! Believe her.

FYI–Sandra Steingraber and I actually attended the same university, Illinois Wesleyan, though I did not know her–and maybe we were not there at the same time. We both also had bouts of cancer that probably have their origins in the estrogen imitator chemicals used as herbicides in those central Illinois cornfields. Interesting parallels.

Anyway, a very good book about neuroplasticity for the lay reader is: The Brain That Changes Itself by Dodge.

Hmmm. Swimming in sex hormones. Now there’s an idea.

16 07 2008
Deborah

That’s what I was told when I took up the violin at the age of almost 14. In fact, none of the “professional” teachers in town were interested in having me as a student. I was stupid enough to believe that I’d passed the age for optimal musical development, and I didn’t practrice as thoroughly as I would have if I hadn’t been told (more than once) that learning violin at such an advanced age was a lost cause. Since that time I’ve seen many counterexamples, both in my own life, and in the lives of others, and though I’m not a world-class violist, I can play as well as many of my musical peers who started musical study at a much earlier age. In fact, I became strikingly better as a 40-something adult, and I know others who have followed the same trajectory. I think Steingraber’s comment is unfortunate on a lot of different levels: it’s discouraging to people who didn’t start something like music or language study “early enough”, it lends credence to those who don’t want to “waste” time teaching a skill to someone “too old”, and it leads parents to force certain subjects on their children at an early age, lest a child miss some “window of opportunity”. I can speak with some authority on this: I started my first child on violin at the age of almost four, and part of our homeschool for years was daily violin practice, hundreds and hundred of hours of practice. I was reluctant to go through the same process with child number two, so I gave her access to a violin, which she learned to play a little, by watching me teach, and then arranged for her to have saxophone lessons when she got big enough to play an alto sax. She was twelve then. Guess which kid is a really good sax player and a not bad traditional fiddle player? Guess which kid touches his violin maybe once a year?

16 07 2008
Nance Confer

The Brain That Changes Itself by Dodge.

***

At first, I read this as the brain dodging something in order to change but now I see. . . maybe I really am old. 🙂

But the local library has the book, so I’ve requested it. Someone else has the nerve to be reading it now!

Nance

16 07 2008
JJ

The way Deborah puts it could’ve saved me going on and on about it! 🙂
“I think Steingraber’s comment is unfortunate on a lot of different levels. . .”

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