Not unlike many media outlets, The New York Times recently reported about President Obama's call for "a multiyear research effort to produce an 'activity map' that would show in unprecedented detail the workings of the human brain."
George H.W.Bush made another presidential call for a study of the brain called "The Decade of the Brain." While the analogy may not be completely fair, what we already know after a decade or so is worth remembering and reemphasizing.
For example, artists or those trained in the arts are usually categorized as "right brained," a colloquialism that acknowledges the role of the right hemispheres of the brain. According to Dr. Ian McGilchrist, renowned neuroscientist and author of The Master and his Emissary:
evidence shows that the right hemisphere pays wide-open attention to the world, seeing the whole, whereas the left hemisphere is adept at focusing on a detail. New experience, whatever its kind, is better apprehended by the right hemisphere, whereas the predictable is better dealt with by the left.
According to other experts, "The left hemisphere of the human brain controls language, arguably our greatest mental attribute (while) the right hemisphere is dominant in the control of, among other things, our sense of how objects interrelate in space."
Unfortunately, we live in a "left brain world" says McGilchrist.
As a consequence, he argues, there is a:
Loss of the implicit damages our ability to convey, or even to see at all, aspects of ourselves and our world that transcend the mechanistic...In going all out for what we believe will be our own happiness, we exploit the world and see ourselves as alien to it, rather than seeing that our happiness depends on being part of it, and therefore on helping it to thrive. This is the world of the left hemisphere, ever keen on control.
It may seem hopeless to many therefore, to tilt at windmills and ask educators, politicians and policymakers to stop looking for just the right test or formula so we can be sure our young people are on the most competitive track. At the present -- and maybe for some time -- we need to say, "the tests really don't count." That's right. The right, as well as the left hemisphere cry out for nurturing and the future of America depends on reinventing the way we think, and in the process, how education is redefined. Frankly, the skills our students most need to acquire are not so easily tested.
Our success in a new economy demanding creativity and innovation will come from nurturing both hemispheres of the brain -- the whole brain -- working in tandem. Author and educator Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi calls such total emersion in a task FLOW...a " mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity."
Dr Richard Restak in his book, The New Brain uses the words "plastic" and "malleable" to describe the brain. He believes that we can be creative by acquiring the right series of "repertoires;" that we can "preselect the kind of brain (we) will have by choosing richly valued experiences." In short, he and many other neuroscientists are beginning to conclude that we all have the capacity to be creative.
The new Obama Initiative is to be applauded. But can we wait?
As we continue the downward spiral economically in constant search for the new jobs -- and the end of unemployment -- we really ought to consider that the new jobs haven't been invented yet, and we are not going to be the inventors unless we start turning out young people in the world who have the new thinking skills to imagine our future, and make it happen.