Education Reform

Darrell Moss: Pay Attention to Brain Research to Improve the Lives of Adolescents

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Darrell Moss became concerned about the number of adolescents who died in automobile accidents and began to research brain development. He is not an educator nor a medical expert, but he asked if he could share his findings.

He wrote the following.

To teachers,

This paper is not intended to tell any of you how to teach. It does, however, make recommendations of what I believe should be added to the curriculum of public education. How to teach them is your expertise.

In 2013 I asked: Why is there so much destructive, especially self-destructive adolescent behavior; is there anything we can do to curb it?

I went into my lab consisting of beakers of curiosity, common sense, contemplation, meditation, and one filled to the brim with hope. Eight years later, I say yes. After you have read my recommendations to improve preadolescent schooling that follow the results of my research, I hope you will too. Here, I am primarily concerned with automobile accidents, but its solution applies to all destructive behavior. Pertinent recent information tells us that self-driving cars probably won’t be available to the general public until the year 2050.

In a May 19th, 2021 issue of Globe and Mail, Jason Tchir quoted Kelly Funkhouser, head of connected and automated vehicles for Consumer Reports: “I’ve been saying for the last five years that self driving cars aren’t likely to be here before, I would guess, 2050. Anyone telling you it’s sooner than that is trying to sell you something, whether it’s a product or a dream.” Then, in a June 5, 2021 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Christopher Mims wrote: “In 2021 some experts aren’t sure when if ever, individuals will be able to purchase steering wheel-free cars that drive themselves off the lot.” He continues “In contrast to investors and CEO’s, academics who study artificial intelligence, systems engineering and autonomous technologies have long said that creating a fully self-driving automobile would take many years, perhaps decades.”

According to CDC statistics, we have lost 983,028 young people, ages 16-24, from automobile accidents since 1913; and for a narrower range, 255,452, ages 15-19, since 1975. (These include 2017) As I write, I will make passing remarks about other features of my book in progress: The Syllabus of Adulthood, a book responding to damage done to children when the earthquake caused by The Industrial Revolution shook apart the adult community–their syllabus of adulthood –leaving them without explicit examples of appropriate adult behavior to watch, reflect upon, simulate and copy.

As you can see, this leaves them with a gap in their ability to make executive function decisions which had guided them through puberty and early adolescence since the beginning of our species. Why is this important? Because it erupted into an increase in juvenile crime: Boston, for example, 1579 arrests in 1885, 4596 in 1904. Crime was measurable: per 100,000 population in 1895, 395; 1904, 766.

Less measurable, destructive behavior among adolescents began to seep into the lives of more and more families. What was it that until this revolution had protected our youth from anything more dangerous than the simple risk taking that evolution had selected for and conserved? What was the mechanism that translated watching and imitating appropriate adult behavior into a safe landing in adolescence?

We’ve all heard the advice, “set a good example for your kids”; most have heard about, “that little voice in the back of my head”; some have read Wordsworth’s sentence he used in a poem about watching the rainbow, “The child is father of the man”; my update The child is parent of the adult.

Enter the cerebellum, nestled below the occipital lobe of the cerebral cortex at the back of the head, likely home to all the above. Cerebellum takes up only ten percent of the brain’s total volume, yet holds between 70 and 80 percent of its 80-100 billion neurons. That should be some indication of its importance.

 Jeremy Schmahmann teaches at Harvard and heads the Ataxia Department at Massachusetts General Hospital:

I quote from a 2019 paper titled The Cerebellum and Cognition. He authored a book of the same title in 1997. “For almost 200 years the cerebellum has been regarded as engaged only in motor control. What it does to sensorimotor and vestibular control, it does to cognition, emotion, and autonomic function….the cerebellum maintains behavior around a homeostatic baseline, automatically without conscious awareness, informed by implicit learning, and performed according to context.”

“Automatically without conscious awareness” is the result of what are called internal models–copies of mental models of sensory processing in the cerebral cortex of the child, transferred to the cerebellar cortex where they are collected and stored, eventually to implicitly influence adolescent behavior.

In my correspondence with one of the leading cerebellum research scholars, Larry Vandervert, he replied to an email with the quote below commenting that it updates our understanding of the role of the cerebellum, even suggesting that I place it following the Schmahmann quote.

“Specifically, Van Overwalle, Manto, Leggio and Delgado-Garcia (2019) hypothesized how the cerebellum contributes to the process of making what is learned in such autobiographical knowledge automatic and intuitive:

 We hypothesize that the cerebellum acts as a “forward controller” of social, self-action and interaction sequences. We hypothesize that the cerebellum predicts how actions by the self and other people will be executed, what our most likely responses are to these actions, and what the typical sequence of these actions is. This function of forward controller allows people to anticipate, predict and understand actions by the self or other persons and their consequences for the self, to automatize these inferences for intuitive and rapid execution [italics added], and to instantly detect disruptions in action sequences. These are important social functions. Consequently, if neurological disorders affect the cerebellum, detrimental effects on social functionality might be found, especially on more complex and abstract social cognitive processes. The cerebellum would be a “forward controller” that not only constructs and predicts motor sequences, but also takes part in the construction of internal models that support social and self-cognition. In this respect, the cerebellum crucially adds to the fluent understanding of planned and observed social inter-actions and contributes to sequencing mechanisms that organize autobiographical knowledge. (p. 35) 

Van Overwalle F, Manto M, Leggio M, Delgado-García J. The sequencing process generated by the cerebellum crucially contributes to social interactions. Medical Hypotheses. 2019;128: 10.1016/j.mehy.2019.05.014.

Vandervert summarizes: “the cerebellum orchestrates the social self (autobiographical self) by which the person (young student) comes to know themselves (the good self and/or the bad self) in automatic cognitive ways and in their automatic responses to everyday situations.”

Leonard  Koziol et al, in a 2011 paper titled From Movement to Thought:  Executive Function, Embodied Cognition, and the Cerebellum. “Therefore a cerebellar internal model consists of all the dynamic sensory and motor processes necessary to perform a movement or behavior…The cerebellum learns through practice to perform operations faster and more accurately, which explains how a person is able to move skillfully and automatically after repeated practice.”

Thus it was the cerebellum, copying, accumulating, and inventorying for future use the imitating  activities–“repeated practice”–of the child observing the adult community, that enabled our ancestral children to ”move skillfully and automatically” through puberty and early adolescence absent the destructive behavior plaguing our teenagers.

Not surprising, Masao Ito, who for more than fifty years studied and made a computational model of the cerebellum described it as “A brain for an implicit self.”

For any of you who would like to pursue learning more about the cerebellum, I highly recommend the writings of Larry Vandervert, a retired college neuroscientist, now in private practice. He summarizes current, and past, research, then makes and writes about his own inferences that elegantly educate the reader.

You will read about the cerebellum’s role in sequence detection, leading to the phonological loop in working memory, then cause and effect, and problem solving and tool making, paving the way for our species’ evolution of culture and innovation; about context dependent internal models, while learning a skill and context independent internal models, having learned that skill. You will learn that when we have a problem to solve, and apply deep thinking to it, cerebellum blends internal models from its vast inventory of the past, sends them to the forebrain where eventually, intuition, insight, and creativity flash across the cortices. He teaches when he writes. Take advantage of learning from him.

Another excellent source is Christopher Bergland, author of The Athlete’s Way, writing superbly on a Psychology Today blog.

Applying implications of what we have learned about cerebellum to the eradication of destructive adolescent behavior as it applies to automobile accidents, using auto- simulators, we will begin driving lessons for youngsters at age 9 in fourth grade. By the time they receive their driving license at age 16, there will have been deposited in the cerebellum, thousands of internal models of proper and safe driving, which will prompt proper and safe driving by teenagers, making decisions automatically influenced by internal models from below the level of their conscious awareness. Having received the same training, peers will no longer goad and taunt destructive behavior. (The investment in auto-simulators will be repaid by money no longer spent on teen auto accidents, and should go first where they are needed the most).)

Metal-ripping, glass-shattering, blood- splattering, dream-squashing, life-taking automobile accidents will diminish to being strictly accidental. Risky behavior will become what evolution selected for and conserved, the means to discover one’s place in the hierarchy of the community plus, more importantly, attract and select a mate in order to pass one’s genes onto the next generation.

On another note: long lists of advice, currently necessary, given to teachers and parents by neuro-psychologists such as Lawrence Steinberg, imply a blank spot in executive function of the developing child. Defying common sense, it also implies that evolution would abandon young people during probably the most important stage of their lives.  The lists, however wise, are feeble substitute for the missing internal models in the developing teenager’s cerebellum, normally acquired from the once stable child’s adult community, and intended to provide the protection of implicit persuasion guiding executive function decisions while acquiring his/her own.

My book, The Syllabus of Adulthood, will include chapters, each stating a different destructive behavior, such as unwanted pregnancy, for example, with a solution that involves recommended changes in elementary school. Changes that will begin building desirable internal models in the cerebellum that will, in this case, unconsciously discourage unprotected sexual activity during adolescence.

Too, I have devised a system which will determine students’ aptitudes and most likely interests by the time they are 16. Aptitudes stabilize at age 14. It involves viewing career videos; writing their impression and reading it to the class; and in later grades reporting it to the class without prompts, getting them comfortable towards public speaking.

Professionals will design the videos, including an expert in what new careers will be 50 years from now. By sixth grade, a teacher will have a good idea which videos to show which student. Beginning in sixth grade students will go to library and view only those their teacher has selected. The end result will leave students exiting the cocoon of adolescence for that first glimpse in Jeffrey Arnett’s brilliantly illuminated mirror of “Emerging Adulthood” (Second edition, Oxford University, 2015), boasting a greater confidence than they have now of what the future holds, including selecting a major in college.

A friend I met on the internet, Kathryn Asbury, co-author of G is For Genes, who teaches at York College in England, after discussing my system with her, asked her class of college students if they would have benefited from such a program.  They all raised their hands.

To repeat: The Industrial Revolution shook apart the child’s syllabus of adulthood from which to watch, reflect, simulate, and copy appropriate habits, tasks, skills, and behavior. Fathers, some mothers, older sibling, aunts, uncles answered job demands from industry, leaving children, in too many instances, mostly in working families, to fend for themselves.

A substitute for parental absence was and is needed to prepare them for puberty and adolescence. One that will give them explicit examples they no longer see in the absent adult community, that copy as internal models in the cerebellum, providing, implicit, unconscious automatic persuasion, effecting appropriate behavior in adolescence.

That substitute is public education. We need to add programs providing protective cerebellar internal models in elementary school as adjunct to currently taught traits, such as honesty, civility, personal responsibility, patriotism, courage, obedience, empathy, that, too often, no matter how well learned, tragically, still leave students vulnerable to the predators of destructive adolescent behavior.

We need these traits, but we also need what I call the skills of adulthood, skills needed in order to apply them when making appropriate adult decisions. Teaching driving lessons in fourth grade is the teaching of a skill of adulthood. Being able to apply personal responsibility in not getting pregnant is a skill of adulthood. Having the courage to admit addiction and seeking help is a skill of adulthood.

Utilizing what we have learned about the cerebellum in curbing destructive adolescent behavior provides me the answer to my question: Can we do anything to curb it? That answer is yes. I hope you will agree.

Darrell Moss

Moses Lake, Washington

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