Saturday, March 13, 2010

Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience and Judaism

[Warning: written very haphazardly.]

As usual, I was listing to an instalment of the Speaking of Faith podcast recently. It's definitely one of the best things on air today. I'd recommend it to anyone, by the way. If you've never heard of it, it's basically this mindful Irishwoman (Krista Tippett) interviewing people from all corners of the religious world.

Anyway, in this particular program, she was interviewing Adele Diamond, a wise Jewess, who, apropos to a short discussion I had over at Chana's blog, is actually a student and admirer of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. She kind of created a new field of neuroscience called "Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience", which is the result of groundbreaking research which suggests that things like play, social interactions and even inhibition are key components of childhood learning and continued mental health.

One of the first things she said that got my interest was her theory that play is an essential part of the learning process, as it embodies a form of dramatization. And one important aspect of drama is the fact that all the participants must stick to their parts if it's meant to work out. That just served to feed into this linguistic issue surrounding the word for play in Hebrew; the word for the play of children and the word for actors in a dramatic production are one and the same in Hebrew "לשחק", "שחקן". Which is also the word for smiling (in a more antiquated usage). This is significant to me since I used to feel that play was just a necessary evil in the course of childhood, but had no intrinsic value. Now I've learned that it's equivalent to drama, and that it's very important for a child's health, happiness and even spiritual and moral well-being, since it's an early form of discipline (no matter what game you're playing, you still have to stick to your "part").

Another point is memorization: in the modern educational climate rote memorization is frowned upon, yet according to her, it has many redeeming qualities, among them the aforementioned discipline the mind gains from forcing itself to learn a specific set of information by heart. This has to do with Judaism since there is a time-honored tradition of Talmud-memorization among the Jews.

It also made me rethink the importance of studying anthropology in general. Diamond originally felt her research was only being done from a Western standpoint, so she traveled to the South Pacific to study learning among children in an environment that was not affected by Western society. It just got me thinking about how the study of backwards peoples can help us understand what is intrinsically "human" about all of us. It's important to know what qualities all humans share on the most basic level, which is why it can also be instructional to study the behavior of animals, to learn how much they have in common with us, since, in that case, there's nothing particularly "human" about those behaviors. All of this is important to know when trying to reach the level of self awareness necessary to serve G-d properly...


kisarita said...

sounds likek a great site and a worthwhile scholar to check out

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

Both true! It's all very applicable to Jewish thought..