From: Peter Smagorinsky (
Date: Mon May 31 2004 - 02:34:45 PDT

At 08:03 AM 5/27/2004 -0700, Mike wrote:
The deadline for proposals for SRCD (Society for Research in Child
Development) is July 9.
I am interested in attending and in organizing a symposium. Here are some
topics I would like to address.
What's the role of biology in the Cultural Psychology of Development.

Mike sent this inquiry yesterday. As a preface--I'm not attending this
conference, so am not offering the following as a program topic. But Mike's
question does coincide with something I'm currently working on, which I'd
like to put out there for the group to consider.

Caveat #2: I know next-to-nothing about brain research, so my comments
should be taken as efforts to understand something I'm just learning about.

OK. Presently I'm working on 2 things that have coincidentally crossed
paths. One is the conclusion to the book I'm completing with Joel Taxel,
The Discourse of Character Education, which we hope to send off to Erlbaum
soon. The other is a dissertation by one of my doctoral students at UGA,
Leslie Susan Cook, who will begin as an assistant professor at U. of North
Carolina-Charlotte next fall.

In our character education study we contrast two conceptions of character
education, one of which focuses on bad kids and the need to remediate them
through the inculcation of character traits--honesty, responsibility, etc.
The other focuses more on the environment of the school and tries to make
it a more democratic and inclusive place. Meanwhile, Leslie is looking at
adolescent girls diagnosed with depression, focusing on the mediational
tools through which they internalize images of themselves and in turn
construct narratives about their lives.

Kids with mental health problems are at great risk in school because they
have non-normative makeups (difference is generally not an asset socially
or academically in our schools) and because kids taunt them over their
different outlooks and behaviors. The schools don't have the resources to
learn about and work with these kids, so they end up getting put in special
education, or disciplined because they think and act in ways outside what's
expected as normative and occasionally lash out at those who tease and
bully them. Many character education programs measure success by declines
in discipline measures--and so, from this perspective, the problem is that
these kids have low character.

Leslie has come across the work of Antonio Damasio, who studies the brain.
He argues that changes in the environment actually change how brains work;
that brains encode representations differently in response to changes in
the setting. From a character ed standpoint, especially with respect to
mental health, this work strongly supports the idea that a character
education initiative ought to focus on the climate, not the bad kid--a
healthier environment can contribute to healthier kids.

I also see this intersection as fitting with Mike's interest in the
relation between cultural and biological development.

I'll paste in 2 things below. First is a review of the book of Damasio's
that Leslie and I refer to (the publication date should be 1994, I think).
The second is the part of the conclusion to our book where we address this
issue. Response to our own effort to synthesize these various ideas is
welcome. thanks, Peter

Antonio Damasio:
DESCARTES' ERROR (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995)
(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

Damasio is trying to build a neurobiology of rationality. In this book he
provides a neurophysiological analysis of memory, emotions and consciousness.
The book has three themes. 1. Human reason depends on the interaction among
several brain systems rather than on a single brain centre. 2. Feelings are
views of the body's internal organs. Feelings are percepts and they are as
cognitive as any other percept. 3. The mind is about the body: the neural
processes that are experienced as the mind are about the representation of
the body in the brain. The mental requires the existence of a body for more
than mere support: the mind is not a phenomenon of the brain alone. The
mind derives from the entire organism as a whole. The mind reflects two
types of interaction: between the body and the brain, and between them and
the environment.
The neural basis for the self resides with the continous reactivation of 1.
the individual's past experience (which provides the individual's sense of
identity) and 2. a representation of the individual's body (which provides
the individual's sense of a whole). The self is continously reconstructed.
This is a purely non-verbal process: language is not a prerequisite for
consciousness. Nonetheless, language is the source of the "I", a second
order narrative capacity. Damasio's "embodied mind" is closely related to
Edelman's "self imbued with value".
Damasio's theory of convergence zones (not presented in this book) is
tackling the issue of consciousness. When an image enters the brain via the
visual cortex, it is channelled through "convergence zones" in the brain
until it is identified. Each convergence zone handles a category of objects
(faces, animals, trees, etc): a convergence zone does not store permanent
memories of words and concepts but helps reconstructing them. Once the
image has been identified, an acoustical pattern corresponding to the image
is constructed by another area of the brain. Finally an articulatory
pattern is constructed so that the word that the image represents can be
spoken. There are about twenty known categories that the brain uses to
organize knowledge: fruits/vegetables, plants, animals, body parts, colors,
numbers, letters, nouns, verbs, proper names, faces, facial expressions,
emotions, sounds.
"Convergence zones" are indexes that draw information from other areas of
the brain. The memory of something is stored in bits at the back of the
brain (near the gateways of the senses): features are recognized and
combined and an index of these features is formed and stored. When the
brain needs to bring back the memory of something, it will follow the
instructions in that index, recover all the features and link them to other
associated categories. As information is processed, moving from station to
station through the brain, each station creates new connections reaching
back to the earlier levels of processing. These connections always allows
the brain to work in reverse. Convergence zones may be common to all
individuals or different from individual to individual, based on experience.
Emotions are the brain's interpretation of reactions to changes in the
world. Emotional memories involving fear can never be erased The prefrontal
cortex, amygdala and right cerebral cortex form a system for reasoning that
gives rise to emotions and feelings. The prefrontal cortex and the amygdala
process a visual stimulus by comparing it with previous experience and
generate a response that is transmitted both to the body and to the back of
the brain.
Convergence zones are organized in a hierarchy: lower convergence zones
pass information to higher convergence zones. Lower zones select relevant
details from sensorial information and send summaries to higher zones,
which successively refine and integrate the information. In order to be
conscious of something a higher convergence zone must retrieve from the
lower convergence zones all the sensory fragments that are related to that
something. Therefore, consciousness occurs when the higher convergence
zones fire signals back to lower convergence zones.

In this book Damasio formulated the "somatic-marker hypothesis", but it was
barely sketched. It will be refined as follows in following writings.
Briefly stated, the only thing that matters is what goes on in the brain.
The brain maintains a representation of what is going on in the body. A
change in the environment may result in a change in the body. This is
immediately reflected in the brain's representation of the body state. The
brain also creates associations between body states and emotions. Finally,
the brain makes decisions by using these associations, whether in
conjunction or not with reasoning.
The brain evolved over millions of years for a purpose: it was advantageous
to have an organ that could monitor, integrate and regulate all the other
organs of the organism. The brain's original purpose was, therefore, to
manage the wealth of signals that represent the state of the body ("soma"),
signals that come mainly from the inner organs and from muscles and skin.
That function is still there, although the brain has evolved many other
functions (in particular, for reasoning). Damasio has identified a region
of the brain (in the right, "non-dominant" hemisphere) that could be the
place where the representation of the body state is maintained. At least,
Damasio's experiments show that, when the region is severely damaged
(usually after a stroke), the person loses awareness of the left side of
the body.
The brain links the body changes with the emotion that accompanies it. For
example, the image of a tiger with the emotion of fear. By using both
inputs, the brain constructs new representations that encode perceptual
information and the body state that occurred soon afterwards. Eventually,
the image of a tiger and the emotion of fear, as they keep occurring
together, get linked in one brain event. The brain stores the association
between the body state and the emotional reaction. That association is a
"somatic marker".
Somatic markers are the repertory of emotional learning that we have
acquired throughout our lives and that we use for our daily decisions. The
somatic marker records emotional reactions to situations. Former emotional
reactions to similar past situations is just what the brain uses to reduce
the number of possible choices and rapidly select one course of action.
There is an internal preference system in the brain that is inherently
biased to seek pleasure and avoid pain. When a similar situation occurs
again, an "automatic reaction" is triggered by the associated emotion: if
the emotion is positive, like pleasure, then the reaction is to favor the
situation; if the emotion is negative, like pain or fear, then the reaction
is to avoid the situation. The somatic marker works as an alarm bell,
either steering us away from choices that experience warns us against or
steering us towards choices that experience makes us long for. When the
decision is made, we do not necessarily recall the specific experiences
that contributed to form the positive or negative feeling.
In philosophical terms, a somatic marker plays the role of both belief and
desire. In biological terms, somatic markers help rank "qualitatively" a
In other words, the brain is subject to a sort of "emotional conditioning".
Once the brain has "learned" what the emotion associated to a situation,
the emotion will influence any decision related to that situation. The
brain areas that monitor body changes begin to respond automatically
whenever a similar situation arises.
It is a popular belief that emotion must be constrained because it is
irrational: too much emotion leads to "irrational" behavior. Instead,
Damasio shows that a number of brain-damage cases in which a reduction in
emotionality was the cause for "irrational" behaviour.
Somatic markers help make "rational" decisions, and help making them
quickly. Emotion, far from being a biological oddity, is actually an
integral part of cognition. Reasoning and emotions are not separate: in
fact, they cooperate.
Damasio believes that the brain structures responsible for emotion and the
ones responsible for reason partially overlap, and this fact lends
physical, neural evidence to his hypothesis that emotion and reason
cooperate. Those brain structures also communicate directly with the rest
of the body, and this suggests the importance of their operations for the
organism's survival.

Mental Health and Character Education
We have briefly expressed our concern that the issue of mental health is
virtually absent from discussions about character education. Yet many
students who come to school with a mental health problems are treated as
discipline problems of the sort measured as indexes of low character in the
proposals we have studied. We believe that it is important for any
character education initiative to recognize and account for mental health
in its conception of good character, both for those with nonnormative
makeups and those with whom they interact.
Mental health is the elephant in the character education closet. The World
Health Organization (2001) reports that about 7.5 million children in the
U. S.12% of all children under 18have mental disorders, nearly half of
which lead to serious disability. Jamison (1997) found that 20% of high
school students had seriously considered committing suicide during the year
prior to his study, with most having drawn up a suicide plan; suicide is
the #3 cause of death of teenagers between 15 and 19 years of age, often
following from a depressive disorder. Yet most parents and teachers feel
that mental health issues are poorly addressed in schools (Dowling & Pound,
1994; Rappaport & Carolla, 1999), many teachers have little understanding
of how to recognize or respond to students with mental health problems
(Madison, 1996), and only recently has mental health been identified as a
reason to develop an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for students.
These widespread misunderstandings have resulted in many such students
being regarded as troublesome or lacking character in schools. Yet, as
reporter Anne Imse (1999) wrote following the Columbine school shooting
Even teens as dangerously troubled as Eric Harris stand a good chance of
slipping through the cracks in Jefferson County and across Colorado,
failing to get badly needed mental health care. There are serious
roadblocks to getting treatment for sick kids [including]
· State prohibitions against law enforcement agencies telling schools about
a problem kid unless there's a conviction;
· Schools worrying about being saddled with psychiatric bills if they
recommend treatment, or even being sued;
· Not enough money earmarked for counselors and counseling for the state's
So, even though Jefferson County school officials have become more
sensitive to kids' mental states . . . they remain hamstrung about
arranging treatment. "We have no place to go with them," said Clark
Bencomo, a counselor at Green Mountain High School. "All we can do is
suspend or expel." "We are oftentimes reduced to putting a kid in a place
where they're safe, but it's not the right program," added Kay Cessna,
intervention services director for Jefferson County schools. "There are not
enough places." [One parent of a child with disabilities complained], "They
don't have the time, the manpower, and they don't get it."
Cook (2004) finds this problem occurring in other states as well, reporting
that students with mental health problems are often put in special
education programs or disciplined when they act out, either as a
consequence of their makeup (e.g., a child with Tourette’s syndrome’s
involuntary profanity) or in response to the taunting they face from their
Yet a mental health professional would surely argue that the problem is not
a lack of character and the solution is not to punish students with mental
health problems. Rather, a broader understanding of mental health among
students and facultythe sort of attention to climate we found in the states
from the Upper Midwestwould contribute to a more sympathetic and less
punitive environment for such students in school. Indeed, Damasio (1994)
argues in his somatic-marker theory against the classic Cartesian mind/body
binary, instead positing that brain and body are integrally related not
just to one another but to the environment. A change in the environment, he
finds, may contribute to changes in how one processes new information; that
is, in response to developments in the surroundings, the brain will encode
new kinds of representations of perceptions.
Conceivably, then, changes in school climate can contribute to the
emotional well-being of students whose mental makeup falls outside the
normal range. The therapy for such students is still widely debated. While
medication and counseling have benefited many with nonnormative makeups in
their relationships with others, the medical model has been criticized
because it assumes that a normative mental state is best for all. This
criticism frequently comes up in debates about whether medications for
Attention Deficit Disorder are prescribed too often for any students who
have difficulty focusing in school. Some argue that prescribing such
medications is designed more to increase the comfort levels of those around
such students than to help those students themselves.
The jury is still out concerning the question of whether people with such
diagnoses are sick and in need of medicine. Cook (2004) argues that relying
simply on medication and counseling is inadequate; that a broader
environmental change that enables an understanding and tolerance of
difference, and gives young people tools for managing their difference, is
essential to helping young people construct positive lives for themselves
and in turn contribute to a more humane society. Taking a punitive approach
to difference, she argues, is regressive and only makes life more fragile
for those characterized as different and more emotionally and cognitively
unhealthy for those who surround them.

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