From: Peter Smagorinsky (
Date: Mon May 31 2004 - 06:26:03 PDT

As far as I can tell, Candace Pert makes similar points, though from a
different perspective.

At 02:42 PM 5/31/2004 +0200, you wrote:
>Peter, the Damasio is absolutely fascinating, and in an accord with what I
>have been recently reading.
>-----Original Message-----
>From: Peter Smagorinsky []
>Sent: Monday, May 31, 2004 11:35 AM
>Subject: SRCD
>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
>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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