This week on Britain’s Channel 4 television John Snow was the presenter of a fascinating programme on the drug ‘Ecstacy‘. It was in the format of a controlled scientific investigation, which used selected volunteers, and was run by very eminent scientists. Several points came out of it for me, having thought about the programme at some length:
1. When it was first discovered, this drug was given the name ‘Empathy‘.
2. This drug causes the brain to manufacture large quantities of the hormone seratonin, a substance which is essential for the transmission of signals through neural connections and neural networks. (I first began to understand how vital seratonin is to the human body when my mum began her recovery from depression thanks to the proper regulation of her seratonin levels. With low levels of seratonin it is impossible to feel joy or even contentment.)
3. High levels of seratonin promote intense feelings of empathy, which is the key component of ‘social intelligence’. Intense empathy can make us feel a true sense of wonderment and indeed awe at the beauty and complexity of human beings, and of life itself.
4. Intense empathy can even make us feel “as one” with all living things, and indeed the entire universe. This is the source of ‘ecstatic’ spiritual (and what some call ‘religious’) feelings.
5. The key issue for educationalists, including parents, is for us to ensure that children and young people have the right kinds of experiences that promote the production of seratonin. This becomes a crucial issue if we are responsible for children who are withdrawn, anti-social, switched off, joyless and possibly depressed.
6. Clearly no-one should advocate the boosting of seratonin through the use of drugs – so we need to be aware of which sorts of experiences boost seratonin levels naturally and non-synthetically. We know we’re getting it right when withdrawn children become animated, outgoing, joyful, playful and able to experience laughter.
7. Since there are too many schools which are for the most part joyless results factories – and many schools have been these kinds of places since Dickensian times – then whose responsibility is it to ensure that children and young people are exposed to positive, life-enhancing, seratonin-producing experiences?
8. Those of us who have been with our own children, or the children we teach, and seen them responding ecstatically to the sun, the sea, a lake, a river, a sandy beach, a mountain or a hill top, a forest, a beautiful garden, and so on – we understand what a joy it is to see a look of absolute happiness on a child’s face.
9. We need to keep in mind what a privilege it is to be able to take responsibility for creating those sorts of experiences. We must also keep in mind our responsibility if we fail to provide those experiences.
10. No teacher is exempt from this. There is beauty, awe and wonder in maths, art, science, literature, poetry, technology, music, dance, drama, athletics, gymnastics, and so on. Even soccer/football! No teacher should be able to (or even have any desire to) think of their ‘subject’ as dull and dreary. No teacher should make a child’s life (or their learning) dull and dreary.
11. Learning and living can be FUN. Not always, but often enough to keep up the production of seratonin.
12. Parents and teachers need to make a special effort to have fun themselves – at least from time to time. No-one who has responsibility for children should allow themselves to be dull, joyless and miserable when they are around children. At the very least professionals need to maintain a facade of neutrality, and if they can’t manage that then they need to seek help for themselves. Sadly, far too many professionals in education and other public services have had the joy they initially felt in their work squeezed out of them by relentless pressure and absurd workloads. Every citizen needs to accept some responsibility for this, and ought to be prepared to stand up and be counted if they really care about schools, teachers and children. We need a saner world where empathy, joy and gladness are the norm, not the exception.