The lost art of joy – Learning

Solomon wrote: “Of the making of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness unto the flesh”.

I loved that verse when I was at school. It was utilised more than once when my teachers wanted to give us more homework – “But, sir, the Bible says that too much homework is bad for you.” Not that my teachers cared, they just gave me more homework anyway.

Much study may be a weariness unto the flesh, but some study is actually very beneficial. Learning helps to promote joy, and joy helps to promote learning.

It’s been shown that learning is much easier when there’s joy involved. Co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, Dr David Rock said,

“Engagement is a state of being willing to do difficult things, to take risks, to think deeply about issues and develop new solutions … Interest, happiness, joy, and desire are approach emotions. This state is one of increased dopamine levels, important for interest and learning.”

and

“There is a large and growing body of research which indicates that people experiencing positive emotions perceive more options when trying to solve problems, solve more non-linear problems that require insight, [and they] collaborate better and generally perform better overall.”

This makes sense. According to the classical psychology principle of the Yerkes-Dodson law, optimal task performance occurs at an intermediate level of arousal, with relatively poorer performance at both lower and higher arousal levels. Too much stress (anxiety) or not enough stress (boredom) results in reduced performance. When someone is happy and engaged, their learning is at its optimum level.

But while it’s true that happiness and engagement create the optimal conditions for learning, it’s also true that learning created a sense of joy.

Learning new things is stimulating. Exposure to new information makes the brain work harder. We are very predictive creatures, and our brain has adapted to be predictive because it’s the most efficient way of processing the vast amount of information that we come across each day. After a while of being exposed to the same stimuli, our brains get a bit lazy. There’s no need to grow new branches and our brains become a bit stagnant. There’s no stimulation, so there’s no dopamine rush. We just get into our rut. But being exposed to new experiences, to new stimuli, is invigorating. Our brain can not longer rely on the same old predictive pathways, and new parts of the brain need to be engaged to process all of the different things we’re being exposed to. The dopamine cloud that comes from all of the novel stimuli is quite euphoric.

Learning something new helps our brain to stay supple. The brain is like a muscle – the only way to keep it flexible and strong is to exercise it. By constantly providing stimulation, our brain can better cope when unexpected events occur, because we’re already used to novel challenges. It helps us stay resilient by improving our psychological flexibility.

Learning something new can also give us a sense of accomplishment which is always good for our self-esteem and self-confidence.

There are many ways to learn new things – read new books, or if you’re not the reading type, find some interesting, factual documentaries. A great way of stimulating your brain is to learn a second language, which also gives you a great excuse to do the other thing that helps to grow your brain and your joy, which is to travel to a different country. Trying to speak a new language in a foreign country will really give your brain a workout, which may seem very daunting at first, but will help you grow immensely. You can also learn a new skill like craft, or a musical instrument. Your learning doesn’t just have to be about yourself – learn to juggle or make balloon animals, and use those skills to entertain people, or put a smile on a child’s face. That way the joy is shared through learning and giving.

Just remember your values when deciding what you would like to learn so that your learning is in step with your authentic self and enriches your life. And make sure you keep your work and life in balance as you carve out time to learn something new, all that study doesn’t become a weariness unto the flesh.

Let boys be non-stigmatised boys

Boys will be boys ...

“When I was a boy …”

Many a stirring yarn has been started with those exact words, as aging men relive their childhood adventures with sentimental grandiosity increasingly taking over from detail as each passing year blends in with the blur of distant memories.

Ps Greg Gibson wrote an article that caught my attention as it floated across my Facebook feed last night.  Gibson is a pastor in Knoxville, Tennessee.  His “when I was a boy” story recalled his happy times as an energetic child, a serene innocence punctuated by two years of Ritalin-induced misery.

His point: “I think we should let boys be boys, and non-medicated ones at that. Therefore, parents, if at all possible, don’t medicate your boys.”

I think I understand what he’s trying to say, that it’s ok to be an energetic child and to see the extra energy as a strength to harness, not a weakness to control.

That would be fine, except that in trying to normalise energetic behaviour, he also winds up demonising Ritalin.  It may not have been his intention, but whenever someone respected in the community says something negative about stimulant medication or ADHD, it reinforces the oppressive stigma attached to those who suffer from it.

Ps Gibson’s fundamental assumption, that normal but energetic children are being misdiagnosed as ADHD and therefore unnecessarily medicated, happens far less often than the opposite – children with ADHD are misdiagnosed as energetic children that just need to be taught how to control themselves.

Personally, I don’t know of any parent who ever wanted to medicate their child with Ritalin.  If anything, it’s the opposite, because if your child’s on Ritalin, then you must be a lazy parent, or given them too much sugar, or too much screen time, or not hugged them enough as babies, or didn’t practice vaginal seeding, or whatever other form of parent-guilt is being perpetrated by the media at the time. Parents will do everything they can in their power to avoid using Ritalin, because of a culture that blames and shames.

Unfortunately, this means that children who could be helped by Ritalin or other stimulant medication are left behind, because ADHD isn’t the mislabeling of normal energetic children who just need better structure, or better posture, or who learn differently.  ADHD is a real disability, a dysfunctional lack of planning and control that’s abnormal compared to other children, affecting their entire lives.

For example, these children find it hard to play with other kids because they can’t follow basic social rules like the rules of games, or waiting their turn.  These children find school difficult, because they can’t concentrate for long enough to focus on completing a multi-step task, or have a long enough attention span to make new memories for words or facts.

One of my patients, a little boy about seven years old, was brought in by his mother because a chiropractor wanted me to arrange a blood test on his behalf.  When I asked why, the mother said the little boy had dyslexia which the chiropractor was ‘treating’ (actually, this chiropractor was blaming a disease that didn’t exist, and wanted me to arrange a test that was resigned to the pages of history, but that’s another story).  When I talked to the mother about the child’s symptoms, it was pretty obvious that he had ADHD, amongst other things.  After seeing a developmental paediatrician to confirm the diagnosis, and taking Ritalin for just one week, his reading improved three whole reading levels, and after a month, he had not only caught up, but had passed a number of his class-mates.

This is a real life example of how ADHD can hold children back, and how stimulant medication can help.  While there are always exceptions to the rule, stimulant medications help more often than they hinder.  They’re sometimes the difference between a child meeting his full learning potential, or being unnecessarily held back, languishing at the bottom of his class as his peers go further ahead in leaps and bounds.

Our culture needs to move on.  We need to stop our social prejudices making life more difficult than it already is for children and their families who battle with ADHD.  We need to see that medications for ADHD can be the difference between a life of learning and a life unfairly held back.

Let’s change the tune.  Rather than saying, “Let boys be non-medicated boys”, how about we say, “Let boys be non-stigmatised boys.”  It’s only through the break-down of the stigma surrounding ADHD and stimulant medications, that all boys (and girls) can truly meet their full potential, whether they have ADHD or are just a bit more energetic.

If you want more information on ADHD and its treatments, this is a good place to start: http://www.rch.org.au/kidsinfo/fact_sheets/ADHD_an_overview/

If you are concerned that you or your child might have ADHD, talk to your local GP or paediatrician.