One way to describe the tumult of the past few years, as well as the year we’re about to enter—the momentous 2012—is imbalance. The world is out of whack, whether the topic is climate patterns, wealth distribution, political power, job opportunity, food availability, or life-work balance. Most of us experience a rushing sense of unease and a desire to get things back in order.
Education, in my view, is not exempt from imbalance. To me, the reason is obvious: We’re stuck on the brain, and ignore the heart. The entire system is geared toward cognitive achievement, as defined in the narrowest sense by grades, tests, AP classes, and a dense, overblown academic curriculum. Most of us value a well rounded, heart-oriented whole child, but that is not the ultimate outcome of the system we have created. In fact, as long as education overvalues the brain and undervalues the heart, we can’t educate the whole child.
Why should educators refocus on the heart in 2012—and why would the world reward us, if we did so? I believe the most pressing goal of education in 2012 is to move forward and align our system of learning with unfolding global trends and the needs of today’s youth. The heart is designed for that task. Consider three findings about the heart:
1. The heart is not just a metaphor.
We’re accustomed to the greeting card version of the heart, with flowery language and a nice red drawing. But new scientific findings on the heart and the role of emotions in regulating brain function. Simply put, it is no longer ‘scientific’ to make the brain the sole center of learning, or assume that the keys to emotional development can be found in the brain alone. It is much more accurate to refer to ‘heart-brain’ learning, and to view emotions as ‘tools’ used by the heart to affect brain and body.
For example, we know the heart secretes hormones and neurotransmitters, as well as serving as a main hub for the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Through the vagal nerve, the heart has instant communication with the brain. There is a constant flow of information between the two organs, and with other body systems. Nearly 80% of the messages between brain and heart originate in the heart.
What does this mean for whole child advocates? Without trying to be definitive, the most obvious educational goals of the whole child movement are to nurture the highest human functions, such as creativity, insight, and problem solving. Even more, we hope to improve emotional balance and self-awareness in students, giving them better collaboration skills and enhanced internal assets such as resiliency, empathy, and perseverance. I suggest that if we want to succeed at this vital effort, then we will need to acknowledge the central role of the heart in emotional development, collaborative impulses, intuition and creativity, and the expanded use of the brain. The ultimate truth is that inner calm precedes mental clarity.
2. The heart is the processor of emotions.
The physiological response of the heart is programmed by emotions. Using a complex biofeedback system that affects the pattern of heart rhythms, various emotions have differing effects on the heart and thus the brain. Frustration, stress, and anger disrupt the heart and fog the brain; appreciation, unconditional acceptance and love, or other positive emotions smooth out the rhythms with a noticeably positive effect: The frontal part of the brain responds to the heart’s message of cheer by clearer thinking, faster response, and greater insight. By intentionally generating a positive emotion, an individual can make a conscious choice about how his or her brain will function. Simple exercises, such as heart-focused breathing and a feeling of gratitude, have remarkably positive effects on the brain.
In our brain-centric, cognitively-oriented society, it’s difficult to accept this reality. But, as our ancestors believed, the heart is the seat of emotions. The brain, with its limbic capability, moderates our impulses and helps us gain a meta-cognitive view of our emotional lives. Brain based learning encourages the full use of the brain. But the brain cannot act alone. For humans to function at their peak, the heart must be soothed. Most important, love, care, and positive relationships sooth us like nothing else. This is the foundation of whole child education—and should be the defining element of every classroom.
3. The heart connects us.
This statement relies on slightly more speculative science, but it is certain that the heart generates the most powerful electromagnetic field in the body (far stronger than the brain), and there is compelling evidence that through this field we communicate our emotional state to one another. Based on the concept of coherence, it is evident that emotionally balanced individuals entrain with each other and create a collective coherent field. It is even possible (and gold standard experiments are underway now to confirm this) that the field extends globally and we operate in a field of collective intelligence that can be enhanced through positive networking.
In other words, the brain excels at sorting and classifying, but the heart contains the secrets of connection and communion. Understanding this deep connectivity of the heart may be our most important task as citizens in a post-2012 world. If a majority, or even an influential minority, of ‘whole’ human beings becomes prominent across the globe, the human species will find it easy to collaborate peacefully, think clearly and with less distortion about the challenges of global life, and develop and share the deep intellectual and intuitive resources necessary for the race to flourish.
For educators, these possibilities imply that a more visible role for the heart in the classroom may be vital to the grand evolutionary drama playing out across the world, as youth collaborate and network on behalf of progress and justice. It tells us that the ultimate goal of whole child education should be to reinvigorate the heart’s capacity—and the potential of our children—to bring us together.