Virtue on the brain

We are entering a happy era for character educators. The field has enjoyed its own quiet Copernican revolution in recent years. Within the last two decades, scientists have identified the neuro-physiological mechanisms for imitation and habit formation, two major areas for a better understanding of the building blocks of character. The implications of these discoveries are momentous. Neuroscience is reminding us how our minds work, how our brains naturally wire for habit formation, how children are primed in their very from their first moments to absorb the impressions to which they are exposed.

For too long habits, and in particular good habits, or virtues, have been marginalised in the discussion of character. Too many character education books are brimming with good ideas but lack any coherent vision of what fulfils a human being. The neuroscience is demanding that we put good habits, virtue, squarely back on the table.

These discoveries remind us of the utter impressionability of the human
mind, of how the earliest example we receive actually changes us. Plato
wrote, "We always like best what we first experience."

First let us situate this discussion in the context of the recent achievements of neuroscience. On the platform of new MRI and PET scanning techniques, which have permitted scientists to peek into the brain in real time and greater detail, the jigsaw pieces have been fitting together. The functions of the parts of the brain have been re-evaluated. The roles of the hippocampus in memory and the amygdala in emotion have been explored. We now have an elementary grasp of how the vast neuronal networks in our brains develop and atrophy, and how they interconnect via synapses and neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Increasingly research is looking at how the different areas of the brain synchronise as these deeply complex interconnections seem integral to brain function.

Not only has the geography of the brain been studied, we have learned much about the plasticity of the brain, the ability of the brain to change as a result of learning or in response to environmental changes. One commentator has written: "Of all the discoveries that have poured out of neuroscience labs in recent years, the finding that the electrical activity of the brain cells changes the physical structure of the brain is perhaps the most breathtaking." It is in this realm of plasticity that the discoveries most relevant to education and character education in particular are to be found.

Done with mirrors

Of particular significance are two discoveries: first, a new type of neuron, a mirror neuron, that provides the biochemical pathway for imitative behaviours; second, the discovery of the neuronal basis for established stable behaviours, for habit building.

A model for how environmental inputs are absorbed into character may now be constructed. It is now known that these mirror neurons, identified by Italian neuroscientists in the early 1990s, are programmed to trigger a parallel response in synch with a received stimulus, leading to unconsciously imitative behaviours. They provide the scientific starting point for explaining why human beings are so impressionable and so receptive of example. They are found in key receptor areas of the brain. For example, researchers have identified mirror cells in the fusiform area of temporal lobe that recognize and read facial emotions. Cells in the right parietal operculum operate as we act in response to other's gestures.

Sit back with a smile as you watch as one hand-waving conversationalist provoke mirror reactions in another. This is just one example of mirror neurons in action. Mirror neurons help us understand empathy and even how group hysteria can sweep through a crowd, but there are also profound implications for parenting. From its first weeks a child will imitate facial expressions, and before long the emotions themselves will be reflected.

These mirror cells have a major role also to play in social interaction, triggering in one's own mind the thoughts of others through simulation of observed expressions and behaviours. By mirroring nuances of behaviour we reproduce the thought processes that are linked to those facial expressions or emotions. Giacomo Rizzolatti, the Italian discoverer of mirror neurons, explains: "These systems allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct stimulation, by feeling not by thinking."

The impressionable child

Children learn compassion by imitating compassion and empathy; they learn cheerfulness and ultimately resilience by imitating, albeit unconsciously, the optimism of parents. In other words, a process by which children have always learned is now better understood. This helps to explain how we can grasp the intentions of others, how children can gain mastery simply from watching, and also how they can learn so much more intuitively than adults do through rational pathways.

Mirror neurons enable a child easily to copy other people, language, movements, and other behaviours. The operative word is "easily". Until the discovery of mirror neurons our capacity to learn from example was not linked to specific hardware in the brain, specific components if you like. Formerly we thought that to learn from example was itself something that needed to be learned. An understanding of mirror neurons tells us how a child is already learning by looking, by hearing, by touching, from its earliest hours, and even in the womb itself. This greatly increases the urgency for parents and carers to get their example 100 per cent right.

All this opens a world of opportunity for parents and caregivers. Virtually from birth, when babies see or hear another baby in distress they start crying as though they too are distressed. (This is true also for animals: dogs bark when other dogs bark; one dog in my locality even howls when it hears the wail of an ambulance siren.) If parents model joy, wonder, compassion, love, expressions of the good life, their children will groove these behaviours into their own personalities. But sadly the opposite will also be true. Children learn to embody hate when parents hate, and fear when parents fear.

These discoveries remind us of the utter impressionability of the human mind, of how the earliest example we receive actually changes us. Plato wrote, "We always like best what we first experience." Much is now being written about the way exposure to inputs physically changes our brains. Parents have always intuited that children will copy whoever or whatever is present to them, but the new neuroscience is now revealing to us just how vulnerable we are to early inputs from advertisers. When McDonalds or Coca Cola advertises on children's television, they are not simply priming kids to lead mum and dad to the counter; they are forging a life long hard wired tendency, if not an actual dependency. John Ratey, a Harvard neuroscientist, puts it chillingly, "The brain's structure becomes the information it receives." If this is true for advertisements about food, it will also be true for the desensitising effects of early exposure to violent or sexualised content.

Hardwiring virtues - and vices

The second key discovery of major significance for the development of character is that brain develops preferred neuronal pathways for established stable behaviours. We now know that frequently used neuronal circuits are reinforced, consolidated, and made permanent through an ongoing process of "myelination". Recurring behaviours are essentially "hardwired". Unused circuits are dismantled. Every great-grandmother could tell us that habits are established by repetition but now we know that repeated behaviours actually chemically strengthen the neuronal pathways, creating shortcuts for specific actions, for better or for worse. The how of virtues and vices, is now essentially described.

Of course not all habits are good for us. Some, such as putting on our socks before our tie, have no significance, but others, such as habits of smoking or bullying, are. The discovery of the mechanism of preferred neuronal pathways is a major incentive to diligent parents to do all they can to prevent the development of "faulty wiring" in their children, and to promote the sound development.

There is a subtle interplay with free choice in much of this. "We have the freedom to determine which way our brains develop," writes John Ratey. Habits that are part of our character (as opposed to mechanical habits such as a tennis forehand) will be motivated in three possible ways. First, they can be initiated by the environment. For example parents may train a child to work before play. Second, they may derive from our failure to work against our default setting of laziness, selfishness or some other predisposition. Hence if we allow ourselves to establish a routine of playing card games on the work computer, soon a habit will be established and we will find it doubly difficult to extract ourselves. The third way is through free and conscious decision. So, I may decide that if I wish to avoid playing patience on the computer, I will need to reorient the computer screen towards where the boss is sitting. Soon the habit of working without gaming will by necessity be re-established, effectively by our own choice.

How important it is for us to empower teenagers to understand and take control of their own brain development. They will literally decide which connections their brains consolidate by the choices they make: to establish healthy eating habits, to set up a timetable for study, to channel curiosity, to avoid mindless hours in front of MTV. The parietal lobes (which integrate auditory, tactile, and visual signals) of the brain are still maturing in the mid-teens and even in the late teens the seats of judgement, reason, attention, planning and language will still be forming. Adult carers must be giving the right guidance during this sensitive period.

Our actions make us who we are

Parents are raising their children to be capable of independent action, to be men and women of action, with sound habitual behaviours that empower them to be self directing. Behaviours make all the difference, not values or good intentions alone. Contemporary neuroscientific research gives us a scientific model to describe much about virtue education, supporting what we have known philosophically and spiritually for thousands of years. Aristotle wrote, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit." Or as they said in the last Batman movie, "Our actions make us who we are." Children and all of us need good habits for everything from tolerance to sincerity and cheerfulness.

These discoveries validate an emphasis on good habits as the core business of character formation. They vindicate a virtue based vision of human flourishing. Until now, virtues were best discussed by Aristotelian philosophers or pre-1930 psychologists; but now the science of virtue development takes its rightful place among the hard sciences. As a consequence of these neuroscientific advances virtue development be placed squarely back onto parenting, pre-school, publishing and political agendas.

For too long people have been embarrassed to talk about virtues, opting instead for the euphemistic term, "values". One sees values touted as a sort of methodone for ethical behaviour, a politically correct form of "harm minimsation", when the discussion strays into morality and character. Well, the shooting gallery is now closed; the experimental results are coming in.

The authority for this new Copernican revolution derives, as of the old, from hard scientific evidence. And Copernican it is. It overturns child-raising theory. No longer can Rousseau's remaining disciples naively pontificate about children born replete with innate strengths of character. Nor can flat-earthers claim that repeated exposure of children to violent games or pornographic images on the internet are free of negative effects. No longer can the Spocks of this world claim that value-free education is possible, let alone desirable. No longer need politicians censor terms like virtue and vice, funding only anaemic values programmes in schools.

There is now a convincing scientific model to describe foundations in physiology for both virtues, understood as good habits, and the example-imitation dynamic. The inputs in a child's life are all-important and we cannot ignore our responsibility to provide a nourishing environment. The evidence supports what many have known philosophically and spiritually for thousands of years. The science has caught up and the shamans are exposed.

Andrew Mullins is headmaster of Redfield College, a school in Sydney for boys in Years 2 to 12. He is the author of Parenting for Character.


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