The Debacle of Having Incorrectly Defined Mental Health

Fifty human beings shot dead.

We need solutions fast.

Standing up to pro gun lobbyists could take decades, even centuries.

What if alternative solutions exist right underneath our noses, solutions that do not rely on the gun control legislation?

What if misinformation has kept those solutions hidden?

What if inaccurate psychological theories of human development are causing us to inflame violent tendencies instead of suppressing them? What if we could more competently manage violence simply by reinterpreting existing data about how the brain communicates with itself?

What if we could pretend for a moment the whole field of psychology never branched away from biology and the entire self-help industrial complex never manifested? What if for a brief moment we could silence all the earnest but misguided voices of religious, spiritual, psychological, and self-help leaders who have rarely interacted with developing children outside of their own children or outside of clinical or theoretical settings?

What if instead we could look to childcare professionals and teachers who have worked with developing children and adolescents for 20, 30, 40, 50, or even 60 years. What if we were to listen to their observations for exactly when and how violence becomes a child’s only option for problem solving because all other options are closed off to him?

I have been in the trenches as they say, watching children grow and develop for 45 years, many over a period of many years in a variety of real life settings. Professionals like me rely upon our observations of how children manage information in order to successfully teach and care for them. We approach our responsibilities more like biologists, more like Jane Goodall, for example.

Thanks to our biologists, we have better information about animal behavior than we do human behavior because biologists simply observe and describe animal behavior. Biologists do not predetermine which animal behaviors are normal or abnormal. They do not try to mold or shape animal behavior with psychological or religious theories; they just try to understand it. Biologists believe if a behavior is exhibited there is a valid and important reason why. They try to figure out why the behavior is valid from the perspective of the animal.

For perverse reasons, parents, psychologists, and educators are not trained to figure out how and why children think and behave as they do based upon observations of them over time. We are instead trained to predetermine which behaviors we want from our children. We are then trained to elicit the desired behaviors according to arbitrary psychological theories that tell us how to do so.

We are terrified our children will turn out ‘wrong’ so we try our darnedest to mold them into responsible, empathetic, hard working, accomplished adults by making sure their behaviors remain in alignment with these wishes. On this score, psychology has taken the same route religion has. Both try to mold a child’s behavior to achieve a desired result. Here is where we have gone off the rails because shaping our children’s behavior to conform to desired results using arbitrary psychological and/or religious theories has been our undoing and will continue to be our undoing.

I can tell you with certainty after taking extensive psychology coursework while earning a Master of Arts in Teaching and after spending 45 years caring for and working with children with the expectation of applying psychological theories of personality, emotion, and behavior, there is a huge disconnect between our psychological theories of human development and the actual reality of human development. This disconnect causes us to create threatening school environments fixated on shaping behaviors we believe will help us create designer versions of our children.

To optimize human brain development, we would instead create safe, wholesome, non-threatening environments that fixate on skill and knowledge acquisition. We need to help our children expand their mastery of numerical, grammatical, social, spatial, geographical, technological, scientific, and historical information, etc. Where we fall short in this endeavor is in the realm of mastery of social conventions and rules. We treat mastery of social information as if it is a different kind of learning that takes place in some sort of behavior chip in the body.

The fact is, social information is learned and applied the exact same way numerical, grammatical or any other kind of information is. Interacting in socially appropriate ways in school is a function of information mastery and application, not of behavioral compliance. But we treat social information as if it is under the jurisdiction of our behavior instead of our brain. This is illogical because children cannot turn on and off their behaviors at will, especially in relationship to information very challenging for them to master.

For example, during math class we give students ample time to review, practice, and make mistakes all year, every year. But we expect kids to master social conventions and school rules instantaneously or very quickly. Instead of further guidance and practice when a child makes a social mistake or breaks a rule, he gets our irritation and then he gets put on a behavior plan.

Behavior plans set children up to feel marginalized, humiliated, threatened, and anxious. This is because human behaviors are vitally important to the efficient running of the human brain and body. When we tinker with behavior instead of information management, we interfere profoundly with the physical and mental stability of our children.

Thinking about human behavior in this way would guide educators to make information accessible and ‘learnable’ rather than making our children teachable and behaviorally compliant for how we prefer to teach.

I believe we should end the psychological perversity of behavior shaping and start understanding our children the way biologists understand animal behavior. We should think of human behavior as non negotiable manifestations of how the brain is constantly taking in, processing, and managing information. We should be aware that children who have their behaviors picked apart, commented on, analyzed, and shaped become confused and frustrated. Confusion and frustration are extremely destabilizing and threatening to the human brain.

Any teacher can tell you the human brain responds VERY strongly to frustration and confusion regardless of how big or small the threat might be. The brain’s job is to be hyper vigilant for threats and to deal with them immediately. When the brain perceives a threat it codes for the flight of flight response. Fight or flight in turn cues for paranoia. Paranoia cues for aggression or withdrawal. When a child cannot find a way to calm the fight or flight response, violence becomes his only option for managing it.

No amount of behavior modification can make the brain stop doing it’s job. If we understood how hair trigger our brain is, instead of constantly telling them to modify their behaviors we would simply respond to our children at face value. When they are upset we would respond to them the same way we do when they are in pain. We would remove the agent of anxiety and stress. But psychological theory teaches us to do the opposite. It teachers us to exploit the anxiety response to more easily manipulate them to behave as we wish.

Our psychological theories that fixate on behaviors instead of information management direct us to keep our children in fight or flight most of the time at school. Nonetheless, many children are incredibly cognitively flexible. They can endure behavior management and overcome the negative effects because their brains are so adaptable.

Some children, however, are highly intelligent but not cognitively flexible. They can only envision one way to understand and manage much of the information they process moment to moment. In other words, the information in their brains has only one road for getting from point A to point B. These children cannot endure behavior management because their brains cannot supply them with multiple options for making choices or solving problems. Managing their behaviors is like taking away their eyesight. When they are told to behave in ways that do not correspond to their cognitive abilities, they become constantly disoriented and confused. Constant confusion makes them defensive, paranoid, angry, and often violent. They are more likely to to become violent adults.

Adult mass shooters, based on what they say and write, understand information in black and white terms without room to entertain nuanced differences of opinions. This does not meant they lack intelligence. They have a specific kind of intelligence that causes them to think in more black and white terms. It is a scientific fact social mammals require all kinds of thinkers to optimize group functionality. But our psychological theories do not effectively incorporate or solve for this fact in a classroom setting.

Case in point, black and white thinkers, as children, are almost always treated as having oppositional defiant disorder. They are targeted early on for behavior management, a practice which causes them untold amounts of confusion, frustration, and anger, and a practice from which they cannot recover. Their fight or flight response is set off continuously through all 12 years of school. We set these children up to be violent. We do not give them viable options for how to complete classwork in compliance with how they are able to think and understand. Instead, we observe their behaviors to figure out how we can change their behaviors so they will be in compliance with how we think and understand.

By understanding and teaching children in terms of how they understand and manage information instead of in terms of how they behave, we could significantly reduce a child’s need to be defensive, paranoid, angry, and/or violent and we can reduce the odds a child will become a violent adult.

Behavior is neutral. Behavior looks like it is doing things, but it is the brain doing the doing. The brain is the puppeteer, behaviors its marionettes. Therefore, behavior should not be the vehicle through which we diagnose people as mentally ill and it should not be the vehicle through which we manipulate our young people.

It is a fact behavior management, like corporal punishment, is effective. Behavior management works in schools the same way it works in prisons. It exploits the anxiety response. Because it works does not make it ethical or conducive to healthy development.

According to much of our new brain research, a human is not his or her behaviors or her emotions or her perceptions or her thoughts. A human being is the integrated totality of these dynamics whose end goal is to take in, organize, and manage information in order to formulate predictions for what to do next. As such, mental health is nothing more and nothing less than the unconstrained ability of a human being to make sense of information in the ways that make sense to him or her. A paradigm shift would take the focus off of behavior or any other singular dynamic in the brain and move the focus to the overall goal of the brain which is, again, information management.

As long as the field of psychology equates mental health with behavioral compliance to societal norms and expectations, the definition of mental illness will change because societal norms and expectations are constantly changing. This is evidenced by the fact that psychological and psychiatric disorders and mental illnesses get discarded and added every time behavioral expectations change due to a societal shift.

For example, homosexual behavior was considered symptomatic of mental illness until the 70’s. The realization homosexuality is a healthy form of sexual expression should have sent red flags to psychologists to re-evaluate their fixation on behavior as the main indicator of mental illness. But psychologists have made no changes in this regard. As a result, 1 in 5 individuals suffer a mental illness each year, a number that screams, “A paradigm change is in order because behavior doesn’t do anything.”

Here is another example of psychology’s weird fixation on behavior. Our modern society depends upon skills that require lots of seated work. The field of psychology has responded by manufacturing a whole set of psychological disorders with which to diagnose humans who are not good at seat work.

Children whose behaviors fall easily into compliance with the norms of the society into which they are born sure make life easier for everyone. But human biology doesn’t give a fig about societal norms. It is what it is. We have to look at the biology of how each individual child understands and manages information to understand each individual child. Comparing a child to societal norms and expectations has organizational value for teachers who need to manage all kinds of learners. But these comparisons are scientifically unsophisticated for defining and diagnosing who is mentally healthy and who is mentally ill.

Psychology excels at putting out fires, at soothing and healing those in pain. What if the application of psychological theories are actually causing much of the suffering it must eventually soothe and heal? Developing a more biologically accurate theory of the human brain that focuses on how each human uniquely understands and manages information and takes the focus off of behavior can help us remedy this disconnect.


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