The Well-Worn Mind

For starters, let’s say that I’m not going to write about the election or the war. You and I have both been around the block enough to recognize that I am no Bill Hillsman, and nothing I say is going to change your mind on these matters. This is because you are a stubborn creature who is determined to see things your own way, and who, just like me, mostly recycle your threadbare thoughts over and over, rarely allowing anything new to cross the threshold of your imagination.

Nine out of every ten thoughts you think today are the same ones you thought yesterday and the day before. And the few stray novel ones aren’t likely to be revolutionary, since they had to fight their way through the heavy-duty security system you employ to scare off anything that doesn’t validate your current belief system.

That’s why it’s such a mind-boggling privilege to work with kids as I do. Kids think new thoughts every day, and, I believe, catalyze the adults around them to think new thoughts as well. But the touchy issue is that the thoughts the children think don’t come from the ether. They come from me, or whoever else stands in front of them. Is anyone fit for that kind of role?

The first time I walked into the classroom and looked out at 23 children’s faces “looking up, holding wonder like a cup,” the enormity of the responsibility was nearly paralyzing. It was immediately obvious that when I spoke, these children believed me. About everything. This is handy when you are setting out to teach something tricky—say the alphabet, or how to read, or complex mathematical concepts like carrying and borrowing. If I tell them they’re smart and talented and capable and that they’ll soon be able to do everything that comes in front of them, despite the confusion and struggle, they genuinely trust my optimism. This dynamic has been a powerful inspiration in my classroom—and that’s nothing new, since research has shown repeatedly how teacher expectations for students tend to be self-fulfilling. Over time, students internalize the beliefs teachers have about their ability, and they rise or fall to the teacher’s level of expectation.

Some would call this, tritely, the power of the mind. A watered-down version of levitating a spoon with your brain, which for some reason I have never been able to do. But still I can’t understand why the power of thought is so under-rated, when reams of good research—from a variety of disciplines—back it up so compellingly. As my friend Sean said to me the other night, “Oh yes, you do like scientific studies, don’t you?” And the answer is yes, I do, because on the one hand, I find sociology and anthropology endlessly fascinating, and on the other hand, every once in a while a grown-up will believe something I say if I provide peer-reviewed statistical evidence to fortify the claim.

The placebo effect is a fantastic illustration of all this. When researcher H.K. Beecher published his groundbreaking 1955 paper, “The Powerful Placebo,” he concluded, based on analysis of 26 studies, that an average of 32 percent of all patients respond to placebo. This average has held constant in all the years and studies since. “Expectation is a powerful thing,” says Robert DeLap, M.D., of the Food and Drug Administration, in an interview for FDA Consumer magazine (January-February 2000). “The more you believe you’re going to benefit from a treatment, the more likely it is that you will experience a benefit.” (I’m not convinced this justifies one particularly well-publicized study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, in which half of the Parkinson’s disease patients enrolled in the trial underwent a “placebo” surgery in which doctors drilled holes into their skulls but didn’t implant the potentially beneficial human fetal tissue in their brains, but I suppose that’s a tangent.)

The point is, there’s more to this stuff than a bunch of mind-over-matter New Age psycho-babble. And as I said, when you work with children, you don’t really need a scientist to tell you that perception becomes reality. But while children’s perceptions are malleable, most adults are bogged down by a pattern of thinking that has grown so stale a sledgehammer could hardly dent it.

This is why instead of swinging a sledgehammer over the election or the war, I’m going to do something more likely to make some small difference: pry my mind open a crack to make room for a few new ideas. Tough going, but stand by.

Jeannine Ouellette is associate editor of The Rake.