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Organic Intelligence: Teaching Children How to Live Smart

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We are in the midst of a slow moving pandemic: obesity and its medical consequences. More and more young people are developing degenerative diseases that, typically, are not seen until middle age. This will cause an enormous strain on the system both medically and financially. It's one thing to accidentally hit the iceberg; it's quite another to steer the ship directly into it.

Unlike smoking, eating is not binary -- on or off. We need to eat; the issue is what and how much. While most approach the obesity issue through "fix it after it is broke" approach, I think it's time to address the problem longitudinally with the focus on early intervention. This means starting at the beginning -- literally.

When a child is born, his or her understanding of the world is through sensation, internal and external. In other words, the newborn cries when it needs to be fed or changed and comforted through touch and voice. When an infant is full, it stops eating. If you try to feed a baby more, it turns its head away. The behavior of overeating does not exist for an infant.

When an infant is tired he or she sleeps. It's the same with movement. The neural tracks that are laid down when a child begins moving are the building blocks of thought. We need to stay active in order to develop our minds. For an infant, movement is a mental experience. We're wired to move -- a lot.

The core aspects of organic intelligence -- knowing how and when to satisfy our bio/psychological needs -- are obvious. Yet, over time, we develop sensory amnesia and ignore these internal signals. Think how much mindless eating occurs in front of screens -- TVs, computers, tablets, phones, and movies. When you factor in how this impacts exercise and sleep -- both of which are essential for weight management -- you realize the magnitude of the problem. How does this happen?

It happens because labeling these sensations, the feedback mechanism that reinforces the brain's wiring for eating, sleeping and moving, has never been fully encoded. We label our experiences in order to make them real. If we don't give something a name while it's happening in real time (e.g. feeling full as you eat), it remains outside of awareness. Children need to label sensations just as they label feelings. Our words are our reality.

To help us respond and properly label our visceral experience we must systematically incorporate organic intelligence themes into every aspect of early childhood and elementary school education. Modeling is a core developmental and educational process. We want children's responses to be governed by internal sensations, not visual cues. This is especially the case with eating where visual cues typically become dominant. People eat more because they see more -- larger portions (Big Macs, huge drinks, etc.) -- in addition to modeling the unhealthy behavior of those around them.

When preschoolers are read stories, sensory experience should be part of what they hear. The more references, the more unconscious modeling that takes place. Repetition is critical. We all know that children need to do/hear things over and over again before it "takes."

As children proceed through elementary school, the nutritional value of food should be woven into the fabric of all academic curriculums, especially the sciences. Food quality, not just quantity, is obviously essential for maintaining a healthy body weight. It's one thing to feed children healthy food, it's quite another to teach them about it.

To understand how organic intelligence is a critical component of overall mental and physical wellbeing, we need to review the work of Harvard physician, Dr. Herbert Benson. In 1974, Dr. Benson labeled the brain's built in stress management mechanism, the relaxation response. His controlled studies on meditators validated conventional wisdom and found that some basic breathing and focusing techniques can lower blood pressure and stimulate immune functioning.

Over the past few decades mindfulness meditation, a westernized version of this Buddhist technique, has made its way into the field of psychotherapy as an adjunct to traditional therapeutic practice. In its simplest terms this process helps one to focus on immediate sensory experience. Sound familiar?

Since mindfulness triggers the relaxation response, improves attention and makes us more cognitively flexible, incorporating it into elementary school education could, potentially, reinforce skills along the complete spectrum of intelligences -- organic, intellectual and social/emotional. Call it relaxation or "magic mind time," the process is something children will enjoy.

Although schools must provide the basis for teaching organic intelligence, parents must be an integral part of the program. Ongoing contact with parents in the form of workshops and individual conferences is essential to insure that lifestyle choices at school align with those at home.

Organic intelligence is, at once, the simplest concept to understand and the most difficult to master. I'm full, I'm tired and I need exercise are the three most important bits of sensory information that we experience.

It's time to live mindfully instead of mindlessly. It's the foundation for a healthy personal ecology.

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