This morning I came upon an account from the neurologist Oliver Sacks of his early experimentation with psychoactive drugs.  I almost passed it by; I didn’t think I’d be all that interested in the hallucinations of Sacks’ youth.  But everything I’ve read of Sacks’ recent writing has surprised and intrigued me in one way or another, so I made my way uncharacteristically patiently through the first paragraphs of the story. My patience was rewarded by the revelation that Sacks’ experimentation had coincided with his initial interest in neurology: “how the brain embodied consciousness and self and to understand its amazing powers of perception, imagery, memory, and hallucination,” as well as with the surge, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, of neurochemical inquiry.  According to Sacks, all sorts of questions and discoveries were arising just then in the medical profession about how various chemical agents might influence the brain.

A half century later, the social stigma of recreational drug use that made me leery of reading Sacks’ story in the first place lives alongside an ease with prescribed chemical means of affecting behavior and experience, including in young children.  We settle, as cultures, communities, and individuals, on which behaviors and experiences it’s acceptable to alter by medication and which it is not.  We make such decisions for ourselves and we make them for the young people in our care and charge (they only rarely get to make or participate in the making of these decisions).

The context of Sacks’ history reminded me how easy it is to forget that these lines, between what should and shouldn’t be treated and what we should and shouldn’t use for that treatment, are drawn by humans and upheld by humans.  They are not naturally occurring.  In some ways this is so obvious that it seems ridiculous to waste the words to point it out. But I think we often operate as though the lines are in some way real or true, or as though they have existed long enough that we might as well consider them to be, whether or not they’re serving our actual values and supporting the pursuit of what we want for ourselves and for children.

I wonder how our decisions, particularly those we make for young children, might be different if we remembered always in the course of making them that the boundaries of allowable behavior and experience we observe and respect are matters of cultural decision and agreement, often made before the children in question were born, and without acknowledgement or consideration of their actual specific circumstance.

I don’t think we’d stop pathologizing or prescribing, but I think we’d find ourselves in more empowered relationship to what is within our control and what is not, and how we might truly prefer to reconcile that reality for ourselves.


2 Responses

  1. This reminds me of a recent conversation with another homeschooling mom who was talking about how essential it felt to use standardized testing to help her know where she needs to “fill in the holes” in her child’s homeschooling. And it made me think of swiss cheese (this is definitely an awkward metaphor, so please forgive me) — the idea that we begin to think of what’s “holes” and what’s “the real necessary stuff” as being as real as the holes versus the cheese in swiss cheese.

    Now I’m not criticizing anyone’s use of a test to help reassure them in the homeschooling process. More I’m just agreeing with you that over time we all tend to unconsciously absorb and take as real the set of standards that have been passed along and along — that kids must read by X age, that they must know their times tables by Y age, and that other things (like empathy or wild imagination or the ability to cook dinner) are not on the scorecard at all. Just like how some drugs are wrong/bad/dangerous and others are healing/good/necessary.

    (I liked that Oliver Sacks article too by the way and feel like it’s only later in his life that he had the courage and professional capital to admit in the New Yorker to all his off-the-books experimentation and to try to convey how that illegal/bad/dangerous/illicit experimentation was of a piece with his path-breaking scientific/neurological experimentation — the same creative mind seeking answers in multiple directions.)

    None of this would matter so much except that kids and people are so tremendously variable in their needs and gifts and capacities and so the more we believe that there’s a bright delineation between what’s hole and what’s cheese, the more we risk missing (or discouraging) the particular needs and gifts of that one individual (who can’t drink coffee, whose intestinal illness is aided by marijuana, who can build astonishing Lego creations but can’t do long division, and so on).

  2. You always stretch my mind, Meredith. Thank you for your insights, and sharing them.

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