That Wonderful Brain: Thoughts on Home Education pp. 20-41

One thing I love about Charlotte Mason is that she recognizes the whole child. She recognizes that when you are interested in educating a child’s mind and spirit, you must of necessity also be interested in caring for the child’s body and health, because they are inseparably connected.

So, she explains, because your child learns with her brain, you must make sure that brain is as healthy as can be.

We might say much on this one question, the due nutrition of brain, upon which the very possibility of healthy education depends. […]

I fear the reader may be inclined to think that I am inviting his attention for the most part to a few physiological matters––the lowest round of the educational ladder. The lowest round it may be, but yet it is the lowest round, the necessary step to all the rest. For it is not too much to say that, in our present state of being, intellectual, moral, even spiritual life and progress depend greatly upon physical conditions. […] For example, is it easier to be amiable, kindly, candid, with or without a headache or an attack of neuralgia?

Charlotte has a great list of considerations for brain health based on the wisdom of the Victorian era, and shoot, I just got curious and wondered how much of her advice still holds water in the days of 2017. So, here we go!

Brain exercise. First up: use your brain power regularly, or you’ll lose the ability to do so and become “silly”. Yup, this one checks out! It’s also thought that exercising your brain decreases your chances of developing dementia late in life. So Charlotte’s advice to make sure kids have some mental work everyday is a great idea!

Rest for the brain. Charlotte rightly points out that alternating between work and rest is better than simply working, working, working all day long. There is evidence that occasional breaks contribute to better functioning and productivity, whether at school or at work or at home.

Rest after big meals. The main thing here is that bodies like to focus blood supply on one thing at a time, so if you were to go running after Thanksgiving, the fresh, oxygenated blood in your body would be pouring into your exercising muscles rather than your full digestive system. That’s a recipe for having your dinner sit like a rock in your belly, and you probably won’t feel that well during and after your run! Charlotte points out that this same principle is going to apply to your brain and the learning process. Try not to make your digestive and cognitive processes compete, so don’t eat too big of a meal before learning time. Sounds legit to me, but I’m unaware of any studies that might shed more insight into this question.

Change in occupation. “The child has been doing sums for some time, and is getting unaccountably stupid: take away his slate and let him read history, and you find his wits fresh again. Imagination, which has had no part in the sums, is called into play by the history lesson, and the child brings a lively unexhausted power to his new work.” This is brilliant advice as far as I know, but I have neither my own homeschooling experience to back it up (my kids are too young) nor do I have any cool neurosciencey stuff to say here. Darn. (Well… Except that while it is true that different areas of the brain are used for different tasks, the whole right-brain vs. left-brain thing as popularly claimed isn’t actually true. Areas on both sides of the brain are used most of of the time during both creative-type and logical-type tasks!)

Nourishment. Here’s a big one. Children need good-quality food (think high nutrient density, and free from harmful chemicals). A varied diet is indeed important so that kids get the variety of nutrients they need. Nowadays we know that children need extra in the way of good fats (like omega-3 fatty acids), because lots of brain development is happening. Brain tissue contains lots of a fatty substance called myelin, which acts as insulation and helps electrical messages pass quickly between neurons.

Talk at meals. Charlotte is probably right that food from a happy dinnertime is better digested than food from a lonely or even contentious one. One of the first things to go awry in a psychosomatic response is digestion. So having pleasant conversation during dinner sounds legit to me as well. Plus, there is considerable research that having family meals is strongly correlated with success in life.

Indoor air quality. The great indoor air quality bugbear in Charlotte’s day was the oxygen level, because homes were heated with fire. And, of course, fires eat oxygen, and we need oxygen to not die. Nowadays this isn’t usually the issue, because we don’t use fires indoors much anymore. What is the far bigger issue now is not depleted oxygen levels, but too many other harmful compounds in the air. Our many possessions (courtesy of modern manufacturing), wonderful as they may be, have all sorts of harmful volatile organic compounds in them, so a lot of that gunk ends up in the air we breathe. And of course, our indoor air has tons of carbon dioxide in it because we exhale the stuff. Did you know that high carbon dioxide levels in your air can make you sleepy and impair your cognitive functions? Yeah, true story. So Charlotte’s advice to regularly ventilate our homes is still valuable advice, even if her reasons for originally recommending it are not as important.

Daily walks. Getting outside is seriously fabulous advice, and chances are, you and your kids are too sedentary and need more movement. Our bodies thrive on walking! Sunshine is also extremely important: we need vitamin D, and the light itself helps regulate our mood and Circadian rhythm. There is also evidence that sunshine is involved in keeping our eyes healthy, and the current myopia (nearsightedness) epidemic is due to decreased exposure to sunlight rather than increased time doing close work, like reading. Also, exposure to nature is important for connecting to the world around us and learning to care and play and love. The moral of the story is: get outside and go on a walk, provided the weather isn’t prohibitive!

Free perspiration. Yes, sweating. But Charlotte was on to something! Our bodies regulate our temperatures by sweating to keep cool, so obstructing this process can lead to heat stroke. But also, as Charlotte suggests, one way our body removes toxins is by excreting them in sweat.

Daily baths. And then Charlotte says a daily bath is necessary to stay healthy, because of the gunk we’re excreting out of our pores. So, yes, change your clothes daily, because those collect your gunk. But though daily baths are the cultural norm, with the claim that bathing daily with reduce rates of illness… It’s not true! While it is necessary to bathe regularly (a few times a week, perhaps? who knows…) to prevent disease transmission, daily bathing is overkill unless you work with sick people. Simple hand-washing is enough to keep most germs at bay for most people, and a wet washcloth in the super smelly areas and nether regions is usually sufficient to keep smelling fresh. And actually, overwashing can be harmful. Your skin (and hair!) benefit from your oily secretions, keeping good things (like moisture) in and bad things (like germs) out. Furthermore, we need a healthy community of friendly bacteria to help skin cells learn to defend against bad bacteria! So… Sorry, Charlotte, you didn’t get it all right, but we can forgive you for suggesting overbathing!

Porous garments. Namely, wool. Grandma Charlotte says wool is awesome because it’s breathable, keeps in body heat in winter, and wicks sweat from your body to keep you comfortable in all seasons. All true! She thinks sleeping in wool will make for better sleep, which is also true. (There have been studies, actually…) Other things we now know about wool? It’s naturally fire-resistant and antimicrobial! … Darn, now I want wool bedding. But before you go on a wool craze, remember that Charlotte lived in cool, damp England, so there may be other fabrics better suited to your climate than wool. I grew up in Arizona, and there, the virtues of cotton, not wool, were proclaimed widely!

So how’d Charlotte do? Do you have have any additional insights?


One thought on “That Wonderful Brain: Thoughts on Home Education pp. 20-41

  1. I love Charlotte Mason, So many of her ideas still resonate because they make sense…and the scientific back-up is awesome. Jack Laws was the featured speaker at the CMI 2016 conference and his plenary talk was all about how neuroscientists are proving many of her ideas to be right. It was fun to listen to.

    I am about to start my second reading group of Vol. 1 this month. Having fun reading others insights as I gear up for it. 🙂


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