Managing a Healthy Mental Biome

Last Friday, after work, a coworker of mine was lamenting what she feels is the close-mindedness of her parents.

"I just don't understand. It's like we have different genes or something," she said.

I asked her if she felt she had a wider range of life experiences than her parents.

"Oh, absolutely!" she responded.

We then agreed that the difference between her views on the world and theirs probably has a great deal to do with the degree to which her parents minds have been insulated from the increasingly wider range of experiences that humans encounter throughout their lives in the 21st century.

Helen Keller has an attributed quote that says something about the highest result of education being tolerance. In other words, the more experiences you have, assuming you have supports for thinking about them appropriately, the better able you are to understand and react to your world.

I connected the conversation I had with my coworker with two articles I recently read, one in The Economist and one in The New Yorker.

Both of the articles are on increasingly strong findings in the scientific community that suggest that it may be as appropriate to think of the human body as a living environment for tens of trillions of organisms rather than as a single organism; that the humans body may, in fact, be better imagined as a "microbiome" for bacteria.

The idea is that bacteria have co-evolved with humans, and that, while antibiotics have been incredibly successful at improving human health, they have had unintended negative consequences, namely in killing off good bacteria that humans have historically lived well with.

Humans, from the second they pass through their mothers' birth canal, are covered with bacteria. They help us live. And, when we don't have the right bacteria, we suffer. (In fact, the New Yorker's article suggests that a decrease in a particular type of bacteria might be one of the factors to blame for the rise in obesity the first world has seen over the past fifty years.)

So what's the connection?

In the same way that humans are covered with thousands of different bacteria, some good and some bad; so too is the human brain subjected to thousands of different ideas, some good and some bad.

Now, my analogy here is not perfect, but hang with me here.

The more exposure to various ideas and realities we bombard our students with via explicit instruction, conversations, or demonstrations, the more likely we are to cultivate intelligent thinkers and lifelong learners. The trouble is that teachers, parents, and positive peers aren't the only ones bombarding our students with ideas and realities; so too are negative peer role models, corporate advertising, and popular culture.

In the same way scientists are beginning to think of helpful medicine as managing a healthy microbiome for various species of good bacteria, teachers and parents might think of helpful teaching as managing a healthy mental biome for various types of intelligent thoughts. And in the same way that managing a healthy microbiome means inserting good bacteria to fight off the bad and improve bodily functions, managing a healthy mental biome might mean the same for thoughts and experiences.

Humans learn every second of every day, mostly unconsciously. The more insulated they are from a range of thoughts and experiences, and the more subjected they are to the same negative thoughts and experiences, the less likely they are to mature into mentally healthy lifelong learners.

One more way teachers are like doctors. One more way to think about teaching and learning. 


  1. May I also add that learning depends also on how students take in ideas in their mind, say for example, teachers are always feeding their students new information inside or outside the class but, if they aren't willing enough to accept and analyze the facts offered to them, how are they suppose to understand it, right? I think, learning also involves give and take relationship between the mentor and the mentee.

  2. "Humans learn every second of every day, mostly unconsciously." The more isolated we are, the less learning we can do. This is why we need friends or even our family members around us to keep us sane and let us continue learning every second.


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