Monday, June 22, 2015

The Absorbent Mind

Context: The following is my description of Dr. Maria Montessori's conception of the Absorbent Mind, a particular power for learning within the young child. 

Dr. Montessori was a pioneer in the field of psychology at the end of the 19th century. The methodology available at that time was observation. Through observation, she arrived at the idea of the Absorbent Mind because children across the glove accomplish a creative-constructive task of enormous magnitude in the first years of life. There is a consistency and predictability to this accomplishment, as well as a degree of certainty to the perfection with which the task is completed. In comparing this to the functioning of the adult mind, she came to the conclusion that the child’s mind must necessarily function differently from ours. With new technology, we have empirical evidence of this fact, but her conclusions were based purely on years of work with children and associated observation.

The Creations of the Absorbent Mind
The work of the Absorbent Mind brings about language, movement, behavior patterns, connection to a place, and our set of beliefs, morals, and values. Additionally, Dr. Montessori talks about the “construction of the mind” itself, which is the memory, the power to understand, and the ability to think about a subject. Language develops in children when the child does not have any of the human characteristics, but by the end of two years the child has the habit of speech and using the hands toward purposeful work. The child creates his intelligence through his interaction with his environment; the child creates his own intelligence and all the faculties of the psyche without knowing. None of this is the child born with. They are only born with the potential for it. The child creates all of these things through interactions with the environment. We can see these faculties developing in the values that the child portrays in the space, as evidence of the Absorbent Mind making the child who was once with very little individuality. Dr. Montessori writes about how the child bears a deep connection to the place of birth throughout life, as a way the Absorbent Mind works to build the individual personality. The child constantly imbibes the culture around him.

The Absorbent Mind vs. The Adult Mind
The Absorbent Mind is compelled by the unconscious force, the horme, but the adult mind is dependent on the purposeful, conscious will and activity. So, Dr. Montessori compares the child’s mind to a camera and the adult’s mind to the painter. The film in the camera is coated with a specific chemical. When we expose the lens of the camera, we do not know the exact image, and the image is fixed later in the darkroom with chemicals. The child is similar in that we cannot discern which behavior patterns are being fixed at any time, but we can see what has happened later. Just as the camera takes in everything that is in front of the camera’s exposed film, the child faithfully records every object in front of it. It does not discriminate in absorbing the good and beautiful only, but the child’s mind absorbs all totally and instantaneously. It takes the same amount of time and effort for one object as for a hundred. Whether the language or behavior patterns are complex or simple, they are taken in fairly and in with total disregard of judgment. The child always completes the task in the first two, two and a half years, and always joyfully and happily, regardless of the conditions.

The adult mind, on the other hand, is much like that of the painter making a judgment about what will be created. The skill of the painter is reflected in the outcome of the work. When the painter is working, you can see the emerging picture. Dr. Montessori uses the term incarnation, because the child makes the learning his very life, making the ideas flesh. The child’s knowledge becomes integral, but the adult’s knowledge is simply stored or retained. Dr. Montessori’s observation of the Absorbent Mind is that it forms the individual. Today, we have the technology to see the work of the Absorbent Mind through observing the neurological patterns of maturity at different stages of infant development. The connecting wires between neurons are the integral process for the development of the mind, and this only happens through interaction with the environment. A complex interaction builds up, as myelin coats the neurons, another aspect of the incarnation process. The weight of the brain increase within the first year, as the child creates manifold new structures in the mind. Literally, the child’s interactions build the flesh architecture of the brain. This process happens by the work of the unconscious power. The connections made in this time are the strongest and not easily lost; this is the empirical evidence for the Absorbent Mind. This is the evidence, also, that the child’s mind is different from the adult mind. It is also evidence that the environment of the Absorbent Mind is critical for our survival as human beings. The Absorbent Mind gives us our identity not only as an individual, but also as an individual who is part of a social group in a particular culture and time.

The Newborn Child as “The Spiritual Embryo”: The Creations of the Absorbent Mind
Dr. Montessori observed that at birth, the human child possesses none of the characteristic human traits. The child has the potential to create the human personality. This work is a creative-constructive process through which the child brings into being the organs of the psyche. The organs of intelligence, language, and movement will then be whole. The child has the power to bring about things which are nonexistent. This work follows the same pattern of creative-constructive development that we see in utero. It looks like nothing at first. One by one, the organs of the psyche are formed independently of one another, just as in the prenatal period the physical organs formed independently. It is all done in the context of the place into which the child is born. From child to child, it follows invariably that at different times each organ develops on its own timetable independently with final unification of the organs working together. After birth, we see the same process in the child developing and using the senses, language, etc., followed by the work of integrating the whole. The newborn child is called “The Spiritual Embryo” because the work to develop the psyche after birth is similar to the development of the infant physically within the womb. This is the adaptation to time and place, critical to survival. That time period of mental development is The Spiritual Embryo.

Birth to Three vs. Three to Six: Characteristics
Birth to Three
The newborn to three is called the Unconscious Creator. Absorption of new knowledge is impelled by the horme, an impersonal and universal energy, so critical to the survival of the individual. Each creative-construction function comes about through the activity impelled by the horme. This time period is marked by the independent development of the organs of the psyche and the initial development of consciousness. Each of the organs of the psyche develop separately as a foundation. Although we speak of a spiritual embryo, the mind needs to find expression through the work of the body; the body does not function without the work of the mind. It is a willed and purposeful action. 

Three to Six
The child aged three to six is called the Conscious Worker, who works with absorption aided by activity. A child in this time period achieves constructive perfection though activity increasingly motivated by the Will. The child uses the foundation of the organs of the unconscious creator, now working toward unification of the organs of the psyche into an integrated personality. Rather than developing consciousness, a child between age three and six is further extending and expanding consciousness. We do not see the work that is done internally, but we gradually observe the manifestation of that work when the child develops language and the child actively refines the senses to explore the environment. What was created in the first phase is not stronger to support self-construction to develop further.

The Importance of the Work of the Absorbent Mind
For the Individual
The work of the Absorbent Mind has a personal significance, because it not only forms the individual, but it contributes to the survival of the individual. Through the work of the Absorbent Mind, the child is making all of the basic psychic organs which will be the basis of language and movement. Survival would be at stake without this; otherwise, the individual does not have the rudimentary organs to form the personality. 

For Society
The work of the Absorbent Mind has a larger significance in contributing to the survival of the entire species and the development of human culture and civilization. In this respect, the child is an Agent of Spiritual Heredity. The work has a social significance, because when the child takes in everything in the environment, it gives new life to values and ideas. Without anyone taking these ideas in, they do not survive in the next generation. When behavior patterns change on a large scale, children will take in a different pattern of behavior. The work of the Absorbent Mind is a method of keeping human culture and civilization alive. We have no other way of transmitting culture and bringing it into being beside the Absorbent Mind. This is how the child is the Agent of Spiritual Heredity.

The Absorbent Mind: The Responsibilities of the Adult
If the environment is limited, or the child does not have freedom of interaction with the environment, our primary responsibility is preparation of the environment. The Absorbent Mind needs an environment in which to function. It is our responsibility to prepare and environment in which the Absorbent Mind finds all the material it needs for the creative-constructive work of the formation of the individual personality. The materials that we provide in the prepared environment must be worthy of the creative-constructive work of the child. We must make ourselves worthy of the child’s “incarnation”. We isolate children more and more from the natural human environment, and we must constantly provide material that the child may use in the construction of a human being. Not only do we provide the environment, but we ensure that the material in it is worthy of the construction of that human being. It has implications for everything we do and say, as well as the values we manifest in the environment. The Absorbent Mind does not take in different things chosen by the guide, but it takes in the actions of all living elements in the space. We ensure that what the child finds in the environment is worthy of being perpetuated for the construction if a human being.

Implications for Education
When we understand the work of the Absorbent Mind in creating the individual human being, we look at the implications for education. Education is not the transmission of information; it is the support of the developmental energies that build the individual. We are supporting the creative, constructive development of the child, and education begins at birth. Nowhere is education more critical than in those early years. The task of education is to support the developmental energies that impel the formation of the individual. This work must begin at the moment of birth. Our work is most important in the pre-school years. We cannot “teach” the absorbent mind directly. We can only influence it through the environment; therefore, the task of education is to prepare and environment. The environment provides determine the form of the child’s developing personality and in turn influence the shape of society as a whole. Since we cannot teach the Absorbent Mind directly, the task returns to providing the child the right environment to do the work of self-formation. We can determine what is available in that environment, and in choosing objects and materials, we can mold what kind of society lies ahead. Dr. Montessori writes,
“The immense influence that education can exert through children, has the environment for its instrument, for the child absorbs his environment, taking in everything from it, and incarnated it in himself. With his unlimited possibilities, he can well be the transformer of humanity, just as he is its creator. The child brings us great hope and a new vision.”

My Work in the Casa
Education is not work by an adult to the child, as if the child were an empty vessel to fill. The child himself makes the man, and my work is to support the child in that task. I prepare the environment with all necessary things to transmit human culture, and in my comportment, I myself the dignity of my own culture for the child who will receive it through me. I observe the child incarnating the world around him by the power of the mneme, or unconscious memory, driven by the horme with its irresistible drive to independence, because the elements absorbed by the mneme become integral to the personality for life. My work is to provide the environment where the child can develop the powers given by nature, that which allows for the opportunity for functional independence. Through this power, the child is charged with a potential energy for the reform of the whole of civilization.

In Montessori’s view, the child can become the transformer of humanity with the proper support of The Absorbent Mind, because the child seeks self-sufficiency. Montessori says that education must begin at birth; she defines education as a help to the unfolding of the child’s inborn psychic powers. And here, psychic powers mean the powers of the psyche, or the powers of mind. The child’s mind is endowed with certain constrictive powers which should be cultivated with the utmost care, because the child’s mind is capable of teaching itself. With the correct environment, the Absorbent Mind is able to exert mastery over the environment, to build independent character, and a whole personality.


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