Thursday, February 19, 2009

the physiology of habit

The particular object of this volume, as a member of the 'Home Education' Series, is to show the bearing of the physiology of habit upon education; why certain physical, intellectual, and moral habits are a valuable asset to a child, and what may be done towards the formation of such habits.

I beg to acknowledge my indebtedness to Dr Carpenter's Mental Physiology for valuable teaching on the subject of habits contained in some two or three chapters of that work. Also, I would renew my grateful thanks to those medical friends who have given careful and able revision to such parts of the work as rest upon a physiological basis. Charlotte Mason, Preface to Home Education Series

Here we find laid out the scope and goal of the book Home Education, which mainly deals with children up to the age of 9. So you can see that "Habits" will be very important in reading that book, and the approach I am taking is to search through the book for all her references to habits and try to ponder it with regard to my two boys who are still in that age group.

If you follow the link you can see a facsimile of Dr Carpenter's book. I thought I would go through it looking for mentions of habit, in order to see if I could get some of the context for Charlotte Mason's views on "habit" and its place in education.

On page 16 and the following pages, Dr Carpenter gives an overview of his positions on habit and the relation of mind to body. He says there are two kinds of habit, automatic and volitional. Automatic habits are physiological ones like breathing and heartbeat and reflexes. Volitional ones he says were originally put into effect by the Will (thus the term volitional) but have become what he calls "secondarily automatic". He uses the example of walking to show degrees of acquired habits. Insofar as a person has learned to walk and doesn't have to think about it at all, he can walk automatically (still an acquired skill, but does not require any real thought). If the person is walking along, his will is guiding and permitting the walking towards some destination -- this he terms "voluntary". Now say the person is very weary and has to consciously force himself along for whatever reason. This is what Dr Carpenter would call "volitional" activity because the will is overmastering the bodily reluctance to continue.

He goes on to say that when we will to act in a certain way, we don't will the minute physical processes (like the act of walking). Rather, we will to "produce a certain preconceived result". What does it matter how we will? He says it is important because (1) it implies that we have to act in order to produce the habit of that kind of action -- for example, as he says, someone with a detailed knowledge of anatomy will be no better than a complete ignoramus in making a certain kind of trained movement, say rowing a boat. You have to form the automatic nature of the habit by repeated action -- what they call now "muscle memory" . As for (2), it is not enough to will when the body is for the time being incapable of the carry-through. For example, a stammerer may have the strongest will in the world and yet be unable to cease stammering unless he is able to learn to master the mechanics of stammer-free speaking. The walker if he keeps walking will come to the point where not even his efforts of will can keep his exhausted muscles working.

The point of all this? He says that the Will is brought to bear upon what the "Ego" (the spirit or interior self) proposes as worthy of its attention. It is by the volitional direction of its attention that the Will "exerts its domination".

"It is thus that each individual can perfect and utilize his natural gifts; by rigorously training them in the first instance, and then by exercising them only in the manner most fitted to expand and elevate, while restraining them from all that would limit or debase.-- In regard to every kind of Mental activity that does not involve origination, the power of the Will, though limited to selection, is almost unbounded."
In other words the Will can't propose ideas for itself -- it has to select ideas from what is presented in the form of some kind of reasoning or experience -- and it can't make the body or mind do what it is simply not capable of, but within those conditions it has any amount of power.

I notice that people in the later 19th century often talked in very "strenuous" terms, and in this Dr Carpenter is similar to Charlotte Mason and William James and probably others I have not read. I am not a very strenuous person myself, and even writing out something like "rigorously training" makes me feel like crawling under the covers and dozing for a few moments. It makes me feel like I am being "Organdized" as Winnie the Pooh felt when Rabbit was scurrying around Looking for Small. My natural reaction aside, this is interesting because I can see definite reflections of Charlotte Mason's ideas here, and I think knowing this context will help me study her thoughts on habits in a slightly clearer light.


Katie said...

That feeling of being "organdized" is what I am trying to avoid with the kids, while also trying to motivate them to good habits. I can be a Rabbit, and I can be a Pooh, but never both at the same time.

The process of breathing, etc., is controlled by a certain part of the brain according to a book I am reading. I can't remember which part, but if it gets damaged, the person is in trouble. The Will, I would guess, is housed in the prefrontal cortex.

(Trying to organize your thoughts into my thoughts on the brain book I've been reading.)

Willa said...

I like the way you put that, "The Will is housed in the prefrontal cortex".

That makes it very clear that the cortex is the architecture and the Will is the occupant..... rather than as some scientists tend to think, the Will BEING the cortex itself.