I've wanted to write a blog post with this title for a long time. It's a question I think of often. It hit me again this morning.
My five-year-old was telling me something about going left then going right. I was surprised that he had figured out left vs. right. It's something we worked on for, oh maybe, 10 seconds a few weeks ago, before getting distracted with something else. I had tried to teach him the "your left hand makes an L when you hold it up" trick, and it really didn't seem to sink in. Maybe because he hasn't fully figured out phonics yet. Anyway. He seemed to have directions totally nailed this morning! I tested him on it, and he did it correctly! So I asked him, because I wanted to know how he had managed to figure this out. "How do you know which is your left side and which is your right side?"
"I just remember that the left side is the one where my tooth hurt," he said, pointing to his left cheek.
I was stunned.
Last year he went through a period of bad tooth pain. One of his back molars was rotting before our eyes, even though we did everything "right"--brushed every day, not too much candy, no juice, etc. We have wretched dentists in this town (at least the ones that took state-covered insurance anyway), and they were of no help whatsoever. So I did some research, and put him on a diet that kept his blood sugar stable, and began supplementing with cod liver oil and grass-fed butter. His tooth pain died down, and the rot progression stopped. Yay!
However, he still remembers the pain. And he has started orienting his life, in a very literal way, around the memory of that pain.
I'm studying instructional design, and part of the process is learning about how Learning works. One of the best theories we have for Learning is the "schema" idea. Basically, every bit of knowledge that we know is connected to other bits of knowledge. Triggering one idea can bring up an entire network of ideas. Schemas help us make sense of extremely complex ideas and situations by forming quick representations of them.
But schemas are built, one little bit at a time.
It made me emotional to think that my son's schema for what "left and right" are is built on a memory of pain. Eventually, pretty soon, he'll understand the concept of "left and right" without relying on that scaffolding device (the memory of his tooth pain), but if he ever forgets and needs to dig down deep, that's the place his brain will take him. "Left is the side where my tooth hurt." His bout with tooth pain is part of his life, his way of orienting to the world, his identity.
In this example, I think the damage is pretty minimal. I don't see any other signs that he has been too terribly scarred by the battle we had with tooth pain last year. What about other wounds, though? Is he building his identity around the idea of not having a normal dad? (Or a normal mom, for that matter!)
What about the children who go through terrible, traumatizing experiences? How much of their schemas are built by referencing memories of awful abuse, war scenes, hunger, or life-threatening disease? They will not build schemas the same as normal children, because they simply can't. What has been handed to them is what their brains are working with. If could remove those reference points, would they be able to know the difference between left and right? What if trying to "heal" them of their pain would have the effect of destroying their ability to make some kind of sense of the world? Yes, the brain is plastic, but it takes an awfully long time to retrain even simple schema, how much more an entire brain.
So often I wonder. Pain is awful. I want it to go away. But what are the side effects of its absence? What would happen if I could magically make my pain go away? What in my life have I built around my pain, and the memories thereof, that would become hollow or confused if I could erase the pain? Like a game of Jenga--which blocks would make the entire tower topple over if they were removed, and which ones are safer to remove?