The Young Imaginers

What makes modern kids intelligent and adaptable in such a rapidly changing world? What is a critical factor in the educational system that gets short shrift? I think it’s teaching kids to imagine, as a basic skill. Learning numbers is necessary, and we all need to learn them, but considering the amount of cheating going on––web assisted, in colleges across America––I would humbly submit that these cheating kids do so because they’re unappreciative of the hard work of learning, and the reason that learning is such hard work for them is because digital life has robbed them of something.

Native human imagination.

It doesn’t happen on a screen, but within the brain itself. The true nature of intelligence––the human ability to look around at the world, see what needs to be done for survival and imagine solutions––includes the inventiveness to make the inventions themselves that solve the problems. Even if those inventions are not machines or technology, but social processes.

Learning theories abound out there. Once long ago, during a Door to Imagination Workshop I was offering, a woman educator sat back, rather startled, and said, “What you’ve described here is a genuine learning theory.” I’ve never forgotten that. She was right, I think, in that the simple act of imagining builds neural nets in kids’ brains. It doesn’t really matter what they’re imagining, as long as they’re tapping this hidden gift they’ve all been born with. Imagination in childhood becomes creativity in adulthood. And vision. And drive. The stories don’t matter. The neural activity is what matters.

I’ve been in the business of telling stories to kids since 1982. It’s not that I’m trying to use fairytales, myths and legends to convince kids that those old stories are real, because they’re not, although they all carry ethical lessons. No, it’s because I know that archetypal stories carry a pulse that’s ancient and strong enough to get modern, digitally-distracted kids to imagine them in the first place.

Not by watching.

By listening.

When kids imagine, their brains light up, according to PET scans. The learning theory is to forge new, underutilized, under-myelinized neural connections to build their basic intelligence structures. Wasn’t there some presidential election where “the vision thing” was an issue?

It doesn’t matter what the kids become in life when they grow up. It’s how they approach whatever they become imaginatively, so they can run clear-eyed scenarios for their futures, take stock of what’s going on around them (we are in unique times, I must say) and use their creative minds to fix the problems and survive.

To explore samples of how this learning theory works, I invite you to visit the new and purchase storytelling audios that appeal to you. I get letters from twenty-somethings all the time who grew up with my stories. Out of the blue they email me, thanking me for being turned into imaginers.

Maybe we can’t smell as well as dogs, but we can paint mind pictures across our potential futures. Dogs can’t do that. Nor, as far as we know, can any of the other beasts with whom we share our fragile, biologically crafted Earth.

That’s our burden as the supposedly smart ones, we humans.

Odds Bodkin

Incivility and Short-Circuited Mirror Neurons

Everybody needs to be a little selfish, of course. In the vast scheme of Nature we’re all competing with one another for various things. Food. Clothing. Shelter. Love. Safety. There’s nothing wrong with that since living things have evolved that way, from we humans down to the tiniest of viruses. And yet in modern human societies burdened by unprecedented crowding, incivility, a form of selfishness, is a complicated Gordian Knot, and when incivility ends up getting in the way of our obtaining food, clothing, shelter, love and safety, the behavior loses its luster. Every time I get in my car, I’m trusting other people to be civil while they’re driving theirs. Please don’t lose control of your vehicle and hit me. Please remain in your lane over there beyond the median. Please don’t pass me at high speed and immediately slow down in my lane so I have to hit the brakes. That drives me nuts. A truly uncivil driver is eventually taken off the road in one way or another. And unless you’re part of a gang, an uncivil child is pretty quickly a lonely one, too, which leads to all manner of social difficulties later in life. Empathy, the opposite of incivility, works better.


“Mirror neurons” in monkeys are neurons that fire when the monkey “acts” and also when it sees the same action in another monkey. We’re still on the way to proving that we have them, but the chances are good. When I tell stories and make ridiculous faces, half the kids in my audience make them, too. Laughter is contagious as well, of course. Neuroscientists are discovering that these behaviors are rooted in a kind of built-in empathy.


“…neuroscientific evidence suggests that merely observing another individual in a painful situation yields responses in the neural network associated with the coding of the motivational affective dimension of pain in oneself.” (you can read University of Chicago researchers Jean Decety’s and Claus Lamm’s paper about empathy here.)


According to empathy studies, when someone else is in pain and we see it firsthand, most people’s “mirroring systems” light up with a similar feeling. How many of us groan when we see a particularly tough hit during a football game? We don’t experience the player’s actual pain, but we groan anyway.


Many parents and educators––and someone like me who reads the “comments” section of just about any online publication these days––have been scratching their heads at why the level of incivility is so very high and the language is so coarse, offered by people of all ages, but lots by young people. Even threats of violence are fairly routine if you express opinions publicly on the web. Especially, and most sadly, if you’re a woman.


So here’s a theory about why that’s going on. If while we’re online and we read people’s opinions with which we vehemently disagree, then we increasingly feel comfortable with hyper-aggression because we can no longer see the reactions on their faces when they see our comments. In other words, Nature’s old way of keeping us civil is no longer there.


Our mirror neurons have been short-circuited by our own technology.