Brain is a perfectly adaptable device

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This text is part of: "Problem of Schooling" by Piotr Wozniak (2017-2024)

Outline: Optimum adaptation

The brain has all the tools needed to ensure an excellent adaptation of an individual to the environment. Each time we interfere with the indications of the control systems employed in the brain, we risk achieving worse adaptation. The harm may come from the wish to improve by self-discipline (see: Harms of self-discipline). It may come from authoritarian parenting or from coercive learning at school. Even a well-intended intervention by a psychologist or a psychiatrist may have harmful long-term consequences if the neural control systems are ignored, dampened, or overriden (e.g. with drugs or with therapy).

To optimally adapt to life, we need to listen to natural signals from the brain

Origins of subjugation

The brain has been perfectly designed to program itself for the most efficient response to the surrounding environment. One of the side effects of the brain's power is its attempt to use all resources available without sufficient concern about the future, or about the well-being of others. In its perfect adaptation, the brain will protect the future largely to the degree that it benefits the brain itself. The extent of that protection will be proportional to the available knowledge. Knowledge itself, in turn, is accumulated as part of the adaptation process.

In its interaction with others, the brain will employ the rules of game theory. Unfortunately, when winning in a zero-sum game is highly probable, the brain may become abusive and avail of the opportunity to subjugate others. With the emergence of tribes, nations, monarchies and religions, humans often exhibited a tendency to subjugate others and use others to one's own benefit. In the process of subjugation, the enslaved brains adapt to the limits of freedom, and partially give up on their own autonomy. In the same process, the brains in power will adapt to further exploitation. This is why we say that power corrupts. Many idealistic young revolutionaries become ruthless dictators once they grab the power. The power of adaptation is not necessarily good for the collective well being.

Optimum adaptation may have some bad outcomes that depend on the rules of game theory

Teaching as subjugation

The origins of teaching are both good and bad. These days, we mostly see teaching as a good thing, and the intent is to enlighten the new generations. However, teaching was also originally intended as a tool of exploitation. Religious leaders needed obedient masses. The scriptures were supposed to enhance wisdom, but would often be reduced to minimalistic creeds that were to be recited as mantras that would instill compliance. Monarchs needed obedient soldiers who could form regiments that could be played like chess pieces on a battlefield. Totalitarian governments worked to organize masses into a perfectly oiled productive machine. The goals of an individual would be subjugated to the goals of the ruling party or the dictator. The compulsory schooling system is no different. With all its best intent, it forms basic creeds and compulsory curricula to shape individual minds. Nearly all countries make it compulsory to know and respect the national anthem, and the national flag. The side effects of this coercive indoctrination vary. Instead of healthy love of one's own country, it may lead to aggressive nationalism. It may also backfire (see: I stopped being a patriot).

As much as dictators get conditioned to believe in their omniscience, so do teachers. Their best intent, combined with a sense of superiority makes them feel like important leaders on a mission. They are shepherds destined to tend to their helpless flock. They may not verbalize or realize the fact. The conditioning may go unnoticed and is an inevitable outcome of the difference between the conceptualization level between the younger and the older brains. In addition, the knowledge gap and the curse of knowledge add to the conspiracy of neurons to drive the teacher in the direction of feeling important and all-powerful. When the teacher begins to enjoy the position of power, it is the students and their adaptability that suffer.

Teaching is tainted with subjugation in its origins and its neural mechanics

School system

Today's schools are a product of multiple influences. In addition to their lofty goals, the influences include that original bad intent of subjugation. All the constellation of influences has solidified in a set of myths that still pervade the best of well-intended minds (see: Mythology that keeps the archaic school system alive). I know dozens of teachers, and I do not know a single one that I could accuse of bad intent, bad temper, or insufficient love of children. Sadly, the sample I know is biased. Children tell me horrible stories about horrible teachers. However, I know only one side of their story. "Horrible" teachers do not want to talk to me. Is it because I walk around it shorts? Or is there a correlation between good heart and the readiness to talk?

The story of the brain as the perfect adaptation device comes back in a full circle. A key set of myths about the brain and about schooling revolves around the idea that the brain needs to be programmed. Paradoxically, we used our perfectly adaptable device to harness the adaptability for purposes that limit our individual and collective intelligence (see: School undermines intelligence). We have turned the entire school system in the western world into a moloch that grinds the brains of students in a system reminiscent of slavery. We grind students into a compliant mass of unhappy individuals with limited survival, self-learning, and self-help capabilities. This self-perpetuating tragedy comes from the lack of knowledge about the optimality of the learn drive. If learning is unpleasant, it is bound to be harmful. All good learning is pleasurable, and all pleasurable learning is good. That's the fundamental law of learning derived from the simple truths of neuroscience. In practice, this means that only a child or a student has the capacity to make optimum choices in learning. Teachers may advise, provoke, assist, or inspire. However, teachers must not demand. Each time the learn drive guidance is overridden by commands from above, the power of the guidance is suppressed in the war of the networks. The competition between networks has been studied by Pavlov, and described by Luria. We know that it can lead to damage that can last for life. We know that kids hate school and that hate is largely based on the suppression of the learn drive. This has catastrophic impact on intelligence, mental health, social life and even political life. In the end, the waves of unhealthy behaviors bounce around the social fabric, cross, interfere and superpose like a soap splash in a bathtub. By suppressing the natural love of learning, we inflict lasting and widespread damage to social health and intelligence.

Coercive schooling destroys the brain's adaptability due to the optimum adaptation to coercion in the shape of learned helplessness

Figure: C. elegans has a nervous system made of only 302 neurons. However, this is enough to implement an exploratory algorithm that is reminiscent of human curiosity, creativity, and problem solving. When the worm finds a patch of food, it will explore it. However, on occasion it will take an unexpected dash in a random direction in search of new patches (bacteria). Similar algorithms can be found in other animals, however, human learn drive is far more complex. It is based on knowledge valuation and the exploratory breaks are reserved for period of learntropy dropping well below the expected value. Human creativity is also based on knowledge, while in the worm its only aspect is a random choice of a direction. For the worm, a new patch of bacteria is a problem solved, for a human it might be a new idea for terraforming Mars. Last but not least, the metaphoric tool for inducing learned helplessness (marked as "school") in primitive animals will rather only have the form of drive habituation. Nevertheless, the little worm may present a convincing illustration than the intelligent missile metaphor is far more universal and may be relevant to primitive nervous systems as well. For more on the universality of the learn drive see:

The harms of intervention

The school system puts all children on an assembly line and gives them all similar treatment depending on the stage of production. Personal interests are of little concern. Personalization is valued in name only. In reality, the adults decide when, how, what, and at what pace children learn. Even the time to wake up for school is determined by the system. Children incur massive injury to their collective brain power by the criminal practice of alarm clocks and early school time.

The school system and its experts supervise the assembly line and compute the averages. Those averages are used to set benchmarks. If the products do not meet the average criteria, they are marked as faulty products. Imagine poor little Einstein in today's performance tested world. His developmental delays would guarantee that his creative potential be washed out in therapy.

Those tortured souls are scarred with low self-esteem, which may last for life (see: How school can ruin a life). They are subject to additional treatment that makes the situation worse by further loss of freedom and autonomy. While one flaw is fixed, dozen other problems start showing up. The experts of a school system are like bulls in a china shop of a child's brain. They apply the scalpel to make a small fix, while slashing around a great deal of healthy tissue. I know fantastic children who have been decorated with horrible diagnoses like a Christmas tree. Their parents may not have the necessary knowledge to oppose the set of "therapies". The also believe in the benevolence of the system. As a result, a child that falls behind the average is rolled like pancake until it loses its own personality and the ability to function effectively in society in roles other than those assigned to intellectually "disabled". What is worse, when countries fall on the PISA test, they crank up the benchmarks and more bad products fall off the assembly line with ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, autism, Asperger's, depression, OCD, ODD, addictions, school refusal, and so on.

If well-intended behavioral intervention includes elements of coercion or displeasure, it is bound to have side effects whose extent and harm are hard to predict

The intervention vs. free choice

A 10-year-old can fail handwriting because he is obsessed with computers. He may use voice, or perhaps the keyboard. When asked to write squiggly lines, he may complain "Why do you make me do those stupid things? I do not need them for anything in my life". A precocious 4-year-old Aspie may learn to type relatively complex texts on a keyboard and verify his input with speech synthesis. A late bloomer may have problems with all forms of writing if all he needs is voice input.

One of the liveliest first graders I know, Dev, has been labelled at school as "retarded" more than once. He is ten, and should rather be attending grade 3. After 3 years of trying, he cannot sign his own name. He was forced to keep practicing hundreds of times until he hated the whole idea: "Why do I need to write such a long name? Why can I not be just Dev like l like to be?".

Dev's situation is made worse by problems with his trachea that leaves him defenseless. He can be understood only by putting the adult ear close to his mouth. Dev's single mom is unemployed. She keeps running rounds between therapies and hospitals. There is nothing wrong with the idea of behavioral therapy, except we need to remember it is not a visit to a dentist. If it comes with pain it is unlikely to do good. Dev hates his therapy sessions. He would rather spend his time playing videogames or shooting plastic guns in the playground. Teachers complain of insufficient progress at school. They have no trust in a mom with no degrees, and urge for more intervention to help the child. Instead of doing homework, the kid prefers to spend his time on a computer. Nobody in the world pays attention, but I did. I saw a young talent doing magic in Minecraft. When I took him for a run, he showed motivations and stamina that I have not seen at this age ever. When I took him for a cold swim, I saw the happiest kid in the world. His granny was sure he would die of pneumonia.

At school, Dev allegedly pays no attention. To me this is a pretty clear case. He is his own man. He does what he wants. That's a good sign. He is the proverbial wildebeest that is asked to climb trees on the savannah. There is only one thing that will save the kid from the adult interference, his undisturbed trust in his powers and his loving mom and caring octogenarian granny. That love is his refuge and the warranty of good survival. In the meantime, at school, a great of deal of good intent is based on the fish tank perspective. All that good intent is eager to intervene, "help", and correct the behavior and the "disability". In a democratic school, this scrawny kid might turn into a programmer or a game designer. However, democratic schools in Poland are illegal. One of the best inventions in education in the last century is banned. Dev's intellect would soar if he was free. Instead, he is called a retard. If he was free, his place in society would be assured, solid, self-chosen, satisfactory and productive.

Experience from democratic schools seems to indicate that freedom and non-intervention should be the default option in psychology, pedagogy and psychiatry

Three learning alternatives

Depending on passions and interests, writing on a keyboard may be easier than penmanship for a 4-year-old. If we force kids to do things that they consider "stupid", we lose authority. Parents lose authority and may see the influences shift from their household to the playground. Teachers or experts lose authority and will never be respected again. It is the knowledge valuation system that determines the value of skills, knowledge and activities. There is only one way to change the behavior based on such valuation: change the entire network to produce a different output. This may require a great deal of learning and unlearning. This is very hard. The brain likes to protect its models and beliefs (see: Brain algorithms protect models of reality).

Kids are too smart these days to be easily manipulated. If parents block YouTube, they will learn the same wisdom from their peers. If we color individual portions of the concept network involved in learning by their control influences, we can clearly see the three outcome alternatives: thriving, rebellion, or helplessness. Thriving is the natural state of things. Rebellion and helplessness show up when schools intervene (see: Optimization trap of the coercive school system). Rebellion is a waste of time, but it preserves the learn drive and may have some inspirational value too. Naturally, the value of inspiration has nothing to do with the effect the teacher wants to accomplish. The most tragic is the case of helplessness. This is the source of depression. When a 15-year-old finds no respite: at school and at home, depression is highly likely. Only a good support from a network of friends can be of help, but networks operate in conditions of freedom. If the teen moves from school to home and his smartphone has just been confiscated, despair is the end result. An authoritarian dad with a belt may complete the circuit of destruction. Homework is like eating old sandals: it comes in in pain, and comes out soon at the other end. Nothing stays inside beyond the bad taste in the mouth. If all that oppression and slavery begins with school mythology, we know that ignorance can destroy young lives (see: Mythology that keeps the archaic school system alive).

Learned helplessness has many guises. Paradoxically, a straight A student may seem to evade my classification. This can be in part explained by the old soup problem. Good students often ride on the coincidence of school and passions, thrive by adapting their passions to the demands of schooling, or just get damaged by the system by graduating with no tangible skills of adaptation to the adult world. See: Dangers of being a Straight A student.


Democratic schools provide kids with freedom. They have an uncanny ability to eliminate a great deal of learning and behavioral problems. They boast of knowing no ADHD or dyslexia among its graduates. I am not surprised. The entire child psychiatry seems to be targeted at ensuring the normative performance at school.

I have no doubt, a democratic school could change the life of one of my friends. He suffers from schizophrenia. I have no idea how the schizophrenia started or even if its is genuine. I would not claim that freedom at school might cure an organic problem. However, a democratic school can find a fit for the most unusual case of neurodiversity. All the magic boils down to the perfect adaptability of the brain.

My schizophrenic friend is a genius of history with savant memory and vibrant passions. As a student of long-term memory, I do not use the savant term lightly. I tested my friend on details of history and was truly amazed.

Sadly, the genius mind of my friend is of little use to anyone. My friend is a middle aged loner on a disability pension (starvation level). He likes the status quo. Nobody bothers him. He can read history books in peace. His troubles started at school. He can remember the weirdest dates on the history dateline, but he was completely unable to memorize words of foreign languages. His brain conceptualized differently, and his passion for history produced an outcome that is a polar opposite of his hate of learning languages. He vividly recalls failing Russian, his bad teachers, the penalties, and the ridicule of the peers. This lead to an increase in isolation, and a number of troubles. His self-esteem is nonexistent. His diagnosis of schizophrenia came later. His schizophrenia must be mild because the symptoms he describes seem inconsequential. I never noticed any. Evidently, it is not a John Nash case. Perhaps he has just reconciled with a useful diagnosis?

In a democratic school, my friend might drift into a position where his talents could be used by millions. He might write his own history books. His insights in counterfactual history are very original and inspiring. He might also be a great tutor. He loves kids. However, with no degree and a label of a psychiatric disorder, he goes on with his invisible existence on the periphery of society. Could school destroy his ability to learn languages by a build up of toxic memories that stunted the relevant subcomponent of the concept network. This would not be unusual. Freedom could send this amazing brain on an entirely different trajectory. Whatever his organic ailments, if any, his perfectly adaptable device, the brain, would show him the right fit in society. Instead of finding his own fit, he was a square peg in a round hole. He was pushed in so hard, he lost his shape and usefulness. He fell off the assembly line and was forgotten.

Asemantic learning

A great deal of trouble with learning is a result of asemantic learning in a coercive setting. This inevitably leads to toxic memories. The status of asemanticity is not an attribute of knowledge. The same knowledge may appear asemantic to one brain and perfectly scaffolded in a solid semantic framework in another brain. Classical asemantic threat in early schooling is the multiplication table. If it comes too early, in a wrong context, with wrong or absent mnemonic tools, with absent number sense, with absent understanding of the concept, the multiplication table can be purely asemantic. This is why I call it the queen of toxic memory.

A teacher's effort to enforce memorization of the multiplication table may lead to math anxiety that will keep building up over years with successive problems with new areas of math. And the problem of asemantic learning is solved effortlessly by means of freedom. In conditions of freedom, the reliance on the learn drive makes it possible to avail of knowledge darwinism. If pieces of knowledge cannot find their semantic framework, an individual may be left with a gap of ignorance for life. But ignorance is far less dangerous than the hate of learning. It is the pleasure of learning that ensures that we go through life by constantly patching up weaknesses in skill and knowledge. It is the helpless individual that is left vulnerable in life. A college degree is of no assurance if it is not propped up with continual adaptation. Asemantic learning and coercive learning do more harm than good. They should be stripped of the dignity of being called "learning". For mindless or coercive forms of fact gobbling exercised at school, I use a more deserving term: cramming.

The greatest asset of unschoolers is their love of learning. No remnant of ignorance is safe in their minds

Disrupted conceptualization

Without understanding the dynamics of the concept networks and the conceptualization process, it is hard to explain why schooling is such an awful idea. From the point of view of a run-of-the-mill teacher, schooling seems pretty effective and simple: you put stuff on the input (e.g. 7x8=56), and the brain encodes it. If it refuses to encode, the child should repeat the procedure, and then repeated it even harder. If things keeps getting forgotten, everyone experiences frustration: teachers, tutors, family, and the child itself. God forbid anyone came up with the idea of spaced repetition in such a situation (see: Hating SuperMemo). Instead, all educators in the world should get this memo:

Memorizing things can be harmful

The harm of memorizing incoherent knowledge is not only caused by the possibility of toxic memory. There is also a less known and less understood harm of interference with the conceptualization process.

In rough approximation, conceptualization can be visualized as an evolution of the connectome. Current wiring, current brain state, and the input will determine the directionality of the evolution. The sequence of learning matters. Learning math before learning to read will result in a different brain than is the case with the opposite (reading before math). Doing both simultaneously will have yet a different outcome. There is no optimum wiring as each adaptation and each environment will have their own optimum. This is why classroom learning is so inefficient (see: Inherent problems of classroom schooling). This is also why the best adaptation comes with exposure to target environments with an optimum admixture of variety that fosters generalization. For example, for a future sculptor, few things are as beneficial for development as the exposure to his own dad's artistic study. For a future javelin throwing champion, inspiration from his Olympic dad can leave a lasting mark from the early childhood. It is no coincidence that family has this powerful imprint on the child. If we give up on that value and make the brain adapt to the noisy setting of the kindergarten, we are less likely to end up with a future artist or a future champion.

Daycare is an artificial design in which dense and homogeneous social interaction dominates the meaningful input to the brain. Daycare is less likely to foster social diversity. In daycare, the child will adapt perfectly to a social setting in which fights and the battle for toys might become a central influence factor. If the kindergarten introduces early math and reading, instead of great minds, we may end up with lifelong haters of math and books. We may end up with individuals who know how to game the system to do minimum work for maximum social approval. That's a typical outcome of schooling.

If we imagine the brain as a set of wires, and brain inputs as little holes in the skull, the teacher may be tempted to connect too proximal holes. Proximity seems to ensure short wiring and little cost. What a teacher cannot see is how the brain threads a wire. Perhaps that simple math operation needs a cable running loops around the skull. The distance and the cost can be astronomical. It may conflict with prior wiring. The brain will reject such a connection. It will absorb it. The connection will be forgotten. It is a natural defense against inefficient wiring. However, a stubborn teacher may insist that the connection is right. He may try to wire it again and again. It is similar to an impromptu architect from a classic Polish comedy who did not like a design of a housing complex, and decided to swap the lake with a building. The operation was easy on a mock up. It was impossible in real life. The audiences laughed. If a teachers does this kind of reshuffling in a child's brain, nobody can see the tragedy of the joke. All the costs are borne by the child. Toxic memory is a result of the associated frustration. However, disrupted conceptualization affects the wiring of the brain. Disrupted writing affects the intelligence.

It is impossible to wire the brain without looking inside. The only insight into the wiring is the child's learn drive

The only smart alternative is to employ natural dynamics of the concept networks that wire on demand by neurite sprouting and pruning. This is easily achieved by knowledge darwinism that always finds a perfect semantic framework that ensures high coherence and high applicability. If spaced repetition is employed to perpetuate good wiring, we may get the opposite effect. Increase in abstract knowledge and increase in intelligence. The only precondition is the pleasure of learning. The brain can take care of itself. Self-directed learning is effective and cheap.

Coercive learning at early ages may have a negative effect on brain wiring and intelligence

Future of science

Stephen Wolfram might be the brightest star of genius around. We toss the term genius eagerly in cases when we do not understand a piece of work that we know or intuitively believe to be great. The new kind of science and new physics by Wolfram belong to that category. His new models of physics based on simple hypergraphs rules may breathe a new kind of life in science (Stephen says). It seems pretty plausible, esp. considering Wolfram's pragmatic accomplishments. The models are indeed incredibly simple, they allow of complex evolution, and are said to be powerful enough to express the forces that lead to the creation of the universe (see pictures for a rough intuition).

Human genius comes in with good genes. However, those genes are not elite genes. These are the genes that shape the conceptualization process that makes the brain a perfectly adaptable device. Wolfram genius did not come with mother's milk. It came by years of relentless and passionate investigation of mathematical interpretations of reality. If others failed to match Wolfram's achievements, it is for the loss of capabilities and opportunities that is served by the brutal events of life. When many fell by the side, Wolfram is a survivor. He managed to carve a nice niche for creative effort by being free from academic pressures. His life and creative effort are sustained by Mathematica.

There is a simple formula for taking Wolfram's work and bringing it to a new level. The formula does not involve Wolfram himself but an army of little Wolframs. All we need is kids with freedom to explore. Kids whose love of learning is not ruined by cramming the multiplication table or being forced to write their own name a hundred times (see: Direct instruction blocks pathways to great discoveries). The only thing those kids need is some early introduction to the beauty of Wolfram's ideas.

Wolfram's science is inherently attractive for little children. His graphs are captivating and esthetically pleasing. If we manage to have tiny kids think in terms of hypergraphs, they will take Stephen's effort well beyond what he himself could do. This is why we must not enforce compulsory curriculum and steal a child's time and passion. If a kiddo makes his choice, he should be able to explore Wolfram World, and many other universes. If the young brain conceptualizes in a stew of hypergraphs, his reasoning may be transformed for life. He may be able to simulate physical processes in his head better than Einstein or Wolfram themselves. The neocortex and its white matter connectedness is shaped at a young age. This says nothing about the right age for developing genius. It only says that the new kind of science needs the new kind of reasoning. Its is the kind of genius, not its extent, that is associated with the age of conceptualization. A young brain can be optimized for new kind of thinking. This kind of thinking may make new kind of science a child's play. Today, only Wolfram and his followers dabble in this new scientific playground. In the future, an army of little brains can enjoy the same kind of fun, and discover things we never dreamt of.

Do you remember Dev I mentioned earlier? If I get a chance, I will show Dev the graphs from Wolfram's book. Hopefully, I will be able to report some interesting news. Do schools have a right to mark Dev as a flawed product? I hope to prevent that self-fulfilling prophecy.

The future of science will depend on the rich supply of freshly and differently conceptualized brains that will use the principles of free learning to foster intellectual diversity


  • brain is equipped with an optimum adaptation guidance device: the learn drive system (see: Optimality of the learn drive)
  • learn drive enables prompt and optimum adaptation to any form of environment the individual is exposed to
  • optimum adaptation may have some bad outcomes for the collective adaptation (e.g. subjugation of others)
  • adaptation may be slowed down by excess information, excess complexity, excess variability, excess speed of change, etc.
  • the speed of environmental change may affect the adaptation. Changing schools or towns is inspirational, however, if the adaptation cannot keep up with the pace of change, it may turn out chaotic and inefficient
  • the learn drive is suppressed by schooling and thrives in self-directed learning
  • the simplest measure of effective adaptation is the pleasure of learning
  • feedback in learning may result in thriving, rebellion or helplessness. Usually it settles as a mix of all three, while intellectual thriving should always be the sole goal
  • one of the main reasons for school hate is the override of the learn drive system (see: Why kids hate school?)
  • reward deprivation resulting from the suppression of the learn drive may results in learned helplessness, addictions, depression, behavioral problems, and more (see: Reward diversity in preventing addictions)
  • early academic instruction is particularly harmful (see: Abandon early math instruction!)
  • schooling is driven by benchmarks based on averages, which incur untold harm on those who do not meet the norm
  • the terror of averages hurts those with disabilities as well as those who are gifted
  • delays caused by the precocity paradox in a rigid system of benchmarks may lead to a drastic suppression of development
  • in a rigid system of schooling and remedial therapy, neurodiversity is underutilized and stigmatized
  • eager intervention may turn neurodiversity into a disability that can derail a human life
  • direct instruction prevents exploration, stunts creativity, and may preserve the old ways of thinking in the process of neural conceptualization
  • coercive learning may disrupt the process of the optimal brain wiring in development
  • daycare is vastly inferior to healthy families in providing rich environments for optimum adaptation to adult life
  • the obvious claims on the adaptability of the brain are thwarted by a set of myths that solidify and perpetuate the school system (see: Mythology that keeps the archaic school system alive)
  • the system of schooling was born in part from the wish to subjugate others. Children often compare school to prison, and schooling to slavery. Compulsory schooling must end

For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru