Optimization of behavioral spaces in development

From supermemo.guru
Jump to navigation Jump to search

This article by Dr Piotr Wozniak is part of SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving.

Optimizing development

Most people have potential for genius. Children grow in environments that are largely under adult control. We have a tremendous power to influence the future of society by providing good environments for kids to grow in. Today's kids often grow in environments that are highly harmful for their future problem solving capacity. The rules we set today will determine the future.

Do boundaries keep children safe?

Mom blogs will often bring up a household metaphor: a house needs a fence so that the family members could feel safe. The fence makes sure the dog will not run away. The bad people will stay out. That metaphor is used to discipline kids. Allegedly, kids need boundaries to feel safe. When we look at the optimization of the boundaries we will quickly discover that it leads to nowhere (the "optimum" is useless or absurd). The tighter the boundaries the safer we allegedly are, and the whole process converges onto a spot in which we gasp for air locked in a metal safe that feels most secure. In a life jampacked with rules and regulations, an institution may feel safe too. An individual in his own prison cell may feel safe. Being locked in an apartment may feel safe. Well-regulated and repeatable life on a ship makes people feel so safe that they may dread the return to the rules of open society on land. Prisoners or mariners alike, upon return to social life, show a spike in their propensity to drown their fears in alcohol. For the sake of analytical simplicity, let's define a behavioral space as the object of optimization.

Behavioral space

Behavioral space is the set of behaviors in a free-running animal that leads to no penalty (such as pain). The boundaries of the behavioral space are determined by the environment. The boundaries may have different origins. For example:

  • physical, e.g. a river, or psychological, e.g. fear of open spaces
  • inborn, e.g. avoidance of cold, or learned, e.g. avoidance of some foods
  • populational, i.e. imposed by other individuals or other species

In addition, in humans, the limits of the behavioral space are tightened with the rules of behavior imposed by parents, teachers, social groups, law, etc.

In a child with a large behavioral space, free exploration makes it possible to examine a wide range of behaviors for their impact on planning, goal-seeking strategies, navigation, and natural reward or penalty. In a child with a small behavioral space, excess authoritarian penalization limits the range of behaviors, decreases learning, and may ultimately lead to a pathology (see: War of the networks). In socialization, open system socialization provides for larger behavioral spaces and a wider range of the learned skillset. In a closed system socialization, e.g. in prison, the excessive penalization may lead to learned helplessness, and other negative side effects of learning in conditions of stress.

In a large behavioral space, a child might be allowed to run on a dining table, but would be penalized for hurting another child or endangering his own life. In contrast, in small spaces, children may be penalized for errors in grammar, bad spelling, being late, lifting a spoon with a wrong hand, failing to report toilet needs, reporting toilet needs at a wrong time, failing to complete a meal, eating wrong foods or at a wrong time, talking back, poor grades at school, poor attention, etc. Penalties may include shaming, emotional blackmail, time-outs, lock-ins, reward deprivation, tactical ignoring, spanking, or even a harsh beating.

Authoritarian parenting, discipline, and penalization may often lead to the illusion of accelerated learning. A well-disciplined child will follow the rules and receive accolades. It may show "better" behavior, better compliance, and "better" learning. This may perpetuate the authoritarian loop. Obedience stunts development (see: Dangers of being a straight A student).

In contrast, children in large behavioral spaces will be labelled as brats, which may lead to a degree of penalization via peer pressure. This penalization will often be indirect, i.e. dished out by the parent subjected to social influences. Rapid transition from open spaces (e.g. in childhood), to closed spaces (e.g. at school), may lead to behavioral disorders, or behaviors that are wrongly classified as pathological. In particular, poor definition of ADHD may lead to overdiagnosis, which is a direct consequence of natural defenses of the brain against the imposed limits on the extent of the behavioral space.

Limiting a child's behavioral space can be compared to limiting its access to a library. In terms of the jigsaw puzzle metaphor, small behavioral spaces come with a small set of jigsaw pieces or limited spaces for growing the puzzle. In knowledge tree or crystallization metaphors, we would see a tree or a crystal of knowledge growing in a tight box.

Optimization of behavioral spaces

Prolonged existence within limits of bounded behavioral spaces keeps individuals dependent on structures and procedures (e.g. social structures, prison rules, etc.). This has crippling effects that may last a lifetime.

Instead, when setting rules and boundaries for family life, we should take the learning criterion into the equation. Setting boundaries is not just about safety. Boundaries depend on safety and on learning. Those two criteria work in opposite directions. Even more, the role of safety keeps decreasing with development, while the role of learning is always fundamental. Instead of a claim: boundaries keep kids safe, we should strive at a progressive elimination of imposed boundaries for the sake of cognitive development. All healthy individuals are capable of setting up their own boundaries. For Alexander Wissner-Gross, intelligence is a force that maximizes freedom. This translates directly into the impact of behavioral spaces on learning. Tighter rules and tougher discipline entail less learning. There are fewer choices, and fewer learning opportunity. The only learning that benefit is the learning of the rules themselves (e.g. if this is Tuesday, it is my turn to dispose of garbage).

While boundaries may feel safe, bumping against boundaries is often a source of unnecessary stress and commotion. Bumps may be educational, but most of all, they take time and resources away from optimum learning. While a free child will explore and hit boundaries using its problem valuation network that will maximize benefit and minimize distress, a child beset by rules will not be given a chance to optimize. In addition, being a disciplinarian is very taxing for the guardian as well (at least until learned helplessness sets in). Letting kids free is liberating to the oppressor as well.

Instead of micromanaging the shape and the extent of the behavioral space, we should let the brain use its own optimization networks to do most of the calculations. In terms of neural optimization: letting kids find their own boundaries is based on the exact same mechanisms as letting kids choose their own progression via the learning process using the learn drive. The same rules apply to optimum socialization.

Under the pretense of keeping kids safe in a glass cage, we provide a justification for a multitude of rules aimed at satisfying the adult world: table manners, dress code, rules of conduct, respect for adults, order in toys, screentime limits, household chores, etc.

Boundaries are more often used to keep kids limited rather than keeping them safe

Predictability and learning

In terms of information theory, the concept of boundaries in education is pretty simple. Instead of taking a topological interpretation of the behavioral space, we can look at the explored environment in terms of predictability. If you place a child in an environment, boundaries reduce surprisal. In the extreme case, a child may end up in a fish tank with no predators around. However, in exploratory learning, surprisal is the necessary condition for the acquisition of knowledge. Perfect boundaries lead to zero learntropy. Take away the boundaries and the surprisal is maximized. Maximum surprisal is not necessary for maximum learning. The learn drive mechanism will ensure that maximum learning is obtained within sensory proximity. An animal does not care if the woods goes far beyond the space it can physically explore in a lifetime. With this probabilistic interpretation, maximum behavioral space leads to maximum learning. However, it is helpful to consider that for large spaces, boundaries may have negligible impact on learning. For this reason, safety and other practical considerations may justify imposing a boundary with little negative side effect. For example, a child may be free to socialize in an open playground, but also be kindly asked to never cross any of the surrounding streets.

Boundaries that stunt progress

Nearly all kids have a tremendous developmental potential. In a majority, however, this potential is largely squandered in daycare and in schooling. Very often, recovery in adulthood is difficult. The environments we set up for kids do not provide sufficient room to grow. Without an emphasis on freedom, problems solving and intelligence, we set kids onto a journey, in which they develop into unhappy members of a societal grinding machine. In this machine, humans become sad cogs never secure in their place and always looking for a stable fit.

Some problems begin with institutionalization (see: Daycare misery). Institutionalization is great for self-dependence. Through a system of rewards and penalties, using the sculptor of stress, we make kids self-reliable in an environment that serves adult needs. Potty training is extremely helpful in an institution. In a healthy natural environment, there is no need for "training". Urination is part of human physiology and the ability to urinate in the right place cannot even be branded as a skill. Nearly everyone does it effortlessly. That accelerated self-dependence has dramatic impact on long-term development. In many cases, it also seeds future problems with mental health. At the age of 3, kids should roam, play and solve problems they meet in their environment. They should not limit their cognitive development to satisfying adult needs. Learning to dress up on one's own is cognitively challenging. It is welcome. However, it cannot be coerced if a child finds other pursuits more rewarding. If tracking ants in sands provides better reward via the learn drive system, the adult should always fall back on the rule of thumb: the child's brain knows best. Once the child gets to school, the entire adult world seems to conspire to slow down development under the guise of "structured learning". I write about this in this book. Part of the problem with schooling is a seemingly lesser problem of rules and boundaries.

Nearly all moms, guardians, and teachers will insist that children need boundaries! They may also add: Boundaries make kids feel safe. A stern father might add: Rules are sacred, or: Without discipline, a child will never fit in modern hierarchical society. You may even hear: Stress is good. Stress makes you ready for adult life. And then there is that sacred biblical claim: Spare the rod and spoil the child. Fundamentalist Christians often employ that rule religiously even though it is not clear if it actually originated from the Bible.

All these statements carry a heavy ballast of mythology. Even a good psychologist may easily misframe the problem. The net result is that we engineer rules and boundaries in ways that are limiting creativity, learn drive, and the ability to solve problems.

The best formula for kids to fit perfectly in society is to let them build their own fit. In terms of optimization and game theory, we can define a set of behavioral spaces in which a child and later an adult will operate. Diversity of spaces favors rich learning. Opening adult spaces to children (e.g. employment), favors specialization. Elsewhere, I present a set of learning metaphors that help explain navigation, exploration, and learning in behavioral spaces. For example, a jigsaw puzzle metaphor can be use to imagine a growth of a jigsaw puzzle of knowledge in which the area of growth is limited by physical boundaries of interaction. All boundaries can be seen as learning opportunities, and the brain should look for optimum pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to provide a fit.

In theory, when looking at that learning process from the neural point of view, there is no substantive difference between learning zoology, socialization, and learning the boundaries of a behavioral space. The key differentiator for the sake of our analysis may be the magnitude of rewards and penalties. While learning zoology, a child may experience a mild pleasure of learning about ants. While learning about her behavioral spaces, the same child may get hit by a bus.

As much as this is the case in optimum socialization, the optimization of learning with constraints should be incremental, spontaneous, open, and rich. A toddler may need to slowly advance to more complex, and more unpredictable spaces. A teen may look for environments that provide rich experience or, alternatively, allow of early focus on future lifetime goals.

All boundaries in a system are a learning opportunity. All boundaries may bring in a degree of penalty or stress that will affect the exploration algorithm. The problem with adult-imposed boundaries is that they easily misdirect the memory association. A child spanked for approaching an oven may learn an association between the guardian and displeasure. The boundary may then become a case of learning that is directed against another human being. A child burnt by an oven will produce a correct association: a correction in behavior, hopefully without scars for life. While a kid in a hunter-gatherer tribe may play with a machete and rarely suffer a serious injury, a child in modern world is exposed to a far wider array of dangerous circumstances that all need to be learned one by one. Each modern danger provides a challenge and nobody can perfectly master the art of survival: 5-6% of people still die in accidents, many of which can be attributed to insufficient training or knowledge.

Ideally, all boundaries should be natural. Human-made rules are expensive in terms of time, hard to set in terms of the desired effect, and very often hard to manage. Child-proofing a room for a toddler is a sure way to take away key learning opportunities. Exposing kids to an electric grid, on the other hand, is a step too far with potentially tragic consequences. This is why the simplest algorithm for healthy behavioral spaces is to make them wide and provide rigid boundaries determined by safety, well-being of others, or property value. Spanking a kid with an urge to rush to the street might be a kind of rigid unpassable boundary imposed by the adult world for child's safety. It may backfire in an emotional misdirection. However, it is definitely better than all modern "intellectual" inventions of "time out", "no screen", or "no candy". These provide no instant conditioning appropriate for the age of the brain that still cannot see the danger of a street.

My optimum scenario may seem as a world without rules and without discipline. After all, boundary triggers, like a rush to a street, are rare. They are quickly extinguished thus becoming invisible (i.e. negligible factors of optimization). This anarchic impression may lead to a conclusion that a child without rules and stress will never meet adult challenges. The opposite is true. Free learning in open behavioral spaces, unless engineered artificially, is always rich in learning opportunities. The world is full of surprises, stressors, and problems to solve. It is the knowledge valuation network that drives learning, and problem valuation network that prompts the brain to incrementally approach increasingly difficult challenges. The most important factor in this growth equation is a healthy brain. If a child gets spanked for breaking a plate, instead of learning, we may end up with acute stress, lower quality sleep, and a stumble on the way to greatness. Every single brain cell counts, and every emotional clash with the adult world may take its toll in a loss of valuable synaptic connections. The same set of connections, in an optimum scenario, might be trimmed into an entirely different constellation that would serve a higher purpose.

The problem with parenting experts

The concept of a "parenting expert" is a bit suspect. We have psychologists, behaviorists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and the like. Many of them are great experts. Many of them are parents. Do we need a new branch of science called "parenting"? I think that sticking with the old terminology is a bit safer. Scientists come up with new theories, abolish old theories, improve their models, etc. Sciences can be a source of great inspiration for parents. Pavlov's conditioning makes a helpful piece of knowledge for anyone, incl. parents. It sounds inhumane, but there are important parallels between a child and a Pavlov's dog. While scientists hypothesize and inspire, a separate branch of science called "parenting" could quickly become a source of rigid rules to follow. In natural settings, all parents are equipped with all necessary instincts needed to take care of the young. Modern world adds some extra requirements, e.g. basic knowledge of technology such as "electricity can kill".

I largely blame "parenting experts" and "super nannies" for the wild proliferation of new golden rules of upbringing. Those rules are often pseudoscientific. Parenting experts tell you to teach kids early, teach them how to eat, how to organize their toys or shoes, how to urinate, how to dress for each imaginable context or each imaginable weather, how to obey, or how to listen. Experts will explain that there are different rules for school, and for home, and for grandma's home. Each new rule gives a parent a sense of parenting wisdom, and one more headache. Each new rule gives a child a new hoop to jump through. A parenting expert can even tell you at which age your child should speak. If you have a misfortune of breeding another Einstein, his failure to speak by four may be blamed on your insufficient religiousness about the golden rules.

The idea that "kids need boundaries to feel safe" in a mouth of a parenting expert is a codeword for: "discipline is essential for a happy household". In reality, the prescription is a formula for a monumental stress-load for kids and parents. The books about rules and discipline will often feature a cover with a picture of a child throwing a tantrum. Those pictures are alien to people in hunter-gatherer tribes. Those unhappy faces seem to have been born with modern western societies and modern parenting rule books. The picture of a tantrum suggest tantalizingly: "if this is your problem, we will help you achieve that perfect family from your dreams". The great expectations of a fantastic family often blow up in smoke in the same way as that always desired and ultimately failing concept of a warm perfect Christmas with family. The problem stems from the quest for perfection that ruins the peace of mind for a large portion of modern society.

An expert may tell you: "without rules, kids will not learn the real life". In reality, "real life" is all around, and the rules lock out the learning opportunities. Cleaning up the toys on command is not "real life" (unless in the army). Struggling with self-made mess in one's room is real life. Is order in toys serving a child or is it serving the adult need for perfection? All adaptation to command systems are best accomplished by well-developed brains. This is why large behavioral spaces favor learning. Rich learning makes future adaptations easy.

As soon as the kid learns to converse, parents are supposed to explain the rules of the house. When a bedtime is set by the rule, the bedtime routine becomes simple: bath, short fable, lullaby, quick hug, and sleep. No more chatting, bathroom, or drinks. Forget human physiology, circadian cycle, value of hydration for the brain, value of diuresis, etc. This is the tyranny of perfect rules coming from a parenting expert. Instead, parents should look at cases of radical unschooling when kids set their own rules in harmony with their needs and their physiology. To spite all experts, in those radical cases, harmony emerges and happy learning ensues. Boundaries turn superfluous.

The minimum ruleset

The boundaries for kids should be simple and easy to remember:

  • do not kill
  • do not hurt
  • do not destroy

Do we need more? Do we need to explain to a child that saying "hello" makes society a friendlier place? Explanation does not hurt, but rules derived on one's own may form a more coherent structure in memory. They are thus internalized better, remembered better, and easier to employ and satisfy. To insist that a child should say "hello" is a first step to negative conditioning via natural resistance (see: Education counteracts evolution). Incessant negative conditioning may lead to pathological behaviors. Teaching can easily become harmful. Coercive teaching of social rules can lead to social pathology. It is no coincidence that a great deal of most rebellious anti-clerical attitudes are born in strictly disciplinarian households that use the rod as the tool and the scripture as the guidance to disciplining kids. Instead, nature and reason are guidance good enough (for possible exceptions see: Rules necessitated by technology).

Rules in doubt

There are many rules that parents follow. Nearly always there is a good intent behind the rules. Very often that intent is skewed by adult convenience. Further noise is added by various ideologies (e.g. religious dogma). Last but not least, when science comes in to help determine the best outcome, it nearly never comes in without a preconceived model (see: Wrong models are also welcome). For example, most of scientific literature against spanking shows a very clear bias towards negative behavioral outcomes of physical violence. Family violence is one of the surest destructive forces in development. However, the prescriptions tend to be all encompassing. Correlations are used without much consideration to causality. As a result, a ban on spanking may criminalize a behavior of a fantastic mom who smacks on instinct, even if the slap is a result of self-defense. Similarly, the literature on violence in the media nearly universally condemns all forms of brutality, and sparks a wave of regulation and technology aimed at parental control. In the end, the freedom of a child is limited even if incremental exposure to violence and a degree of healthy desensitization is superior to warm ignorance of the evil forces.

In all similar circumstances, research is helpful, however, there is always a rule of the thumb. We need to ask if humans have been exposed to discussed problems or threats in the course of evolution. For example, if lion cubs fight for play, and that play is a form of preparation to adult life, why do we penalize kids for playful fighting? Similarly, all natural world is soaked in violence. By shielding a child from a bloody scene in which a tiny antelope is ripped by a cheetah, we risk a bigger shock later in life (e.g. while watching Mowgli).

Modern world introduces forces that confuse our rules of behavior. When it doubt, it is helpful to look at the forces of evolution, or at the life of hunter-gatherer tribes

Self-regulation can fail

Each time I learn more about human physiology, I marvel over the power of self-regulation. In the course of evolution, living organisms developed thousands of control systems that seem to defy the second law of thermodynamics. You can binge the whole day on food and drinks, and the next day, the composition of your blood is hardly changed, and nearly all changes are explainable by further adaptations controlled by systems that are often not directly associated with the response to food intake. The most amazing proof of perfection is the fact that there is no noticeable difference between the state of my mind and thoughts in the morning today, as compared with three decades ago. I am supposed to be a bit smarter, but I have no sensor of smartness. I sense no change. Only when I compare the pictures from years ago, I visually assert the change. But this says little about the power of self-regulation. After all, the evolution does not care about the old. Some of the aging process is programmed via evolutionary neglect. In other words, if the evolution wished to make us live for a thousand years, it might do it on a whim. Bristlecone pine can live for 5000 years. If having offspring can be considered a radical form of rejuvenation via body sloughing, I am a continuation of a pretty ancient germline that did not change much in 100,000 years.

Today, the perfection of automatic control fails in a clash with modern lifestyle. The evolution did not build in defenses against some of the changes in our environment. I admire the concept of radical unschooling. I advocate large behavioral spaces. However, I do not think we can escape a couple of rules that can defend human perfection from the attack from technology.

Hereby I name four top threats associated with modern lifestyle (if you think I should list other threats, let me know). I put the threats in order of priority by my own estimation of their impact on the future of mankind:

  1. sleep: the availability of light in the evening keeps disrupting human circadian cycle. This leads to insomnia, phase shift disorders, sleep deprivation, stress, and a whole cascade of health problems
  2. food: easy availability of food underlies the epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and the whole host of associated health issues
  3. exercise: mobility became effortless. Escalators, cars and airplanes, do the job of the muscle. Immobility is a mortal health threat
  4. school: compulsory schooling keeps causing a massive cognitive conflict in the young generation. For a majority of kids, the pain of schooling leads to submission, learned helplessness, survival in stress, rebellion, or a combination of thereof. Luckily, compulsory schooling will be abolished soon due to the fact that we increasingly realize that coercion leads to stunted creativity and terminates the passion for learning. In many cases, coercive learning contributes to the epidemic of mental health problems

I put sleep problems ahead of obesity because overweight people can stay in good shape with healthy eating, exercise, good sleep, etc. Bad sleep nearly always interferes with the control of the food intake.

All the above threats to human well-being can be resolved with good rules. Those are the rules that would not conflict with the main idea of this text. Some of those rules I propose elsewhere (e.g. Curing DSPS and insomnia, Fundamental Law of Learning, etc.). Some of the rules I do not know. For example, how can we ensure a healthy body without an internal conflict sparked by dieting. Eating healthy is probably not enough. Eating less is a solution that can easily go wrong. We need to find an algorithm for "eating right". We should never force feed healthy children. Perhaps we might solve the problem by not messing up control systems in the first place. I do not know the answer. You need to search elsewhere. Last but not least, I never speak much about exercise because the solution seems a bit too obvious. I would summarize it as this: (1) learn a lot about exercise and health, (2) find time, (3) start slowly and (4) keep adding time and effort in proportion to fun. At some point, addictive powers of exercise will keep you busy for life unless .. other control systems fail you (e.g. it makes little sense to force yourself to exercise after a night of bad sleep).

Even with a perfect rulebook, life will never be perfect. Even optimum control may fail. You can spend your life learning, only to discover that all your knowledge became obsolete due to a new invention. You can dig into a blind path in research by starting off with a wrong model. You can be a picture of health and die of cancer within months.

Open behavioral spaces and rules protecting human brain and health do not ensure a happy life. In addition to incursions from technology, and baked in hazards of stochastic optimizations, the world adds a set of surprises. We still have war, political or ideological conflict, criminality, and the plain old sin that is always hard to combat: ignorance. Even if you are Einstein, you can still meet Hitler on your way. You can die crossing a street. An asteroid might be in the books. No marvel of evolution can help you survive that. However, a good brain is a good defense. The brain should be the priority.

Rules that prevent the incursions of technology into physiology are inevitable. The brain should be the priority

Freedom is not stress free

The whole idea of large behavioral spaces is criticized by those who worship order and discipline. One of the curious arguments against freedom is the alleged failure of the "Scandinavian experiment" with stressless upbringing. The validity of that reasoning can easily be falsified with the topological explanation of how open spaces work, however, I need to emphasize that my thinking about education is a polar opposite of that putative Scandinavian philosophy. On one hand, stresslessness implies no training in stress resilience, while I advocate all forms of eustress and healthy acute stress (e.g. in sports, competition, travel, etc.)(see: Stress resilience). A degree of stress is written into the equation of the exploratory learning. Acute stress is a response to penalties involved in the process. On the other hand, strongly socialist economies can boast of social justice and a high happiness index. However, they also tend to liberate women at the cost of an increased focus on child care. Institutionalization is rampant and encouraged. Even worse, in Sweden, conscription is back, and homeschooling is banned. As a result, we can see a toxic mix of institutionalization on one hand, and freedom from penalization on the other. In an open system of a playground, kids explore and socialize. They receive their rewards and penalties based on performance. In a closed system with no accountability, the exploration is limited and the reward system is corrupted. This is a straight path to major pathologies. While Nordic countries should never be put all in the same basket, Sweden's drug problems increased manifold since the 1990s. Their zero-tolerance drug policy has been criticized by the UN as the violation of human rights. And it all started from the best-intentioned reasoning that a welfare society might collapse with an easy access to drugs.

Manipulation of the environment

There is a variant of "stressless" upbringing that may be labeled as "Yes parenting". It is championed in the UK by Bea Marshall, a mom who claims that any form of punishment is a form of child abuse. Instead, Bea advocates parenting in which penalties are minimized by changes to the explored environment. For example, if you do not want your kids to binge on sugar, do not keep sugar in the household. This is similar to radical unschooling advocated by Dayna Martin in the US (see Dayna's words about boundaries) except Dayna would rather stick with natural home environments with all temptations, sugar, warts and all.

While explaining the reasons for which we cannot motivate others extrinsically, I show that we can assist motivation by changes in the environment (e.g. by leaving a colorful book on a table to attract attention). At the same time, changes in the environment may take away learning opportunities. I believe that a household without sugar is helpful in conditioning healthy eating. However, availability of sugar is also a learning opportunity. Perhaps a kid who never saw sugar in childhood may fall into unexpected love at teen years?

In this context, it is important to emphasize the difference between the optimization strategies of a state and of a family. The main difference is that it is easy to optimize a home environment from the standpoint of a loving mother. It is hardly possible to effectively control individuals via social policies introduced by the state. What works great for a majority may spawn disasters for some individuals. If Marshall rips great benefit from her method, the whole world should keep watching and pondering. The same policy introduced, for example, as a "ban on spanking" may turn out harmful. It can do more to undermine the respect for the law than it can do for the good of the kids. Moms who spank on instinct and claim great success are too numerous to make for an interesting example to analyze or follow, but forcing them to react with delay or in hiding, like a criminal, will only make matters worse for the kid. Family decisions are best made in the family with the participation of all members: young and old.

Narcissistic breeding ground

A myth says that large behavioral spaces are supposed to breed brats and narcissists. The myth comes from the confusion between freedom and indulgence. In metaphoric terms, I suggest we let kids free in the woods. I do not say they should be followed by a mom with big backpack filled with provisions, clothing, tent, bear spray and the like. Freedom is to provide learning opportunities, while indulgence does the opposite: it sweeps them away.

I do not mind a loving mom providing a logistic relief in circumstances when small challenges are removed to provide more space for bigger challenges. When a great scientist is served a coffee while working on a major problem, he may be severed in a small way on a bigger road to a bigger service.

These days, Donald Trump might be the best known and best studied case of narcissism. It is hard to know the roots of Donald's personality without a detailed study of his upbringing, his adult-life socialization and perhaps even some of his inborn traits. However, releasing little Donald in a wild forest on a scout camp is certainly not a way to breed a narcissist. Those proverbial spoilt brats come from settings where every little whim and caprice is responded to with a subservient mom whose blind love make it impossible to see the future beyond a happy child of the moment.

As I argue in Mystery of Donald Trump's brain, open system socialization and large behavioral spaces are a formula against a proliferation of Trump-like personalities. The reason is not the effect of open systems on Trump himself. The effect translates the impact of open system on the population as a whole. In open system socialization, we arrive at a population with diverse and rich immunity to odd behaviors. A single hawk will easily ravage a population of sparrows. In a well-balanced ecosystem, the hawk is kept in check and finds its own productive place.

As it often is the case, the myth of spoilt brat and the myth of narcissism are born in mom blogs and nanny blogs (see: Myth: Children need boundaries to develop healthy self-esteem). From the point of view of a psychologist, the reality is very different and worth knowing (see: Freedom and love do not breed narcissists).

Large behavioral spaces favor rich learning and rich socialization. As such they counteract the emergence of unwelcome social or personal characteristics. The value of space shows at the level of an individual, and at the level of a population

Conformity and uniformization

When there is a larger group of people to be managed, it is helpful to reduce variability for the sake of predictability. For example, it is helpful to shave prisoners to reduce costs (e.g. to prevent lice infestation). Uniforms in prison or in the army, reduce costs, and make it easy to distinguish groups of individuals. In warfare, personality and life stories can conveniently be erased. Friend or foe, a group of blue-colored men shoot to kill at a group of red-colored men. Humanity is reduced to a binary distinction: red or blue.

School uniforms play a similar role. They are often excused by the need to level the striking differences in the level of affluence between families. Dress code tyranny can become a mortal issue for teens, and result in social exclusion, truancy, runaways, depression, or even suicide. However, the problem of differences and exclusion exists only in closed systems subjected to closed socialization. In open systems, such as the playground, uniforms are not needed, and differences in affluence can be handled by standard social dynamics. Social groups form by laws of net value estimates. Social exclusion is not a problem if it is self-imposed. Otherwise if can be self-corrected. A kid who wants to join a specific group may adapt to its dress code. In other words, the need for uniformization arises only in a closed system, such as a school, while diversity and all the associated social dynamics should be seen as part of healthy natural socialization.

Each time social interaction in a closed system is associated with penalties and stress, it can fall under the label of bullying. On the other hand, the same social interaction in a free open ecosystem is part of natural training in resilience. All exploratory learning, including socialization, involves penalties and stress. However, the impact of stressors is largely dependent on the individual's freedom to self-regulate. Open systems provide the option of withdrawal that depends on and underlies the effective guidance from the problem valuation network.

Uniforms can be a badge of honor for voluntary applicants to a prestigious school. However, the main role of uniforms at school, army or prison, is uniformization. Uniformization serves the purpose of conformity training. In a well-regulated army, one command makes dozens of battalions move in unison. At school or in the kindergarten, kids walk in a single file or in a column formation. This is good for safety and discipline. However, this also stifles the creative spirit of an individual.

In a democratic society, we need to co-exist. We need to tolerate the existence of a bully, a cheat, or a self-serving liar. As adults, we should always have, and usually have, the option to avoid the bad lot by looking for our own niche in life. This seemingly obvious social gift is often denied to children. The best remedy for bullying is freedom (see: Bullying). In the same manner, social diversity can be a source of strife (in closed system), or enrichment (in conditions of freedom).

Each time we deprive individuals of their freedom of speech, including their dress code, we make a tiny step towards uniformization.

Primary school - III d
Primary school - III d

Figure: In the year 1971, school uniforms were a norm in communist Poland. This is my class, 3rd grade (IIId). The paintings on the wall celebrate the communist labor holiday (May 1). Uncomplimentary colorings on the teacher's face are an expression of the impact of discipline on fondness (bloody mouth and pimples). School uniform may help reduce negative social interaction in a closed system of schooling. They are not needed in free learning in open systems

Boling the frog

Daycare and schooling stand in opposition to open behavioral spaces. Instead, those institutions use an assembly line approach to pacify children, and squeeze them into a narrow behavioral corridor aimed at goals set by adults in advance. The children are supposed to obey dozens of rules. Each of those rules is protected by a system of rewards and penalties taken from a radical behaviorist textbook. As much as we can train pigeons to spin in their cages, we can train children to obey all individual rules with no opposition. If a first grader was to meet all the rules imposed by the adult world without preparation, he would rebel in natural defense of autonomous decision making. For that reason, the process begins at toddlerhood with potty training, and continues via daycare with an accelerating quest for self-dependence instituted via maternal separation. By the end of preschool, kids know how to walk in columns, how to say "hello", wait for adult permission, sit motionlessly in benches, obey the orders of the teacher, and dutifully submit to academic instruction without taking their own interests into account.

The overall purpose is for the brain executive to override the decision-making process rooted in autonomous valuations. This override occurs even if decisions are derived from the most natural physiological needs such as a visit to a toilet, or getting a healthy full night sleep. Via mechanisms described in the war of the networks, each decision override leads to minor changes in the valuation networks. Each decision is a minor reward deprivation with dozens of minor negative side effects. However, the changes are imperceptible in the same way as the harm of smoking is difficult to see at first. After a few years of the treatment by tight rules, learned helplessness develops as a first step towards depression, addictions, and behavioral problems. The enforcement of ethics by the rules without a backup from a healthy valuation system is not much different than the enforcement of the order rules in prison. The child may outwardly seem nice and well-behaving while keeping its true emotions and intents away from the adult eyes.

As much as we can slowly boil a frog and make sure it does not jump out from the pot, we can slowly narrow the set of acceptable behaviors by externally imposed rules. From a frolicking child, we chisel out a well-behaved student. By teen age, this treatment by the rules results in mass production of kids who hate school and entirely lose their love of learning. In the process, they lose the most precious asset needed for developing a model citizen: a healthy brain that is ready to happily learn and happily achieve. This is how poor understanding of the learn drive makes society shoot itself in the foot.

We are all born with a natural drive towards ethical behavior. This drive amplified by the rules of game theory in conditions of open system socialization in large behavioral spaces will lead to the emergence of an ethical human (see: Optimum socialization). That emergence will obtain a powerful backup from the extensive knowledge about society and human behavior acquired in daily interactions with others. The greatest enemy of that healthy trajectory are restrictions on freedom that can transform personalities by the power of reactance. This distortive force is so strong that even solitary confinement may fail to break the human spirit and turn out counterproductive. A bully may apologize to his victim at the urging of the teacher, but this outwardly ethical behavior turns out empty as soon as kids leave the school and the bully's vengeance only gets amplified.

If rules are enforced without the backup of knowledge, we end up with seemingly ethical behaviors without constructivist moral scaffolding

Human rights

Human rights keep evolving. Child's right should probably not even be separate. Human rights might simply include added layers of protection of those who are most defenseless. In the context of schooling, child's rights seem to begin with the right to education, then evolve into a parent's right to choose the form of education, and ultimately, to a child's right to its own thoughts, opinions and the course of lifelong learning. Disability does not cancel human rights. Nor should the process of going through early developmental stages where cognition is immature and knowledge vestigial. Kids should decide what and when they want to learn. Parents, and the rest of the adult world, can play an advisory role in the process.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) has not yet been ratified by the US (even though Obama called that an embarrassment). In Article 28, the convention includes a bummer:

Make primary education compulsory and available free to all

The convention speaks about human rights and then commits a howler by taking away the freedom to learn by making education compulsory. The idea is well intended but backward. The point about education is the least educated.

The convention later adds:

[The education should be] the preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society

The major contradiction in those good intentions is that no human being enslaved from childhood will fully comprehend the value of freedom.

There are more reasons for which the convention has been opposed (among others, and not always for good reasons, by homeschoolers). It seems mankind has not yet matured enough to find a cross-cultural and science-based consensus. Even in the European Union, we witness excesses of Jugendamt, or a ban on homeschooling. I thought of writing to the Child's Rights Ombudsman in Poland about the violations of the fundamental law of learning, however, just today, I heard the words of the new candidate for the office, Mikolaj Pawlak: "in vitro is an abomination" (apparently due to the procedure of freezing embryos and associated "suffering"). A good defender of child's rights should start with a love of children (not just a subset of children). I know a few kids born in a tube. Those I know will make this world a brighter place. I doubt they will be unmoved by Pawlak's labelling.

Famous physicist David Deutsch seems to understand the universe down to the Heisenberg principle with its impact on free will. For him, my words about freedom are obvious, as they probably are for anyone with basic understanding of mathematical optimization and learning theory. His philosophy of Taking Kids Seriously is derived from the same epistemological roots as my thinking about learning.

When I frivolously quoted his words "If kids want to play video games all day, let them, you have no right to coerce them", his mathematically disciplined mind called for striking out the words "let them":

I don't approve of the idea of 'letting' people exercise their rights. What would you say of a husband who says "I have decided to let my wife go out to work"? Or, indeed, parents who say "we let our children eat food"?

Deutsch is right. Children are no different in their rights than adults, and a claim that we "let them" is already tinged with an aura of usurpation. I am ashamed to admit, I might not be as precise and careful with words, but I agree wholeheartedly.

For comfort, the Universal Declaration of Human rights provides a solution for kids who were lucky to be born in enlightened households:

Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children

If this is up to the parent to choose, then the most enlightened parent can choose free learning. In this case, the only burden of "compulsory education" is that it provides the authorities with tools to investigate if free learning produces desirable outcomes. With this line of reasoning, we might make procreation in marriage compulsory even though most couples need no encouragement.

There is no end to suffering on this planet. Some of that suffering could be remedied tomorrow. Look around for the nearest kid with an unhappy face. Chances are good it is the limits on freedom that cause the unhappiness. Perhaps you can help?


  • rules and boundaries we set today for kids will determine the future of mankind
  • popular optimizations of the rule sets use criteria that produce absurd optima
  • behavioral spaces can be used as a model in effective optimization of rule sets
  • large behavioral spaces favor learning and brain development
  • small behavioral spaces favor safety, but carry risks associated with mental health and slowed long-term development
  • models used to optimize learning can be used to optimize socialization and the exploration of behavioral spaces as well
  • the impact of behavioral spaces on learning can be modelled using predictability and learntropy
  • the rules introduced in daycare and schooling may undermine future development, and contribute to the epidemic of psychiatric disorders
  • healthy brain underlies adaptation in adulthood, and should be a priority in all optimization considerations
  • popular parenting expertise is often driven by market forces that lead to a proliferation of harmful "golden rules" of parenting
  • 2 ancient rules seem to provide a complete rules set: (1) don't kill/hurt and (2) don't destroy
  • research on behavioral optimizations is often bias by preconceived models and agendas, including religious dogma
  • the rule of the thumb in the optimization of behavioral rule sets is to fall back on evolutionary consistency
  • 4 classes of human inventions may call for the extension to the ruleset in order to protect human physiology: electricity, food industry, locomotion, and schooling. Those technology threaten sleep, healthy eating, exercise, and intelligence
  • freedom is not stress free as claimed by those who point to the failure of the "Scandinavian experiment"
  • correcting behavior by modification of environment may take away learning opportunities
  • rules that serve uniformization and conformity are needed only in socialization in closed systems (such as school)
  • the right to self-determination and free thought should be a child's right
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) includes well-intended but contradictory suggestions aimed at education and free society
  • large behavioral spaces should not be confused with a world without penalties

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