Each one of us is born with the capacity to live a happy, healthy, and peaceful life. Somewhere inside each one of us is the desire to live such a life, well before we have even met the world. In the months well before the moment of our birth, the process of neurogenesis is taking place, shaping our brains before we are even capable of seeing or hearing.
At the moment you draw your first breath as a newborn, you will already have most of your brain cells developed. We enter the world with no concept of political worldviews, of religion, or socioeconomic divisions, untouched and not yet molded by the constraints of our society. Even the concept of language has no bearing on us in these first few weeks of life, as the boundaries that separate language from information have not yet taken hold.
It is only later, when we’ve had our share of unfortunate experiences, however extreme they may be, that we become confined to preconceptions and seek only the information that confirms our own biases instead of actual knowledge. We cling to our own fears and bad habits. It’s hardly easy to avoid — not all of us are fortunate enough to live in a society that is welcoming of new ways of thought, one which is not overrun by war and poverty — stresses that transcend concerns of economic or foreign policy. In limiting ourselves, we are also limiting our brains to function at their utmost capacity.
To this end, lawmakers must not only concern themselves with matters of diplomacy or economic sustainability, but also the negative, long-term consequences that war and poverty can have on the mental health of their citizens. Shaken by these findings, the MDG Health Alliance, a special envoy of the U.N., set goals for combating worldwide poverty in 2010, and achieved a great deal in the past five years — a steep decline in diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, about half the mortality rates in children under five, and a shrinking disparity in the number of boys and girls without access to primary education.
In an effort to help further such changes, the International Brain Education Association has advocated a new approach: brain-based holistic education, which it first implemented at a single school in El Salvador back in 2011. The approach, backed by scientific researchers, was a success and is now being implemented throughout the country. Liberia has also recently implemented this approach and has also reported positive results.
So how does it work? If the name seems intimidating, brain-based holistic education is fairly simple, relying on the idea that the happiness of both individuals and those around them are inseparable feelings, ones that can be reciprocated easily back and forth. Therefore, IBREA’s program uses three primary areas of concentration: action, experience, and information.
These are simple exercises that students can perform each day prior to their study. Physical activity, simple stretches, with an emphasis on breathing, is one of the key components — exercising the link in the brain that exists between physical and cognitive activity. Experience emphasizes that these exercises are meant to be done collectively in a group setting, focusing on the unity of the group, as better stability and happiness are achieved when they are experienced among a large number of people.
The latest findings of neuroscience suggest that pathways for neurons form the more the brain interacts with other people, and that in fact, the brain itself may just be one part of a greater functioning social organism. Equally beneficial, is that these exercises be accompanied with meditation, which is closely associated with the individual’s sense of self-control and has been proven helpful in alleviating depression.
Although the brain is easily influenced by external forces that prevent people from becoming self-actualized, it is also incredibly malleable, and much of the damage caused by trauma can be repaired — it’s a matter of focusing on a sense of all-around well-being. In implementing a holistic brain-based education, IBREA hopes to help the U.N. reach a number of its goals — while also strengthening the capacity of all countries and averting a great deal of risks from happening in the future, by promoting and sustaining peaceful and inclusive societies.
Already, a great deal of progress has been shown in countries that adopted such a program. Among the observed benefits were not only better stress-management skills and an increased desire to learn, but an overall improved school climate and peer relations, which suggests that this approach could be an effective way to stem the problem of bullying.
There was also a reported degree of enhanced gender balance, decreased trauma symptoms, and reduced levels of violence. IBREA addressed a U.N. conference at the beginning of February where they led the group in some holistic exercises and presented their efforts in El Salvador before ambassadors.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Brain World Magazine.