Brains are bodies: Brain research and understanding brain function and the brain itself.


There can be no doubting the importance of brain research and the understanding we have of brain function and the nature of the brain itself. What is worth noting though is that the research support what many have argued for years and decades about the importance of social equity and distribution of wealth and services to human happiness and its correlation to wellbeing. What is most disconcerting is the refusal by successive governments to seriously address the issues with policies that acknowledge the research. Far from it in fact the emphasis on relying on market forces to address concerns of equity have been proven to be failing.

Dr Mustard and Professor Stanley argue the importance of “investing in early childhood development if we want to encourage a healthier, fitter population, and provide opportunities for children to achieve their potential”. As with Cuba’s example, the central aspect for improving outcomes is caring, responsive communities; only then can we provide safety, quality care, and schools that genuinely support families. Professor Stanley speaks of “causal pathways” which are a set of factors that interact over time to create an outcome. If we wish to see responsible communities and “resilient” adults then we need to provide the circumstances that allow for the development of responsible, thoughtful and resilient children.

 Dr Fiona Stanley in 2003 outlined some key critical issues that policy makers have yet to seriously address. As she has stated in other interviews one has to wonder what the point of research is if we fail to act on it.

The questions she asked seven years ago are these;

  • Are outcomes for children and youth improving in Australia? As so many outcomes are related to social disadvantage, surely as economic prosperity and living conditions improved, so have the health, educational, behavioural and general status of our children?
  • Is there any evidence more recently of a levelling of social gradients, that is fewer differences between the ‘haves’ and the ‘haves not’?       Are all in society winners from the dramatic economic and social changes in our society?
  • What has been the impact of services? (Mostly focussed on treatments not preventions).
  • Why have so many of the problems in children and youth not improved? Are there some common explanations?
  • What do we know about the causes and possible prevention of them?
  • What should Australia do?

Professor Stanley argues that a multidisciplinary approach is required if we are to address in any systematic way these pressing social issues. We know that the problems that will impact negatively on children, family and society begin in the womb; in reality they begin before then if we consider the circumstances of the women and men who will become parents.

An outstanding and obvious example is the issue of insufficient and inadequate housing and related homelessness. We know that instability and relocation is extremely stressful on children especially, and of course for the adults. We know about stress response and that the detrimental effects can be overcome when there is stability and consistency within caring environments which in turn improve children’s learning and wellbeing. We can easily assume that this issue alone will have to be resolved before serious in roads can be made to addressing the concerns raised by Professor Stanley.

The current debate on Health Reform is a case in point, so little of what is being proposed has to do with prevention of illness and providing social solutions. The head of the Queanbeyan Hospital suggested to PM Rudd that he should look to Cuba’s example for solutions, as did Dr Mustard who lived and worked in South Australia as Thinker in Residence in 2006 and 2007. He asked the question, why is Cuba leading the world in Early Childhood development?

As much as it may upset some people on ideological grounds, an important part of the answer is that Cuba leads the world in the practice of socialised medicine and care. Health and wellbeing are community concerns; they are not commodities to be used for the social advancement of a few. There are many other examples but another is bound up with the question of diet. Cuba went through an oil shock and import crisis when the former Soviet Union collapsed. Since the 1970s Australian permaculturalists have been assisting in improving food production and the Cuban diet which has been high in meat and carbohydrates and low in fibres. Today up to 70% of Cuba’s domestic food production occurs in urban areas. That a society was able to respond to a crisis of this proportion is due to the way fundamental social values and needs were redefined after the social and economic revolution of 1959. Cuba for this reason has been regarded as the Jewel of Central America in relation to social wellbeing ad literacy.

Thinking about what is necessary here today in this country and what should and needs to be done makes all the rhetoric of an education revolution ring very hollow. We should remind ourselves that governments do little to change anything fundamentally. Profound and lasting changes in the early childhood and education have been the consequence of the combined forces of thorough research and enlightened practitioners and educators.

As educators and practitioners we must pay attention to the current research about brain development. One aspect that does concern me is that we could be in danger of losing site of the person. While it is important to appreciate brain development and pedagogy that enhances this development, especially so for those who are living in conditions that mitigate against providing an enriched learning environment whether it be informal or formal. As we strive for informed data as evidence it would be an error to end up where we have in the compulsory sector. Schools in the public system are narrowing the curriculum, losing sight of the whole child. I have heard it said even, that we need big schools so that the data is reliable!

Dr Mustard and Professor Stanley argue the importance of “investing in early childhood development if we want to encourage a healthier, fitter population, and provide opportunities for children to achieve their potential”. As with Cuba’s example, the central aspect for improving outcomes is caring, responsive communities; only then can we provide safety, quality care, and schools that genuinely support families. Professor Stanley speaks of “causal pathways” which are a set of factors that interact over time to create an outcome. If we wish to see responsible communities and “resilient” adults then we need to provide the circumstances that allow for the development of responsible, thoughtful and resilient children.

(Fiona Stanley AC

  • Founding Director and Patron
  • Distinguished Research Professor, The University of Western Australia
  • Vice Chancellor’s Fellow, and Director – 2013 Festival of Ideas, The University of Melbourne
  • Australian of the Year 2003
  • Established the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth in 2002
  • UNICEF Australia Ambassador for Early Childhood Development
  • The Fiona Stanley Hospital named in her honour)

(Dr Mustard is involved with governments in Canada and Australia, with the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, UNICEF and the Aga Khan University In Pakistan.  He also leads The Founders Network, a virtual research organisation that proposes practical solutions to the complex problems facing society and seeks to put research findings and ideas into action in communities worldwide. Dr Mustard has received numerous awards for his work including the Companion of the Order of Canada. Most recently he was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

See more at: http://www.thinkers.sa.gov.au/thinkers/mustard/who.aspx#sthash.0kg36rd3.dpuf)

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