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The closing of young minds

May 2008: MANY years ago, at the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre, I saw a very bright Karachi University student who had leprosy. His disease was quite advanced as it had not been diagnosed and treated in time. Hanging around his neck were half a dozen taweez of various sizes and colours meant to protect him from calamities.

When I told him that the disease had destroyed a number of his nerves and the damage was irreparable he broke down but did not give up his faith in the taweez as they were still there when he came for the follow-up.

In this article, I am analysing this frightening phenomenon which enslaves the mind of even highly educated and intelligent people. Indoctrination, also known as brainwashing, is a process in which certain ideas or beliefs are instilled in a person. Although indoctrination is possible at any time in one's life, it is more easily accomplished during childhood.

In this respect, it is akin to a phenomenon known as imprinting, which was first described by Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz. This Austrian ethnologist discovered that imprinting in birds can be induced by both auditory and visual stimuli, if given early in life. For instance, if the embryonated eggs of a hen are exposed repeatedly to a certain sound, on hatching, the chicks follow that sound rather than the sound produced by the mother hen.

Imprinting also occurs in higher animals, including primates. The affectionate responses of young rhesus monkeys to cloth-covered objects known as 'cloth-mothers', for instance, are a demonstration of this kind of behaviour.

Although, the exact mechanism involved in imprinting is not known, it probably involves neuronal connections or synapses formed during early life. It is estimated that the human brain contains nearly 100bn neurons or nerve cells which are responsible for its mental activity. The neuron's capacity to learn is greatest in the developing brain and consequently many habits, convictions and beliefs are acquired during this time.

In his book Total Man psychologist Stan Gooch expresses his belief that nationalism is also linked to imprinting since children are exposed to patriotic songs and symbols from an early age. Another psychologist, Daniel Goldman, in his bestseller Emotional Intelligence states, "the emotional lessons we learn as children at home and school shape the emotional circuits, making us more adept or inept towards certain emotions. This means that childhood and adolescence are critical for setting the habits that will govern our lives".

Since 1994, researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, US, have been using magnetic resonance imaging to take photographs of the brains of volunteers belonging to various ages. From the scans of more than 1,200 children and teenagers that have since been conducted for this study, they found that the brain grows rapidly in the early years, reaching 95 per cent of its adult weight of about 1.35kg by the time a child enters first grade.

Another spurt in growth occurs around age nine. If children spend time on academics, music or any other subject during this critical time, that is what their brains would be optimised for in the years to come.

Similarly, racial prejudices and religious hatreds also develop during this period. Thomas Pethgrew, a social psychologist at the University of California, states that "the notions of prejudice are formed in childhood, while the beliefs that are used to justify them come later". Even if it is realised that a particular prejudice is unjustified, it may not loosen its hold, Pethgrew says, adding that many southerners confessed to him that, even though in their minds they no longer feel prejudice against the blacks, they feel squeamish when they shake hands with one. The feelings are left over from what they learned in their families as children.

There are, undoubtedly, many levels of indoctrination. The kamikaze missions organised by the Japanese navy during the Second World War are a good example of an extreme case. During these, Japanese suicide pilots loaded their planes with explosives and deliberately crashed into US ships. The ideology behind kamikaze was that suicide is a venerable act, either to destroy the enemy or to avoid capture and humiliation.

German philosopher Schopenhauer's famous saying that, "a man can do as he wills, but not will as he wills", applies to these Japanese pilots as their will had been subverted by the process of indoctrination. The suicide bombers we are now witnessing in Pakistan and the Middle East are the modern equivalent of the kamikaze pilots who took their own lives as a last resort when faced with a stronger enemy.

Religious indoctrination was common in the 17th century in almost all European schools run by the church. "Give me any child until he is seven and I will make him a Jesuit," goes a famous saying by a Jesuit priest. As the state took over greater responsibility for educating the populace in later years, religious influence in day-to-day life declined. It is estimated that at present not more than 6.3 per cent of England's population goes to church.

Secular education is now commonplace in the West although the struggle between the secular and religious approaches to life still continues. In the US, the debate between 'creationists' and 'evolutionists' is one example of this. This debate began during the famous 'monkey trial' of 1925 when a high school biology teacher, John T. Scopes, was convicted for violating a law which declared teaching the theory of evolution in public schools a crime.

The sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants continued in Europe for centuries, mainly because children were indoctrinated in their respective religious beliefs and grew up feeling distrust and hatred for each other. A similar situation exists in Pakistan where at least some madressahs inculcate hatred against other sects, with the result that there is unending sectarian conflict in the country.

Across the border in neighbouring India, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is pushing hard for making the study of Hinduism mandatory in all schools of the country, which could in turn lead to the sharpening of the religious divide in the subcontinent.

One way to avoid indoctrination, which often leads to prejudice and misunderstanding, is to provide liberal education in schools and colleges so as to encourage pupils to explore, ask questions and develop critical thinking. An open mind and intolerance can't co-exist and this really is the best safeguard against religious and ethnic conflict that has become common in many parts of the world.

The writer is a co-author of Religions of South Asia.

By Dr Viqar Zaman (Dawn)
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