Dr. Donald L. Nathanson: The Role of Emotion in Learning to Read – How Shame Exacerbates Reading Difficulties
Donald L. Nathanson, M.D., is the author of Shame and Pride and Knowing Feeling and is an international leader in the study of human emotion. He is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Jefferson Medical College, and founding Executive Director of the Silvan S. Tomkins Institute. Additional bio info
The following interview with Dr. Nathanson was conducted in Washington D.C. on September 8, 2003. We found Dr. Nathanson to be a person who cares deeply for the emotional well being of children and who is dedicated to advancing our understanding of the emotional-science issues affecting their lives.
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David Boulton: I’d like to start with what impassions you, what has brought you into the kind of work you do.
Attention is an Emotion:
Dr. Donald Nathanson: So often when we think about education and the education process we take the position that education is about the way a child receives information and processes it. That’s entirely cognitive. But it turns out, that to the surprise of most people, education is also about emotion.
I don’t just mean that you have to learn how you’re going to control your emotions in the classroom. I mean, we take it for granted that we have to pay attention to the material that the teacher is showing us, pay attention like everybody else in class is paying attention, but every single moment of attention has been mobilized by an emotion, affect really. Emotion and attention are inseparable.
We didn’t really understand that for many years. Now we understand that there is a specific emotion that involves the range from mild interest to sheer excitement. You can see it in the face: the brow, the eyebrows are down, the face is sometimes tilted to the side. If you look at the infant you see the facial attitude we know as ‘ track, look, listen’. And when the child focuses, pays attention, really gets interested and involved with what’s going on, that’s what we think is the normal approach to learning in school.
Well, you’ve heard people talk about Attention Deficit Disorder, and strangely it is treated with medications that alter emotions, even though everybody thinks it’s treating something cognitive. It isn’t. What it’s doing is making more interest available to the child.
Now the question comes up, and a question that’s vital, I believe, to this work on the problem of learning to read, that there’s nothing natural about learning to read. In a sense, we trick the child into paying attention to words on a page as if he or she is going to be able to understand those words. Oh sure, we can say C-A-T spells cat, see Dick run, or look at the dog, and those words are probably pretty easy for the kid to decipher. But just as soon as the child runs into words that are more ambiguous, that a child can’t figure out immediately, that child goes through a process that’s been poorly understood until recently.
Ambiguity, Shame, and Cognitive Shock:
Dr. Donald Nathanson: What happens as you look at something that, because of your interest and attention you think you’re going to understand, but you can’t understand it? The amount of interest that you’ve put into that moment of study is impeded because something has become so ambiguous, so problematic, that it interferes with the emotion that was powering attention at that moment.
Any acute interruption in the affect we call interest, (in a situation when it is logical for that interest to continue), triggers another physiologic mechanism that we call the physiology of shame or shame affect. Now this is not trivial because just as soon as shame affect is triggered, it brings about, in the mind of the child, what we call a cognitive shock.
Scholars all through history have noted that the moment of shame makes them unable to think clearly. And this moment of cognitive shock is followed by other physiologic mechanisms: shoulders slump, the face is turned away from what a moment ago seemed interesting, and then we begin to reflect on other experiences we’ve had of this shame happening. Experiences of inefficacy, inadequacy, unpreparedness; all of a sudden our mind, our consciousness is flooded not with the printed material on the page, but flooded with a whole bunch of experiences that have to do with our worst possible self.
Self Transparent Reading:
David Boulton: Alright. Let’s build off of that. We know that when someone is reading, when we’re reading well, we become self-transparent. We’re not occupied with ourselves; we’re in the stream and flow of what it is we’re reading, though there may be an evaluator that’s coming in at another level to what we’re reading.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: Let’s take for a moment what happens when a child or an adult is reading easily and successfully. Our eye goes across the printed page, we follow the line, we follow the words. The words get somewhere in the brain where we get an idea of what they mean and we begin to think about what the words say. When that happens, we have what we call association. The words make us think of something and we may have lots of emotional reaction to what we read. That’s the normal process of reading for someone who can read easily.
Let’s take the situation of a child or an adult who can’t read easily. What’s happening is that the inability to decipher what’s on the page, that inability triggers this affect of shame and it interferes with our ability to understand what’s on the page because of that cognitive shock I mentioned a moment ago.
And that’s another part, because as we’re reading and we don’t understand what’s on the page and we’re having these feelings about our worst self; these shame based thoughts and feelings interfere with our ability to take in what we might next have been able to understand easily.
So the acute experience of shame during the process of failing to decode what’s on the page is a feed- forward mechanism because it prevents us from understanding what we might have been able to understand, and it makes the whole reading experience unpleasant, more difficult, challenging.
That might be acceptable if we’re sitting by ourselves trying to read something. But when we’re in a classroom situation, that moment of shame is multiplied by how we feel because we’re in the eyes of everybody around us. There’s a big difference, for instance, teaching a child to learn one-on-one at home, tutoring, because then if we’re in the presence of someone we know loves us. If we feel safe, that moment of shame is brief and not very toxic. But when we’re in school and every other kid there is constantly at risk of shame, if every other kid, like the young reader we’re making the subject of this discussion, is afraid of what embarrassment he or she might experience, then all of them are happy that ‘ ha ha, he can’t get it, he didn’t do it’, and they feel better because they can put down or diminish somebody else.
The Multiplication Effect of Shame:
Dr. Donald Nathanson: So in the classroom situation there’s a multiplication effect. The more trouble any individual has reading in a classroom situation, the more likely that child is to have further shame affect interruption of the normal interest in reading. Immediately downstream what do we have? We see kids who simply say, ” I don’t want to read. I don’t want to try, because every time I try in class I’m going to feel worse. I’m not going get rewarded like Francine or Billy, I’m going to get laughed at and that hurts.”
So first the shame comes from being unable to decipher the code. Then there’s the shame that comes because you did it in public. And then there’s the next level of multiplication of shame experience; that the other kids will compare you to them, and they feel better than you for that moment, and your position in class is reduced tremendously. That means the simple failure to figure out what the letters mean on the printed page has not only become difficult for you to understand yourself, but it’s placed you in a position relative to your peers where you are defined by them as lesser, and it’s acceptable to laugh at you and deride you for this inability to read.
If you’re reading one-on-one with a parent, a loving tutor, an older sibling who’s helping you, and you feel safe, then that moment of shame is not magnified as it is in the classroom situation. So when tutoring one-on-one, the nature of shame is that we feel less dangerously exposed if we feel loved. It’s merely exposure. But when we’re in the atmosphere of the classroom, where every other child in that classroom is at risk of feeling exposed and compared invidiously to every other kid, then an error I make in reading reduces me in everybody’s eyes and I’m better off not trying.
The Implications of Shame:
David Boulton: So we’re describing a series of different interrelated layers. One has to do with the pure processing implications of shame interrupting cognition. Then we have: how is it that this is affecting the individual? What happens to them psychologically? What’s happening in the context of the group? Then finally, along the same spectrum, what’s happening to children that are day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, feeling chronic shame in relation to reading? What are the various adaptive strategies, ‘Compass of Shame’ strategies, that emerge to deal with that shame? What’s that doing to them developmentally? So we’ve got cognitive mechanical shame implications and then these different layers.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: Alright, so let’s just plot what we’re talking about. I talked about the affect interest and then the interruption of shame, but I didn’t say clearly enough what I mean by cognitive shock.
David Boulton: Like we said, like the brain scientists say, reading, at least in the beginning stages, requires a lot of mental bandwidth, a lot of processing bandwidth is required. Regardless of the other consequences of shame, just the emergence of something that’s so powerfully consuming as a concurrent process, is distracting the bandwidth and energy necessary to process the code. Even if we didn’t say anything else, that is important. Let’s go from there.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: Let’s look for a moment at what we believe is going on in the mind of the child who is learning to read. Learning to read in a classroom situation takes the totality of the child’s attention, just as it does for us as adults. We must read, we must focus, we must keep as cleanly and clearly as we can to what’s on the page. But for the child, we always say that children are inherently distractible. That means that they are prone to shifting to something else.
Affects ‘Aim’ Cognition:
Dr. Donald Nathanson: Most of us were raised with the idea that emotion is only something that distracts us from solid, important thinking. But now we know that there’s more than one kind of thinking, that the kind of thinking we see in reading involves certain parts of the neocortex that are our most, our highest level of cognitive ability. But what people haven’t realized until fairly recently is that the processing equipment that we call the neocortex does not start to operate until the emotion system, or what we call the affect system, aims the cognitive mechanism.
If you think of these affects as a series of spotlights, each of a different color, each motivating us in a different way, then what happens when a spotlight turns on is that we focus on that, and we’re completely involved with whatever the spotlight shows us. Now, when we’re given something on the printed page, we focus on it in a way you can see on the face of the child. The eyebrows are down, the face is in the attitude we call track, look, listen; that’s an affect we call the range from mild interest to great excitement.
As long as the child or adult remains interested in what’s going on, then the cognitive apparatus is aimed securely at the task that’s to be done. What happens, though, if something on the page doesn’t make sense? Supposing on purpose you introduce some nonsense squiggles that have nothing to do with the alphabet we use, you just put little random squiggles. You’d see the child look and then if the child were in a situation where he or she was being watched by everybody else, you’d see the child kind of slump. Just like this look of the eyebrows down and this look of track, look, listen is one of these affect spotlights. That slump is the spotlight of the affect we call shame. It’s the reaction to any interruption during something we’re paying attention to with the affect interest.
Shame Worsens Ambiguity:
Dr. Donald Nathanson: So shame is a response to an impediment to whatever we were doing that we were interested in. What happens when the moment of shame occurs? It causes what we call a cognitive shock. “No one can think clearly in the moment of shame,” Darwin said that over 100-125 years ago. Sartre said, “Shame always comes upon me like an internal hemorrhage for which I am completely unprepared.”
We’re unprepared because we were interested in something and to the degree that we were interested in it, we’re now feeling this horrible feeling of shame where we can’t think clearly. The spotlight of shame focuses us in a confused manner. That’s the job of that spotlight. Just like the spotlight of anger makes us focus angrily on something and the spotlight of distress makes us focus while weeping. Each of these affect spotlights has its function and the spotlight of shame makes us droop like this, turn away, and for a moment we can’t think.
As this happens to the child, the cognitive apparatus is turned off. If you can’t think clearly in the moment of shame, everything is working properly. The normal response to shame is to worsen the ambiguity.
David Boulton: In addition to the spotlight I am running on when I’m interested in something I’m doing, when shame kicks on, it’s almost like, for some period, I have spotlights going in different directions and my attention is going in two different directions and I’m confused.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: No, it isn’t going in two different directions. What happens is the spotlight of shame takes over and you cannot look at what just triggered the shame, you can’t go there. It’s not that you’re in two different directions. We go wherever affect sends us the instant the affect flips on. So another spotlight has turned on focusing us on this moment, telling us that we can’t focus.
David Boulton: So that it’s polarizing and mutually exclusive. They’re not parallel processing, they’re serial, linear.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: Yes, that’s right. Let’s define this.
David Boulton: Good, exactly, that’s what I’m trying to get to. So there’s a movement on this track, this other thing comes in and basically boom! It points me in a different direction and I lose the ability to maintain the entrainment with the reading process that was happening.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: Okay.
David Boulton: I want to get to that one split because regardless of the subsequent feelings involved, from a point of view of just pure processing, the very core of how we process reading gets taken out when shame comes in. It becomes disabled.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: Let’s try another way of doing this.
Distraction and Affect:
Dr. Donald Nathanson: It’s so much taken for granted that small children are distractible, that we don’t ask often enough what does that mean that they’re distractible? But the answer is pretty simple. In the young child, every time one of these affect spotlights go off and points attention somewhere, that’s where the child is going to look, and is going to look in the way motivated by that particular affect.
Let’s say you’re in a classroom situation and some other kid drops a book to the floor and it makes a loud thump. Everybody in the room is going to look toward that sound. At that moment they’ve been distracted, but they aren’t really distracted. Tract, of course means pulled, as in a tractor. So distracted means they’re pulled away from what they’ve been interested in a moment ago, and now the affect with that sharp noise triggers what we call the range of surprise to startle. The thumping book is a sudden- on, sudden- off stimulus and we call that the range between surprise and startle. What that does is it turns off anything that had been going on in our minds at that time. We are now prepared to look at whatever might have caused the startle because the affect of surprise-startle is the reset button to the affect system.
Now that the reset button has been pushed by the thump of the book falling, our mind is completely blank, we go over to try to figure out what that was and we have become distracted. We’re tracted, we’re drawn over to that startle. Similarly, when another child starts talking, the kid is going to look over to the source of that conversation. That’s normal.
What we do in classrooms is the teacher says to the kids, in effect; you should be embarrassed to change your attention from what that kid’s doing by making noise or waving and doing tricks or clowning. You should be embarrassed that you left the task at hand to pay attention to that kid.
We use shame to maneuver and manipulate children in the education process.
Shame Disables Reading:
David Boulton: I want to put the classroom and the other subsequent complications and stages of the shame conversation on hold. Let’s come back to: I am interested in something and then the shame spotlight hits and boom – I’m going off into whatever shame makes relevant. Quite independent of all the feelings that we have about shame, all of the subsequent concepts about shame, I am interested in talking about the fundamentally disabling influence of shame on the reading process.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: I’m asking you to consider that there are two forms of cognition in the learning process. One is the neo-cortical brain, our most recent evolutionary adaptation, that lets us process information. It lets us correlate new things we’re learning to stuff we learned before. It lets us calculate, remember, store, associate, all those wonderful things about the neo-cortical brain. But there’s another part of the brain that is critical here; that’s the affect brain. What the affect system does is focus this new neo-cortical mechanism; it focuses on what needs to be done next.
So just as you can be really interested in whatever you’re studying and a book thumps in another part of the room, and you and everybody looks over where the noise came from; when something ambiguous appears in front of us, a squiggle that makes no sense, a collection of letters that doesn’t, as we say, read-out, our attention can lose focus on what we were interested in. When we are reading along and suddenly it stops making sense, our flow becomes interrupted and we may frown and look away for a moment. What’s happened is that the attention to what we were reading became focused instead on the shame we felt about being confused.
So if there’s something we can not understand (which always happens to me by the way when I read English text and the author has put something in Greek letters), I always go ‘ugh’ because I don’t read Greek. That’s a moment of shame. I am now focused on my inability to read Greek. I have left completely everything the author wanted me to know, and I’m having a moment of shame that I cannot read Greek letters, I cannot understand Greek words. And then I have to go back to the text knowing I haven’t really understood what the author wants me to understand. I go back to the text with a reduced feeling of self-confidence and I try to figure out what that might have meant. If that happens to me, as a skilled, good reader adult, what must happen to the child? I know that I have a lifetime of successful reading, but that’s not what’s happening to the child, and our educational system has not taken that into account adequately.
When the child sees a stimulus on the printed page that can’t be deciphered for any reason, another spotlight takes away the spotlight of interest, and that’s the spotlight of shame. Just like when that book dropped, the spotlight of startle distracted the child’s neo-cortical cognitive apparatus to think about what made that noise. The spotlight of shame forces us to think about our worst self, our defects, everything that has previously ever triggered shame. It is only with the greatest of strength that we remove ourselves from what shame focused us on, another spotlight, and we come back to being interested on the page. And we don’t go back to it like that, we go back like ‘ugh’, very slowly and very painfully. That’s what’s happening to the neo-cortical cognitive apparatus in that moment between interest and shame and the return from shame affect.
The Downward Spiral of Shame:
David Boulton: That’s great. This is what we’ve been calling the downward spiral that happens in reading, a variation on your compass. The more shame that they’re experiencing in the overall learning to read process, the more that this is going on, the more that it’s interrupting the possibility of a good experience of reading, the more that it’s triggering shame, the more that this thing starts to work against itself.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: Do you think that you can ask a simpler question sir? That was a very complicated thing you said. What I’m joking about is as you go from a momentary scene of shame to the assembly of multiple scenes of shame occurring during the process of reading, then you have a buildup in the individual that we call script formation. It’s no longer a matter of just the affect shame pulling us with a new spotlight to what we can’t understand. It’s more evidence that we are poor understanders, that we are poor readers. (One of the things that can happen a great many times as we start to read and experience this painful shame.)
If a great many times that we’re reading the ambiguity triggers a moment of shame, and we begin to associate reading with the pain of shame, then wouldn’t we be stupid to keep reading? What happens is that the child says I can’t read or I don’t want to do this or you can’t make me do this, or reacts in a number of ways that frustrate the intent of the teacher.
This business of being unable to decipher what’s on the printed page has huge consequences for a child’s self esteem. That is the child’s general concept of who he or she is, and has huge consequences for how we see ourselves relative to our peers, and forces us to defend against this bad feeling in a number of ways that I call the Compass of Shame.
The Compass of Shame:
Dr. Donald Nathanson: You see, if shame is a spotlight just like all the other affects, if shame is a spotlight that pulls the neocortical cognitive apparatus to focus our attention in a shame based manner, then every shame experience focuses us on incapacity, deficit, failure; all kinds of things about our worst possible self. The spotlight does that. It’s not a spotlight anybody particularly likes. So what we do from earliest childhood is we find a number of ways to get away from what the spotlight has evolved to show us.
Rather than maintain our attention on what feels awful about us, on our worst possible self, we learn from earliest childhood a pattern of four styles of behavior, each of which reduces the likelihood that we’re going to focus on what’s wrong with us. I call this pattern of responses the Compass of Shame. We go into the Compass when we don’t look at what the spotlight is showing us.
David Boulton: Would you say that you could also describe the compass as an escape from the feeling?
Dr. Donald Nathanson: Yes.
David Boulton: Okay. I think that’s short and powerful. I don’t want to feel that feeling, I want to escape from that feeling and we have four different escape routes.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: As I’ve been saying, shame is one of the spotlights that makes us feel terribly uncomfortable. It’s not the worst, it’s not the only one, but it does make us terribly uncomfortable and it makes us focus on things we really would rather not know about ourselves. There is an escape route. It’s not a great route, but everybody uses it.
When we don’t want to focus, when we want to get away from what the spotlight of shame is trying to show us, we move over to what I call the Compass of Shame. It’s an escape route, it’s a safety route. It’s a place where we can feel better than we’re going to feel if we look at what shame has evolved to show us. For the moment, working, living in the Compass of Shame feels better. It’s not terribly good for our future and it’s not terribly good for the development of an authentic sense of self, but it sure feels better.
What are these four poles of the Compass? The first we call Withdrawal, and in that mode we withdraw from the eyes before which we’ve been shamed.You see it a little bit in the physiology of shame because we slump like so. Well, at the Withdrawal pole we slump and move away from the eyes of others even more. If shame affect, if the physiology of shame, decreases or cuts our connection with others, the Withdrawal pole…
David Boulton: The withdrawal, in a way, is this shrinking back within, a contraction away from the feeling.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: Yes, it’s a withdrawal into the self. It’s a complete loss of connection. Let me go over that. Let’s look for a moment as we shift from whatever the spotlight of shame was trying to show us to the Compass of Shame at the withdrawal pole. If the physiology of shame is that we turn away like this, the most natural first defense against shame is to pull away even more. We can pull into the self so we appear completely unconnected with anybody. We can really withdraw as the little kid does behind the hidden face or behind mommy’s leg or by running into another room, or an adolescent goes into her room so as not talk to anybody. That’s all the Withdrawal pole of the Compass of Shame.
The good part about withdrawal is that it does decrease the amount of shame we are feeling in that moment. The bad part is we’ve lost connection with others, and that’s pretty serious. It seems like it’s a win and it is a win for that particular moment of shame. But unless we learn what to do with shame and learn not to simply use withdrawal, we haven’t profited at all from what the spotlight has evolved to show us.
One of the problems with the Withdrawal pole of the Compass of Shame is that as we move toward withdrawal and away from others, losing connection with them so we’re not seen by them in our moment of shame. Many people have real problems with what we call abandonment, isolation, being shorn from the herd. One of the things that shame does is to shear us away from others.
Well, some people just don’t want to have that feeling of abandonment, all of us sometimes and some people a lot of the time. So they reduce themselves so that another powerful person will take pity on them and make them feel less alone. They maintain themselves as a lesser being and they get the power of another person and we call that the Attack Self (diminish self) pole of the Compass.
The healthiest expression of this is when we might say yes officer, five miles over the speed limit, thank you very much sir. That’s healthy deference. What’s that line, where does an elephant sit? Anywhere it wants. That’s healthy, reasonable deference to power, but at the pathological end when we say to someone beat me, kick me, spit on me, treat me with contempt, just don’t leave me alone, that use of the Attack Self pole of the Compass of Shame is what we call masochism. It’s a terrible place to be in its most exaggerated form. In a classroom situation we’re supposed to say yes teacher, thank you very much. We defer to the teacher’s authority even though we’re feeling shame.
Well, there are a lot of people who don’t like withdrawing, and they sure don’t like being falsely deferential, and they don’t know any way to make the feeling of shame go away. So what they concentrate on is some piece of behavior or acquisition of a skill that makes them feel good about themselves. We can learn some sport and we can make our prowess at that sport the center of our identity for others, so that even if I’m not very good at reading, I can be great at volleyball or basketball or something else. I don’t need to read while I’m on the basketball court, but I can feel really good if I can sink that ball. I can box, I can learn martial arts. There are a lot of things I can do, not just for my own pleasure, but because they give me a place of safety away from what the spotlight of shame was going to show me.
It’s great to look beautiful. It’s great to enjoy sexuality. It’s great to do a lot of things that feel good. But when you use them to shift attention away from what might bring you shame toward a competent, glorious self, that’s what we call the Avoidance pole of the Compass of Shame. Most behavior at the Avoidance pole is relatively normal. We all like to look our best, we buy neat clothes, we might buy a great car, we like jewelry; there’s lots of stuff our culture trains us to do, buy, and act at the Avoidance pole. But the important thing is that, to the extent we do this in order to avoid shame, we’re not learning what shame wants to show us.
There are other things we can do at the Avoidance pole. It just so happens that alcohol makes the feeling of shame go away. In fact I’ve said often that shame is soluble in alcohol and boiled away by cocaine and the amphetamines. These drugs, which we sometimes call courage in a bottle, prevent the feeling of shame from taking hold. A good stiff drink will ward off the horrible feeling of shame. So this Avoidance pole is a pretty big part of our culture.
Now, there are times for all of us, and a lifestyle for many of us, when there’s nothing we can do that makes us feel good about making shame go away. So what we learn to do is to diminish somebody else by the put down. Diminishing somebody else, putting someone else down, is what we call The Attack Other pole of the Compass, and that’s what abuse is, laughing at someone, derision. All these ways that we can reduce somebody else when we feel diminished by what the shame spotlight is showing us, all of that is what we call the Attack Other pole of the Compass of Shame.
The four poles of the Compass of Shame: Withdrawal (hiding), Attack Self (deference), Avoidance (look where I want you to look) and Attack Other (put down). Pretty soon the child learns at every age all four poles. The role of reading in this is pretty important. Because if this is the major experience children are having as they enter the education process and they can’t read because there’s something wrong with the code itself, then we’re exposing children to an unnecessary amount of shame experience that they must defend against when they are least skilled at handling shame. And if we can do anything to reduce the humiliation kids feel in school, we’re going to have a generation of kids who can learn far better than they ever have.
David Boulton: In order to learn to read, the visual recognition of particular characters is on one side, and on the other is the virtually heard, or actually spoken, stream of words that simulates the way that we talk to ourselves or talk to another. In between is an assembly process, a cognitive construction process that’s creating that stream. This isn’t something we can do consciously. It happens much faster than we can possibly participate in. Let’s put it this way, we can not volitionally, with self awareness, construct and work out this code, it has to happen faster than we can think.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: I’d like to respond to what you’ve just said because what I’m going to say is probably something you won’t use, but I want you to have the opportunity to play with it.
Everything I’m going to say now I haven’t said before, so it’s going to come out muddy and I’m going to correct it a few times, but I want you to be able to discard this, at least as a big piece. Sometimes the glib phrases we use are actually condensations of a far larger amount of information than we knew.
The term ‘learning to read’ seems simple. We take the information on the printed page, we read the code, we, as you’ve said so often, associate what we read with what we hear other people saying and we hear ourselves saying, and the internal speech we call self talk. But learning to read is not just that process. It is a combination of that process plus the affective environment in which it is learned. So there really is no such thing as learning to read as when we teach a computer to do something, when we program a computer.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: In every aspect, when we learn to read, our affective experiences of learning to read form what we call a script. It’s not a reflex, where something happens the same way each time when you stretch a tendon. It’s a script that forms as the result of hundreds of affective experiences that we bundle together, then form into a bundle or family of scenes, and then develop an emotional, an affective response to the bundle.
So script formation is not really a reflex. Script formation is a highly complex assembly of similar scenes, and once the mind realizes that they are similar enough to be grouped, we have an attitude toward the group. At that point, the affect that’s associated with the attitude becomes the governing affect of the process. Thus, if I’ve never had any trouble with reading, and everything they’ve given me in the succession called successful education allows me to take in information, and I become stronger and larger and happier with everything I learn, then with avidity I look forward to every book given to me. But if my experience of reading is almost always fraught with shame, then shame comes to be the overriding, magnifying affect as we form scripts.
So if you’re going to use the word reflex, (which I interpret as the button that is pushed for a program), for a script that involves many, many experiences that are bundled, and are then operated in terms of one affect, then, for whatever the size of the group is that has trouble reading, it will always be associated with shame. And there’s going to be another group that whenever they read it’s exciting (for them). And there’s going to be another group which has experienced somewhere between those extremes. So it isn’t exactly a reflex, it’s a highly personal script developed for each one of us over time.
David Boulton: Excellent. I want to make a distinction and it’s just a distinction for our conversation purposes to get us tracking between what some would call the ‘decoding reflex’ which is cognitive, and the affect script that you’re talking about. What happens when the reflex, and ‘reflex’ is in quotes, we can call it a script, when the brain has to develop routines that are not volitionally, consciously driven?
Dr. Donald Nathanson: That’s what we mean by scripts.
David Boulton: I don’t know if you looked at the map that I made, but letters don’t have definitive sound values. They’re like a field, a quantum field of possibilities that collapse to a particular sound in context. There’s a process that has to go on to reduce this field of confusion to a coherent singularity that can be understood, named, said, spoken inside or outside.
Code Processing: Affect & Cognition:
David Boulton: Let’s say that we’re ‘inside’ the affect of interest, there isn’t any shame for a moment. Inside of this imagined space, inside of this stream of continuous interest, there’s still a necessity for this machine to form, to work this code. Now inside the process of developing these scripts to work the code, comes the shame. Now we’re bringing the other dimension in. So both of these things are forming inside of one another while somebody is learning to read.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: In a very important way you are separating the neo-cortical cognitive aspects of reading from the affective aspects of reading.
David Boulton: Just in thought for a moment in order to bring them together and see what’s going on.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: We agree completely.
David Boulton: Okay.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: It’s very important to separate them and it’s equally important to rejoin them at the end.
David Boulton: Right.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: So it’s possible, even using the logic you just described, it’s possible to say that many kids grow up afraid that if they don’t do it right they’re going to be humiliated. Other kids grow up knowing they’re not going to be able to read, so they have less shame because they have less affective investment in reading and there are all kinds of variations between them.
It is not simply that all children form this reading reflex. It may be true that every child has to, as you say, take the field and collapse the field. It may be that every child has to collapse the field of possible meanings and pronunciations of a letter and that this is entirely a cognitive skill. But the affect that governs the process of collapsing the field, ranges from comfortable interest to horrible shame, and that range has not been examined before.
The critical importance of this work on understanding written language as a code that must be deciphered, is that we now can look at the different affective implications in sub-populations of children. And if we can find a new way of explaining what it means to collapse the possible meanings, and a new way of explaining how to approach reading, and we do it in a way that has both teacher and the pupil interested, then we make a huge change in the way an entire population learns to read and that population’s attitude toward reading itself.
Reading and Verbal Intelligence Exercise:
David Boulton: One of the things that some cognitive psychologists that I’ve talked to have to say about this is that our oral language culture today does not use very complicated vocabulary. The common language used on the street, in our worlds, in our home, on our television, is at a pretty low threshold. We do not use complex, concise language except in writing. And for those that don’t read, they don’t get the exercise of a certain complexity in language; therefore, the consequence limits their verbal intelligence ceiling. We could go in lots of different directions with this but the thing that I’m most interested in now, that I’d like to hit if we could, is for you and me to understand that whenever we make a separation between the cognitive system and the affective system, we’re doing it in order to create some understanding, to shine some lights on different aspects of the same process, that they’re inseparable.
Learning Always Involves Both Affect and Cognition:
Dr. Donald Nathanson: But also to indicate that script formation or habits or learning always involves both. And until now learning has been taken as a non-affect related process.
David Boulton: It’s been over- mechanized. We haven’t realized, exactly as you said, that this machine is operating inside the spotlight system that’s directing attention and that is coming from affect.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: Yes.
David Boulton: Both at the general contextual focal point and also in the mechanics of the cognitive operation at a more micro- level, both of those things are affect.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: Yes.
The Effect of Learning to Read on Early Childhood Development:
David Boulton: Okay. So you and I are together there, we’re moving fine. Now what I’m trying to say about the scripts and the reflexes is this: what’s happening? Here we’ve got this four or five-year-old child, very young, not emotionally mature and they’re bumping into this system, and it’s part of the important context inside of which who they, as a person, are developing. It’s not just about the utility, the tool we use for being able to read, though, yes we can talk all day about how well somebody learns to read is predictive of their academic success, of their economic success and all of that and we will have lots of people speak to that. But what I’m most interested in here, is how the process of learning to read is actually affecting the structure and very early core of the development of who we are.
Again, remember the statistics; 60% of 12th graders are below proficiency, 68% of 4th graders, 60% of 12th graders are below the level expected in order to interface with education, meaning that they’re underneath it somehow. We know from the summary of thousands of research reports done by NICHD that the first thing that children feel about reading difficulty is that they’re at fault for it. They feel at fault for it. Something’s wrong with them. So most of our children are spending much, if not most, of their time in education feeling like there’s something wrong with them because of the way that this thing is working.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: In affect terms, when a child or an adult feels that an incapacity is their fault, then this sense of being a defective person generalizes to other aspects of the personality. The idea that we’re defective or at fault because we can’t read then places us in a position where we want to avoid the bad feeling that comes when we can’t do it. And the more afraid we are of the awful feeling of humiliation that comes when we can’t do it, the more we avoid the educational process. It’s not just reading, it’s the idea of education.
And there are kids who leave education, kids about which everybody says, ‘but she’s so bright’, or ‘ he has such good ideas’; these kids leave the education process, I believe, because they have so much of the sense of internalized shame that they can’t bear to expose themselves to that awful feeling.
What Happens When Children Become Ashamed of their Minds?:
David Boulton: As we spoke over breakfast this morning in our conversation about children, like with Sara, or other kids we’ve talked to, children who experience prolonged shame during the process of learning to read are in serious danger of learning to cope with the shame by convincing themselves: ‘I’m not very smart’. What happens to a child who feels ashamed of their smartness? What is that going to do, the general effect of that, the general effect of being ashamed of your mind? My sense is that we’re teaching most of our children, unintentionally, to feel ashamed of their minds. And when we talk about avoiding things, what happens when we want to avoid the source of shame if we feel the functioning of our minds is the source?
Dr. Donald Nathanson: I’m going to show you a place you don’t want to go.
David Boulton: Okay. I’m always interested in that.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: We’ve taken for granted that an increasing fraction of our child population moves away from the education path to the entertainment path hoping to become professional athletes, chefs, actors, and other kinds of entertainers. And you can see in each of these paths the wish of a child to become proficient in something that will bring them pride. I understand that many of the young people who go into the entertainment world, and who go into sports and a number of other paths of our culture that can bring them great remuneration, are avoiding education. But I wonder if the brain drain, if the loss of young people moving into higher educational process, if the move of boys away from higher education toward jobs that pay them money now, I wonder how much of that can be traced to problems in reading.
Let’s say that there’s been a stable percentage of the population who can’t disambiguate the code. But there has been, in the last twenty to thirty years, increasing celebration of what I call the Avoidance pole of the Compass of Shame, such as showing off your body, getting money from anything that lets you feel more successful than the other guy. I would guess that the children who find that it is very difficult, and in terms of affect, painful,to remain on the track toward whatever benefits education can produce; more and more of these children are moving toward a lifestyle that gives them instant rewards. I call this ‘ living at the Avoidance pole of the Compass of Shame.’ The changes in culture that have favored the Avoidance and Attack Other poles of the Compass of Shame and all of these forces mitigate against continuing education.
There may never have been a time in American history when it was more important to disambiguate the code. There may never have been a time in American history that it was more important to show children early how to read in an entirely new way because we’re losing large chunks of the population to the Avoidance and Attack Other world because they have so much shame early in reading. If that hypothesis is correct then we have a brain drain that could be avoided if we learned to read differently.
The Four Poles of the Compass of Shame: (Somewhat redundant second pass):
Dr. Donald Nathanson: So uncomfortable is the feeling of shame when that affect spotlight hits us, that we learn very quickly ways of disavowing, getting away from the bad feeling. We call the way that is done The Compass of Shame. We can withdraw so that we’re not seen by the eyes of others. We can withdraw so that whatever has been revealed about us will no longer be seen by others. We can curry favor with others so that we don’t feel alone even though we feel defective. We can do something to turn off the feeling of shame by using drugs or calling attention to what we’re good at. Or we can diminish the self esteem of others and feel better than we did before shame hit. Those four forms of behavior: Withdrawal, Attack Self, Avoidance and Attack Other, that’s the Compass of Shame and that’s what we do to get away from the bad feeling of physiological shame.
You know, when people say, ” I’m having a bad hair day,” that’s just a shame thing. Nothing I do makes me feel good about myself.
David Boulton: “I’m having a bad hair day” is on the spectrum with, ” I’m not that smart, I’m not a good reader, reading is not that important”. These are various ways of creating some kind of a definition that takes me out of the experience of the shame, some model that keeps me away from that feeling.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: Remember how popular Jimmy Stewart was when we were kids? He represented forthright definite statements of what he could do and no exaggerations about any aspect of his personality. He did that in every character that he played. Today a hero, a movie star, is one who calls attention to his attributes, who brags, who shows off something about himself, not someone who’s low- key, comfortable with himself and able to take anything that happens. The hero today in the American movie; he or she is someone who takes a possible insult or assault, and fights back. That’s the key to the personality of today: avoiding shame and attacking others.
Let’s look at the way people manage shame in our culture. The first thing we can do, of course, is look where the spotlight of shame might point us; to evaluate, see what’s wrong with us and make changes. We don’t do that very often because it hurts. So what do we do? We’ve got this Compass of Shame. At the top there’s the Withdrawal pole of the compass. That’s everything we do to keep away from the eyes that have seen what’s wrong with us. That’s why we say in shame we are shorn from the herd. We lose our connection to others, we pull away from everybody, so that nobody really focuses or maintains attention on what we are afraid they’ll see.
The Attack Self pole is simple. When we pull away from the herd of course we’re alone. Well, we vary, you, me, and everybody, in how comfortable we are being entirely alone. Some people who are very much afraid of abandonment can’t stand the idea of being entirely alone so they’ll curry favor with someone powerful and they’ll diminish themselves and say; ‘I’m not worthy and you’re so wonderful’, in hope that someone will fold them in and take care of them, even though they’ll be degraded to an even lesser standing. We call that the Attack Self posture.
There are other people who don’t like any aspect of the feeling of shame, and they want to make the feeling itself go away. They’ll focus your attention on some aspect of themselves that’s wonderful, like how they climb the tennis ladder in a club, golf, baseball, football; becoming really great at something, not for the sake of really enjoying your own skills, but for making sure other people notice who you are; notice your competence, your beauty, your sexiness.
Another way we can avoid the feeling of shame is simple. We can drink. Alcohol wipes away the feeling of shame better than any drug that’s ever been found. Cocaine and amphetamines raise the level of excitement so you don’t even notice what might have caused shame before. That’s the Avoidance pole of the compass.
The last pole involves a library full of ways we behave when we don’t know anything we can do that can make the feeling of shame decrease, so we diminish somebody else. At least we’re going to feel better than somebody else for a while. That means hitting them, putting them down, mocking, doing things that are going to make another person feel awful. Bullying is nothing more than the Attack Other pole of the Compass of Shame. Just like abusive children, spouse, inferiors, underlings, that’s all the Attack Other pole of the Compass. Wouldn’t need to do that, you know, if you focused on yourself and just maximized your own abilities.
David Boulton: I always think of this last point like people are pushing down on other people to push themselves up. There’s this movement to push down on others which propels yourself up in relation as an avoidance. All of these Compass points share in common that they’re all an escape.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: Yes.
Shame is a Learning Prompt:
David Boulton: At some stage, this shame is a learning lamp. It’s directing us to where we really need to learn; where the great learning opportunity is, in whatever has caused this trigger. What’s originally the great beneficial intention of this process, is that where the shame is pointing to is our great opportunity to learn, and yet we’ve become escape artists.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: David, what’s you’ve said is beautiful and it’s yours. It’s really important; the idea of shame as a learning lamp, the idea that it shows us where we have to study more, and we can learn if we study more. That’s valuable, but it really is your idea. I don’t want to say it because I don’t want to make it mine.
David Boulton: No, that’s your idea as far as I’m concerned. I’m just putting different words on it.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: No, you’ve said it far better than I have. Take the credit for it, it’s really important. That’s your application to learning, which I haven’t focused on, that’s your life’s work. You’ve said right now that shame is a learning lamp. No one has ever said that before. Take it. It may be that I put you in a place where you could say that, but that’s your way of thinking. That’s not mine. I will steal it from now on though!
David Boulton: Please do. I think it’s a natural build on your work. But thank you, I appreciate your acknowledgment of my extension.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: Well, you see, what you do is you metabolize a new idea, it’s yours and then you go on making sure we understand how these ideas connect. But take that one as yours. It is. Shame as a learning lamp, no one’s said that before.
If there’s too much shame then we can’t think. But if we feel loved and safe, which the school environment usually isn’t, if we feel loved and safe then we can go from the moment of shame to focus again, come on Billy, you’re going to do it.
Contextualizing Challenges to Minimize Shame:
David Boulton: That’s one way to deal with the threshold, and another way that would also be helpful, I think, is to contextualize the challenges in such a way that takes the child out of being able to quickly go to self blame / self faulting for the difficulty they experience.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: Let me do a vault-in here, okay. Look everybody, Billy just found a word that didn’t make any sense. Now we have two choices: we can say Billy is stupid or we can say there’s something about the word that doesn’t make sense. Look at the word, it doesn’t make sense because we just had a word in which these letters were pronounced this way and now they’re pronounced a completely different way. That’s not Billy’s fault, that’s what’s wrong with our language and we’ve go to learn that but he’s right to stumble on that word. Thank you Billy.
David Boulton: In my interactions with kids I call it the silly machine. Both about different thought processes and the external loop.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: Yeah, but what I just gave you, in addition to silly machine, was a teacher who understands shame and who understands the code, can take Billy’s stumble and say, ” You were right to stumble and this is why we stumble”, and then use your idea about collapsing the field of possible meanings. So you’ve got it here and it’s now a matter of what do we tell the teachers and the parents about the difficulty the kid is having reading. Of course this is difficult because there’s something wrong with the code.
I like your expression it’s a silly system or a silly machine but to be able to say in class, “Billy’s right to have trouble with this word, look what’s wrong with it. But we just have to learn and you learn this series of letters is pronounced this way in this situation and we’ll be able to do it. Thank you Billy”. And the kids sits there and he’s not been humiliated and it turns out he’s a hero because he made a mistake.
Natural Intelligence and Reading Errors:
David Boulton: He made a mistake that illustrates what the natural intelligence in children wants to make out of the experience, given the way that they’ve been treated up to this point.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: The natural intelligence of children must make these errors.
David Boulton: Yes.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: That’s one of the important things about the problem of the code. The natural intelligence of a good, smart kid is going to lead to reading errors. It’s how we handle those errors that makes all the difference. Either we say that was a great error because it shows the difference between this phoneme and this phoneme. At that point, the teacher’s understanding of the kid’s shame, and her understanding of what it means in terms of the code, allows the teacher to make the process of learning to read safer for an entire class. Any error you make, I’m going to be able to show you there’s a problem with the code, not a problem with you.
David Boulton: Excellent. That’s exactly what we want to do. Well done.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: So, I’m talking about de-shaming the process and saying thank you.
David Boulton: Imagine if we can do that. This is why I think the great opportunity here in this conversation is that it can bring teachers into awareness not only of the code, but of shame. It can be a drop- through rabbit hole lens to become more familiar with the whole affective domain in the classroom without necessarily coming through the emotional intelligence route.
Understanding Affect is Critical to Education:
David Boulton: This is why I’m saying, this is what’s excited me about our possible collaborations in all of this; that this is a rabbit hole, a portal to bring educators into the work that you’re doing that doesn’t require them to go through the explicit channel called emotionality. They can drop into understanding this from a point of view that’s not explicitly, intentionally, first step anyway, about emotion. But it leads to understanding that you cannot clear the path towards any educational improvement, without understanding affect.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: We’re right in the beginning of our path toward understanding the relation between affect and education. We’re beginning to focus on shame. Right now we’re going to use that word and these concepts constantly and in a couple of years we won’t have to. Because when you’re building something you have to understand this is a hammer, that’s a nail, this is lumber, that’s a plan, but when you’re really used to it, you just go ahead and build. When you’re driving a car, and learning to drive you’ve got all kinds of systems to learn and it takes a long time, it seems like forever, to learn to drive; and then it’s natural. Same thing in this culture.
The role of affect in education, the role of the affect interest, its impediment that triggers shame, the role of shame in self esteem, the role of shame in cognitive shock, all these things shame does, we can learn this easily, and then build new systems of education where we’ll never have to mention all of this affect language again.
First-Person, Learning to Teach:
Dr. Donald Nathanson: See, that’s the important thing we’re talking about; that in this period we must use all these buzz words from psychology, psychiatry, neuro-physiology…
David Boulton: But we’ve got to make the learning of all this ‘first person’ instead of learning through somebody else’s theory of the child. The theory has got to inform how I’m syncing up with the child, myself, first person.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: I’ve always liked that line, ‘Until today I had never heard of prose and now I find I’ve been speaking it every day of my life.’ Well, you’ve been experiencing affect, it’s been influencing neo-cortical cognition and it is every day of your life, and shame experiences are constant, and recovery from shame is constant. It’s just like learning that you’re speaking prose; you’re living affect and you’re living neo-cortical cognition. We only need to know this language for a while until we get better at teaching.
Misconceptions about Shame:
David Boulton: I don’t know what the limitation to language is. I think that one of the things working against understanding what we’re talking about is the existing preconceptions of the meaning of shame.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: Great. You’re going to hear us talk a lot about shame. And shame really isn’t what you think it is. Most of us know shame as we experience it as adults. Well, you know, it’s like the way we drive. We drive the car and we don’t even think about it, we just drive it. So you take ten individuals and you say, ” How do you drive?” They’ll say ” Well, I get in the car, turn it on and I drive.” Well, shame is like that too. The emotion we know, oh, it’s an awful feeling; ‘I’m put down, I’m miserable’; that’s the experience that’s accumulated over an entire lifetime. I want to get back to what it’s like when you first get into a car and you have to figure out how to coordinate pedals, turning things and all the tell- tales on the dashboard. That’s a lot different from driving, learning to drive is different.
Well, we have this mechanism we call shame affect, and it hits us just as soon as we’re really interested in something, and all of a sudden something interferes with our ability to maintain our interest in it. A perfect example is the subject of this program which is; we’re learning to read, we see a word we don’t know and we stumble over it. That moment produces a certain amount of shame. That’s not humiliation, mortification, embarrassment. It’s a physiological mechanism that clouds the mind and makes it difficult for us to continue concentrating. Everything we’re talking about here today is this primitive early physiologic experience of a biological mechanism we call shame affect.
Your experience of what shame means to you is highly personal and is a result of decades of experience of shame and being in our society. But I’m talking about the way shame hits a little child who is learning to read, and that’s different from what shame is for you as an adult.
Developmental Consequences of Pervasive Reading Shame:
David Boulton: I’d like to take one more pass through the psychological-developmental consequences to our children of having a pervasive self-shaming experience with respect to the functioning of their minds.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: Maybe the easiest way to understand the effect of shame on the learning process is the difference between the words ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’. ‘Can’t’ is something that happens to us when we’re trying to figure out a code that doesn’t make any sense.’ Won’t’ is what happens when we decide, “Since I have this awful feeling of failure every time I try then I’m not going to do it.” And all learning is dependent on this difference between “difficulty with,” which is at the edge of ‘can’t’, and “the decision to avoid,” which is ‘won’t’. And at that border between ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’ is learning. You learn to ‘won’t’. You learn to not approach education. You learn to not head for something that’s going to mortify you, that’s not going to get you laughed at by an entire classroom. You learn to do that. ‘Won’t’ is learned. ‘Can’t’ is the fault of the system.
You see, people have thought that learning is only absorbing the information the teacher gives you. But learning that you’ve got a lot of pain when you can’t and learning to use the Compass of Shame to escape from the pain of ‘can’t’ leads to ‘won’t’ and leads to a lot of other escapes that are against education and reduce the ability of the non-reader to compete in society.
All this stuff about affect calls the viewer’s attention to the importance of everything that’s going on in disambiguating the code. And the affect work shows why any time we use the word ‘urgent’ or ‘important’, we’re talking about affect.
By achieving the clarity you have about what’s wrong with the code, you enable those of us who are interested in the affective dimensions to say, “Oh my god, that means that this is going to happen, and this is going to happen”, and all these other things must happen because of what you’ve discovered about the code. Everything that you show in the video is about how the machine works and the implications of the machinery for our ability to take in information without having to duplicate it in ourselves. Reading, education, is merely a system that allows us to live as if we had centuries of experience. But you can’t get those centuries of experience if you can’t be taught and a major part of being taught is reading. If you can’t read then you’ve lost a huge segment of what’s gone before.
Ashamed of Our Thinking:
David Boulton: Right, and in addition to the information, in addition to the knowledge building, in addition to being able to represent all of history or some great portion of history now, we have on top of all of this that somebody who becomes more and more prone to shame develops a reduced threshold that determines how quickly they go into shame about the functioning of their thought. The reading thing is teaching a great number of people to want to avoid thinking.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: We use the word entrainment.
David Boulton: Yes. Just like you said before, once I start to feel ashamed, my worst self starts to loom larger. I start to drop into that and all the other things that are shaming become relevant in the firing of shame; all the things that are connected to my experience of shame. What happens when I’ve learned that there’s a certain intellectual functioning in my mind that as soon as I start to use it, I feel shame?
Dr. Donald Nathanson: First reading itself and then the whole education process becomes so imbued with, stuffed with, amplified, magnified by shame that we can develop an aversion to everything that is education.
David Boulton: And to being intellectual beings.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: I think that a great deal of the enmity and dislike held by many people for the intellectual and for the world of scholarship, is related to the shame they feel that they couldn’t learn in school. Anything we do to let the greater mass of people take in information and learn how to learn, is going to decrease the gulf between those who can study and those who can’t.
David Boulton: Thank you, Dr. Nathanson, for this excellent interview.
Dr. Donald Nathanson: Thank you, my pleasure.