Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

Disconnected from Nature: A Cautionary Tale


n 1936, when Dr. Michael Cohen was six years old, "my school emotionally amputated my left arm by making me write right-handed." The history of discrimination against left-handed people is long and complex, but for Michael Cohen, "amputating" this natural tendency caused him pain and led to a life of exploration into what he saw as our forced disconnection to what we naturally sense and feel. Despite the fact that we are as much dependent on Planet Earth as any other living species, humans have set themselves apart from Nature. We have convinced ourselves that, as the only "literate, reasoning" species on the planet, it is our duty to rise above the "scary, dangerous, and cruel" aspects of nature.

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In school, we teach children about the "web of life"—about how each part of Nature is linked to, and dependent on, multiple other parts—either directly or indirectly. Teachers often give children a ball of yarn with which they create webs of interconnection representative of the web of life. One purpose of the activity is to help children understand that eliminating one part of the web immediately impacts many other parts in negative ways. But would the web of life be negatively impacted if humans disappeared from the Earth tomorrow? Would Earth devolve into chaos?

For millennia before humans walked the earth, Nature existed in balance—in a state of homeostasis. The various cycles of nature (the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the rock cycle, the carbon dioxide/oxygen, photosynthesis, etc.) have worked in harmony since life first appeared on Earth. While huge natural disasters could and did create mass extinctions, Earth always came back—stronger and healthier. The earliest humans and indigenous people lived in harmony with nature. That is, until "thinking man" became dominant and no longer saw him/herself as part of Nature, but as the ultimate species with the right and responsibility to "control" Nature—to use it in any way they saw fit. As a direct result of that separation, the balance of Nature has been shifting farther and farther from natural homeostasis.

Through his lifelong work, Dr. Cohen has become convinced that we each have two bodies—the literate body that can read and make sense of this article, and a non-literate body, which is informed by our senses. The non-literate body is speechless, but no less alive and intelligent than our literate body. In fact, it is possessed of a much broader range of wisdom and experience. As our schools shift their focus more and more to the development of the literate mind at the expense of ways of knowing associated with our natural senses, they have, in effect "amputated" a major part of our bodies. Without that sensory information, particularly information we sense when in contact with Nature, we no longer have access to Nature's self-correcting wisdom. As Cohen states:

"On average, a person in contemporary society lives over 99.9% of his or her life devoid of conscious sensory contact with attractions in nature. We spend over 95% of our time indoors. We think, write and build relationships while closeted from nature. This disconnected state deludes us to believe that our extreme separation from nature does not influence our intelligence, sanity or ability to relate responsibility. The state of the world says otherwise."(1)

54 Natural Attraction Senses


ohen has identified 54 natural senses that are attuned to Earth's rhythms and wisdom. He states, "Sadly, we are encouraged to excessively disengage these senses from Nature's self-correcting ways and attach them instead to our Nature—conquering stories, technologies and relationships. This disconnection eviscerates Organism Earth and us. It severs our mutually supportive embrace with it. The pain this creates undermines us. We feel hurt, loss and unfulfilled. We constantly want so there is never enough…. This anomaly produces our disastrous greed, addictions and miseries, locally and globally."

Here are a few examples of the natural senses. As you read through them, recall a time when you were surrounded by Nature—remember what you saw, heard, smelled, felt, or otherwise sensed your environment. Were your senses more attracted to bright or shiny objects? To colors? To sounds? As you think about your experiences, try to do so without "naming" anything—just recall the sense itself.

The Radiation Senses (9)

The Feeling Senses (9)

The Feeling Senses (6)

The Mental Senses (NOT words…) (30)

As you monitor your experience of these senses, consider that many of them cannot be described in words in a way that duplicates the experience. Because of our addiction to the literate, we ignore the senses that provide the most immediate evidence for our experience. "We are surrounded by lies because we have learned to attach ourselves to scientifically inaccurate stories instead of to the self-correcting ways that the wisdom of Nature's intelligence works. Our lies deny that Nature and we are identical except that we have the ability speak, to communicate through stories. Our lies also omit that our stories destructively socialize us to think and build relationships using only 15 percent of the 54-senses that connect us to the integrity, balance and beauty of Nature, in and around us—to the whole of life." ~Michael Cohen(2)

From author Barbara Kingsolver:

"Most of our populace and all our leaders are participating in a mass hallucinatory (prejudiced against nature) fantasy in which
Computers vs. nature
"The senses, being the explorers of the world, open the way to knowledge." ~ Maria Montessori

Cohen suggests that “Information is most accurate and trustworthy when it is founded on a preponderance of empirical self-evidence beyond reasonable doubt that registers on our 54 natural senses such as “I see that the sun rose this morning” as well as ”It is reasonable to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow morning.”

Note that the second statement (words and reason) is based on the self-evident non-literate sensory experience. Compare that to the statement "It is reasonable to believe that holding all children to the same standards will improve their learning." Many people don't even question that statement—not because they have any sensory evidence that confirms it, but because of how often they have heard the words! Because of our addiction to the literate and our rejection of sensory information, those words have the power to override sensory information that most of us could provide to the contrary! Our rejection of information verified by our own senses results in unquestioning acceptance of the "non-sense" mandates that drive today's one-size-fits-all public schools.

Can we turn this around? Yes, but only by deliberately returning to Nature and actively rebuilding our awareness of our 54 senses. This isn't something that can be "taught"—it must be experienced. And it isn't something that can be "tested" because these senses are non-literate—they aren't expressed in words. But they are real and ultimately carry more wisdom and information about ourselves and our place in the world than all the words every written.

Cohen isn't recommending replacing literacy with sensory information. What he is saying is that until we reunite the two bodies—until we combine our literate with our non-literate perceptions, we will continue to experience the alienation, the sense of dissatisfaction, and the negative consequences of separation from our true nature.

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Some of us may recall a time when recess (or after school activities) involved climbing trees, playing hide and seek, picking flowers, chasing butterflies or fireflies, or watching a bird build a nest or pull a worm from the ground. Today, many inner city children have little or no exposure to nature except for the light of the sun and the air that they breathe. What little recess they get is being eliminated to allow more time to "teach" academics. Even if they are allowed to spend a few moments outside each day, they play on concrete playgrounds with toys made largely from plastic or other man-made materials. I once heard this comment by a teacher watching the children. "Wouldn't it be nice if they actually saw a bird before they were made to read and/or spell the word?"

Although Dr. Cohen doesn't focus on education, it seems reasonable that reintroducing, not only our children, but ourselves, to the natural world would be an appropriate way to regain our connection to nature and its wisdom. Before attempting to "change others," we might best begin by reacquainting ourselves with our natural senses. When was the last time you spent any time in a natural environment? How does being in nature make you feel? See the links below for more ideas.

Dr. Michael Cohen has an extensive website that goes into much more detail about what he calls ecotherapy and ecopsychology.

For a description of the Natural Systems Thinking Process, begin here.

Through Project NatureConnect, Cohen offers many activities for reconnecting with nature, in addition to online courses and degree programs. Scroll down to the Orientation Program Navigator for a description of a way to begin reconnecting with Mother Earth.

  1. http://www.ecopsychology.org/journal/gatherings3/cohen.html
  2. http://www.ecopsych.com/politicallies/
  3. http://www.ecopsych.com/walktalk.html

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