the neverland of the mind

Over the past month I’ve been searching intermittently but frantically for the right passage to describe a place, not any old place but not any specific place. I thought I’d read this — I have a specific memory of a specific dog eared page as I was reading — and yet I still can’t find it. I find I always wish I’d documented things I’d found a little better, but I still feel like I should be able to page through a book and find a corner turned down on a page, accompanied by a flood of recollection. Recently I’ve been coming up short, though, maybe reminding me that I should write stuff down in some kind of searchable database, my post-hoc justification for writing in this space.

Sometimes I find important and interesting stuff accidentally. Yesterday I found myself quoted, with quotation marks and proper citation and everything, in someone else’s work. And it wasn’t even anyone that I know. And it was even a great line. Probably, second-author-Sherry wrote that particular sentence; but still: Someone I don’t know, who lives in Cypress, went to the trouble of typing out one sentence of our work verbatim. Thanks, citizens of Cypress.

Yet in random, intermittent, frantic searches I find other stuff. Last night I had this spark of an idea, a shadow of a memory, that maybe the quote I was looking for wasn’t from Edward Abbey or John Steinbeck but from from Barrie’s Peter Pan. It wasn’t. Instead, I found this description of the mind* that I need to use somewhere. In fact, I think that I need to create some work that pivots around this, just because it’s so delightful:

I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island, for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose. It would be an easy map if that were all, but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needle-work, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, three-pence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on, and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still. [emphasis added]

Cognitive psychology couldn’t have said it any better, although we’re working on it. Barrie wrote this in the late 1800’s, Freud fucked things up for psychology for a while, Watson tried to right things with a pendulum shift the other way. Now the boat is on a course that Barrie (or Dewey) might have suggested, just 100 years later. The funny thing is that last Friday I gave a talk on the notions of a conceptual ecology to a mixed group of psychologists, scientists, and students. My description of all that we know about how students think about and form their ideas about scientific concepts is pretty much the same thing as this island (or overlays of islands) with all these features. The landforms, people, “verbs that take the dative,” and other oddities are all disparate but interrelated. They all get to do their own thing but they simultaneously confuse one another. You can play on one side of the island without paying attention to what’s happening on another side, and go back-and-forth a few times. Barrie, essentially, describes the conceptual ecology, decades worth of educational research, out of the whimsy invoke in a children’s play.


*Before this passage about the mind, there’s a paragraph that puts it into context, describing what mothers do with their children’s minds as they rest. To me, as a parent and a reader and (supposedly) a researcher, I just love this image. It may be a better description of the magic of parenting or teaching than anything I could have come up with on my own:

Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your own mother doing this, and you would find it very interesting to watch her. It is quite like tidying up drawers. You would see her on her knees, I expect, lingering humorously over some of your contents, wondering where on earth you had picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek as if it were as nice as a kitten, and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.

When I read the book out loud to the girls about a year ago, I’d keep pausing in astonishment at the beauty of the images. Sometimes I’d hold back a tear as they looked at me, wondering when we’d get to the part with Tinker Bell.


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