Me, Myself and Myelin – Why Children Draw More Than We Do

What makes us stop pinning our drawings to the fridge door, or making sure everyone’s watching when we dance? Deborah Frances-White offers a scientific explanation – and encourages everyone to stock up on finger paints

Illustration by: Louise Boulter

I’ve met a lot of people who can’t draw, but none of them were five years old. When we are five we think our drawings are wonderful and want them displayed on the fridge. By the time we are 25 most of us think we’re rubbish at drawing and would avoid it if asked. There are only two explanations for this: either our drawing has got worse or our embarrassment threshold has gone up and as our motor skills will have improved, it’s likely to be the embarrassment thing.

Children are great generalists. They draw, sing, dance, act, jump off things and run. We were those people once. Now we doodle but don’t rate our scribbles and put them in the bin, not on the mantelpiece. We’d never do karaoke sober. We run joylessly on a treadmill to cheat death a little longer.

Where children are generalists, grown ups are specialists. We’ve already decided what we’re good at and what we’re bad at – and we’d much prefer to demonstrate our skills then fail at anything, even for a short time. An adult who is pretty good at tennis might sign up for the office tournament but would rather die than dance at the Christmas party. A grown up who rates her cooking will happily show off her paella but will call in sick before giving a presentation. It’s hard for adults to learn things, because learning means not being good at something for a while.

It’s easier for children partly because they aren’t yet nailed to the cross of self-awareness. They haven’t worked out that it’s all about what others think. They will make a Lego robot for the sake of making a robot not for a review or a promotion or to look clever.

After they’ve made it, they might show it to you so you can tell them it’s good but they might equally let it have a fight with another robot and smash it to pieces. They might hear an ice cream truck and run off and forget about it. It might be enough for them to enjoy making the robot.

Children also believe themselves to be good at many things because learning is what they do. In truth, seven-year-olds aren’t really good at anything so they’ll have a go at everything. It’s partly because of what’s happening in their heads.

When you do things, neurons travel down cord-like axons in your brain. Learning new things causes the nerve impulse to travel faster, the way you might ski faster on fresh powder snow than ice, because repetition causes a white fatty tissue called myelin to coat the axons.

This means the mental electrical charge can leap over the myelin sheath to the next open spot on the axon, like ski jumps might save time and allow you to take short cuts. Children generate loads of myelin.

They have to because everything they see is new and they’re often doing things for the first time. Buttoning their coat, tying their shoe laces and cleaning their teeth are all learning experiences. As we get older, we can continue to generate myelin but like most of what sucks about aging, it requires more effort.

However, our brains are very plastic and we can make huge changes to our neurocircuitry, at any age. We can change how our brains are wired. We can allow them to be learning machines again and not just watch repeats of Sex and the City over and over again. We have more options. We can learn grown up things like advanced French but equally we could go to a tap dancing class, like we did when we were nine. We could do that, not to be the best at tap dancing, which we probably never will be if we’re starting at the age of 32 or 59 but just to enjoy the sound of the tap shoes and the excitement of myelination as our feet start to automatically do something that once seemed impossible.

We could join an athletics club at age 44 just to remember that we’re really, truly, pantingly alive – and not just someone who takes conference calls while nuking an M&S low-cal lasagne.

We could join a life drawing class to look at the human body as something beautiful and unembarrassing (rather than something pornographic or funny) and feel our soft fingers replicate those fleshy lines – or we could even turn up to that same class as the model and learn to recline naked in front of strangers; our brains’ axons covering themselves with white fatty myelin each time we let the robe drop to the floor with a little more “so what?” in our shrug.

In most tribal cultures, everybody sings together the way they eat together. They dance. They don’t shuffle round a dance floor awkwardly or prance round suggestively. They dance big choreographed numbers in thrilling unison for festivals and celebrations. Everyone knows the steps and executes them with verve and flair. In those societies, forgoing painting and storytelling is a sign of depression, not adulthood.

In most capitalist cultures, only a few sing. We find those with a beautiful voice and a wonderful ear and we train and revere them and say, “Sing for us.” The rest of us listen. We sing along to the chorus if other voices will drown ours out at a concert. We hum their hooks in the car. But mostly we listen.

In the western world, only a few paint. Toddlers paint with their fingers. Children paint with brushes. Then adolescents take GCSE art and are critiqued in such a way that means they realise they are not among the chosen few and stop. Instead, we go to galleries and forward images of Banksy’s new work to each other. We look.

“Cultured” people in our society only have to read, watch and consume. We need to make and do nothing.

Technology is changing that a little. My god-daughter and her friends make music videos on their iPhones. Not to post online – just for fun. Amateur writers post fan fiction for the love of it. Are they hoping for validation? Sure, they like a nice a review, but you guess they’d write it anyway. Kickstarter allows anyone to make a movie and more importantly let a whole community of people become two-dollar producers and share the fun. The Wii makes it okay to dance in your living room. Sometimes flashmobs even take over a public space and do a dance that is almost tribal.

What if we decided to be the generation of grown ups who built Lego robots just for fun? What if we ran, not to lose weight but to chase each other round the park, laughing and shouting, “You’re it!”? What if we wrote poetry to express our frustrations instead of just swearing at strangers on Twitter? What if we started a website called TheFridgeDoor where we could hang our drawings?

What if we were proud of our pictures again, not because they are “good” but because they are colourful manifestations of our imagination? Imagine the myelin we could generate, if we just put our neurons to it.

Here’s my little drawing. I did it on an app on my phone. My rules are:

1) I don’t know what I’m drawing when I start;
2) I can’t erase or do over;
3) When it looks like something, I stop.

That’s how I created this little pet who needs a home. Hope you like her. Her name is Charmaine.

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Written by Deborah Frances-White

Deborah Frances-White is a comedian and screenwriter. Her BBC Radio 4 show Deborah Frances-White Rolls the Dice is currently on Mondays at 11.30am and ListenAgain. Episodes one and four are about how she found her biological family, including Kate and William.