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The higher education value proposition - co-creation with industry of an educated citizen
by Jim Stellar
As higher education continues to work on the basic vale proposition in terms of what the student gets vs. the investment of family funds and student time, the topics considered in this blog become more relevant. One of the fundamental characteristics of any program of experiential education is that it gets the students, and therefore the institution, off campus and in contact with the real world. That outcome occurs with service-learning as the institution forms a relationship with the service provider by exchanging students. A great deal of learning within the institution can occur with such partnerships. In programs of cooperative education (think repeated long-term full-time paid internships), the interaction is often with corporations which might employ those students after graduation.
Industry has a great stake in the ability of higher education to produce educated citizens and Thami Msubo and I wrote a blog about the potential for collaboration between industry and higher education in using the concept of co-creating the educated citizen. Now, he has just given what I think is an important graduation address at the Durbin University of Technology in his home country of South Africa where he is Chief of Human Resources for Telecom South Africa. Attached to this posting is a copy of his graduation speech which he graciously allowed me to post today. I urge you to read it.
click here to get the pdf file thami-msubo-graduation-speech-dut-april-15-2013
Lauren Blachorsky QC ’15 and Jim Stellar
Lauren and I share a large interdisciplinary class that investigates how the brain mechanisms of pleasure and pain might work in a larger society. She also works in a professor’s laboratory who studies neurogenesis and from where another student came who wrote a blog post with me on the birth of new neurons in the brain and their potential integration into motor skill learning circuits in adults. Another powerful potential form of neuroplasticity is to change the connections between the existing neurons to somehow make them better. In a 2009 book, Talent Code, Daniel Coyle proposes just such a brain mechanism that underlies skill learning in highly talented athletes. For instance, how did Roger Federer get to be so good at his famous backhand swing, or how did Michael Phelps develop his awesome butterfly stroke. This is highly relevant to experiential education when you consider another famous book, Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, which proposes that education, experience, training, really can change us to make us something that we were not before - so good that we are an outlier in this area of skill (athletics or violin playing or expert knowledge in the field of accounting). We decided to investigate this idea here.
Laruen, what is myelin and what is the basic idea that it changes when one learn?
Myelin is a substance produced in the brain that wraps around the axons of neurons and axons are the long connections between the nerve cells themselves that make up the brain circuits that underlie our functioning. Because of this wrapping, myelin speeds up conduction of the axon in the nervous system. In English, this means that myelin allows us to send messages from one neuron to another neuron much quicker than if the myelin was not there. Myelin develops as we grow, having its peak effect in childhood and may underlie some of the fundamental changes through which children go when it appears that they have suddenly developed a new ability. The good news is we may be able to grow myelin as adults to better wrap around our neurons. With enough of a certain type of practice, I may be able to trigger myelination and develop the motor skills to snowboard, do backflips, or even more beyond motor skills to understand physics.
Cool. So what evidence is there that myelin changes are associated with skill development in humans?
This blog often cites brain activity scans, most often fMRI, but here we need to look at a different brain scanning device. Using a technique called Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI), researchers were able to measure that professional piano players had more myelinated axons in a certain area of the brain, and that the myelination correlated to the amount of time spent practicing.1 A second study taught participants how to juggle, and then using DTI, found that the participants who practiced juggling, had more white matter (cells that have myelinated axons)2. These studies suggest that the level of myelination changed with practice. If so, that practice changes the timing (speeds it up) between neural circuits in various brain areas, these changes in timing could change the way these circuits compute. There is also a general notion in Coyle’s book that because the axons now conduct faster the skill is better. It does seem obvious going back to the athletes you mentioned in the beginning, that they do act faster, as well as with more precision, than do amateurs. That is why we watch them.
OK. Let me play the role of the skeptic. I know the brain scan shows a difference between more vs. less practiced individuals in those brain connections. But I am a neuroscientist. By what mechanism does an axon firing as part of that circuit produce more myelin on that axon?
To understand why myelin forms during training, we need to go a little bit deeper in the process of how neurons send messages to each other. A neuron fires a special signal called an action potential in its axon. This signal is an electrical impulse that relays information from one neuron to another. In most instances, the more a neuron fires action potentials, the more that neuron is being used in the nervous system, perhaps for learning. Bringing this point back to myelin, myelin wraps around the axon of the neuron and does two things. First, it helps conserve energy in the axon, which is important as the brain already uses a disproportionate amount of the body’s energy. Second, myelin makes the action potential go down the axon faster and speeds up neuronal processing. Myelin itself is made by another brain cell called an oligodendrocyte that “grabs” a hold of the axon and wraps around it, much like a person would roll up a rug around a cardboard tube. Interestingly, not all neurons are myelinated, and those that are, do not all have the same amount of myelination.
So what determines the amount of myelination an axon receives? It seems there are many factors, but research3 shows that one factor is a substance called adenosine. It comes from the basic “fuel” molecule of the cell, Adenosine TriPhosphate and a small amount of adenosine is released by the axon each time its sends an action potential. The myelin-making oligodendrocyte cells have adenosine receptors on their surfaces, and when they detect adenosine they start wrapping axons in myelin. This mechanism is activity-dependent. In order to release adenosine, the neuron has to fire action potentials. In order to fire action potentials, a person needs to be using the brain circuitry for something. This means that if I ever want to be able to do backflips, I should go start practicing now, to release adenosine in those skill-producing brain circuits that need refinement so I can do a good backflip.
Whether you are learning to do a backflip or learn accounting or practice the violin, the brain seems to change when you learn. We always knew that, but the old idea in neuroscience was that these changes only occurred where the neurons interacted with each other in their existing (synaptic) connections which could be strengthened or weakened. The old idea was that the fundamental structure of the brain did not change such as the number of neurons in the brain or the basic timing of the communication between them. It now seems that both of these assertions are wrong. The brain can change in remarkable ways as you learn. The good news is that you are not so stuck with the system you have now, even in adulthood, if you practice in such a way that you really engage the relevant brain circuits, you will change your brain. Then you will be what Malcolm Gladwell called an “outlier” in a book by the same name, mentioned above. That is a tremendously exciting concept to both of us and one we intend to pursue. Of course, our thesis is that experiential education coupled to a strong classical education is an excellent way to learn and change your brain.
1 Bengtsson and others 2005
2 Scholz1, Miriam C Klein1,2, Timothy E J Behrens1,2 & Heidi Johansen-Berg1
3 Adenosine: A Neuron-Glial Transmitter Promoting Myelination in the CNS in Response to Action Potentials”)
Love of Words
Chloe’ Skye Weiser QC’13 and Jim Stellar
“To read means to satisfy the philological drive, to make a literary impression upon oneself. To read out of an impulse for pure philosophy or poetry, unaided by philology, is probably impossible.” -Friedrich Schlegel, Athenaeum Fragments, #391
Chloe’, an English and Anthropology major, who wrote an earlier post with me about her experiences tutoring in the writing center, sent me the above quote. As she explained, “philology” means love of words and that had a lot to do with shaping her choice of major.
This quotation is from ENGL 636: Literary Theory and Criticism, a grad class I took during the spring 2012 semester. I knew I wanted to be an English major since I was little, mostly because I was drawn to the malleability of language as demonstrated in the countless novels, short stories and poems I methodically devoured. We tend to think of reading as an intellectual pursuit that has the ability to allow us to escape for a while from our lives and from which we derive pleasure, but oftentimes if you are not a writer yourself you ignore that other process to which reading is merely secondary. In ENGL 636 I studied many philosophers and literary theorists, such as Plato, Saussure Derrida, and Butler, and the schools of thought that they have propagated or contributed to—Classical, Structuralism, Deconstruction, Cultural Studies and so on—which allows me to see my love of words in a new light. Literary theory, with all its (largely absent from the spotlight) influence on the works I have always known and loved, is and deserves to continue as a discipline in its own right, a discipline that is continually forged in, out of, from philology.
Where do words come from? I know that sounds simplistic, and you know me in that I like to look for places where we seem to operate with our unconscious limbic brain circuits in higher educational environments…places where I can use my favorite Pascal quote, “The Heart has reasons of which even reason does not know.”. So, maybe tell me where you feel like words come from in your own mind.
Saussure, a seminal Swiss linguist, was the first to assert that language and thought – I’m simplifying a bit – are inextricably linked and inseparable like two sides of a piece of paper. They are created and exist together; one brings the other into being. When we think of initial creation, we think of the Big Bang. But the Big Bang, because no one witnessed it firsthand and we can never know if the universe happened in exactly that way, is a concept that cannot exist outside language, and is therefore nothing if not part of the human mind.
Even having learned, internalized and accepted this theory of language, when I write I still cannot help but feel that there is a muse, there is some sort of inspiration that bestows momentary genius on me from time to time. My favorite author, poet and essayist Margaret Atwood stated that she began to write when she was a teenager, that she was walking across a field on her way home from school and that suddenly – boom – her first poem was impressed upon her with all the gravity of a thumbprint from God! Since I read this I have always kept it in mind. Where words come from is a beautiful mystery, something that I owe to little fireworks constantly going off in my brain; something that if there was a knowable answer, I would probably not want to know. By the way- she said it was a terrible poem. I find that hard to believe of course having read her amazing published works, but I guess it just goes to show that what matters is not always the perfect words but the act of thinking, of putting pen to paper.
I totally agree that so much of what we do comes out of those ancient computational circuits of the brain that evolved before we had words and maybe before we had a prefrontal cortex to allow symbolic rehearsal of potential actions. What I like most about what you said was “that language and thought … are inextricably linked and inseparable like two sides of a piece of paper.” Of course, where I am going is that experiences in and out of the classroom primarily impact the limbic/mammalian brain and the articulation of the relevant facts and theories in the classroom impact the primate/conscious/word-based brain and that you need both “sides of the paper” to function well. This brings me to the issue of reflection which may help join these two sides of the paper and a favorite quote I always wanted to ask an English major about. Wordsworth said about poetry that “…It takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Is this what you mean?
It’s interesting that you invoke what is probably a long debate over whether poetry is a passive or active craft. My beliefs cater to both possibilities. I definitely agree with Wordsworth in that quiet moments help a writer to gather her thoughts, but he hints primarily at the passivity that is only one side of the paper. When I feel “the Muse,” it’s as if I am simultaneously on the receiving end of something beautiful but also that it is in my power to channel and mold the inspiration as I will. It often takes me a while to write a complete poem with form, substance and texture because I tend to go through an “incubation period”: I will have a sentiment I feel very strongly about, but my passion or desperation to express it gets in the way of coherence, and if I wait just a little, the ecstatic daily grind of life helps me work it out in my head. And yet I would say that if I put my mind to it, I can actively arrange the haphazardly jotted lines like sunrays around a central concept that reveals itself in the process of writing. So is this active or passive?
A bit of both, a bit of a crossroads. As Yeats wrote in his poem “Adam’s Curse” about the nature of a poet’s work: “a line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” The state of casual finality in which we find poems is just a testament to the poet’s hard labor; even one line can deceptively mask hours of reworking. We can’t know where inspiration comes from in the abstract, but we did generate the word “inspiration,” and also the language that defines what inspiration is and integrates it culturally. It is a give and take, a cycle: we have collectively, continually created a linguistic immensity that influences us just as we are always creating it anew- in speech and in writing.
Returning to the brain and experiential learning in college education… What we want you to take away from this conversation is that these two processes (conscious and unconscious) we are discussing in this post and in the entire blog are natural, part of the everyday execution of our lives, and part of creativity and scholarship of which poetry, and writing well in general, is a key part. So why did higher education settle on the classroom as the dominate way to express education and not build in more experiences with the application of that knowledge?
We do recognize that the classroom can be totally inspiring, a means of shaping positive outlook on learning that is contagious, and which an individual then takes out into the world. Philology: To better express the written word, we must love it. One writes much better essays when one loves the topic. Ostensibly, if a learning environment is cultivated with passion and love, one may love learning all the more.
Just as we do not know and cannot teach from where the next word comes (but one can get better at writing with practice), perhaps we cannot imagine an education without the knowledge-transfer mechanisms of classes and books. Yet to generate knowledge-fluent students who are really ready for the complex world of today, we may need to just that and imagine an education where the classroom is complimented by real-world experience. That form of education would better engage both processes. Maybe then we can return to our question—from where does the next word come—and make the beauty and power of education more like that of great poetry.
Mentoring and Being Mentored
Catherine Nunez NU’08 and Jim Stellar
Katie was a student with whom I connected at Northeastern. Recently, she wrote me this great e-mail which included the following key observations about mentoring:
Personally, I credit collegiate peer to peer mentoring and counseling to opening my eyes to a passion that I never knew existed within me as a freshman at Northeastern University. I was granted an opportunity to join a peer mentoring program called Legacy, which focused on mentoring freshman Black and Latino students as they transitioned into university life.
I myself was blessed with two amazing parents who deeply value higher education, although they never had the opportunity to pursue it for themselves. They encouraged and supported me in every way they could to ensure that I could go to college. However, despite their love and support, they were unable to provide the kind of information and guidance a student may need as they matriculate through their university system. Legacy provided this to me through a peer mentor and a passionate program leader. My mentor was able to shed light on how best to negotiate with a professor, how to avoid lines at the cafeteria, what pertinent information I needed to know from academics, university life, sports programs, internships, research opportunities, experiential learning, etc. and the list could continue. What is important to understand from this type of support system is that everything is up for discussion providing myself and other students with a safety net and an outlet to access information that I, and many others, would not even know existed.
I think back to how I have been able to impact my own mentees and their academic/professional development. I always think of one particular mentee, who came to me through Legacy. He was a bright and eager young student without a stable home life, parents whom he couldn’t count on emotionally nor financially, etc. I counseled him throughout his tenure at Northeastern. Anything from which classes to take, assisting with homework and research, assisting him with healthcare questions, how to deal with friendships and girlfriends, work/life balance, experiential learning opportunities, etc. He, in fact, won the Presidential Scholarship in 2009, which I had received in 2005, and my mentor had received a few years earlier than I. He was so proud to tell me that he would carry the torch on to his mentees, which one of them was awarded the Presidential Scholarship last year! Even after I moved 3000 miles away, we stayed connected, and he would reach out to me with questions and for assistance. Last year he graduated and I flew from California to Boston to support him. I have never been more proud, even at my own graduation, than to attend his ceremony and cheer for him and his fellow classmates as they received their degrees. It remains to this day, one of my crowning achievements to support him in his success and his development into an amazing man. To this day, I am still his mentor and I continue to support him, guide him as best I can as he grows into the professional he is seeking to be.
These experiences cause me to pause and often ask myself, would I have been as successful without mentors across the board? And the answer to that is, perhaps, but the road would have been even more difficult and tumultuous.
Having the opportunity to counsel working class students since I graduated coupled with my involvement in peer-to peer mentoring at Northeastern has helped in recognizing within myself a love of counseling and supporting students in their education and success. I know that obtaining my Masters in Counseling with a focus on Student Development in Higher Education is where my future truly lies. It is a future that is not based on impending riches, but one based on helping others. That is something that inspires me, knowing that I have helped someone with a need, big or small.
Notice in this writing the high impact practice of both being a mentor and receiving mentorship. Katie, why do you think that happens in a two-way street?
The idea of mentorship, or a relationship based on guidance and support, has been utilized by all societies. It is a concept based an investment in future social dividends. Mentorship creates a network that provides outlets to/for information and emotional support, avenues to express one’s thoughts and ideas, and a center for guidance and counseling individuals. For me it is a “safe space” where I can ask questions privately from a trusted, usually well-informed source. I have found that my mentorship-based relationships have been some of the most emotionally enriched, long-term connections. Ideally, the mentor relationship provides comfort to its participants because of their mentor’s/mentee’s ability to understand the social lens of their mentor/mentee allowing for more understanding and growth within all parties.
Most importantly, all parties see positive results in a short amount of time, which increases emotional ties to one another. Almost all participants believe they are greater as a symbiotic organization than as individuals, having separate strengths shared among one another for the benefit of all. The mentor has the opportunity to witness someone’s academic, professional, and personal development, and the mentee, through guidance, experiences this growth in an environment of support. As a mentor, the fact that my energies and efforts have a poignant, direct impact on someone else, which can be observed in real time, is one of the most emotionally rewarding parts of the relationship. It is a result that does not take an inordinate amount of time and indulges the parts of the brain that respond to emotion quickly and effectively. This, I would argue encourages the relationship in a way that provides strength and trust among those who do not come from what society has taught us to be the “traditional family” network.
It has been my experience that the trust between mentors and mentees is fortified by ever-helpful shared pieces of advice, time dedicated to someone else’s success, and mutual support through challenges and triumphs. The relationship is one built on mutual goals and actions of support. And the roles of mentor and mentee are not fixed but rather depend on time, place, and circumstance. It should not be forgotten that all parties continuously learn lessons, and as the speed of information dissemination increases, so do these opportunities to learn and grow. It is because of this that I continue to participate in mentorship, the emotional rewards are high, and my energies make a difference and impact someone else’s life in a positive manner. What more could someone else ask for?
Katie and I are now talking about student engagement as a transformative process, particularly in diverse populations, and we may write another blog post about that topic. But notice here how the engagement both as a mentee and a mentor is riddled throughout her writing. This effect is typical of what we can call in this blog as an other-lobe-of-the-brain phenomenon. The affect associated with a limbic decision to engage leads to energy and commitment but it also bleeds into other activities and takes on that “infections” quality. To borrow a phrase from previous writing, the “neuroeconomics” of commitment is more than just a focus on the “purchase” of the major field of study by the effort of the student. It gets to be more general and shows up in many places. That may be the greatest gift of mentoring (and to the mentor as well).
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Internship vs. undergraduate research – what is the difference?
Paulina Smietanka ‘14 and Jim Stellar
This is our third blog. We already wrote on her first public school and second private clinic internship experience. Now our goal is to compare those internship experiences to the experience of working in a lab of a college professor – a different kind of internship.
Paulina, please first just describe your undergraduate research experience.
The study I participated in was designed to attain information on Polish bilingualism, literacy practices conducted by parents, educational planning, and early education and care. Further, I intended to learn about the parents/caregivers and their language use, education and work. There was much emphasis on Greenpoint, Brooklyn due to its dominant Polish population and thus, it served as a playground for me to uncover just how important those factors were in today’s Polish American community. My role in the undergraduate research experience was to first, research information on the Polish language, immigration to the U.S. and Greenpoint, the Polish-American culture and basic demographics. After gathering all the necessary information, I had to find a Polish school that was willing to allow me to conduct a survey. Due to strict school regulations and a limited number of Polish schools, this was surely a task. Luckily, Principal Danuta Bronchard of Konopnicka Polish Supplementary School approved. By the end of the school year, I had roughly 60 surveys from 60 different Polish households in Greenpoint.
The experience itself was a privilege. It certainly isn’t the same as any other internship because the main priority is to seek out information about a community, language, or culture and to understand how external elements matter when conducting therapy. Being part of the bilingual literacy lab took me to the next level as a future practitioner, allowing me to see the importance of learning about each family individually and bringing about therapy that will work for each child.
How about the impact on you as a student?
I was able to engage in the process of attaining knowledge by myself. I was able to study something I was interested in, something that also was directly related to me. None of my other experiences have allowed me to do that. I have also been exposed to the importance of bilingualism itself, in all cultures. Considering the U.S. is known for its diverse population, there are mixed emotions on bilingualism from both natives and newcomers. As a country always moving in the direction of progress, it is important for language to be respected. In the therapeutic field, this may be achieved by enlightening parents on the positive effects of bilingualism and also meet the comfort needs of a child. Instead of a second language being portrayed as an iceberg, it should be visible on the surface in its entirety. Again, I feel this strengthened my experience as someone who will someday treat speech patients.
Twice you referred to yourself as a future practitioner. Do you think that all practitioners should do an internship in a clinic and one in a lab and if so why?
Definitely! Honestly, the answer is pretty simple. I think the more open minded a student is, the more they can learn about their field and themselves. I’m a believer in: no experience can be experienced twice, not even in the same place. So I urge all students, not just practitioners, to go the extra step beyond the classroom and experience their field for what it truly is. Whether it’s interning, volunteering, stopping in for a few short minutes, or research, it’s all a movement toward growth. The fact that I have explored various settings and have exposed myself to different types of therapy, I have a clearer picture of my intentions, interests, and where I want to be in a few years. Also, a student will have the privilege of either being reassured that they are in the right major, or they will be directed where they are supposed to be. It’s a win, win situation if you ask me. Plus, you meet great people along the way! That alone, makes it valuable.
What is different between these experiences of an internship in a clinic or a company and undergraduate research is much less important than what is similar between them. To us that is the factor of engagement. Something has to touch the student inside to create an inspiration that drives learning and growth in college. Fear of failing a test can make a student study in a classroom situation and those fears can exist in an internship too, but they tend to be local and the energy dissipates after the task or test has passed. Engagement, on the other hand, is not only positive, it is persistent. It leads students to improve themselves. Facts and theory learning in the curriculum can then help the inspired student further that engagement. College has it easy with such students as they practically teach themselves. Of course, one can get engaged just from the classroom, but experiential learning, like undergraduate research or internships, can also do it and in a different way through what we call here the “other lobe of the brain.”
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Making Emotional Choices; It May Be the Only Way We Know How
by Raphael Spiro QC ‘12 & Golshan Aghanori QC ’13
Note from Jim Stellar: I have been working on this blog since February of 2009. This is the first time that two of my students (OK, RS graduated) have written a post together. Also, I just cannot figure what to say to add to what they have done, except to say that this work is related to experiential education. For example, consider the act of deciding if the field in which one is interning (e.g. law) is the field one wants to enter. Clearly that involves conscious and what the RS and GA call emotional decisions. Some of that process comes from interacting with folks at the internship site. Then there is the important issue of reflection on that experience during and after the experience. So, this stuff is important to Higher Education. Read on…
The desire to make sense of the world around us seems to be a fundamental aspect of the human condition. This need to break things down into their base components can be seen in the relentless effort among scientists to compartmentalize the various cognitive functions of the brain, a trend that can be traced as far back the search for the seat of human intelligence in Ancient Greece. The more we learn about the brain, however, the more it becomes clear that a divide and conquer approach simply won’t work. Believing that a brain area can have only one function severely underestimates the adaptability of the neuron. The insula provides an excellent example of the multiple capabilities present in a single brain area.
Researchers from several universities (including our very own Queens College) designed an experiment to explore the relationship between cognitive and emotional functioning. To get at the interaction between cognitive processing and emotional function, they looked at participant’s reaction times (RT) on tasks that varied in their emotional valence and cognitive load. By examining the difference in RT between emotional and unemotional tasks, the researchers were able to determine if the brain areas involved in the cognitive processing and emotional processing shared resources. Much like two roads that merge into a single highway, two mental processes that use the same brain areas or pathways take more time if they are happening at the same time than if they occur separately.
In the study, participants were situated in an fMRI scanner and asked to look at a series of pictures. While all the pictures were similar (to avoid introducing any “noise” into the fMRI results), they varied on three dimensions. Some pictures contained someone’s hand, while others contained a foot. Of those pictures, some showed a person’s right side and others showed a person’s left side. Further dividing the pictures, some depicted the person’s appendage in pain (stuck in a door or being stabbed by a knife) while others showed the appendage in innocuous situations (next to an open door or knife).
Participants were asked to perform two tasks. In one task, they were asked to look at a series of pictures (selected from each of the 8 different possible combinations of the above dimensions) and determine whether the picture was of someone’s hand or foot (TB). In the other task, they were asked to determine whether they were looking at someone’s right or left side (TL). Previous data showed that TL was more difficult than TB.
The results of the study showed that RTs were slower for TL when the stimulus was painful (i.e. an empathetic response was induced in the participants) than when the stimulus was non-painful. The presence of painful vs. non-painful stimulus had a significantly different effect on TL vs. TB. Additionally, fMRI data showed that the interaction between task type and stimulus type had significantly different effects on activation in the anterior insula was, whereas activation in the posterior insula was only significantly affected by the stimulus type. These findings suggest that the anterior insula plays a key role in the integration of cognitive and emotional processing.
This integration of “rational thinking” and emotional responses comes into play more frequently than one might assume. Ask an economist about how people make choices, and chances are they will say that humans make decisions in rational manner with a firm basis in any information they have. However, new methods of studying the brain (lesion studies, fMRI) have been useful in showing the crucial role of emotions in decision making. An analysis of several studies on decision making (Naqvi, Shiv & Bechara) shows some evidence that the somatic-marker hypothesis may provide an accurate model of how people make choices.
The somatic-marker hypothesis states that people choices are aimed at outcomes that maximize reward and minimize punishment. In an effort to achieve such outcomes, people judge a possible decision based on their emotional reaction to it (in the form of bodily states). In an effort to test the somatic-marker hypothesis, a task called the Iowa Gambling Task developed. This task has participants chose from four decks of cards. Two of the decks present the player with relatively good odds of winning play money (and eventually a net gain) while the other two decks will eventually lead to a net loss of money. Using skin-conductance response (SCR), researchers were able to measure a participant’s autonomic emotional arousal in response to the gambling task. When normally functioning people are administered the task, they explore the decks, but quickly learn which decks are advantageous and chose from them. Furthermore, they exhibited heightened SCR before choosing from a disadvantageous deck, even before the participants were explicitly aware of the deck’s rule. When administered to people with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), the Iowa Gambling Task presented a real challenge; these participants continued to choose from disadvantageous decks. Additionally, heightened reactions in anticipation of a poor decision were not exhibited by people with vmPFC lesions. They did, however, show normal SCR reactions to reward and punishment, suggesting that the vmPFC is responsible for anticipating results rather than reacting to them. With help from the amygdala, which allows a person to associate emotional responses with a behavior, the vmPFC helps a person re-experience the outcome a past decision.
Once a learned emotional response has been elicited in reaction to a posed decision, the brain must interpret the response. The somatic-marker hypothesis attributes this interpretation of visceral states to the insula. Activation of the insula was greater during high-risk decisions than during low-risk decisions. Additionally, activation levels in the insula were related to the probability that an individual would learn from a punishing decision and chose the safe choice in the future.
The importance of emotions, both past and present, in decision making may come as a shock to some. Upon closer thought, however, it begins to make sense. Just as physical pain lets the body know that an activity is detrimental, so too can emotional pain inform a person of a maladaptive behavior. For highly social creatures such as ourselves, this integration of emotions, via the insula, into decision making surely improves our ability to function in our society.
With the help of the somatic-marker hypothesis, we are now aware that the insula plays an important role in decision making. Researchers have been able to implicate addictive behavior to a number of brain systems, yet they have been unable to associate which brain area in particular is responsible for addiction to cigarette smoking. However, in a study based on patients who had brain lesions, we can see that damage to the insula disrupts addiction to cigarette smoking (Naqvi, Rudrauf, Damasio and Bechara). Patients who have had brain damage involving the insula were able to quit smoking immediately and without relapse. This study does not provide firm evidence that the insula is the only source for nicotine addiction and we should start cutting into our brains in order to quit smoking. The study only suggests a possible cure for the addiction so that perhaps with further studies we may be able to come up with medications that can target and control the insula that provides this “need” to smoke.
Knowing that the insula plays a great part in risky situations, it becomes rather simple to understand the relation between the insula and smoking. Observe any smoker and you can see they tend to smoke to release stress and anxiety, add a tad more of stress to any situation and the number of cigarette smoking rises. Stress and anxiety make the individual very uncomfortable and therefore the brain, mainly the insula learns that in order to relieve stress I have to smoke, or rather I “need” to smoke. Thus, when the lesions to the insula inactivate this factor that that makes us believe that we need that cigarette or else it is the end of the world, we are able to quit smoking immediately and without relapse.
· The Role of Emotion in Decision Making: A Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective
Naqvi, Shiv, and Beehara
· Functional Dissociation of the Frontoinsular and Anterior Cingulate Cortices in Empathy for Pain
Xiaosi Gu, Xun Liu, Kevin G. Guise, Thomas P. Naidich, Patrick R. Hof, and Jin Fan
· Damage to the Insula Disrupts Addiction to Cigarette Smoking
Nasir H. Naqvi, David Rudrauf, Hanna Damasio, and Antoine Bechara
Social Capital and the Queens College Experience
Lara Porter QC’14 and Jim Stellar
Lara and I wrote a previous blog post linking in-group/out-group effects of oxytocin (the “cuddle drug”) and a behavioral study of inducing a mental flexibility to promote negotiation in an Arab-Israeli situation. We saw this post as relating to experiential education directly in study abroad or service-learning involving other ethic/religious/racial groups, and indirectly as tapping some of the same unconscious decision-making circuits as exercised by internship or other such experiences outside the facts and theories classroom. In looking for a way to continue, Lara wrote the following:
While studying abroad in the Czech Republic, I wrote a paper on social capital in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a part of the post-conflict reconstruction process. Surprisingly I found that the concepts I was researching were connected to the topics that you, Provost Stellar, taught me.
First, I’ll go through a few definitions. While there is no one single definition for social capital, but it is generally understood as “social relations that have productive benefits.”1 While I was reading the World Bank’s 2002 report on local level institutions and social capital in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I came across further clarifications. The study mentioned three forms of social capital: bonding, bridging, and linking.2
Bonding social capital refers to positive relationships within a specific group. Generally speaking, this is high within ethnic enclaves. From my experience at Queens College, I found that social groups are based primarily around religious, ethnic, or sexual identity. This implies that there are high levels of bonding social capital. While this is very positive it can be somewhat isolating. This is where bridging social capital comes in. Bridging social capital refers to positive relationships that are formed between different established groups. I realized that the work I do with the Queens College Center for Ethnic, Racial, and Religious Understanding (CERRU) through dialogue and community service events is directly related to this concept.
The final form of social capital is known as linking social capital. This refers to positive relationships between different levels of authority. In the case of Queens College this would be the relationship between students and the administration or potential employers. Provost Stellar, this adds another dimension to the work you’ve been doing on experiential learning. By providing students with internships and mentoring programs you’re improving this level of linking social capital which is an extremely important part of empowerment.
I agree that the work many of us are doing on experiential education can be seen as creatling linking social capital and that is important to success and to maybe understanding the impact of internships, etc. But I am particularly intrigued by the idea of bridging social capital.
One of the unconscious decision-making processes to which I like to refer in this blog is neuroeconomics. While that can be seen as dealing with decisions about money (standard capital), there is clear involvement of these same areas (e.g. insula cortex and risk) in issues of empathy and other processes that seem to me to be part of bridging social capital.
I would say that the relationships between CERRU dialogue facilitators embody bridging social capital. The dialogue facilitators go through a training process that focuses on active listening, which comes down to internalizing what some one is saying without giving your own opinion. One of the tactics used to develop this and other skills involve going through the scheduled dialogues as a group before an actual event or even creating our own dialogue scenarios as practice. The training process is therefore both hands-on and intense. As a result, the facilitators form a close knit group who trust each other. In addition, many student facilitators often remark that they thought of themselves as open-minded or tolerant before accepting the position only to become aware of their own biases throughout the training process. For me personally, I made the majority of my friends outside of my religious group at Queens College through CERRU.
That was one of the reasons why I started the Volunteer Corps. I saw the relationships that were built around dialogue and wanted to expand on that using community service. Trust is a huge component of bridging social capital and related to the blog post we did with oxytocin, yet it’s difficult to achieve. When students work together in a community service setting, they have to trust each other and can witness someone from a group that they inherently distrust preforming an altruistic deed. That’s how we try to expand the concept of the in-group bit by bit and build the kind of bridging social capital that we need.
Jonathan Haidt’s book “Righteous Mind” talks about a “hive switch” that comes from our evolutionary history where groups that worked well together had a higher survival rate than groups that did not. It is presumed that natural selection left behind brain mechanisms (perhaps oxytocin) that promote social cooperation. So, the trick under bridging social capital may well be to tie that idea to these brain mechanisms through social psychology processes to find the way to, as LP says to “build the kind of bridging social capital we need.” That phrase is very important and why we quoted it again. The notion of linking unconscious processing as in fMRI studies of neuroeconomics to social capital and studies of tolerance as in CERRU deserves more thinking.
To tie this line of thought back to experiential education, consider that going out of one’s comfort zone to study abroad may tap the same brain mechanisms as participating in the kind of dialogue between groups as promoted by CERRU. Both may produce growth in the student. We always struggle to define what is experiential education. Yet here by comparing aboard programs to such on-campus activities of dialogue, we may have implicitly also defined experiential education as the impact on the unconscious processes that drive our thinking. While not as lofty a goal as building peace in our world, it is still interesting, particularly to this blog.
 Tristan Calridge, 2004, “Social Capital and Natural Resource Management”, Unpublished Thesis, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. http://www.socialcapitalresearch.com/definition.html
 World Bank, 2002. “Local Level Institutions and Social Capital Study”, The World Bank, Washington, DC. 4-5
Fear motivation - from PTSD to experiential education
Michaela Tralli ‘QC 12 and Jim Stellar
We wrote a previous post on fear associated with panic attacks and what they have to tell us about experiential education – the dark side. That post received such good comment that we decided to come back and talk a bit more about how experiences can leave bad imprints on people’s thinking and psychological being and we all know how that can shape career choice, e.g. the person who wants to be a lawyer but is afraid of speaking in public. A particularly nasty form of learning is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Let’s start with a definition and tie it back to learning from experience.
According to the DSM-IV-TR, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) begins with a stressor in which a person has experienced, witnessed, or has been confronted with an event or events that involve actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of oneself or others. The person’s response also involves the intense fear, helplessness, or horror. The traumatic event must also bring about intrusive, recurrent recollection of the event including images, thoughts, or perceptions. Distressing dreams of the event occur as well. A person acts or feels as if the traumatic event is recurring (includes a sense of reliving the experience, illusions, hallucinations and dissociative flashback episodes, including those that occur upon awakening or when intoxicated). During internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event, the person experiences intense psychological distress. There is also a persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma and numbing of general responsiveness.
The individual must experience at least three of the following: efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings or conversations associated with the trauma; efforts to avoid activities, places, or people that arouse recollections of the trauma; inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma; markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities; feeling of detachment or estrangement from others; restricted range of affect; sense of foreshortened future (does not expect to have a career, marriage, children, or a normal life span). There must also be persistent symptoms of increasing arousal that were not present before the trauma, indicated by at least two of the following: difficulty falling or staying asleep; irritability or outbursts or anger; difficulty concentrating; hyper-vigilance; exaggerated startle response. It is only considered to be PTSD if the duration of the disturbance is more than one month. There is acute PTSD, characterized by the duration of symptoms lasting less than three months; and chronic PTSD, which is when the duration of symptoms is more than three months.
The above discussion relates on the one hand to a recent neuroscientific paper on the management of fear by brain circuits and recent discoveries of how directly to manipulate the function of sub-areas of the amygdala with techniques that combine genetics with optics to produce or reduce anxiety-like behaviors in rats. On the other hand, this discussion relates to a blog post some time ago on a New York Times article where a Harvard Psychologist Jerome Kagan had studied children who had anxiety as a child and grew into college age adults. Some of these adults did not show any signs of their childhood anxiety as adults despite having characteristic activity in their amygdala on a brain scan. The idea expressed in the article was that areas of the frontal cortex put the anxiety-producing tendencies of the amygdala under some kind of control so the patient was not unhappy. Another more recent discussion of this important topic occurred at the last Society for Neuroscience meeting in the fall in a talk by Amy Arnsten of Yale Medical School who gave a talk with the title “Going to Hell in a Handbasket: Molecular Weakening of Prefrontal Cortical Regulation During Stress.” In this talk, she also discussed the top-down frontal cortex connections to the amygdala and mentioned that they were not only weakened in stress but that methods exist for strengthening them and improving the management of PTSD. More good information is found on her laboratory website and this link features many of the slides from her talk.
This kind of neuroplasticity is very important to us in this blog as we see education as being a brain-changer and helping to re-balance emotional circuitry that might underlie normal decision-making whether it is in neuroeconomics (where one invests money in a purchase) or choice of a college major (where one invests time toward a career … and as the old saying goes, “time is money”). The experience of doing an internship in a chosen field (e.g. accounting), working with adult practitioners, coming back to classes in that subject matter, maybe doing a second experience in the field, all can add up to an intense multi-year experience that some have written about as brain circuit changers (e.g. Daniel Coyle in Talent Code, and Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, to name a few).
If we can change the underlying circuits based on anxiety, maybe that gives hope to people with PTSD. What we are focusing on here, is whether those same circuits can not only be educated in normal college majors by good and by bad internship experiences, but whether for some of us (say folks who are a tad shy) the experience can also overcome natural biases (say not to speak up). Then we are left with a dilemma much like that in the Heisenberg uncertainty principle where by interacting with something, in this case a brain circuit of decision making, we change the way it computes. If that were ever the case, one might think it would be so in a brain circuit that detects risk. That could be bad, but it could also be good if those circuits hold back young student from exploring fields for fear of failure.
The power of reflection – a story from Greece
Adrienne Dooley NU’12 and Jim Stellar
Our last blog (8/21/12) focused on the bonding that occurred in a study abroad trip to Greece in the fall of 2011. This blog picks up where that other blog post stopped and focuses now on reflection as a critical benefit from that bonding and one that we think works particularly well in social situations. The chief benefit of reflection is that it joins the more cognitive/cerebral aspects of the learning (e.g. content about the choice of a college major) with the more limbic/decision value associated with the learning (e.g. am I comfortable in that field?). To get there, first we need to tell you a story of AD’s experienced in Greece.
It was the last day of the semester for my students and I at the American College of Thessaloniki and the final project was due. I was the teacher’s assistant in the Global Experiences class attended by the Northeastern University freshmen studying abroad. I also lived in the same hotel as these students and supervised most aspects of their experience abroad. As a part of the Global Experiences class every student was assigned to volunteer at a site in need of assistance in Greece. With the amount of need in the country we were not short on options. Some students led an after school soccer program for elementary school boys, others worked at places like the local soup kitchen or animal shelter.
Students came in with presentations of all kinds so that they could share their experiences and what they had learned with their peers. I could tell most students were eager and proud to share their personal experiences with the class. We set up the presentations in the large classroom and teachers were invited to roam through the projects. I was greatly impressed with the amount of effort and sincerity that truly made the projects shine.
With the immense amount of projects and the limited timeframe I did not have time to get to see each one. Yet, with about 15 minutes remaining my supervisor pulled me aside and asked me to go observe K’s project. My supervisor mentioned that she was particularly upset that because her project was set in the corner of the room, therefore no one was coming to see it. I walked over to K’s project and she immediately burst into tears. After she settled down she confided in me her story.
K was assigned to work with local gypsy women. In Greece, gypsy people are usually classified as non-Greek immigrants and they are severely discriminated against. The fact that they were female increased the discrimination. This made it difficult for the women to support their children because they could not speak Greek efficiently or were not able to find work. K explained how much she came to love these girls who had such spirit despite their dire situation. K talked about how it was difficult to communicate but she felt they had a bond as she tried to teach them skills that could be marketable for future employers. She was so moved that she felt helpless. K felt the need to share their story and save the girls. She was desperately looking for someone else who understood.
In my (AD) opinion, this is the highest level of learning. K may not go on to be an advocate for Grecian gypsies but I know for a fact that she will continue use her time constructively and not take her luxuries, like education or employment, for granted. I believe that K, for the first time, truly understood what it meant to have the life she was afforded. Throughout the journey I saw K mature but I think that she wasn’t truly aware that she was growing until she sat in that classroom and watched her peers observe one another’s presentations with such mild interest. The fact that K had such a strong desire to share this new knowledge with her peers came from the realization of what she had learned through reflecting on her experiences while abroad in Greece.
The most important part of this story to JS is the observation AD made that K was growing but “for the first time, truly understood what it meant to have the life she was afforded.” Of course, K knew her life as it unfolded and could talk about it as much as anyone else could. But what is happening here is that her life was reframed by the experience of her project upon reflection with the group and particularly in that moment with AD. Perhaps this was manifested in the tears and the sudden realization that a lot of learning had been occurring as what was realized at the limbic level of the brain burst into the conscious level. Noting this unconscious level of functioning is what JS pushes when he talks about the Daniel Khaneman book “Thinking Fast and Slow” or the David Eagleman book “Incognito.” Much of our limbic thinking is incognito to us until it comes out in a fast burst, perhaps accompanied by an emotion and, in this case, tears.
We like the analogy that Jonathan Haidt made in his recent book to the mind as being like an elephant where consciousness is the rider and where the rider serves the elephant’s actions by functioning much like a press secretary. We think that Khaneman and Eagleman would agree that much of what we see in the learning of our students, like K, is coming out of a part of their minds of which they may not be consciously aware.
Haidt also argues that experiences with others people exert a powerful effect that is often missed on how we think and grow. He refers to the “elephant” as leaning (reaching a conclusion) and other “elephants” (other minds) having an influence on that leaning by leaning the same or different ways. Think here about neuroeconomics decisions we make based on emotion. Think about that neuroeconomics decision as applying to a student’s selection of a major in college and resulting commitment to that major (or lack of commitment). Think about the influence that the student’s peers and family and even the whole curricular system have on that choice.
So how do we surface this instinctive or limbic knowledge in a college environment? Notice in the story that K’s emotion surprised (and informed) both K and AD. The bonding that occurs in a cohort like AD witnessed may be necessary for such an interaction by establishing an environment of emotional trust and sharing that enables this form of communication between people and within the conscious and the instinctive/emotional parts of the brain. Reflection is a challenge to college programs. Student’s often just do not want to do it in the form of on-going journals or post-experience presentations. Of course reflection can be done in isolation. That is how Wordsworth said one should create poetry with “emotions reflected in tranquility.” But in higher education, we think the crowd influence is particularly strong on “the elephant,” and thus particularly good at tying our conscious processing/learning to our unconscious processing/learning. Maybe it requires a group to surface the “inner elephant” and make it integrated with what the student knows. The flash of insight that drove K to tears in AD’s story may never have occurred if it had not been for that group of bonded individuals. The resulting growth would then also not have occurred. Maybe we really are better together and colleges/universities should encourage cohort bonding, shared experience, and interaction between the bonded participants in the important action of reflection
Peer Mentoring and growth from the experience
Jessica Singh QC ’13 and Jim Stellar
Jessica was a student in my course last Spring. We have had a few very illuminating conversations about a peer mentoring program that we have at Queens College to help by using students to counsel and speak to students. It is really a mix of in-house internship and service. Here Jess writes about that point in the context of other experiences she has had that are similar and about the idea of networking.
As I mentioned, I would like to share my experience working as a peer mentor at the New Community College (NCC) in the CUNY system. To start off I heard of this opportunity from a fellow peer counselor at Queens College. They were involved at NCC and forwarded us the application for the position.
From day one at NCC I was extremely excited. Our training consisted of a four day week in which we did a lot of team work building exercises as well as learn about unique aspects of the college. When convocation day came I was thrilled to be a part of the grand opening of the college. With the media and incoming students there, the New York Public Library was filled with excitement and positive energy. As for me, I felt great. I was excited and knew I was in the right place. It was around that time I thought to myself, hey higher education may be the place for me. I like the environment, I like the nature of the work and I get to work with students - kind of a complete package. Although I truly want to go into high school guidance counseling right now, I can definitely picture myself pursuing a doctorate in higher education administration later on in life. Sort of like my experiences in a leadership class at Queens College where the professor shared with us in class his career time line and I thought to myself, wow we have many similar interests. It was also there where I got ideas about possible careers and jobs. So I have to say I am extremely grateful to be a peer mentor at NCC. As the rest of life, it is a journey and it can turn out that I hate working in a college but only time can tell. As for now I enjoy it very much.
Backtracking, when you and I first met I was doing volunteer work at a local hospital on Long Island in the geriatric psychiatric department. I worked with primarily dementia patients. At this point in time, I was sure I wanted to be a psychologist therefore I pursued any volunteer/internship opportunities I could. Although I was unsuccessful at attaining an internship I did land my volunteer position at the hospital. I was not discouraged, I thought it was a great start. What I did there was mostly the work the director and head of the project did not have time to do. Regardless, I was in the hospital environment, surrounded not only by psychologists but also social workers and physicians. To me it was exciting at first because it was something new, a fresh start at something, brand new name tag with a cool clip, I had my own office when I was there, I felt important etc. After about 11 months of doing this I realized that I dreaded going to the hospital. The nature of the work bored me to death and the environment was so bland and - I do not know - it just became boring. I figured out that research, at least dementia research, was not for me - it became boring, took too long and I grew impatient. The excitement had worn off and it had become “just” my volunteering thing I did during the week. Although I no longer wish to pursue clinical psychology right now, I am very grateful for this experience I had at the hospital. Had I not been there and done that I would have never known how much I do not like it! Now just imagine I had studied my butt off for the GREs, taken the psychology subject test, went through 5-7 years of graduate training, possibly countless hours in a research lab, a pre-doc, post-doc and licensing exams to finallyyyyyyyyy practice and then realize I do not enjoy the field as I thought I did. That would be horrible! There goes almost 10 years of my life! Then I would think to myself what do I do now? Do I start over? Where? How? Is it possible? Heart ache.
I cannot stress enough the value of internships and volunteer work. I am happy to be a part of this peer mentoring project because I am a real life living example of what you talk about when you discuss learning from experience. I am sure, am thankful I completed a certain internship/volunteer experience because it exposed me to exactly what I would not like to do. It is essential to learn these things early in one’s academic career so they can switch over to something they might be more inclined to do and still graduate within the four years.
Jess, this is terrific and very passionate. Now can you relate back to the Peer Mentoring program at QC and how it helped you.
The peer counseling program at Queens College has helped me develop not only as a person but also as a useful tool for the students. During our trainings I learned about the various offices and their respective duties. I also heard of many great things that QC offers that one does not usually hear about. It is great because I can spread the word to other students on campus. I can truthfully say this program is the best experience I gained at QC because it gave me practice at counseling students which is the very field I wish to pursue. Even if one’s goal is not to become a school counselor like me there are still many practical lessons to be learned like communication skills, interpersonal skills, time management and more.
Notice how the same type of interaction benefits both the counseled and the one doing the counseling. This may be particularly true in the early phases of career development, although the senior JS points out that after almost 35 years of meeting with students as a professor, he finds the experience highly positive and highly informative, particularly now on issues of experiential learning. One point that they younger JS makes is that the experience of counseling, particularly starting as a peer counselor at QC turned out to be the field she wants to enter so that very much of the experience doing it as a peer is relevant. In earlier posts, we had written about the substantial and authentic requirements of a good internship, but that ignores what the student brings to the experience. Not only must they be at the right stage of self-efficacy so they can handle whatever is the internship, but the relevance makes impact higher and that is the point of both a substantial and an authentic experience. Here, we would say higher impact is right at the “other lobe” level of the brain and that the learning at a cognitive level about the important practices and theories of counseling is deeper and broader because of the strong emotional “other lobe” engagement which tells the student that this activity is important to them. Now, we only need to figure out in higher education how to make more and more of these high-impact practices in internships happen.