The Other Lobe of The Brain

A Blog About Experiential Education, Social Media, and the Brain…

Peer Counseling is Experiential Education

Sanaa Mylan QC’13 and Jim Stellar

Sanaa and I met in 2009 when she was a freshman and I was a newly arrived Provost at Queens. I had taken a faculty apartment in the new residence hall where she also lived and over that year through “pizza with the provost” and other activities she helped me see the undergraduate academic programs we were putting on through the eyes of a new student and those of her peers in that residence hall. We stayed in touch over the years and talked over many things including a remarkable program of Peer Support program (often called Peer Counseling) at Queens College where students help other students with academic advising and personal support.

Sanaa, to start us off, can you please describe the program and your involvement.

Thanks Jim, the Peer Counseling program trains Undergraduate students in both academic and personal topics to equip them for one on one counseling with their peers. The program is unique because it offers students a chance to learn the college graduation requirements in depth, to meet directors of the major departments and offices on campus, and to be knowledgeable in the resources that are available at Queens. I was a Peer Counselor in the spring of 2011 to the fall of 2012.

Thank you. Can you now describe what happened to you as you went through the program as a peer counselor?

When I applied to the program, I was a sophomore. I knew many of the Peers at the time because I lived and worked on campus and had heard about how much the program helped them learn about and develop themselves. Peer counseling appealed to me because I could meet people and get involved with campus life. I also had not yet declared a major and I thought that Counseling would be a good way to learn communication skills that would be helpful in any career I choose!

The Peer Counseling program requires students to complete an application, and go through two interviews. Once accepted into the cohort of only about 20 students, the Peers make a one-year commitment to the program. They learn about the college policies in terms of grade appeals, course offerings, financial aid, career development and much more. The Peers are educated on how to address emotional concerns, like depression and suicide, or social concerns, like transitioning into college, with a client, taught by faculty members that work in the college Counseling and Resource Center. The biggest part of the program is a student leader retreat they do each semester, Full Moon, the name of the resort. For one weekend, about 60 undergraduate students in total and some very courageous faculty go to Upstate New York, for an educational training weekend.

Full Moon is the essence of the program. For three days, the Peers focus on social interactions, that means no internet and cell phones. We opened up to each other about the real, deep and heartbreaking struggles, happening in our lives. The first impressions we had of our classmates tended to fall away, and we realized that unconsciously, we judge people by their actions rather than their intentions. I learned how beneficial it is to be in an environment that is open and honest. We had a place where we could drop our defenses, communicate our hurts and joys, and empathize with a person you originally thought you could never relate. We had conversations and uninterrupted by daily pressures and technology. We found that across cultures, religions, socioeconomic status and races we could relate to one another.

It would take me too long to tell all the details of the Retreat Itinerary, but the point is that the courses in Peer Counseling taught me practical skills and made me more resourceful on campus. It helped me to learn firsthand what a clinic experience would be like, how to communicate my feelings and to help someone process their own experiences, through talk therapy.

How did you apply those lessons to your work as a Peer Counselor? Do not give away any secrets here of interaction with students, but talk about how you grew.

Hindsight is twenty-twenty, so as a current graduate student in the Mental Health Counseling program I can speak to the impact that Peer counseling made in my life.

Being a Peer taught me how to listen to others and be curious about someone’s life story. I learned to connect with my peers, friends and family in a deeper way. That curiosity helped me to be a more attentive, which helps to create a trusting and honest environment in a session. This retreat is an example of what it takes to stop prejudice and discrimination. In even just a few undergraduate students, it at least helped us see the benefit of taking time to get to know people before judging them.

In the start of graduate school, I was more comfortable in mock sessions in classes. I was less anxious than my peers were and was able to probe for more information with a client. I could ask questions to get more information about an area in the client’s life and not be distracted because of thinking about what to say next. Although, there are many more skills I need to learn Peer Counseling gave me confidence I needed in session. At my internship, I feel comfortable building rapport with the client because I have had so much practice learning what to look for. It is second nature to me to notice a client’s non-verbal communication and important key words as the client speaks. These skills would not be as developed without my experience and training in the Peer Support program, which I am so grateful for!

We both think that this program illustrates a key aspect of experiential education in being substantial and authentic even if the entire program occurs on campus, except for the retreat, and even if it serves the purposes of helping other students. Students in the Peer Counseling program do real work that requires real training and they do it over a long period of time. Even if they are not able to make the definitive diagnosis or sign a student into a course, they deal with the same counseling issues and make important recommendations. We also note that the basic work of Peer Counseling itself involves the mammalian brain circuits (after Paul McLean) and unconscious decision-making (as discussed in books by David Eagleman and Daniel Kahneman) that we see as a hallmark of learning from experience outside the classroom. Put a student face to face with another student as a client for such counseling and it is all there. Finally, the opportunity to be trained and to reflect on what happened, which occurs in the program, is key so that experience of the activity can be connected back with academic and career development processes like going to graduate school in mental health counseling.

Counseling and Diversity

Ashley Bryant QC 15 and Jim Stellar

Ashley took my large general education lecture class that I co-teach in the spring. That led us to a conversation about how we best help students find their way through the college experience and particularly in an institution as diverse as Queens College with students who are from many different and often mixed backgrounds. Ashley is part of our peer mentoring program and from an ethnic Filipino-Irish background. You can see where this is going.

Ashley, would you open by commenting on the peer mentoring program and specifically how it might address the issue of a diverse population?

The peer counseling program is open to any student on the Queens College campus that is in need of speaking about their concerns with academics and emotional conflicts. The students in the program already represent a small sector of the diverse population of Queens since the counselors with whom I have become friends are of different ethnicities and religions other than mine. One of my fellow counselors lived in Jamaica for most of her life and came to Queens College a year ago and applied to become a Peer Counselor. She told me how difficult it was to transition from living in Jamaica to living in New York and on top of that, becoming a Peer Counselor which required her to learn the correct body language and questions needed to counsel a student. However, because of her experience of being a transfer student and the uncertainty that accompanies it, she is able to easily relate to those who are minorities and transfer students and allow the students to feel comfortable around her.

She is one of many in the program including myself, who can allow a student to be more comfortable during sessions because we share a commonality of being diverse and also being a student in Queens College. From my own personal experiences I feel that I am flexible with addressing a diverse population. Like I mentioned before I am Asian/Caucasian, I understand the Asian tradition of working hard and setting up high standards for yourself however, I also understand how stressful and demanding that can be when your culture expects more from you than you do. Because of this pressure put on me I’ve always been a bookworm which led to me being bullied in school. The bullying I experienced is one of the major reasons that led me to be a peer counselor and help others with similar stressors.

I can see how common experience, and particularly in areas of cultural expectations and fitting in (e.g. bullying), could help you help a student from a diverse population better adapt to the college experience. Indeed this is the general expectation of putting young people into difficult situations.

I want to talk about how your experience here helped clarify your career goals, but before you do that, tell us about another experience you are having as part of the CUNY Service Corps. As an introduction, let me say that this program is brand new and is on seven City University of New York (CUNY) campuses, including our Queens College. It offers the opportunity to about 100 students for two terms of 12-15 hours per week of paid community service. Tell us about your experience.

Being part of the CUNY Service Corps has been a wonderful experience, from pre-training to placement work. During pre-training members of the Corps are taught leadership and interpersonal skills for people to learn how to cooperate on a team and how to work in a job setting. For example, the members would engage in role-plays where one person would pretend to be an employee from a different ethnic background and another employee would want to ask questions about the other employee’s ethnicity and religion without coming off as offensive or rude. Other role-plays would include members given mock scenarios of a program that will be run for their placement site e.g. (Installing a non-profit health program for all ages) and the CUNY Service Corps members would work in small groups and write up ideas on how this program would manifest itself into a reality. The pre-training for the CUNY Service Corps isn’t exactly typical pre-training for normal job placement but, it definitely directly correlated with the site I was placed at.

I currently work at Queens Central Library where I assist library customers in homework, activities, and programs as a Teen Programming Assistant. I work on a team of fifteen with other Teen Programming Assistants where we plan out programs for teenagers to participate in. This is where our pre-training we received at Queens College comes into action, where my coworkers and I work as team mates to come up with interesting and fun programs. Some of the many programs we have run include: science experiments, teen talks, nail art, scavenger hunts, and Christmas ornament making. Our programs’ success depends solely on the interest of the teenagers but, together as a unit we are starting to figure out what does and doesn’t interest a teenager and are constantly working to improve the library.

Thank you. Now let’s get back to your career development. I know you have applied to graduate school for next year. Tell us how the peer counseling and CUNY Service Corps experiences affected that choice.

The peer counseling program and CUNY Service Corps have definitely helped in my ultimate goal of getting a Master’s degree in social work but, I would not say that they are the causation of my choice. My choice to go into the field of social work and partake in a Psychology bachelor’s degree is because of previous life experiences that I have been affected with. While I do not feel comfortable going into detail about these life experiences, I can say that bullying as mentioned before is one of them. In my career, I want to help others as I myself would’ve wanted help when I couldn’t receive it. I’ve also genuinely always had a huge love for anything scientific including the social sciences where I found psychology most intriguing starting back when I was in elementary school.

Being a Peer Counselor has helped me hone my skills as a counselor and taught me the practical maneuvers needed to help someone in a clinical setting. However, being a member of the CUNY Service Corps and employee of Queens Central Library has taught me creative maneuvers on how to help somebody. Being a Teen Programming Assistant requires a lot of thought and brain-storming, it’s not easy to come up with a program and getting the materials beforehand takes weeks of planning in advance. However, what I do know is that the programs we have run so far have brought a smile on teenager’s faces as they have thoroughly enjoyed it which is fulfilling to me and my coworkers. But, what I think my coworkers and I can agree on is that we help each other most of all. My coworkers from the library are just as diverse as my friends in the peer counseling program. We are all different ethnicities but, we all also have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to our majors and the field of work we are heading into. Together we blend our ideals and understand each other’s differences which helps us communicate with the diverse crowd at the library and each other. Going into graduate school, I have always been open-minded to ethnicity as I myself am multiracial but, I feel well-rounded as I have now experienced diversity both internally from being born into it, and externally from working in a diverse population.

The peer mentoring program and the CUNY Service Corps are both experiences that fit with both diversity and Ashley’s individual history. It is this synchrony that makes them real in a way that it is harder to achieve in the classical academic curriculum. Thus both of these programs bring strength to Ashley’s academic development. What is also evident in both the nature of the peer program and in this very conversation, is the reflection on those experiences to join them to the academic goals – in this case graduate school in the field of Social Work. What I believe is that the ideas expressed in the academic discipline, the very facts and theories taught in the classroom, are deepened and made more fluid and part of the student’s own thinking if they are seen in practice as described above. It is more than just a passion for the field that causes the student to work harder; it is a more mature understanding of the information in the field itself that comes from connecting the topic with the student’s personal characteristics and life history.

College Price vs. Value and Experiential Education

Allyson Savin NU’07 and Jim Stellar

AS and JS wrote a blog post a few years ago on leadership - a natural topic as AS was a student leader. But AS was also a business student, and worked for the federal government in the area of bank regulation through the financial crisis, before beginning work for a private equity firm in Washington DC. She has since joined a consulting firm assisting financial institutions navigate complex regulations. Her experience in business and JS’ experience in higher education administration trying to hold down costs at a public university (Queens College, CUNY) led us to try to write something for this blog about higher education and costs vs. benefits.

Recently The Chronicle of Higher Education had yet another article on rising tuition costs. This kind of piece is common everywhere. Perhaps the most depressing title of a somewhat recent article is from the May 12, 2012 New York Times, “A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring costs of College. The sobering fact is that national student debt has now exceeds one trillion dollars, rivaling the money lost in the bursting of America’s last market bubble on housing.

The problem with borrowing, of course, is that the payback is much higher than the original investment. For example, suppose you borrow $50,000 to help pay for college beyond what you can get in grants or what your family can contribute from income or savings. This could be a quarter of your total tuition for 4 years, so it seems reasonable by that view. However, as one website calculates it, the total payback over 10 years will be almost $70,000 at the standard rate of 6.8% compounded annually and more importantly at $575 a month. That is about as much as a car payment … on a car you do not have.

Some have raised the question of whether we are now in a college tuition bubble, e.g. a 2011 feature story in CFA Magazine. This question is part of a larger set of concerns about price e.g. a 2011 report by Education Trust. Compared to a 40-year average rise in the general cost of living of 3.2% (or about three and a half times), in the last 35 years over which college tuition prices have been recorded, tuition increased almost 10 times according to one report. Americans appear to have covered most of these increased tuition costs by borrowing, often by the student themselves, even after the bursting of the housing bubble reduced their capacity to borrow.

So, why do we do it? One rational reason we borrow is that the education itself has lasting value in the labor force. For example, if you went to college at a very good place in a lucrative major (e.g. MIT and engineering), you would pay a high cost ($215 thousand) but the return on that investment also would be high ($1.6 million) according to one website. This kind of calculation is controversial but it highlights the fact that in some cases it might make rational economic sense to borrow. Another factor is that many universities try to compete for students by steeply reducing the price of their tuition (like putting a product on sale) by giving out financial aid. In a few cases, it is enough to cover the entire cost of tuition. Perhaps we could even regard these college financial aid operations as a wealth redistribution process in America where the wealthy family pays the full fare and those that are not wealthy get assistance. Yet that is not the experience of most students who come out with substantial college debt and are not in the most lucrative of professions but are in ones that fit their aspirations and even their passions.

To go back to the idea of a market bubble, the funny thing about a bubble is that classically the people in it typically do not know they are in it. This exists for at least two reasons. First, if people are willing to pay the price for something, then the product is worth it. It is only when they stop paying that one sees the bubble. Second, as the new field of neuroeconomics and research on decision heuristics show (see the now famous book by Kahneman, “Thinking Fast and Slow,”) the buying decisions we make are often made out of our emotional brain circuits. Worse yet, we are often unaware of the biases that enter into these decisions. In a famous statement before the subprime housing mortgage bubble burst taking the stock marked down with it, then Secretary of the Federal Reserve, Allan Greenspan, warned that the market was “irrationally exuberant.” At the time, most people wondered about that statement. Why wouldn’t the same decision heuristics apply to most American families deciding to borrow for college?

Consider a well-known psychological phenomenon based on operant psychology research on animals - “delay vs. amount.” Here rewards to be gotten in the future or prices to be paid in the future are discounted in their value by the amount of time until they occur. And it even shows up in your brain. But, every college student knows this effect first-hand when they walk into an exam less prepared than they want to be because the night before, when they could have been studying, they went to a party. Had the exam been taken in a night course, few students would have gone to an early evening party just before the later evening exam. We see the same behavior when people buy things on a credit card that they might not have bought with cash. Why shouldn’t students and their families work just this way when making borrowing decisions with future pay-back to cover the cost of tuition dollars due today.

Another interesting factor may be that when borrowing for education we are not borrowing against a fixed asset like a car or the value of a house. There is no tangible product involved. Do we do different computations in our head than if we borrow against something much more amorphous like future earnings with a college degree? Do students and their families get “stars in their eyes” when they look at college in a way that outstrips what we do when we look to buy something physical? Clearly people fall in love with houses and cars and buy more than they can handle, but it seems to us that there is something particularly interesting about college. Students and their families often stay with the plan and finish the college degree even when the payments start to bite or debt rises. In higher education, we love that kind of loyalty, but is it good for the students or is this an example of colleges chasing prestige by creating an attractive image for themselves and distorting the student’s decisions?

So what can we contribute to this conversation? We would make the argument that while we should have the conversation about reducing college costs, we might also have the conversation about increasing the value of a college education, perhaps through experiential education. Consider briefly Cooperative Education where students work full-time at a paid internship for a substantial period often outside the university in authentic jobs in companies that partner with the university to take students. Many students in cooperative education schools repeat that experience, getting a valuable breadth of experience as well as the depth. We need more research on how much of a return on investment these and other experiential education programs actually produce in higher education. While we are at it, we need research on the claimed maturity effect that can drive a greater investment of the student’s time in their classroom education and lead to better degree completion. We will return to these topics in future blog posts.

Social Capital and Experiential Education

Carolina Morgan NU ’10 and Jim Stellar

I met Carolina in her freshman year at Northeastern University over her application to a scholarship that my office ran when I was Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. She was an economics major with an interest in social justice and later in her career won a number of top scholarships. She is now in graduate school at MIT for a Master’s degree in City Planning after a few years working at a NGO in Cambridge called The Institute for International Urban Development. Throughout that time, we have been discussing on and off the role of social capital, a term taken from economics, to promote tolerance between people hoping that would lead to more broad-based social justice. Last year as Carolina passed through NYC on her way to Albania to do work with her NGO and the World Bank, we met and discussed tying this idea back to experiential education in college. Here is the result of that conversation.

Carolina, let’s begin with having you define social capital

Social Capital is a broad concept with multiple definitions that has been applied to many fields and adapted to fit different theories. Through my undergraduate research, I came to conceptualize it to fill some gaps I was seeing in the economic theories about which I was learning. The basic premise of Social Capital is that social ties and social networks have an intrinsic value that can be tapped into for tangible results. That value is Social Capital.

I was first introduced to the concept of social capital in a class about Microfinance. In Bangladesh, the pioneering Grameen Bank was giving out small loans for micro businesses to very poor women and getting extremely high repayment rates. This success was attributed to “social collateral”: the bank gave loans only to women who were organized into a group. When one member was unable to pay, the other women had to cover her monthly fee. The social pressure to not let down fellow lenders turned out to be a very good incentive for repayment, reducing the Bank’s risk and greatly reducing loan defaults.  This peer pressure is an example of social capital - a fuzzy phenomenon that turned out to have economic value (i.e. reduced lending risk).

How did this discovery shape your research and understanding of economics?

This story of Grameen bank inspired me seek out the role of social capital within economics’ classical theories. Here is basic economics in a nutshell: it is the study of productivity limited by scarce resources, and resources come in three types: land, labor and machines. Given limits on these three, it is up to technology and innovation to increase productivity. I began to pay more attention to the role of social capital as a fourth resource in this model. In developing countries, when all else is missing, people still find ways to survive and be productive. Social ties are very often the answer. Understanding social capital as an economic asset also helped me come to terms with the assumption that people always act rationally when making (economic) decisions. By making socially-driven motivations part of the “rationalization”, and gaining social “points” within the community a valuable incentive, the theory got closer to the reality I live in. I went on to explore how social capital can reduce moral hazard (a form of risk) in more common finance situations, and I wrote my senior thesis on the importance of social ties and networks versus educational attainment in immigrants’ ability to get a job.

How does this apply to what you did at the Institute and your work I mentioned with the World Bank?

At the Institute, we looked at social capital mostly in terms of strengthening city governance. When faced with daunting problems such as climate change in cities where the local government has very little control over where and how people live (such as slums or other informal settlements), how can you help the city implement adaptation measures? We often looked at examples of community-based initiatives or social network-driven programs as potential ways to overcome the lack of funds, lack of trust in the government, etc. Cases in which people helped each other and helped themselves were sometimes more effective than government-led initiatives.

The Work Bank project in the Balkans was interesting because it looked at the strength of the relationship between marginalized communities and Municipal authorities. In a way, we were measuring the level of social capital between these vulnerable groups such as the Roma community and their local governments. The World Bank calls this “social accountability” because it has to do with how responsive governments are to their people, and vice versa. It turns out, there was not much mutual trust or communication at all. One aspect of the project was to look for way in which technology can improve communication between these actors. Just as social media has enabled crowdsourcing and collective action, so can information and communication technologies facilitate dialogue between people and the government, building social capital and tolerance in the process.

How does this apply to learning from experience, particularly as a student who experienced this form of education through co-op?

One key lesson was the importance of relationships. I saw this on two levels: intellectual/academic and personal. At the intellectual level, it was very important for me to see these abstract concepts such as social capital play out in a real context, with real people. Despite all the efforts by economists and the World Bank to quantify social capital, it remains too broad to capture. I can’t say that I fully understood the power that lies in a strong community until I saw it by travelling and studying different places facing real challenges.

But that is merely as a “scholar” of social capital. At the personal level – and I think this is what your question really asks – co-op allowed me to start building my own social capital in a new community. This community involves peers, colleagues, mentors, mentees, clients, donors and more. There are subtleties to any profession: its intellectual exchanges, hierarchies, values, networks. Developing relationships with these people turned out to be life-changing for me. To explain why I would use a particular definition of social capital as “social relations that facilitate individual action”. There are a number of ways in which interacting with different groups enables you to better understand and serve them. For me, having a relationship of trust and respect with my bosses led to them supporting me in pursuing new paths. Here I would highlight that co-op is a good way to get started, but not the only way. Prioritizing getting to know professors or other people in school can also help – this is what happened when I met you. But I think for most of us, having the co-op experience opens our eyes to the value of social networks. And it is not only a matter of how others can help you. Eventually, what becomes important is how you can help them.

I think this quote “social relations that facilitate individual action” from the paragraph above makes a very good point. Experiential education takes the knowledge gained in the classic college classroom and applies it to an internship or a social service project or undergraduate research or any of the other ways in which students learn directly from experience. Typically this work is done in a group situation (e.g. an office) where the student builds that social capital we discussed. Back in the classroom, we teachers see a clear maturity and new energy for their studies which I now see as a facilitation of individual action. Aside from everything else, that is a very good outcome for higher education.


Gomez, R. and Santor, E.. 2001. “Membership Has Its Privileges: The Effect of Social Capital and Neighbourhood Characteristics on the Earnings of Microfinance Borrowers.” The Canadian Journal of Economics. 34(4): 943-966

The Insular Cortex, von Economo neurons, and awareness of feelings

Ilyssa Monda-Loiacono, Golshan Aghanori QC’13, Jungyo Kim QC’13, and Jim Stellar

Led by Ilyssa, who is a graduate student, Golshan, Jungyo, and Jim have been reading papers on the human Insula Cortex, following up a blog co-written by one of us a short time ago.  In that earlier blog post we characterized the Insula cortex as part of a risk-reward system that is also involved in one’s empathy reactions to the observation of pain in others.  Now we want to revisit this issue with some hard-core neuroscience and tie this brain area to a group of neurons that are almost uniquely found in humans.  Then we will link the whole structure to a larger concept of how we communicate between levels of our brain functioning and tie it back to learning from experience in a college education.

Insula Cortex:

The human insula was first described by the anatomist Johann-Christian Reil and is since known as the Island of Reil (Bouvier, 2007). It is buried within the Sylvian fissure at the border of the frontal, temporal and parietal lobes of the brain (Bernhart & Singer, 2012). The insula is shaped like a triangle with its apex (peak) directed down and forward (Flynn, Benson, & Ardila, 1999). It can only be seen anatomically by pulling back the frontal and temporal lobes. The insula is divided into three cytoarchitectonic areas which are thought to be associated with different functions: (1) the anterior agranular insula (Ia) that is related to olfactory and autonomic functions, (2) middle dysgranular insula (Id) that is associated with gustatory functions, and (3) posterior granular insula (Ig) that is associated with somatosensory, auditory and visual functions (Chikama et al. 1997).

Early in fetal development, the tissue of the insula forms on the lateral surface of the cerebral hemisphere, shifts downward in the anterior direction of the temporal lobe, then pivots around the insula surface. The insula remains smooth until the 15th week of gestation and at about the 20th week, there is a differentiation between the posterior and anterior insula (Flynn, Benson, & Ardila, 1999.) The human insula has bidirectional connections with frontal, parietal and temporal lobes, the cingulate gyrus as well as many subcortical structures. Tract-tracing experiments in nonhuman primates suggest that the anterior insula is densely connected with prefrontal regions, such as orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), temporo-limbic regions, parahippocampal cortices, the amygdala, the cingulate cortex, thalamus basal ganglia, and the brain stem (Bernhart & Singer, 2012). The posterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex, receives differentiated inputs for pain, itch, warmth, cooling, and sensual touch, which are central components of physiological homeostasis (Allman, 2010). The anterior insula is also known to the activated by peripheral autonomic changes.

Critchley 2000, found that the anterior insula was activated using the Galvanic Skin response during a decision making task. The anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex are also activated by situations that involve social error, resentment, embarrassment, and guilt.  Most notably, they are also activated by feelings of empathy for the suffering of others. Recent studies on the neural mechanisms of empathy for pain, disgust and unpleasant experiences, indicate that empathy is subserved by a cortical network primarily consisting of the frontoinsular cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex (Gu, Liu, Guise, Naidich, Hof & Fan, 2010).  The frontoinsular cortex is known as the limbic sensory region, responsible for sensory integration, conscious awareness and subjective feelings.  The anterior cintulate cortex is known as the limbic motor cortex that participates in voluntary control, self-initiated behaviors, pain, emotion and personality, learning and value of actions and social interaction. A number of neuroimaging studies on pain processing have demonstrated partial neural overlap between the experience of pain in the self and the observation of pain in others. Different sections within the insula are also highly interconnected, allowing a bidirectional flow of information between both the anterior and posterior sections. The posterior insula is thought to be connected to primary and secondary somatosensory areas and the supplemental motor area which are thought to be involved with sensorimotor tasks in humans.

Von Economo neurons:

Constantine Von Economo lived in the early part of the 1900s and discovered an interesting set of neurons that have been more recently studied by John Allman’s laboratory at Caltech and other laboratories. The neurons are found in the anterior portion of the insula cortex in humans in the highest numbers, by far, of any animal.  They are large, reach out to many brain areas, and seem to connect emotional processing to high level cortical processing.  A distinguishing feature of the anterior insula is that it contains what we call today von Economo neurons. They are large bipolar neurons that reside predominantly in layer five of the frontoinsular and anterior cingulate cortices of humans and great apes (Allman, 2010). Their axons are either elongated straight or somewhat crooked resembling a screw-like morphology.   Von Econonomo called these specialized neurons rod and corkscrew cells, referring to the straight and twisted variants of this distinct class of neurons (Allman, 2010).  In his description of these neurons as a rod or corkscrew, he recognized the association between the brain containing them (anterior insula & anterior cingulate) and autonomic function, speculating, “a cerebral representation of the autonomic or sympathetic nervous systems in particular the areas of the insula” (Seeley et al. 2012).

A link to the control of such internal states and associated motivations is also specified by the expression of several neurotransmitter receptors including vasopressin type1a receptors, dopamine type D3 receptors, and serotonin 2b receptors, which have been implicated in social bonding, reward processing and visceral control respectively (Gu, Hof, Fristen, & Fan 2013).  Von Economo neurons also express activating a protein called transcription factor 3 that is involved in stress reactions, and pain sensitivity, interleukin-4 receptor, which is associated which is associated with inflammatory responses, and bombesin peptides such as neuromedin B, as gastrin peptide that participates in gut control (Allman, et. al, 2010).

Von Economo neurons are projection neurons and are substantially larger than the classical pyramid-shaped or pyramidal cells that surround them, however their specific targets are unknown. Their large cell bodies provide for rapid transmission of information to other parts of the brain.  Both in humans and chimpanzees, Von Economo Nuerons appear late in gestation (35 and 45 weeks, respectively) (Fajardo et.al., 2008).  In humans the number of these neurons increases until the ages of four, while in chimpanzees the number decreases in early postnatal life.

The frontoinsula cortex is further distinguished by second large layer five neuron, the fork cells. In 1932, Ngowyang published an article dedicated to the description of these neurons, for which he offered the term “Gabelzellen” (fork cells). The fork cell features a von Economo neuron related, but distinct morphology having a single basal dendrite, but two large divergent apical dendrites (Seeley, 2012). These fork cells are densely populated in the frontoinsula cortex, however they are not located in the anterior cintulate cortex like von Economo neurons.  Based on the location of these neurons, it was proposed that both von Economo neurons and fork cell played a role in both emotional and higher order cognitive behaviors.

Patterns of connectivity in animals have recently been reproduced in humans using diffusion tensor imaging form of brain scan and correlations between the timing of activity patterns in the resting state on an fMRI machine.  Patterns indicate that a central role, especially of the anterior insula, in integrating interoceptive and affective information. (Bernhardt, 2012).

Awareness of Feelings:

Damasio in his recent book, Self Comes to Mind, uses this concept of awareness of feelings to help develop a theory of conscious awareness.  We will leave that to him, but simply note here that these processes of checking with the basic state of well-being, or not, (pleasure and pain) is key to unconscious decision making that underlies much of what we have been writing about in this entire blog.  The idea is simply that the two mechanisms discussed above, or ones much like them, may underlie the communication between what Damaiso calls the “body wellness sense” and the conscious thought processes about which we can talk or have awareness.  We have called this communication between the mammalian brain and the primate brain after the famous triune brain theory of Paul MacLean.  We have also referred to them as conscious vs. unconscious decision making processes after books by Kahneman and Eagleman.  But Blaise Pascal put it best when he said something like “heart has reasons of which reason does not know.”  We have used that quote a lot in this blog.  Maybe some of the neural structures discussed above are part of how “the heart decision processes” may communicate with the “head decision processes” in making such reasons known to reason – to use Pascal’s words.

Experiential education in higher education

By now you hardly need us to state the obvious point…if you made it this far.  The point is that experiential education contains a rich source of information about real-world tasks that students are contemplating, even if that contemplation happens outside consciousness awareness.  Working in an accounting or law firm or for a nongovernmental organization or in a hospital, provides this kind of felt knowledge that allows the student to see if the career is right for them.  They already know some of the facts and theories about the field.  The biology major has been studying the principles of medicine, but it is different when you see them applied to a patient right in front of you who can talk back.  We need a much better understanding of these processes and especially how to integrate these experience with the conscious decision-making processes through which our student must act.  And we need to know how to do that in college so our students graduate just as excellent in their critical thinking ability, but armed with integrated experience so they are work ready and before that are passionate about their education while they are in college.

Additional  references:

Allman, J. M., Tetreault, N. A., Hakeem, H.A., Manye, K.F., Semendeferi, K., Erwin, J.M., Park, S. 2010). The von Economo neurons in frontoinsular and anterior cingulate cortex in great apes and humans. Brain Structure and Function. 214, 5-6, 495-517.

Augustine, J. (1996). Circuitry and functional aspects of the insular lobe in primate including humans. Brain Research Reviews, 22, 229-244.

Bernhardt, B.C., & Singer. T. (2012) The neural basis of empathy. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 35, 1-23.

Chikama. M., Mchfarland, N.R., Amaral. D.G., & Haber. S.N. Insular cortical projections to functional regions of the striatum correlate with cortical cytoarchitectonic organization in the primate. (1997). The Journal of Neuroscience, 17, 9686-9705.

Critchley, H., & Seth, A. (2012). Will studies of macaque insula reveal the neural mechanisms of self awareness? Neuron, 74.

Cauda, F., D’Agata. F., Sacco. K., Duca. S., Geminiani, S., & Vercilli, A. (2011) Functional connectivity of the insula in the resting brain. NeuroImage, 55, 8-23.

Flynn, F.G., Benson, D.F., & Ardila, A. (1999). Anatomy of the insula. Journal of Aphasiology, 13, 55-78.

Farjardo, C. Escobar, M.I., Buritica, E., Arteaga. G., Umbarila, J., Casanova. M.F., & Pimienta, H. (2008). Von economo neurons are present in the dorsolateral (dysgranular) prefrontal cortex of humans. Neuroscience Letters, 435, 215-218.

Gu, X., Hof, R. P., Friston, K., Fan, J. (2013) Anterior insula cortex and emotional awareness. J. Comparative Neurology Research in System Neuroscience. 521, 3371-88

Gu, X., Liu, X., Guise, K. G., Hof, P., Naidich, T. P., & Fan, J. (2010). Functional dissociation of the frontoinsular and anterior cingulate cortices in empathy for pain. Journal of Neuroscience, 30(10), 3739-3744.

Seely, W. W., Merkle, F. T. Gaus, S. E., Craig (Baud), A.D., Allman, J.M., & Hof, P.R. (2011). Distinctive neurons of the anterior cingulate and frontoinsular cortex: a historical perspective. Cerebral Cortex, 22, 245-250.

Knowledge fluency

Marina Vazura QC ‘15 and Jim Stellar


Marina is a Speech Pathology Major and met Jim at an honor society event at Queens College. The resulting conversation began with the general idea of taking knowledge from an internship in a clinically-oriented degree program and progressed to the idea that the words “knowledge fluency” could apply to what was learned in an internship. Obviously, these words are borrowed from language fluency where a student who spends time abroad learns to speak a foreign language in a way that comes naturally, without thinking and without having to go through another language and translate. Marina is a good one to speak from the perspective of language fluency as she speaks four languages, three of them fluently including English.

Let’s take for example a child in second grade that has just started to solve mathematical problems. There are a number of steps that need to be taken by the teacher in order to aid the learning process for the student, which will ultimately lead to knowledge fluency.

Contextual or even visual learning is the first way a new concept or skill is introduced by the teacher in the classroom. The teacher will connect the new material to a life situation (buying an ice-cream, telling time, sharing items), to allow the student to better comprehend the concept by directly applying it to a real life situation. The teacher may even introduce the concept pictorially, by drawing pictures on the board to help students visualize mathematical operations during problem solving. In the learning process, the teacher serves as the student’s moderator in modeling the thought process by “thinking aloud” and asking appropriate questions. By looking, listening and interacting with their classmates, students have all the necessary components to facilitate learning.

How does that tie back to the learning?

As students continue to learn new information, previously acquired knowledge will sync in with the new material and knowledge will coalesce in the form of building blocks. The students will then start to make their thinking public by sharing it with a partner or group and will agree and disagree with the ideas presented by their classmates. The teacher’s role at this point is to ensure fluency by keeping the students engaged and providing opportunities for repeated collaborative experiences with the new material to ensure fluency.

When has the child developed knowledge fluency?

Well, when the child can successfully apply the new skill independently. You probably don’t recall learning that four times two equals eight. This is a fact that we learned at approximately the second or third-grade level. Yet, we are all able to retain that fact in our memory. Why? That’s because this fact has been used for hundreds, maybe thousands of times in our everyday life. Also, the symbols used in the representation of this fact are familiar to us. Most importantly, the solution makes sense. The child is not only capable of applying the mathematical concept without the guidance of the teacher effortlessly, but has also developed confidence in his knowledge and understanding of the skill. This is what I would classify as knowledge fluency.

Now take us back to internships and talk particularly about your internship this summer.

Internships are like the new mathematical concept that is presented to a second-grader. Through internships, the intern is exposed to new material and has to apply previously acquired information and experiences to perform well. The student or intern, in this case, cannot perform well, if the intern does not feel engaged in the process. I remember the first day at my Harvard internship. I was nervous that I would have a difficult time getting oriented with the lab procedures since it was my first time working at a chemistry lab. The lab manager, served as my moderator in the whole learning process by modeling every task and then allowing me to work independently. The Principal Investigator provided me with learning opportunities whether it was shadowing the post-doctoral students or assisting me with finalizing a paper. I began reading literature in the field so that I could become better acquainted with the research and did not hesitate to ask questions for clarification. I attended the lab meetings, watched the presentations of the more experienced lab members and actively participated in the group discussions. I spoke about the findings on a daily basis, oftentimes with colleagues but also, with my family over the phone. I had developed interest and thirst for more knowledge. I couldn’t have felt more engaged.

But you were not working in the speech pathology area. This was a chemistry lab. How did that go?

What I found fascinating is that I was using some of the concepts I had previously learned in my courses and former jobs. For example, when I was shown an fMRI scan, the term “hypothalamus” immediately popped in my head when I had to identify the part of the brain that controls food intake. Oftentimes, I was assigned to interact with some of the participants to review the details of the study. Had I not worked in customer service before, I would not have been able to communicate to those participants with such confidence and ease. Whenever I was having phone conversations with the participants, it felt as if I was working as a receptionist at the doctor’s office, my former job. I often referred to the participants as “patients” since I was used to that terminology. With continuous exposure to the research lab, my vocabulary broadened and certain concepts I had learned in the classroom were reinforced. I came to realize that knowledge obtained through experiential education remains engraved in one’s memory longer than knowledge memorized merely to pass a test.

This is what we mean by knowledge fluency. As MV writes, it was “engraved in one’s memory…” That statement is revealing as the knowledge becomes part of the person and in that way ceases to be like a tool one is using (or at least we do not think of it that way). It becomes the person.

At a recent conference JS attended, a plenary speaker, Lloyd Jacobs, President of the University of Toledo, spoke of how his own medical training ended years ago with him standing at the side of a surgeon in front of an open body. He noted how the familiarity he achieved there with surgical techniques was a different kind of learning than he had gotten from his medical books and classes, and he asked the audience to deconstruct that kind of experiential learning to better understand it. To JS it was a powerful moment.

In this blog, authors often write of conscious cognitive processes vs. unconscious decision making processes and cite books like Eagleman’s Incognito. Another way this process might be discussed is what has come to be known as the default-mode-network, a linked set of frontal and parietal cortex regions that come into activity when one is not on a task but instead is processing internal information. Indeed, this is the period when brain scans reveal that the brain uses the most energy, when it is working the hardest. The idea is that this system is active when learning a new task, such as the child working on the math problem or MV at her summer internship. But after the task is learned, it appears to get stored somewhere else and can be called up and executed without the same effort, e.g. the difficulty of learning to ride a bike vs. the ease of riding one once learned. Maybe this is knowledge fluency.

What is even more interesting is the idea that this process might profit from practice - that we might get better at such thinking on an internship through an interaction of the default-mode-network and the things already learned so that we learn how to learn in that situation. This might be called critical thinking, a cherished goal of higher education. We will come back to that notion.

An Attachment to a College

Jessica Bruder QC ’11, ’13 and Jim Stellar

Jessica just finished her master’s degree at Queens College. Counting from the time she was in high school taking her first college course under a program called College Now, she just completed her 8th year of study at Queens College. When I found that out, I persuaded her to examine what held her here.

Remember the famous quote from Blaise Pascal which goes something like “The heart has reasons of which reason does not know.” In this blog, we often claim that heart reasons help to define what can be experiential about education, leaving reason (head reasons?) to account for the classical academic curriculum-based part of education. We know that Jessica got degrees at Queens (head reasons), but why did she stay 8 years at one institution?

Jessica, can you start us off by saying how you got started at Queens?

My passion, interest and love for Queens College started at a young age. I remember finding my mothers yearbook and innocently inquiring what this yearbook entailed. I was six years old and my mother told me that the year book was her Queens College year book and she kept it because not only did it symbolize memories, but also her own history of her success and that of others who had graduated. This yearbook was a record of those who had achieved their goals and she was there; she had succeeded. My mother in that moment bequeathed to me an idea of the life I wanted to have just by the passion and excitement in her voice when she said she had graduated from Queens College.

Ten years later I was handed by my 11th grade high school teachers what I felt was a boon wrapped into a nice bow of words on a pamphlet reading “College Now.” My high school was offering an opportunity for 11th and 12th grade students to take college classes at Queens College. I immediately signed up for a philosophy class since at 16 years old I felt I needed wisdom and philosophical thought of trying to figure myself out. I also remember walking through the campus observing how capacious the campus truly was and feeling so small in size, but somehow I also felt grand in confidence. When entering the quad I remember falling in love with how beautiful the campus and buildings were - like a canvas painting of the city. I wanted to be here, I remember thinking I wanted to rise up as tall as the buildings and succeed.

In 12th grade I immediately applied to Queens College and not only got in but also got in with a scholarship. I didn’t know what I would major in, who I would meet, where I would end up, what classes I would take, or who I would become after the many years I attended, I always knew that as long as I was here at Queens College I would prosper to great heights.

Great. Now what persuaded you to stay to complete a master’s degree?

Being at Queens College always gave me a feeling of security. To define security further, first I felt secure educationally in terms of being in the hands of wonderful, intelligent, well-trained staff. Second I felt secure in the safe environment since Queens College had and has excellent security guards and safety routines embedded in the policies. Thirdly I felt secure in knowing my success would reach higher by staying at a school that had helped me achieve during my undergraduate career. My last reason and reason most associated to why I stayed and continue to stay is because Queens College feels like home to me. I’ve spent one-third of my life at this school and despite the challenges, successes, and fears I had I always knew that if I ever needed some support or guidance I could find that here at Queens College.

Notice the emotional language in this story beginning with the transmission of excitement from mom and the awakening of an ambition. Then it is followed by a soaring emotional experience in the physical structure of the campus that was now hers for a course or two as a high school student. By then the place was trusted even in the face of the typical uncertainty of entering college from high school and that emotion continued in graduate school.

These are the kinds of heart reasons of which Pascal spoke and around which we wrap stories from our conscious language system or what Gazzaniga calls the interpreter module in his book Who’s In Charge. These are the stories the interpreter module (reason) tells us about our life to justify the decisions we have already made in brain areas without words such as Haidt writes about in The Righetous Mind or neuroeconomics studies in purchasing decisions with brain scans. Heart reasons are operating everywhere in higher education, not just in experiential education activities such as internships.

With all of this as background, let’s go back and push on Jessica. How do you as a student decide the best school and major for yourself and why is it important to feel like the school you choose will be the right support system and institution for your own goals?

When choosing Queens College initially it was because I had fallen in love as mentioned with the campus. In terms of others and their pursuit for choosing the right school, right major, and right program I would advise those to choose a school they feel safe and happy in. Also to choose a school that has the program they are looking for. When trying to choose the next four years of your life in one location it is important to know that the program you choose has the best advisors, support systems, and resources. In all honesty the type of motto a student should follow on their pursuit to choosing the best school and program would be “It’s not what your program can do for you, but what you can do for your program.” It must start with the student. The student must take control of knowing what they need to do in order to reach their end goal. The student also needs to understand where they see themselves at the end of their program. Lastly the student needs to always take initiative to get to their end point, and do research to find out exactly what they need to reach their goal and end of their program. Personally in my eight years at Queens College I always did research and reached out to the support in my department in order to reach my end goal, and I would say such a scheme has worked wonderfully.

While not classically experiential as an internship or study abroad or undergraduate research with a faculty member, this last paragraph again evokes the same kind of emotions with the college as a whole that students often have with those specific experiences. We in the higher education business could pay much more attention to this phenomenon to recruit the kind of loyalty and passion Jessica has shown. It works even in a largely commuter-type public college, and clearly, it also breeds student success.

Reflection

Reflection

It is important to try new things. When Sarah and I decided to write a piece together on reflection, having written a previous blog post, she did what she often does with me and produced something impressive. This time, I decided that I did not want to touch it and instead, with her permission, wanted to reprint it whole in my blog. So, I did, just as she sent it to me.

As you know, reflection is a very important part of experiential education as it joins together the experience (and its impact on the unconscious brain mechanisms that make such decisions – think neuroeconomics) and the academic facts and theories learning of the classical classroom so that conscious reason can be better informed by and integrated with experiential influences. That is a long way of saying that we will return to this topic.

-Jim Stellar

Why Reflect?

By: Sarah V. Platt, Ph.D

What is the importance of reflection? Why is reflection such an influential component in the learning process? Plato used to place a significant emphasis on the importance of “learning thyself”, meaning one’s personality, beliefs, mental states, desires, etc.- all of which comprise something we know as self identity. Most philosophers also share the common belief that self-knowledge is particularly different from the acquisition of world knowledge, external to oneself. When applied to experiential education, engaging in reflection or introspection is sometimes a component that I consider to be under-rated. People often undergo an experience or important life event and forget or don’t consider it important enough for whatever reason, to take time to digest, reflect, and view it from different optics. Very often we are caught in the midst of it all and are later interrupted by some other experience, making the previous one seem like it already forms part of our past.

Looking within ourselves is an essential element of our personal growth. In order to fully grasp a particular experience, one’s own mental state before and after it, the lessons learned, the people encountered along the way, and the way in which, optimistically speaking, one has grown from it- one must reflect. There is really no other way to do it.

Self-knowledge, which roots from reflection, is the outcome of the learning process. Many authors and thinkers have quoted the importance of reflection in their own lives and works:

“I am a writer of books in retrospect. I talk in order to understand; I teach in order to learn”. –Robert Frost

“It is the language of reflection that deepens our knowledge of who we are in relation to others in a community of learners”. –Carole Miller and Juliana Saxton, University of Victoria

“Reflection must be reserved for solitary hours; whenever she was alone, she gave way to it as the greatest relief; and not a day went by without a solitary walk, in which she might indulge in all the delight of unpleasant recollections”. –Jane Austen

“It takes a certain ingenuous faith- but I have it- to believe that people who read and reflect more likely than not come to judge things with liberality and truth” –A.C. Grayling

“Sometimes, you have to look back in order to understand the things that lie ahead” -Yvonne Woon

If we trace this concept back to experiential education, which is what really interests us here, it makes me think of an experience I had when I was a study abroad student at the Mediterranean Center of Arts and Sciences (http://www.mediterraneancenter.it/) in the small island of Sicily, almost ten years ago. I used to live in the city of Siracusa, specifically in the historical centre of Ortigia, which was actually another tiny island connected to the mainland by a bridge. At the time, I was an undergraduate student of Anthropology at Northeastern University, where I met Dr. James Stellar, who was Dean of Arts and Sciences at the time. I remember sitting in a classroom in Ortigia taking a Creative Writing course offered by Professor Patti Trimble, a native Californian artist and poet, Adjuct Faculty Member of this institution. Professor Trimble made us buy a journal and jot down our experiences in Sicily on a daily basis. I remember how I often felt annoyed because of her assignments and how I couldn’t think of anything to write, while sitting on my balcony in Ortigia, which overlooked the sea. I was busy living my life in the present and found it extremely challenging to digest and put these experiences into words. However, I tried to make an effort to reach the minimum word count Professor Trimble required of us. Sometimes I would write down the words of songs I had learned in Italian, other times I asked my new Sicilian friends to tell me stories about their families or neighborhoods, and would write them down in my diary. On other occasions I would write about how tired I was of eating pasta or how my new roommate annoyed me. In sum, my diary was a way of unleashing all my emotions on a day to day basis.

Now, ten years later, I finished my Ph.D and on occasions also teach writing courses in English and Spanish. Life opportunities have taken me all around the world, most recently to Poland, where I came back recently after two years. When I think of my days in Ortigia, my memory gets fuzzy. If it weren’t for Professor Trimble’s class and the emphasis she placed on reflecting on our daily experiences while engaging in this experiential education program, I wouldn’t have all these vivid memories stored in my journal. I recently found the small green diary stacked amongst my other books kept in my mom’s home in my native Puerto Rico, dusted it off, and began reading some of my entries. One of them written on February 12th, 2004 starts with the following quote:

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”. I believe this is precisely the beauty of reflection, for it gives us the opportunity to have new eyes…

Women, Leadership, and Sports – Learning from Experience

Cynthia Bainton, Kush Sidhu, James Stellar

The three of us recently came together from different perspectives. CB is a repeat blogger and works at Northeastern University where JS was Dean. KS was JS’ graduate student at Northeastern before pursuing a different career in Washington DC where on the side of his career he set up an ice hockey academy for girls that led to discussions and this blog post about competitiveness, leadership, and gender differences. We also all just read the new book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.

KS comments from his perspective that in athletics, the story goes: if you throw a puck (or ball) out into a group of girls, they will start to pass it around and play together (cooperative), whereas if you do the same thing with a group of boys, they will try to keep it away from each other (competitive).  Sandberg illustrates this difference between genders with her ‘keep your hand up’ anecdote.  There are some methods that teachers/coaches use to instill competitiveness in girls, but it’s a thin area, and no one so far thinks they’ve found ‘the answer’.

KS, your observations remind me of my first skating race during my hometown’s annual Winter Carnival.  I was 4 years old and there were probably about 5 or 6 of us racing. All I remember is that I was “racing” with my friend Ann. If she got ahead of me, she would wait for me to catch up and, if I got ahead of her, I would wait for her to catch up.  We ended up holding hands as we crossed the finish line together much to the amusement of the crowd watching.  The officials awarded us both a fourth place ribbon. Ann was my first friend and best friend.  It was more important for us to skate together than to race against each other.

It is important that all people “lean in’” although in her book Sandberg is specifically referring to women. She equates leaning in with being ambitious. Are women really not ambitious? And if that is so, why? Of course there are some women who are ambitious, but according to Sandberg, the number of women who lack ambition with regard to their careers has plateaued and is declining. In many of the situations Sandberg describes, it sounds as if women think they have to choose between a career and being liked or having a family and so they settle for a less demanding career because they don’t think having both is an option. It sounds to me like they are giving up too easily and reminds me of KS’s challenge of how to instill competitiveness in girls. In Lean In, Sandberg makes the case for why women should pursue careers, or volunteer work, or hobbies that they find rewarding regardless of hurdles that may be in their way. And, she provides tools and encouragement for getting there.

In my 25 years of coaching, I’ve had the opportunity to work with men’s and women’s ice hockey teams at the high school, collegiate, and international levels, but I now primarily work with high school girls teams. In this time, I’ve come to understand that what I do is much more than teach X’s and O’s, and what my players do is much more than develop themselves physically. To me, sports are an entry-point to teaching kids about: developing habits, defining a culture, being a good teammate, and of course, leadership. I would say that there are more similarities between male and female athletes than differences, but the differences that do exist are quite stark. For example, as stated, male players seem to compete instinctively, whereas we have to really work to get the girls to ‘battle’. When I learned that Jim and Cynthia were writing about leadership development for women, I wanted to get their thoughts on my ‘competitiveness’ observation, but more so, I want to know how I as a coach could more effectively instill competitiveness in my young female athletes. Now that we’ve read Lean In, it’s good to know that I’m not the only one who’s observed this disparity in instinctual competitiveness between genders. (I want to stress that I have had the privilege to work with many extremely competitive female athletes, but stand by my observation that by and large, developing competitiveness in female athletes requires attention.) Why is it not enough that we get girls to play sports for the sake of fitness and camaraderie…why do we have to worry about them competing? I mean, more girls are participating in sports than any time in history – so we should be happy about that, right? Well, sure, we’re happy that more girls are playing sports, but let’s make sure we are maximizing the opportunity in front of us…and although competing may not come as naturally to girls as it does to the guys, we owe it to girls to make sure they are as good at competing as they are at the other (physical) skills they are developing.

And if we take the 30,000 ft. view of this topic, I would argue that there is a more important reason to help girls become competitors (warning: big claim coming up!): competitors achieve more, earn more, and have greater influence. Developing competitiveness in girls and young women will equip more of them to gain positions of authority where they will have greater influence on younger generations of future female leaders. Looking solely at the low (and getting lower) number of female collegiate coaches (of female teams), it’s clear we are falling short in getting women into such positions. In non-athletic professions, the number of women in the C-Suite is likewise miniscule compared to men. However, the fact that most C-Suite women were at one time young athletes (as illustrated in a recent popular article) poses an interesting point of discussion. Have we simply missed an opportunity through sports to develop more leaders by not paying attention to developing competitiveness?

A question I have always had, which I would like to pose to both of you, is whether it is better to teach a woman to be more aggressive than to try to restrain that trait in someone (either a woman or a man). My idea is that we need flat-out aggressive energy against problems in this world, but we also need a team approach to solving those problems. Too much aggression turned on each other blows apart the team. I have noticed that many of my neuroscience students over the years have been women and many of them have done very well. What do you folks think?

I think we need to teach girls to compete – not sure aggression is always called for, but that is certainly helpful in competition at times. Getting girls into the game is great – but we need to take it to another level. I think we can reach girls through sports and with that platform develop competitive traits, but I’m sure there are other ways to teach this. The big question is – what’s the best way to teach competitiveness? Is it getting girls to love ‘winning’ and hate ‘losing’? Do we do that with standard reinforcement techniques? Or is it something bigger than that?

I agree we need to teach girls to compete, but I don’t think we should reinforce the “winning is good, losing is bad” belief because I believe that learning to lose gracefully is a valuable skill that will serve them well later in their lives. I wonder if there may be a problem with the vocabulary. Do we need to change the connotations of the word? That is, is it possible that girls view the word “competitiveness” as having negative connotations or as being “masculine”? We need to teach them that competitiveness is a positive skill, neither exclusively masculine nor feminine, that if mastered will help them reach their future goals. The reason I bring this up is because the word “aggression” for me definitely has negative connotations. I am wondering if girls subconsciously view competitiveness with the same negative connotations. KS, I wonder if you could survey your girl players on various words to find out how they view them.

Clearly this conversation can go on and word choice is important. To the reader please comment to continue the conversation here.

To wrap up and bring our discussion back to the college-level experiential education and brain, it is very likely that the unconscious motivation, decision-making, and traits discussed in both the Eagleman and Kahneman books (frequently cited in this blog) come from brain circuits that learn and change. What happens on the ice or other places in sports for women may be more than just memories. It may change the person and perhaps for the better at least in terms of succeeding in the competitive world. Colleges need to graduate leaders as well as work-ready students of both genders. One open question is how experiential education programs in college, such as team sports, can be designed to produce leadership.

Self-Perception and Education

Naomi Ducat QC ‘16 and Jim Stellar

Naomi and I met last spring at an Honors function where she was on the classical “Dean’s List.” We began talking about experiential education and she pointed out recently that much of what students achieve is based on their self-perception, that education influences self-perception, and that self-perception influences how one uses the available educational opportunities. Now this sounds like a topic for experiential education as it goes beyond the knowledge of fact and theories conveyed by classes to something about the person. That conversation led to this blog.

Naomi, can you tell us how you came to see (and change) your self-perception.

I would like to start off by explaining how I understand the concept of self-perception. To me, this concept is a change that one experiences in terms of evaluating and comprehending their abilities and worth.

In my experience, my self-perception frequently fluctuates. However, as I reflect on my previous experiences, interactions and accomplishments, I do see a distinct ascension. This change began to reveal itself this past year, when I made the transition from high school to Queens College.

Being a nervous freshman, I have been extremely attentive to my surroundings. This is probably because of the poor self-perception that I developed in high school as a result of facing academic difficulties. Having entered the college setting, I was apprehensive about dealing with new, and what I was told would be “harder” tasks. However, I began to explore and become enthusiastic about the available hands-on opportunities that Queens College has to offer. Once I began to dig into those opportunities, I began to see a change in myself.

The first part of the change was my awareness of the vastness and accessibility of the opportunities available to me, including research labs, seminars, and internships. I became aware of these opportunities through developing relationships with my professors. This newfound knowledge motivated me to apply for different honors programs and internships, and take unconventional classes. My professors encouraged me to make use of the available opportunities, and by taking their advice I have been able to use my skills and watch them emerge and develop.

While still in the beginning of my journey, I can already see the difference that immersing myself in experiential learning has had and will have on me. It has allowed me to see the world through a new lens, influencing me to tackle my academic studies with a more innovative approach. As a result, I see my potential, and am in the process of developing a more optimistic and confident self-perception.

I wonder if we could get you to be more precise. What was it about your interaction with your hands-on opportunities or interaction with your professors that led to this increased self-perception as a successful student, or was it all about the grades in your classes (clearly a success area for you as a Dean’s List student)?

Grades definitely played a part in my developing an improved self-perception, however my grades were also a result of this new perception. I think that one of the initial components of this realization were a few classes where the dynamics of the class were conversationally based. The student-professor interactions made me realize that I can and will absorb more material than what the texts provide if I converse more with my instructors and do outside research about topics that I have an interest in or do not fully understand. This increased immersion in my studies contributed to a spike in my grades, creating a cycle between learning more, getting higher grades, feeling confident in my abilities and wanting to continue in this cycle.

Can you talk about how this change in self-perception changed the way you approached college? Did it make you study more? Did it seem to make your studying better when you did study?

I began to realize that I could actually control my skill development and knowledge intake through initiating more of these interactions. Because of this, people now constantly intrigue me. I have realized that there is a lesson to be learned from everyone, and that by initiating interactions with other intelligent people; their knowledge and abilities will begin to rub off on me.

This newfound knowledge has impacted my study techniques. As opposed to feeling a sense of hopelessness when encountering a difficult task, I realize that I am more in control of my intellectual growth than I previously understood. As result, I now confront difficulties as a learning experience and put more effort into efficiently completing the task.

This lesson has improved my study skills. For one thing, I am much less distracted by the feeling of “I can’t do this.” And as a general statement, I believe that people work better in optimistic environments, the brain being an environment in itself. Also, being aware that interactions are what have helped me in school, I decided to bring these interactions home with me. For example, when reading my textbook, if I find something peculiar or interesting, I’ll research the topic even if the textbook only briefly mentions it. Although the topic of my interest may not be on any of my exams, having some sort of connection between what I need to know and what I want to know certainly helps me internalize the information. Another example of how I better internalize information is by trying to apply the information to other parts of my life. For example, many of the topics discussed in my environmental science class were applicable to things I encountered during an internship that I had with a politician, who had to address his stance on many of those environmental issues.

The truth is that I could have used any of these study techniques before I entered college, but the point is that I didn’t. I think that the college environment has created this internal desire to initiate and control my own development, and therefore has increased my self-awareness and improved my self-perception.

Tony Coyle writes in his book Talent Code that we often cite in this blog about the process of “ignition” where the person gets engaged. Of course, we believe a lot of this happens in the hidden brain as Eagleman states in his book Incoginito. Here we see an example of how self-perception produces this engagement with a college education. Perhaps self-perception is the mechanism for all engagements were the person thinks to themselves that “I can do this” and “I want to do this.” That is very similar to the previous blog post where again the student transitions successfully to college. It reminds us that college itself is an experience and is therefore more than just a collection of classes that deliver the facts and theories students must learn. If we knew whatever happened in the brain and mind of a student in an experience like a successful internship, maybe we would know what happens when students make a successful transition to college.

« Previous Entries