Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Title of course:  Neuroscience and the Classroom: Making Connections

Neuroscience and the Classroom: Making Connections

Unit 1: Different Brains


Section 5:

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Q: How does our brain determine how we see and interact with the world?

In most people, the two hemispheres of the brain exhibit different strengths and weaknesses, and people tend to see the world through the lens of their strengths. They interpret and solve problems using these strengths to compensate for their weaknesses. Despite their significant differences, Nico and Brooke are no exception. Essentially, it seems that these boys rely on the strengths of their remaining hemisphere to meet the challenges the world presents them, such as the challenge of successfully interacting socially with their peers, especially by understanding and using the nuances of language.

Overall, Nico's and Brooke's ability to distinguish between sincere and sarcastic tones was good, and both could use these tones appropriately in their everyday conversations with others. However, neurologically, their approaches were quite different—from each other and from their more typical peers. You could hear the difference from their peers in the exaggerated and somewhat unregulated tones the boys produced, but insight into their methods of compensation was most evident in how they talked about emotions. Nico, lacking the emotional processors of the right hemisphere, tended to avoid talking with any depth about emotion, while Brooke, who retained the strengths of the right hemisphere and lacked the mediation of the left hemisphere, tended to talk excessively about emotions.

In one exercise, Nico quickly identified the speaker's tone but seemed unable to analyze the source of his judgment. When asked how he knew the speaker was joking, he responded, "How did I know that? Because I just heard it." End of discussion. Brooke, on the other hand, went to the opposite extreme, analyzing the situation thoroughly, speculating on the psychology of the speaker, and using his own experiences as sources for insight: "She was probably joking around. But I think she was serious at the same time. It's like two things at once...joking around is like, 'You don't have no homework.' [Said in a joking tone.] That's joking around. Serious is like, 'You have homework? That's a drag.' [Said in an exaggeratedly serious tone.] That's serious. So it's like a little mix."

This difference in discussing emotion was also evident in the Self-in-Relationships interview. Nico evinced little ability or willingness to talk about his emotions, though reports from his family indicate that he certainly shows them. In marked contrast, Brooke not only is willing to discuss his emotions, but also expends considerable energy dealing with them, particularly controlling negative emotions: "I put those questions away in the back of my head... . I really don't want to [pull them out]... . It's like a locked door... . All those things you are saying that I don't want to do, 'cause I try to hide those things. I don't open it up. That's my theory. That's why I'm always happy."

Given Nico's avoidance of emotion, it isn't surprising that in the facial recognition test this difference would again show up. Although both boys were moderately accurate at identifying emotional states from facial expressions, Nico's errors tended to follow more of a predictable pattern than did Brooke's. Nico generally saw emotive faces as neutral, expressing no emotion.

The results of these tests suggest that the problems presented (identifying emotions in tone of voice and facial expressions and analyzing one's own emotional state) are not the same for the two boys. The strength of Nico's left hemisphere is hierarchical sequencing or categorizing; it's good at things like grammar, syntax, and word definitions. In the absence of his right hemisphere, he is weak at processing emotional information. So, perhaps Nico approaches these tonal qualities that express emotion as (top)

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"pseudogrammatical" memorized categories. That is, relying on the strength of his remaining left hemisphere, Nico is handling affective prosody like a Mandarin language speaker, effectively memorizing tones and their meanings. For him, emotion becomes, essentially, a nonemotional grammatical problem; he interprets emotional tones of voice as categorical information rather than emotional information. "How do I know she is joking? Because I just heard it." That sound equals joking, just as the word "dog" equals this animal I am patting. And he is able to call up and use the required tone when his social situation suggests joking is appropriate.

A Tale of Two Cases: Brooke and Nico

A Tale of Two Cases: Brooke and Nico

Nico and Brooke, two boys with half their brain, are unambiguous examples of the plasticity of the brain—its ability to change by developing new neural networks. Here, the two boys are tested...

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Brooke, on the other hand, uses the strengths of his remaining right hemisphere: recognizing patterns and processing and analyzing emotion. So, in solving problems, he becomes deeply immersed in the connections between emotion and tone of voice, even when the problem doesn't call for such analysis. For example, during the facial recognition test when all he had to do was label the emotion expressed in the face, Brooke adopted an exaggerated angry voice when naming the emotion on an angry face or a deeply depressed voice to label sadness. This same overreliance on his emotional processing strengths resulted in his making errors on tasks when emotional interpretation was not relevant. He was unable to move beyond looking at and looking for the emotional content in any situation. As we have seen, this hypersensitivity to emotion resulted in his needing to pay constant attention to dealing with and trying to control his own negative emotions.

Both boys, then, appear to be reinterpreting and solving problems by using their neuropsychological strengths, including emotional strengths, associated with their remaining hemisphere, rather than by adapting their remaining hemisphere to act as the missing hemisphere would have. That is, Nico and Brooke are recruiting basic processing mechanisms common to all of us, but they are using them in a new way, to solve problems that would normally be handled by different mechanisms that they lost when half their brain was removed. They are adapting the problems to suit their processing strengths. Rather than trying hard to learn to do what their brains have trouble doing, the boys appear instead to have changed how they think to suit the brains they have.

The boys do not consciously seem to know that they are making these adjustments to their thinking. The way in which their brains are organized and function is a result of their biology, experiences, and emotional goals (their desire to interact with their peers and to successfully pursue their interests). These, in turn, determine their way of perceiving and making sense of the world and the problems it presents them. Nico and Brooke are simply more dramatic versions of all of us. We all bring certain strengths and weaknesses to our interactions with the world. Using our strengths in whatever way we can manage, we do what we need to do, mostly not knowing exactly how we are doing things.

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