Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Title of course:  Neuroscience and the Classroom: Making Connections

Neuroscience and the Classroom: Making Connections

Unit 3: Seeing Others from the Self

Sections

Section 5:
The study

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Q: How do we develop empathy? Why do we need time to direct our attention inward?

As you may recall from Unit 2, basic emotions comprise our reactions to situations—we notice certain constellations of provocative circumstances, and our body and mind cohere around a strategy for responding. Our muscles contract or relax; we approach or ready our muscles and minds for flight. But what about complex, abstract situations that pose no immediate threat or offer no immediate help? Might even our reactions to these situations continue to honor their evolutionary history, calling into action basic readiness, even though our fight is for a moral cause, rather than for physical safety or comfort?

To find out, Immordino-Yang asked participants to listen to true stories about real people, stories meant to evoke admiration or compassion. The experiment involved videotaped interviews, fMRI scanning, and collecting psychophysiological data (such as heart and respiration rates). One story was about a young boy who grew up in a small city in China during an economic depression that often left him and his family hungry. John, a participant in the experiment, was shown a video clip in which the boy's mother describes how, one winter afternoon, she found a coin and used it to buy warm cakes for her son, who had been in school all day with nothing to eat. Despite the boy's hunger, he offered his mother the last cake, which she refused by lying and telling her son she had already eaten.

After the video, the experimenter asked John how this story made him feel, and John responded, "[Of the stories featured so far in the experiment], this is the one that's hit me the most, I suppose. And I'm not very good at verbalizing emotions. But … um … I can almost feel the physical sensations. It's like there's a balloon or something just under my sternum, inflating and moving up and out, which, I don't know, is my sign of something really touching … . And, so, the selflessness of the mother … and then also of the little boy. You know, having these wonderful cakes that he never gets to have, and he still offers them to her … and then her turning them down, is … uh … [long pause]. It makes me think about my parents, because they provide me with so much, and I don't thank them enough, I don't think … . I know I don't. So, I should do that."

Interrelated Forms of "Self"
Interrelated Forms of "Self"
We understand others' feelings in part by simulating them on our own neural mechanisms for bodily and mental self (in essence the subjective feeling or awareness of being "real"). ...  
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Interrelated Forms of "Self"

© Mary Helen Immordino-Yang.

Interrelated Forms of "Self"

We understand others' feelings in part by simulating them on our own neural mechanisms for bodily and mental self (in essence the subjective feeling or awareness of being "real"). Research suggests that we may have two interrelated platforms. The orange area is a central region for representing our own musculoskeletal, "arms and legs" body. This area is more active when we feel compassion for someone in physical pain or when we admire exceptional skill, presumably because these emotions are about others' physical pains and abilities. The blue area is a central region for representing the state of one's own internal, visceral body. This area is more active when we feel compassion for social or psychological pain or admiration for virtuousness, suggesting that these emotions may have co-opted the feeling of our "gut" self, as poets have long described.

John's response offers a clear picture of the interplay between physical sensations in the body (the signals of his emotional response) and the feelings and thoughts that these lead him to discover and articulate. He responds to the story using his own physical and psychological self, his memories, his feelings, his thoughts—all in the service of making sense of the story and of his emotional response to it, and he arrives at a discovery about a change he needs to make in his behavior to his own parents. John comes to a motivated state that, despite its complex cognitive influences, certainly doesn't (top)

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present itself as a purely rational manifestation that engages only his consciousness.

It also is deeply rooted in the nonconscious systems that keep us alive, that make us act, that organizes and regulates the functioning of our body.

As the fMRI revealed, activation extended all the way into the brain stem, far below the level of awareness, into the systems that keep our bodies alive, our most primitive depths. So, it seems, conscious thinking about the story combines with nonconscious gut reactions to produce the necessary motivation to stimulate meaningful action. Both processes, the cognitive and the emotional, work together and are necessary.

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At one point, John's recounting of his feelings about the story echoes Amy's response (Unit 2, Section 7) to the story of the blind woman who opened a school for the blind in Tibet. (Amy reported that she "found the story very motivational.") Both had a similar long pause before moving from their feelings about the story to talking about how the story has made them look more deeply at their own circumstances and feel motivated to take action toward others. In turning inward, they reflected upon the stories as a means to experience the internal, psychological self, or the "real me," and to access their memories and to feel what these meant to them in relation to the stories. This process of inward reflection leading to meaningful analysis and a feeling of motivation requires more time than processing, which is externally directed. John and Amy both paused as they looked more deeply into the significance of their reactions to the stories they heard.

The area of the brain that becomes active when this internal reflection occurs also becomes active when we daydream, but it is suppressed when we turn our attention outward to the external world. Perhaps this slower internal focus on the self is essential for finding meaning. Perhaps neuroscience offers a biological basis for Wordsworth's observation that: "The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: Little we see in Nature that is ours."

Empathy

Empathy

Research participants listen and react to stories designed to evoke social emotions such as admiration and compassion. The neural activity deep within the brain, including nonconscious systems that...

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To see a classroom implementing these findings watch "Music and Emotion" in Unit 3, Section 3.

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