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Calming, Laughing, and Liking: The Amygdala and Learning

June 23, 2012

Letting My Students Laugh–Even If It’s At Me

During the 2011-2012 school year, I taught a course on scientific writing.  Most of the students were taking the course to fulfill a requirement; an upper-division major-specific writing course is necessary to graduation, and while some of the students were freshmen getting the course out of the way and others seniors only recently made aware of the requirement, almost all agreed that the point of the course was to check a box on their degree audit.  Those who were already working in labs suspected they might get some career-specific use out of the course also, but that was about the extent of their ambition.

We opened the course with my normal “sales” techniques–assigning readings that expressed the cognitive difficulty of writing to let them know that it’s not their fault that writing is hard for them, that it’s that way for everyone, telling stories about my own work with scientists and faculty members to show that writing would be central to their careers, and so on–but as at the beginning of every semester, the rapport was slow in coming.  I could tell that they were bright, interested students, and I even knew that some of them were doing professional-level work in biology, engineering, and computer science labs, but still the room was mostly silent when I asked a question or tried to get the discussion going.

Every teacher, every manager, anyone whose job involves cohering a group of strangers or polite acquaintances into an energetic unit capable of self-management, new ideas, and useful team work knows that there is a moment when something clicks, when the atmosphere in the room changes.  The feeling is one of relief–the tension is broken, suddenly we are all in this together, not separate individuals watching and sussing out the situation, keen to avoid embarrassment above all else.

In the scientific writing course that semester, the “click” happened when a student in the back row, in the few minutes before class when I was preparing for the day’s lesson, spoke up and asked a question about the previous night’s reading.  “The reading said the best way to learn to write in your field is to read a lot and write a lot,” he called out.  “But how do you actually get yourself to do it?”  I thought a moment.  “Practice, I guess.  You have to set yourself a schedule at first, make yourself read one article a day, or write a few hundred words no matter how bad they are.  Then, once you start to get better at it, you start to like it.”

He nodded, unconvinced.  A sly look came over his face, a look I’ve seen on many students’ faces, a look you’ve probably seen–the look that precedes a “gotcha” question.  “Do you really do that?” he asked.  “I mean, how many books did you read this week?”  I looked up at him, then around the room.  Most of the students had already arrived, class should have been starting, but for once, every single eye was on me.  They were fascinated.  Does the teacher really do what she tells us to do?  Did he really just ask that?  There was silence; they waited for the answer.

Fortunately, I do actually do the things I tell my students to do (this is the number one take-away today!), and so I was able to say, “I don’t know, maybe 4 or 5?”

There was an outrush of breath from the entire class, then a disbelieving laugh.  Another student called out, “Five?  Seriously?”  I nodded.  “And that’s not even articles,” I said.  The ice was broken.  They started challenging me on all sorts of things: what did my husband do (he’s an adjunct biology professor), what did we do for fun, if anything?  The original questioner, now really revved up, yelled out, “I can imagine you guys in bed, like, reading six books at once.  I mean, do you really like it?  Who really does that?”  Another student answered, “A professor!”  I grinned and shrugged.  “I would have gone with ‘nerd,’ but okay.”  They laughed.  They loved it.  They loved it in part because they’d “wasted” five minutes of class time, in part because their professor was exposing herself as a real person, and in part because it meant I was one of them.  They were nerds, too. After all, they were engineering and computer science and biology and geology majors at a research university.   And now they felt safe with me.  I wasn’t going to mock their nerdiness or invite other students to critique them for it.  Very suddenly, we were in this thing together.

The Amygdala

The amygdala is an almond-shaped brain structure that monitors all incoming sensory information.  It’s the seat of the fight-or-flight response, and nothing gets to the frontal cortex, where all the higher-level thinking gets done, without going through the amygdala first.  What that means is that much of our imagined rationality is nothing more than an after-the-fact reaction to or justification of an immediate, preconscious emotional reaction to a situation.  And here’s the catch for teachers and managers: we literally can’t learn when our fear centers are lit up.  If the amygdala is telling us that this is a fearful situation–that we’re not with people who understand us, that there’s a possibility of embarrassing ourselves, that we might be hurt–information isn’t processed as well in the learning and higher thinking centers.  In fact, if we’re scared or emotional enough, the new information isn’t even getting to those centers.  Learning is not happening, not even possible.

Throughout the semester, after that initial air-clearing moment, I occasionally allowed the conversation to be side-tracked for a few moments, letting students ask questions and share things they found interesting.  When I put them in groups to work together, I let them chat for a few minutes before getting down to work.  I showed them my own writing and editing, the pages of unusable draft work totally crossed out in a paper, the sweat and tears that even professional writers must shed.  In response, their amygdalae calmed down.  Their fear responses laid low.  They were comfortable and safe.  Now they could learn.

Whether you are a teacher or a manager or any other job title, if you have to get people to learn, understand, and accept new things–whether it’s information or processes or people–you need to manage the fear centers first and foremost.  And if nothing else, remember these keys: be honest, be willing to make yourself the first “target” (to show that the situation is good-natured), and always be letting them know that the environment is a safe one.  And most important, follow up on that: respond to questions, make sure others are keeping the situation good-tempered, and always explain evaluations of the work as evaluations of the work, not the person.

Calm the amygdala, and learning is possible.  Make the situation competitive, unfriendly, or too impersonal, and the amygdala will kick in, leading to either fighting or silence but never to learning.

[For more on the amygdala in learning, there are a lot of interesting books out there–see my “books” section for a couple of them–but for short introductions try this blog or this article.]

  1. innovationrogue permalink

    As I’ve thought about student risk-taking in the classroom, I hadn’t yet considered the role of fear and the amygdala. Thanks for opening my horizons about it! I’ll be checking back, as we seem to be writing about somewhat similar things ^_^.

    • Hi. Thanks for stopping by. I love your blog; we definitely seem to be thinking along the same lines. Reading “The Art of Changing the Brain” (there’s a link to it on my “books” page) really got me thinking about the role of brain structures in learning; there’s a lot of interesting work in that area. Glad you liked it!

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