An interesting piece in Nautilus makes the claim that cognition and emotions are not distinct functions of our brains (and challenges the concept of a “triune” brain), nor does associating physical sensations or signals confer a deeper read on emotions. Instead, understanding the emotions of others and ourselves stems from learning “emotion words” and making predictions based on the context of a situation and our past experiences.
The idea that you can increase your emotional intelligence by broadening your emotion vocabulary is solid neuroscience. Your brain is not static; it rewires itself with experience. When you force yourself to learn new words—emotion-related or otherwise—you sculpt your brain’s microwiring, giving it the means to construct those emotional experiences, as well as your perceptions of others’ emotions, more effortlessly in the future. In short, every emotion word you learn is a new tool for future emotional intelligence.
People who can construct finely grained emotional experiences have advantages beyond the expected social ones. Children who broaden their knowledge of emotion words improve their academic performance as well as their social behavior, according to studies by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
This is an interesting idea. It certainly lends itself to the idea that reading a wide range of literature can do much to build our students’ vocabulary of emotional words, and thus, of an understanding of the perspectives and feelings of others.
Though if this is true, then why is it that there are those who are widely read and yet are “bookish” and awkward in social situations? Perhaps it is because they are inundated with a much richer and denser swarm of emotional signals than the common nincompoop? Or perhaps it is that there needs to be some balance of immersion in translating the vocabulary and experiences one learns from books into real social situations in order to gain fluency with navigating that greater emotional granularity.
There is now compelling evidence that motor imagery promotes motor learning. . . . It turns out that 20 minutes is the optimal amount of time for a mental practice session, according to a meta-analysis of many physical activities.
Honnold keeps a detailed climbing journal, in which he revisits his climbs and makes note of what he can do better. For his most challenging solos, he also puts a lot of time into preparation: rehearsing the moves and, later, picturing each movement in perfect execution. To get ready for one 1,200-foot-high ascent at the cutting edge of free soloing, he even visualized everything that could possibly go wrong—including “losing it,” falling off, and bleeding out on the rock below—to come to terms with those possibilities before he left the ground.
. . . “It’s better over time if you can put yourself in a situation where you experience some fear, but you overcome it, and you do it again and again and again,” Monfils says. “It’s hard, and it’s a big investment, but it becomes easier.”
Much of deliberate practice involves developing ever more efficient mental representations that you can use in whatever activity you are practicing.
. . . What sets expert performers apart from everyone else is the quality and quantity of their mental representations. Through years of practice, they develop highly complex and sophisticated representations of the various situations they are likely to encounter in their fields.
As these various quotes demonstrate, mental practice can be just as critical to performance as physical practice. This type of practice is therefore important to consider in terms of classroom teaching and learning.
This past winter, I was starting to feel set in my ways, so I decided to begin learning a new instrument and began taking tabla lessons. Tabla, in case you are unfamiliar with it, is a drum used in classical Indian music.
It has a long tradition and is accompanied with a syllabic language (“bols”) that signify each type of sound. My teacher constantly stresses the importance in rehearsing compositions mentally as a part of daily practice. His advice makes a lot of sense in light of the research.
One of the best classroom teachers I know prepares by mentally and verbally rehearsing the day’s lesson in the morning.
How can we assist our students in developing the skills necessary to engage in this kind of practice? While it’s pretty clear how this type of practice can accompany a performance, such as sports, dance, music, or theater, I wonder how mental rehearsal could accompany practice in specific academic domains, such as writing, math, or science? How could mental rehearsal be beneficial in related service areas for students with Individualized Education Programs, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and counseling?
Relevance to Schools & Ecosystems: an exploration of socio-ecological constructs, the impact of context on perception, and the mitigating power of knowledge, humility, and self-awareness
In this article, author Richard Nisbett explores the fallibility of our puny human minds. He outlines the power and import of schemas, alongside the dangers and pitfalls in an over-reliance on often faulty stereotypes and heuristics.
The Power of Schemas
Schemas “refers to cognitive frameworks, templates, or rule systems that we apply to the world to make sense of it.” They “affect our behavior as well as our judgments.”
Schemas organize and simplify our understanding of the world around us, providing us with models and maps we can be guided unconsciously by. As further explained on a website, Changing Minds, “Schemas help us fill in the gaps. When we classify something we have observed, the schema will tell us much about its meaning and how it will behave, hence enabling threat assessment and other forecasting.”
The Allure of Stereotypes
While schemas are necessary for us to operate and interact successfully in a complex world without being overwhelmed at every moment, there are inherent dangers in the use and application of schemas, such as in the form of stereotypes.
According to Nisbett, there are “two problems with stereotypes: They can be mistaken in some or all respects, and they can exert undue influence on our judgments about people.”
And as most educators know so well, stereotypes can exert a tremendous psychological burden on children. The stereotype effect is well-documented by research in its impact on African American children and females in STEM subjects, for example, and I have witnessed the impact of labels such as “special education” or the impact of placement such as “12:1” on student behavior and mindset.
Schemas and stereotypes are easily triggered without our conscious awareness. “A serious problem with our reliance on schemas and stereotypes is that they can get triggered by incidental facts that are irrelevant or misleading. The stimulus radiates from the initially activated concept to the concepts that are linked to it in memory.”
The Dangers of Context, Environment, and Incidental Stimuli
“Incidental stimuli that drift into the cognitive stream can affect what we think and what we do, including even stimuli that are completely unrelated to the cognitive task at hand. Words, sights, sounds, feelings, and even smells can influence our understanding of objects and direct our behavior toward them. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending.”
This influence of context and environment has been a recurrent and major theme on this blog for this reason. We significantly underestimate the impact of seemingly irrelevant factors such as where a school is located, the acoustic environment created by the floor tiling, the structure of its hallways, or the color of paint on its walls, despite a growth in research demonstrating the tremendous power such factors can wield over performance and behavior. We overestimate, instead, the influence of abstract political decisions rendered at the state-level or the very visible and direct influence of what teacher happens to be placed in front of students.
But as Nisbett points out, “(1) The effect of incidental stimuli can be huge, and (2) you want to know as much as you possibly can about what kinds of stimuli produce what kinds of effects.” We should be doing everything we can to determine what kinds of school designs produce the outcomes we seek.
The Fault Often Lies in Our Heuristics
Similar to the problem with knee-jerk stereotypes, “we often arrive at judgments or solve problems by use of heuristics—rules of thumb that suggest a solution to a problem, and can introduce errors in judgment.”
One of the biggest errors in heuristics is what Nisbett terms “the representativeness heuristic”: “This rule of thumb leans heavily on judgments of similarity. Events are judged as more likely if they’re similar to the prototype of the event than if they’re less similar.”
I also happen to be reading Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness at the moment, and one of his basic premises, as indicated by the title, is that most people—including supposed experts in their field—are taken in by the mere appearance of a short-term pattern in what is really chaotic noise on a cosmic scale.
As Nisbett states in his article,”Simply put, we see patterns in the world where there are none because we don’t understand just how un-random-looking random sequences can be.”
Nisbett suggests that the most reliable heuristic you can wield is the the following: “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” Teachers and principals, take note.
6 Ways to Mitigate the Limitations of Our Puny Minds
So, what can we do? We’re fallible human beings, subconsciously influenced by cosmic signals from in extremis stars. Even when we think we’re rational, intellectually driven experts, we’re being steered by the room we’re sitting in, the clothes we’re wearing, the framing engendered by our immediate and historic situations.
One thing in Nisbett’s testimony that stood out to me on this: “Whenever the direct evidence about a person or object is ambiguous, background knowledge in the form of a schema or stereotype can increase accuracy of judgments to the extent that the stereotype has some genuine basis in reality.”
1) BUILD WORLD KNOWLEDGE: In other words, accurate and broad world knowledge and understanding can better inform our mental models and schemas. We’ve discussed this here on this blog before, in terms of a need to better equip “children with the knowledge and understanding of the world necessary to buffer them from forces that seek to exploit their ignorance.” By building a broader understanding and knowledge of the world, we can better understand and dialogue with different people, rather than falling back on malformed prejudice.
2) DESIGN YOUR ENVIRONMENT FOR SUCCESS: Another lesson from Nisbett’s account, in regards to the power of environment and incidental stimuli, “is that you want to rig environments so that they include stimuli that will make you or your product or your policy goals attractive.” In considering schools, we want to “rig” and design them so that learning and positive life outcomes are attractive. Schools shouldn’t be places that children nor adults fear to step into—they should be places that inspire eagerness and joy.
3) DEVELOP JUDGMENTS OVER TIME BY EXPERIENCING DIVERSITY: “A less obvious implication of our susceptibility to “incidental” stimuli is the importance of encountering objects—and especially people—in a number of different settings if a judgment about them is to be of any consequence.” This implication is also interesting to consider in relation to a school. The segregation of our schools, both racially and socioeconomically, has further contributed to the increasingly polarized mental and geographical realms that our society lives segregated within. How can we create an accurate judgement of a wealthy or poor person if our only exposure has been through what we see on the news? By regulating and promoting diversity within our schools, we can cultivate opportunities for children to interact with and relate to many different perspectives. We need to build in time to engage with a diverse range of people and ideas.
4) BE HUMBLE: Nisbett’s other suggestions relate to having humility, and thus, open-mindedness. How can we ever be certain about our judgments in a world ruled by uncertainty? We should operate with the “recognition that the views of other people that differ from our own may have more validity than our intuitions tell us they do.”
5) CULTIVATE SELF-AWARENESS OF YOUR OWN BIASES: Furthermore, Nisbett advises that we develop our self-awareness, and know our own biases and schemas. “We can try to recognize our own stereotype-driven judgments as well as recognize those of others.”
6) RESIST SNAP JUDGMENTS BASED ON SUPERFICIAL FACTORS: Finally, Nisbett also suggests that we “Remember that the similarity of objects and events to their prototypes can be a misleading basis for judgments. Remember that causes need not resemble effects in any way. And remember that assessments of the likelihood or frequency of events can be influenced simply by the readiness with which they come to mind.”
The structure of redundancy can be viewed in the “RNA sequence space”:
First, there are many, many possible sequences that will all serve the same function. If evolution is “searching” for that function by natural selection, it has an awful lot of viable solutions to choose from. Second, the space, while unthinkably vast and multi-dimensional, is navigable: You can change the genotype neutrally, without losing the all-important phenotype. So this is why the RNAs are evolvable at all: not because evolution has the time to sift through the impossibly large number of variations to find the ones that work, but because there are so many that do work, and they’re connected to one another.
This redundant structure can also be viewed, according to the article, in proteins and gene circuits. In fact, evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner of the University of Zurich and “his coworkers have discovered that this “evolvable” (they call it a robust) structure is a common feature of biological complexity.”
This helps to explain a puzzling aspect of gene circuits: their robustness. . . . You can obliterate many of their individual genes to no obvious effect. But this is no surprise if there are plenty of similar gene circuits that do much the same job as the original one. Looked at this way, robustness is complementary to innovation: Any network that can evolve new features and forms among a vast array of alternatives must necessarily be robust against small changes, because it almost certainly has an alternative on hand that performs equally well. This realization offers an antidote to an excessively deterministic view of genes: Exactly which genes you have may not matter so much (within reason), because the job they do is more a property of the network in which they are embedded.
As the article notes, this is not solely a feature of biological systems:
Karthik Raman, a former postdoc in Wagner’s lab, now at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, has studied much the same issues of functional equivalence of different circuits not for genes but for electronic components that carry out binary logic functions. By randomly rewiring circuits of 16 components and figuring out which of them will perform particular logic operations, Raman found that they too have this evolvable topology.8But crucially, this property appeared only if the circuits were complex enough—if they had too few components, small changes destroyed their function.“The more complex they are, the more rewiring they tolerate,” says Wagner. Not only does this open up possibilities for electronic circuit design using Darwinian principles, but it suggests that evolvability, and the corollary of creativity or innovability, is a fundamental feature of complex networks like those found in biology. [bold added]
This is an interesting point. If a system is not deeply interconnected, then it is more fragile and susceptible to change. This is a feature, it turns out, of our brains.
Learning—and Playing Music—Makes Our Brains More Resilient
Interestingly enough, in the same issue of Nautilus as the one explored above, there’s an article by Brian Gallagher entitled “Brain Damage Saved His Music,” which also extends this idea. The article refers to jazz guitarist Pat Martino, who had a large chunk of his left temporal lobe removed. To the surprise of neuroscientists and physicians, Pat demonstrated a remarkable recovery when he picked up his guitar again—which somehow restored some of his memory, as well as his gift for virtuoso jazz guitar playing.
Diana Omigie, lead author of the study, and a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute, explained that larger gray matter volumes in motor and auditory regions in musicians than in non-musicians would create a “brain reserve,” which “in turn might be enough to fuel relearning or recovery of a musical function.” . . .
Omigie echoes the point that Martino’s brain, long before it hemorrhaged or Martino even knew about his tangled veins, reorganized itself in a way that might shield it from damage. “In our review,” Omigie said, “we observed that musicians who underwent surgery for early lesion, cerebral malformations, or slow growing tumors, showed a larger likelihood of recovering cognitive function than those who, for instance, had a stroke and therefore suddenly lost a large amount of healthy normally functioning tissue. The reason is that in the case of slow-forming lesions, some reorganization might have occurred such that over time, the musical function was able to transfer to other parts of the brain and leave the damaged portions less necessary.” [bold added]
We can see here the ecological principles of interconnectedness and redundancy.
Learning, especially the sort of learning that occurs when pushing the boundaries of improvisation and creativity such when playing jazz music, builds redundant connections in the brain that creates resiliency and robustness when faced with volatility.
Back to Public Education
So what might be some possible lessons for schools and school systems?
We’ve investigated the concepts of randomness, disorder, and chaos and how they might relate to complex and dynamic systems here before. The obvious connection to a school, in case you’ve never worked in one, is that you can never quite anticipate what’s going to happen on any given day. Schools are complex systems rife with social and emotional and cultural and political and psychological interdependencies and turbulence. Yet it is this very complexity that makes working within them so very compelling.
An interesting article on Nautilus by Kelly Clancy, “Your Brain Is On the Brink of Chaos,” the concept of chaos is examined in its relation to the brain. Clark lays out some principles worth exploring further. For example, she lays out the following definition of chaos:
Chaos is not the same as disorder. While disordered systems cannot be predicted, chaos is actually deterministic: The present state of the system determines its future. Yet even so, its behavior is only predictable on short time scales: Tiny differences in inputs result in vastly different outcomes. Chaotic systems can also exhibit stable patterns called “attractors” that emerge to the patient observer. Over time, chaotic trajectories will gravitate toward them. Because chaos can be controlled, it strikes a fine balance between reliability and exploration. Yet because it’s unpredictable, it’s a strong candidate for the dynamical substrate of free will [bold added].
An important feature of chaotic systems is that, although they become unpredictable when you try to determine the future from a particular uncertain starting value, there may be a particular stable statistical spread of outcomes after a long time, regardless of how you started out. The most important thing to appreciate about these stable statistical distributions of events is that they often have very stable and predictable average behaviors. . .[bold added].
So through careful observation and analysis, chaotic systems can be predictable, even if they are quite unpredictable on an immediate basis. I thought Clancy’s explication of chaos as actually deterministic was also enlightening. This idea that it’s present state determines its future also lines up with what we’ve examined in terms of the possibility of an underlying mathematical simplicity of complex systems.
In that post, “A Self-Organizing Criticality, Somewhere Between Boredom and Chaos,” we also examined Per Bak’s concept of a “self-organized criticality,” in which complex systems spontaneously transition between states of order and disorder, which Clancy echoes in the following quote about the brain:
The critical state can be quite useful for the brain, allowing it to exploit both order and disorder in its computations—employing a redundant network with rich, rapid chaotic dynamics, and an orderly readout function to stably map the network state to outputs. The critical state would be maintained not by temperature, but the balance of neural excitation and inhibition. If the balance is tipped in favor of more inhibition, the brain is “frozen” and nothing happens. If there is too much excitation, it will descend into chaos. The critical point is analogous to an attractor.
This notion that a complex system hovers somewhere in the balance between chaos and order is a fascinating one, especially when you connect it to the idea of a school. It reminds me of a joyous classroom of students engaged in meaningful and challenging work. There’s a warm buzz of controlled but spontaneous activity and creativity. Students can very easily go off the rails, and it’s the teacher’s job to hold them in that “hinterland between the inflexibilities of determinism and the vagaries of chaos,” as Barrow eloquently phrased it.
Order and disorder enjoy a symbiotic relationship, and a neuron’s firing may wander chaotically until a memory or perception propels it into an attractor. Sensory input would then serve to “stabilize” chaos. Indeed, the presentation of a stimulus reduces variability in neuronal firing across a surprising number of different species and systems, as if a high-dimensional chaotic trajectory fell into an attractor. By “taming” chaos, attractors may represent a strategy for maintaining reliability in a sensitive system. Recent theoretical and experimental studies of large networks of independent oscillators have also shown that order and chaos can co-exist in surprising harmony, in so-called chimera states.
This idea of attractors is also fascinating to me. As I read this passage on the subway on the way to class this morning on my little smartphone screen, I thought back to the idea of perceptual illusions and their relation to powerlessness. I also thought about the effect of isolation on the brain. And I wondered if this concept of “sensory input” stabilizing chaos that Clancy just outlined can be taken almost literally, as in how the loving touch of a mother has been shown to be important in brain development. And how beyond touch, the tone and manner in how adults and students speak to one another, the colors displayed on the wall, and all the other contextual factors of the environment can be so fundamental to “taming” the chaos that lies both in extreme isolation (ever been alone in the wilderness? Your mind goes nuts) or in overcrowded, confined spaces (the ghetto). Schools can provide that stabilizing influence.
Again, we find echoes of this idea of harmony and symbiosis in Barrow:
. . . Chaos and order have been found to coexist in a curious symbiosis. . . . At a microscopic level, the fall of sand is chaotic, yet the result in the presence of a force like gravity is large-scale organisation. . . Order develops on a large scale through the combination of many independent chaotic small-scale events that hover on the brink of instability. Complex adaptive systems thrive in the hinterland between the inflexibilities of determinism and the vagaries of chaos. There, they get the best of both worlds: out of chaos springs a wealth of alternatives for natural selection to sift; while the rudder of determinism sets a clear average course towards islands of stability.” (Bold added)
Now that I’ve geeked out on chaos, back to work . . .