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What Are We Really Doing When We Think?

By Bill Madigan, AVID Staff Developer

“In my experience, my education as a psychologist and neuroscientist was pretty much a waste.  Everything I was taught in the seventies has now been proven wrong: the ‘deficit’ model of psychology that meant all we did as therapists is find out what was wrong with you; There was no knowledge of neurogenesis or brain plasticity. We were taught you had a finite number of cells and that no new cells were ever generated throughout the rest of your life. And, finally, we knew nothing of ‘epigenetics,’ or that brain genes were affected by the environment in which the brain was growing – that gene expression was affected by how you are treated in the environment you grow up in. We were in a dark age of understanding.”

– Louis Cozolino, Learning and the Brain Conference, San Francisco, 2013

Please watch this brief video of a student working on a difficult algebra problem before you read this blog.

What did you notice most about the young student working on her math problem? Many notice the facial expressions that betray feelings she is having while troubling over her math. Of the few times I have shown this to a group of educators, there is an audible gasp or sigh when she takes a breath near the end of the video. This video of one of my students, Kylee, shows so clearly what affective neuroscience has known for several years: Feelings and sensations are integral elements of effective cognition. Feelings and thinking go together.

Not Spock-Like?
In fact, cognition, critical thinking, and judgment making are all done by multiple parts of the brain—parts that many would not expect to work together. Our paradigm that “feelings” are separate from “thoughts” is the problem. We can only engage in effective critical thinking when areas of the brain primarily assigned to feeling systems are “co-opted” by the advanced neo-cortex—an area guided by a feedback loop of sensations and thoughts.

What many of us have felt as “gut feelings” are in fact those sensations that actually guide and sometimes direct our thoughts. In Kylee’s video, her expressions signal these sensations that she is feeling while doing the math problem. So the key radical idea is that thinking, once regarded as a “Spock-like” cool and emotionless process is actually a complex weaving of feelings and thoughts. Critical thinking is a unitary process that at once accesses experiences and routines as well as sensation feedback that all fold in and around one another to create solutions, try out ideas, and come to conclusions.

Understanding feelings and the brain…
Dr. Richard Davidson, out of the University of Wisconsin, is a pioneer researcher in the relatively new field of Affective Neuroscience (the study of feelings and the brain) and has discovered six Emotional Styles, composed of Resilience, Outlook, Social Intuition, Self-Awareness, Sensitivity to Context, and Attention.  Although nearly all of these styles require a feeling/sensing component, the third style, Self-Awareness, especially requires a conscious awareness of our feeling states. What’s more, Dr. Davidson is insistent that we can all increase our self-awareness of our feelings and sensations through various mindful practices. For more on these Emotional Styles see this short video: Richard Davidson and The Emotional Life of Your Brain.

The part of the brain that Kylee’s facial expressions betray is the insula located just behind the frontal lobe.  Dr. Antonio Demasio states that the “insula connects to other cortical maps related to memory, reasoning and language.” It is essential to the effective function of all these highly complex cognitive systems.

Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, colleague of Demasio, has studied people with damage to their insula and has found that they tend to make poor decisions and seem unable to guide their decisions effectively. They have no “gut feeling” feedback.

So what? What does this mean to leading and teaching?
The key take-away is about becoming more conscious of our feeling states, as Dr. Davidson suggests. Many of us may not be aware of the subtle sensations that are always guiding our thoughts. To strengthen our overall cognition, we need to become more aware of these sensations and feelings, and the emerging science insists this is not a trivial concern. Not only do students need this self-awareness for solving linear algebraic equations, but teachers also need this sensate feedback during the organic search for how to motivate, inspire, and lead their students.

Dr. Immordino-Yang suggested at a recent talk at UCSD that we “need to give permission to ourselves and especially our students to feel their feelings while they think, play, and create.”  Teaching mindful practices or simply requesting that your students pay attention to their sensations and feelings can improve their academic performance. Like Kylee, when she’s struggling to solve an algebra problem, our students will have one more tool to help guide them to success.

Bill Madigan has been an educator for more than 25 years.  He has taught emotionally disturbed and at-risk students, as well as Advanced Placement® learners. He has also been an AVID coordinator and Elective teacher for almost 20 years. Bill has also been a Staff Developer both privately and with AVID, teaching brain-based learning, as well as English language learner best practices.

For more on AVID, visit http://avid.org/what-is-avid.ashx.


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Reader Comments (4)

Are there tools/lessons / activities you can share that I can use with my middle school students to teach & practice mindfulness?

October 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterStella

Check out what the Oakland schools have been doing for a few years with Mindfulness - esp. with low achieving students. See http://www.mindfulschools.org

October 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBilly Madigan

That sigh and that smile is a great reminder of why we do what we do. I couldn't help but smile myself when Kylee did!

October 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Elia

Here's a cool blog on Mindfulness too!
Why You Should Exercise Mindfulness at School and Home

November 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKayla

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