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The Neuroscience of Learning and Development


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Research: Brief Summary of Key Neuroscience Findings Drawn From Chapters in This Book

As was discussed in the introduction, it is now an accepted fact that our brain is designed for boundary spanning, and is highly interconnective (Kaku, 2014). Our brain—which extends beyond the neural networks housed in our cranium to include all of our senses (explained in greater detail in Chapters 2 and 3)—is a dynamic learning machine (Alvarez & Emory, 2006; Chan, Shum, Toulopoulou, & Chen, 2008; Chiesa, Calati & Serretti, 2011; Goldin, & Gross, 2010; Hölzel et al., 2011a; Kozasa et al., 2011; Lutz, Slagter, Dunne, & Davidson, 2008; Todd, Cunningham, Anderson, & Thompson, 2012). However, if we don’t use our brain in ways that align with its dynamic structure and functions, it is unlikely we will see evidence of that use in any decision we make and thus in any learning and development data we collect.

We understand that what we pay attention to literally changes the structure and function of our brain (Alvarez & Emory, 2006; Chan et al., 2008; Chiesa et al., 2011; Goldin & Gross, 2010; Hölzel et al., 2011a; Kozasa et al., 2012; Lutz et al., 2008; Todd et al., 2012). For example, if I stay focused on only the problems, I will see only the problems and not be able to see the possibility of solutions a student may be positing. If I stay focused on the possibilities, I will only see the possibilities and may not address the very real challenges being experienced by my students or colleagues.

Another way to illustrate this is with an example that may be familiar to all of us. If our colleagues or supervisors are only focused on one aspect of the problem solving (e.g., getting what they need or think they need for their functional unit or department, then their ability to see or think beyond their unit or department will not be evident. Such problem-solving practices foster conversations around “haves” and “have-nots,” or “winners” and “losers” and promotes competition for “declining resources,” as opposed to creatively and compassionately dialoging solutions that are lasting and positively impactful for many. If we are clear and intentional about what we are creating within our organization, our decision-making will follow in alignment with that clarity (Senge, Cambron-McCabe, Lucas, Smith, & Dutton, 2012). We won’t be focusing on fighting for scarce resources, because we will be clear on what we are intending to create and realize that the process of its creation and the accompanying resources to support the creation will be ever changing. This realization is not new, yet many of us don’t consistently practice this; perhaps because we were unaware of how to practice it or perhaps because we underestimated the neurology involved in intentionally changing our behavior.

And what about our students? If we ask them to focus on their learning and development (assuming they can even manage their attention on demand) one class at a time or one cocurricular program intervention at a time but we fail to create opportunities for them to make cross-course connections to refl ect on how they are developing their identity from one cocurricular program to how they are managing stress in another cocurricular program, we are reinforcing students not making neural connections that are imperative to their ability to succeed. Where do we facilitate the connection to what they are learning and how they are developing with their refl ection about what gives them meaning and purpose so they can gain clarity on what they want to create with their life? Where do we do that for ourselves? Findings indicate that it is not happening for the majority of students (OECD, 2013). Thus, we should not be surprised to see that the learning and development we intentionally delivered in a segmented manner is not made evident in data we have collected in a segmented manner. This leads to the criticism of whether the American higher education degree has any value.

As human beings, we can only focus on one thing at a time (Orr & Weissman, 2009; Rubenstein et al., 2001; Weissman, Gopalakrishnan, Hazlett, & Woldorff, 2005; Weissman, Perkins, & Woldorff, 2008). The ability to span our attention successfully rests in our ability to intentionally move our attention from one task to another swiftly and effectively while making connections to the important patterns needed for innovative problem solving or whatever it is we are being asked to do (Carp, Fitzgerald, Taylor, & Weissman, 2012; Weissman & Carp, 2013). However, creative problem solving may be more complex than simply intentionally managing our intention (Kandiko, 2012; Kaufman & Sternberg, 2007; Livingston, 2010; Plucker & Makel, 2010).

Thus, the first apparent step in this entire process appears to be regulating our awareness of where our attention resides (attention regulation or AR). AR refers to processes that modify alerting, orienting, and executive attention and does not involve training in reasoning or linguistic processing. Instead, AR involves training in the ability to focus on a selected object, with awareness, while inhibiting irrelevant distracter stimuli. Because attention is the gateway to all other higher-order cognitive abilities and emotional responses, slight modifications in attentional deployment may have large effects on emotion generation (Posner & Fan, 2004) and also cognitive abilities.

Goldin and Gross (2010) reported that subjects who engaged in breathfocused attention tasks (AR) actually reduced their amygdala activity (equating to reduced reported levels of anxiety) and subjects increased the level of activity in other brain areas localized for attention and other executive functions such as analytical reasoning, prioritizing, and decision making (including the insula, other sensor-motor processing areas, Anterior Cingulate Cortex, and prefrontal cortex). Goldin is not the only one to report such findings; focused breathing’s correlation with abating anxiety and expanding attention or emotions (emotion regulation or ER) has been validated and extended in various studies (Arch & Craske, 2006; 2010; Batten & Hayes, 2005; Hocking & Koenig, 1995; Mankus, Aldao, Kerns, Mayville, & Mennin, 2013; Roemer, Orsillo, & Salters-Pedneault, 2008). We can postulate that such reported changes in improved attention (AR) and ability to regulate decreased stress and anxiety (ER) would likely increase student’ overall well-being and their overall success through awareness of choice (cognitive regulation or CR).

For us to further emphasize the importance of AR, ER, and CR needed in a training model that promotes faculty, administrative, and student success, Goldin’s and other’s research (Anderson, Goldin, Kurita, & Gross, 2008; Goldin & Gross 2010; Goldin, Hakimi, Manber, Canli, & Gross, 2009a; Goldin, Manber-Ball, Werner, Heimberg, & Gross, 2009b; Goldin, Ramel, & Gross 2009c; Goldin et al., 2008; Hutcherson, Goldin, Ramel, McRae, & Gross, 2008) posited that emotions coordinate a human’s experiential, behavioral, and physiological responses to perceived challenges and opportunities. In other words, emotions dictate perception and thus emotions dictate how one responds to events they encounter; emotions can dictate choice. If left untrained, these emotions interfere with our cognitive processing ability (CR) and may lead to students’ inability to persist.

Resilience is defined as the ability to “bounce back” after stressful events and trauma while preserving normal-for-the-individual physical and psychological equilibrium (Bonanno, 2004; Lazarus, 1993; Zautra, Hall, & Murray, 2010). Resilient individuals are able to overcome challenges and misfortune, learn from these challenges, and reach out for new experiences, ultimately allowing them to adapt to change in a healthy way, which in turn enhances well-being (Block & Kremen, 1996; Zautra et al., 2010). No one is immune to life’s traumas and the negative effects of stress; however, the difference between well-being and psychological illness can be determined by the degree of effective coping and adaptation abilities one possesses to build resilience (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004). The brain can be considered the primary organ of resilience because it regulates the biologic feedback systems that respond and adapt to stress (Karatsoreos & McEwen, 2011). The importance of training the brain becomes even more compelling when one considers how the inability to regulate attention, emotion, and cognition can take a student, a faculty member, and an administrator out of their intended life course.

Detrimental effects of repeated chronic stress are seen in areas of behavior such as self-control and self-regulation (e.g., attention, emotion, and cognitive regulation), fl exible thinking, memory, physiologic responses to immune function, infl ammatory processes, heart disease, and autoimmune disease (Cohen, Janicki-Deverts, & Miller, 2007; Hölzel et al., 2010; McEwen, 2009; Shors, 2006). Furthermore, the state of being “stressed out” can result in sleep deprivation (four hours or less per night), which has been associated with obesity, cognitive impairment, and unhealthy lifestyle behaviors (McEwen, 2006). Neuroimaging studies have confirmed stress-induced brain alterations trigger an enlargement of the amygdala (our emotion center), and a reduced size of the hippocampus (memory), as well as a reduced size of the brain’s chief executive officer—the prefrontal cortex (Davidson & McEwen, 2012).

The good news is that the brain is trainable—AR, ER, CR, and selfregulation are all trainable. Hölzel et al.’s (2011a) meta-analysis exemplified the effectiveness that specific training interventions can have on cultivating— AR, body awareness, ER, and CR. Namely, participants in this study were able to improve their own attention, emotion, and cognitive regulation abilities by engaging in the specific training methodologies provided. Similarly, Hölzel et al.’s (2011b) research further confirmed these findings using functional and structural neuroimaging (fMRI and MRI; see Chapter 1 for a detailed description of these measurement tools). These publications were some of the first to provide empirical evidence that specific attention, emotion, and cognitive regulation training methodologies are associated with neuroplasticity changes in the brain. Markedly, the brain regions affected parallel those in learning and development. A few examples include the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, temporoparietal junction (the division between the temporal lobe and parietal lobe), fronto-limbic network, and default mode network (structures within the prefrontal cortex that communicate during resting states). Together with Hölzel, many publications continue to replicate (and extend) these initial findings, substantially validating the power these training methodologies have on inducing structural and functional changes in the brain (Converse, Ahlers, Travers, & Davidson, 2014; Flook, Goldberg, Pinger, & Davidson, 2015).

Research in clinical psychology and neuroscience reinforces the signifcance of extrapolating these findings to guide the design, delivery, and evaluation of higher education. For example, clinical psychology research tells us that negative self-thoughts are inversely related to self-efficacy and positively related to stress (Multon, Brown, & Lent, 1991; Schunk, 1985; Zimmerman, 2000). CR, which is the ability to observe, analyze, focus, and refl ect into thoughts, allows an individual to choose which thoughts he or she refl ects and subsequently acts on. This regulatory strategy has been shown to decrease anxiety (Mahone, Bruch, & Heimberg, 1993) as well enhance overall well-being (Kabat-Zinn, 2013; Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2013) through positive choice making.

Because we now understand that we can train this kind of intentional AR, as well as ER and CR in ourselves and in our students, this book is filled with chapters that detail the intricacies of how we can train such traits. Further, we are confident that when this book goes to press, additional research will continue to emerge to deepen our understanding of the effectiveness of each AR, ER, and CR training practice. For now, suffice it to say that simple, yet not easy, low-cost mind-training methodology that uses focused breathing, focused movement, and other inquiry methods can improve attention (Lutz et al., 2008; Valentine, & Sweet, 1999) and reduce mind wandering (Mrazek, Franklin, Phillips, Baird, & Schooler, 2013). In addition, these training methods are known to improve psychological well-being (Brown & Ryan, 2003) and reduce levels of stress and anxiety (Astin, 1997; Jain et al., 2007; Rosenzweig, Reibel, Greeson, Brainard, & Hojat, 2009; Shapiro, Schwartz, & Bonner, 1998), as well as improve cognitive constructs and physiological states (Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004). Use of these training methods has also been known to improve working memory as well as increase performance on standardized tests (Mrazek et al., 2013). Such practices also increase creativity (Capurso, Fabbro & Crescentini, 2014; Greenberg, Reiner, & Merian, 2012; Langer, 2005; Ostafin & Kassman, 2012; Ren et al., 2011); problem solving (Murray & Byrne, 2005; Ren et al., 2011); logic thinking (Ostafin & Kassman, 2012; Ren et al., 2011); and executive functions (Heeren, Van Broeck & Philippot, 2009; Jha, Krompinger, & Baime, 2007; Moore & Malinowski, 2009; Zeidan, Johnson, Diamond, David, & Goolkasian, 2010).

When we add to this list of desired outcomes that of compassion, we begin to see how we can decrease the negative impact of bias and inhumane treatment (whether overt or covert) that can lead to happier, healthier, and more productive citizens and a workforce (Batson & Ahmad, 2009; Chiao & Mathur, 2010; Cikara & Fiske, 2011; Stephan & Finlay, 1999). We also now know that we can train compassion, which is known to create connection to others, thus decreasing bias and bigotry while enriching interpersonal relationships (Jazaieri et al., 2013; Neff, 2007; Singer et al., 2004; Singer et al., 2006).

We understand that fostering student success requires tending to the whole person (Abes, Jones & McEwen, 2007; Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2010; Goleman, 2001; Kegan, 1982; Kegan, 1994; Kohlberg, 1969; Magolda, 1999; Magolda, 2001; Pizzolato, 2008; Pizzolato & Ozaki, 2007; Taylor, 2008). In the previous chapters in this book, we detailed very specific ways to foster holistic student success. We know that students take their emotional selves with them everywhere they go and they interact with what is presented to them with their emotions, ether aware of them or not. We, as faculty, administrators, and community partners do the same. After all, the business of higher education is a human business. We are an industry that was built to develop human beings—human beings interacting with human beings regardless of how much we use technology to interface or carry out our work. As such, this is a messy business. Our ability to intentionally train our own, let alone our students’ attention, emotion, and cognitive regulation in and out of the classroom may be a primary component for students’ success as well as the industry of higher education’s success.

In this book, we have posited that the holistic learning and development journey is not to be found in the linear course-to-course design, but it is to be found in the process of refl ecting on human engagement in and out of the classroom—as messy as that may be. We have posited that the commodity of higher education is not the course-by-course, credit-hour-accumulated degree, rather the commodity of higher education is the human process of learning and development that can be measured through direct evidence gathered in refl ective learning portfolios. If we believe this and we have plenty of neuroscience evidence (illustrated throughout this book) to affirm this postulation, then this would require us to design integrative inquiry processes (INIQ) that invite us all to combine the processes of (a) integrating the knowledge gained from research, course learning, and book learning with (b) the wisdom gained from intuition, sensing, and the mindful experiencing of emotions with (c) the ability to embrace the unknown, to be curious, and to inquire into that which we cannot yet see. If we integrate this approach with the ability to join multiple sources of information through generative questions and other training methodologies, participants of this integrative inquiry process are more likely to manage stress and creatively problem solve, while also experiencing ambiguity and compassion. This may just all lead to resolving problems we haven’t even identified yet, while promoting peace, equity, access, affordability, resiliency, and wisdom through compassionate, conscious choice making.


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