Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Aesthetic synchrony

Probably most of you have had the fortunate experience of being in a situation where you were completely engaged in what you were doing.  This can be especially powerful when you are being given the chance to experience something novel -- listening to a lecture by a truly masterful speaker, attending a performance of music or theater, visiting a place of great natural beauty -- when you are having what writer Sir Ken Robinson (speaking of masterful lecturers) calls in his talk "Changing Education Paradigms" "an aesthetic experience, when your senses are operating at their peak, when you're present in the current moment, when you're resonating with the excitement of this thing you're experiencing, when you are fully alive."

When this happens, we often say we are "on the same wavelength" with others who are sharing the experience with us.   And now, a team led by Suzanne Dikker of New York University has shown that this idiom might literally be true.

Dikker's team had thirteen test subjects -- twelve high school students and their teacher -- wear portable electroencephalogram headsets for an entire semester of biology classes.  Naturally, some of the topics and activities were more engaging than others, and the researchers had students self-report daily on such factors as how focused they were, how much they enjoyed their teacher's presentation, how much they enjoyed the students they interacted with, and their satisfaction levels about the activities they were asked to take part in.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Dikker et al. write:
The human brain has evolved for group living.  Yet we know so little about how it supports dynamic group interactions that the study of real-world social exchanges has been dubbed the "dark matter of social neuroscience."  Recently, various studies have begun to approach this question by comparing brain responses of multiple individuals during a variety of (semi-naturalistic) tasks. These experiments reveal how stimulus properties, individual differences, and contextual factors may underpin similarities and differences in neural activity across people...  Here we extend such experimentation drastically, beyond dyads and beyond laboratory walls, to identify neural markers of group engagement during dynamic real-world group interactions.  We used portable electroencephalogram (EEG) to simultaneously record brain activity from a class of 12 high school students over the course of a semester (11 classes) during regular classroom activities.  A novel analysis technique to assess group-based neural coherence demonstrates that the extent to which brain activity is synchronized across students predicts both student class engagement and social dynamics.  This suggests that brain-to-brain synchrony is a possible neural marker for dynamic social interactions, likely driven by shared attention mechanisms.  This study validates a promising new method to investigate the neuroscience of group interactions in ecologically natural settings.
Put simply, what the researchers found is that when the students reported feeling the most engaged, their brain activity actually synced with that of their classmates.  It squares with our subjective experience, doesn't it?  I know when I'm bored, irritated, or angered by something I'm being required to participate in, I tend to unhook my awareness from where I am -- including being less aware of those around me who are suffering through the same thing.

It's no wonder we call this kind of response "disengaging," is it?

So apparently misery doesn't love company; what loves company is engagement, appreciation, and a sense of belonging.  "The central hub seems to be attention," Dikker says.  "But whatever determines how attentive you are can stem from various sources from personality to state of mind.  So the picture that seems to emerge is that it's not just that we pay attention to the world around us; it's also what our social personalities are, and who we're with."

All the more reason we teachers should focus as much on getting our students hooked on learning as we do on the actual content of the course.  My experience is that if you can get students to "buy in" -- if (in my case) they come away thinking biology is cool, fun, and interesting -- it doesn't matter so much if they can't remember what ribosomes do.  They can fit the facts in later, these days with a thirty-second lookup on Wikipedia.

What can't be looked up is being engaged to the point that you care what ribosomes do.

Unfortunately, in the educational world we've tended to go the other direction.  The flavor of the month is micromanagement from the top down, a set syllabus full of factlets that each student must know, an end product that can fit on a bubble sheet, "quantifiable outcomes" that generate data that the b-b stackers in the Department of Education can use to see if our teachers are teaching and our students learning.  A pity that, as usual, the people who run the business of educating children are ignoring what the research says -- that the most fundamental piece of the puzzle is student engagement.

If you have that, everything else will follow.

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