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Title of course:  Neuroscience and the Classroom: Making Connections

Neuroscience and the Classroom: Making Connections

Unit 2: The Unity of Emotion, Thinking, and Learning

Sections

Section 2:
Just remember that ant

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Q: What is "street smarts"?

Take the lowly ant, a simple, nonconscious organism whose behavior and "thinking" are automatic, innate, reflexive responses to stimuli. Each day, it ventures out, genetically programmed to search for crumbs of food to carry to its nest. As it returns along a sidewalk gripping its scrap, it senses the shadow of a large foot, and immediately it scurries into a crack to avoid being stepped on. Once the danger has passed, it continues on its way back to its nest. Clearly, the "decisions" (in the ant's case nonconscious and automatic) to carry the food, to hide to avoid being crushed, and then to continue in the direction of its nest are primitive instances of cognition. Each decision is composed of complex packages of innate responses that enable the ant to react advantageously to particular kinds of situations (moving toward sustenance, fleeing threats). What is essential to understand is that these primitive examples of cognition, the ant's "decisions" and behavior, act together in the service of an emotional goal: to maintain and promote stability and fitness (survival).

Humans, of course, are more complex. In threatening situations like the one in which Dan found himself on that dark city street, we can either decide to flee it to save ourselves or to confront it to save ourselves. However, Dan's decision to move forward was not the result of some sort of rational deliberation during which he consciously weighed his options. He didn't have time.

Sitting in his car immediately after the confrontation and thinking about it later, he realized that emotion had guided his responses, and subsequent reflection has allowed him to make some sense of the emotional decisions he had made that resulted in his survival. His body had become more awake and alert; and though he was really scared, he walked with a confidence that struck him in retrospect as odd but essential. He couldn't appear frightened. That was the reason he didn't take the path to the right toward that other building. It would have signaled that he was running and invited them to chase him.

When they asked for a quarter, he was able to control his voice so that it seemed casual and tired; he knew that both fear and any (top)

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disrespect would be disastrous, though he made these decisions so quickly that it's difficult now to call them decisions.

Also informing Dan's behavior was the knowledge that, a few months prior to this moment, a classmate had been killed in a subway station when he refused a request for a cigarette. He had been shot, and subsequent investigations suggested that he had been the victim of a game in which the assailant asked for a cigarette and if the victim gave him one, the victim lived; if he didn't, he died. Dan felt that story flicker through his consciousness as soon as he was asked for a quarter.

The Amygdala
The Amygdala
"The amygdala is basically your brain's burglar alarm. It keeps you alive and lets you know whether you need to fight..."   – Dr. Abigail Baird
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amygdala

The Amygdala

"The amygdala is basically your brain's burglar alarm. It keeps you alive and lets you know whether you need to fight or flee." – Dr. Abigail Baird

Dr. Abigail Baird is an assistant professor of psychology at Vassar College. Her research interests include the integration of emotion and cognition across development, with a particular focus on neural development during adolescence.

So he was very lucky to have had a quarter (he doesn't smoke), but his behavior and his thoughts during those few seconds were the result of his emotional goal: to survive. Emotion is a form of decision-making. While the decisions of ants are little more than genetic responses to triggers in the environment (finding crumbs of food, avoiding being squashed), people learn from experiences and develop a repertoire of actions that allow them to respond appropriately to different situations. As our world becomes more complex, particularly our social world, so do the situations with which we must deal. If we have good mentors, whether they are parents, older peers or caring teachers, our responses become increasingly sophisticated and nuanced, and we develop the "street smarts" we need to function effectively.

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