Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Title of course:  Neuroscience and the Classroom: Making Connections

Neuroscience and the Classroom: Making Connections

Unit 3: Seeing Others from the Self


Section 4:
Empathy, morality, and motivation

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Q: Why don't people do what they know they should do?

This process of simulating the actions of others within ourselves, on the neural machinery that regulates and senses our own internal body states, enables us to do even more than infer the mental states and goals of others. Our mirror systems and our ability to empathize also may be the basis for our most complex moral and ethical decisions. When we see someone in pain, either physical or emotional, we vicariously feel some aspects of that pain, a response that often induces compassion. And when we watch extraordinary feats of skill or virtuous behavior, our ability to simulate the experience internally and to understand and interpret it based on our world knowledge lays the basis for admiration. And both of these emotions, compassion and admiration, can motivate us—to emulate Mother Theresa or help the victims of Hurricane Katrina or develop the skill of LeBron James.

Admiration for Virtue
Admiration for Virtue
The data revealed that even the most complex, abstract emotions—those that require maturity, reflection, and world knowledge to appreciate—do involve our most advanced brain networks. ...  
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Admiration for Virtue

© Mary Helen Immordino-Yang.

Admiration for Virtue

The data revealed that even the most complex, abstract emotions—those that require maturity, reflection, and world knowledge to appreciate—do involve our most advanced brain networks. However, they seem to get their punch—their motivational push—from activating basic biological regulatory structures in the most primitive parts of the brain, those responsible for monitoring functions like heart rate and breathing. In turn, the basic bodily changes induced during even the most complex emotions—e.g., our racing heart or clenched gut—are "felt" by sensory brain networks. When we talk of having a gut feeling that some action is right or wrong, we are not just speaking metaphorically.

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and her colleagues recently conducted an experiment to study the neurobiology of admiration for virtuous behavior and compassion for social or psychological pain (see "The Study," in the next section). Their discoveries may provide deeper insight into the relationship between the mind and the body driving emotion, particularly as these interact to produce intrinsic motivation. The data revealed that even the most complex, abstract emotions—the sorts of emotions, like admiration for virtue, that require maturity, reflection, and world knowledge to appreciate—do involve the highest sorts of brain networks, but they still get their "punch," their motivational push, from activating basic biological control structures in the lowest (most primitive) parts of the brain. Motivation, it appears, comes not simply from understanding the cognitive aspects of a situation, but also from the ensuing recruitment of the same biological drives that literally regulate the body's survival, including breathing, beating the heart, controlling blood pressure, and adjusting hormones.

And so, although research is still in progress, studies on emotion may provide a key to understanding one of the most persistent frustrations teachers confront: the great gap between students' good intentions and their actual behavior. Almost like patients with ventromedial damage (see Unit 2), students often know exactly what to say; they know that the social norms and expectations—they know that success depends on their practicing better study habits, planning their time better, and resisting more attractive temptations. They know that they should be kinder to each other, more respectful of their parents, and more willing to help others. Yet, they walk away from motivational talks with their teachers leaving a trail of promises floating like empty candy wrappers as they hurry back to their friends and parties.

"Why didn't you study last night as you promised? Why didn't you keep your promise to meet Paul at the senior center on Saturday to help? Why didn't you come by for extra tutoring?"

"Oh," they say, "I guess I just didn't feel like it." And that, it seems, may well be exactly the reason, as neuroscience is discovering. People have tended to think of motivation as a conscious, cognitive function under our control. "Decide what you want to do, pull yourself together, and do it"—the old willpower-and-bootstrap theory of success. Neuroscience is revealing that the relationship between the body and the brain likely plays a critical role in motivating our thinking, learning, and behavior, both on conscious and nonconscious levels. (top)

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We have a brain whose original purpose was to ensure our survival. It regulates functions such as our breathing, heart rate, blood flow, and hormone levels. It allows us to feel the state of our body, to feel its harmonious functioning, or to alert us to malfunctions like disease or stubbed toes. It guides us to food and friends or away from predators. The brain links our body and mind and supports complex processes responsible for emotion, thinking, feeling, and behavior, both nonconscious and conscious. As we developed into more complex social beings, this same mind-body system, the same primitive brain parts, enabled us to experience feelings of well-being or threat in the social world—and to feel these with the same intensity and loaded with the same significance as they came to our ancestors in the red-in-tooth-and-claw physical world.

Motivation from the inside and out: What motivates learners to action?
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What does this mean for our social lives, particularly for our moral behavior? Our ability to empathize, to experience emotions based on our inferences about the minds and feelings of others, plays out on this same mind-body system. We discover that even our most exalted moral feelings and behavior (that which we claim make us most human) also may rely on this same primitive system, though the system is activated differently in the social world than it is for basic biological needs.

While our reactions to physical threats are instinctual and automatic, high level moral motivations, though grounded in the same basic system, result from complex, nuanced knowledge and critical reflection. Admiration for Mother Teresa, for example, relies on values (altruism, a belief in a responsibility to alleviate the suffering of others, a sense of a greater good) that are culturally transmitted and results from thinking about the suffering we see around us. Our experiences living in the world also contribute to our developing the values through which we view Mother Teresa's behavior. We need to have suffered a bit ourselves in order to intuitively recognize the suffering of others and to appreciate the efforts of someone like Mother Teresa to alleviate suffering despite difficult obstacles.

However, although this sort of knowledge and cognition is essential in the moral realm, the motivation to do anything—to do, for example, what we know we ought to do—also may depend on this primitive system. In other words, the research suggests that those who want to flourish in the social world by pursuing meaningful goals may derive their motivation to act from the same system whose original purpose is to support basic survival through maintenance of the body. In essence, they feel like doing the right thing (often expressed as a "gut" feeling); but without that feeling, they may not do anything, no matter how good their intentions.

Using Emotional Content in the History Classroom

Using Emotional Content in the History Classroom

At Boston Latin High School, Judi Freeman teaches a course on genocide and the Holocaust. She has incorporated video testimonies of the Holocaust collected by the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for...

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