Category: STEM

Image courtesy of freshNYC

How would you describe yourself?

Most people can immediately come up with at least a few adjectives to summarize their personalities, and when these people are asked how well they know themselves on a scale of 1-10, the answers are overwhelmingly above 8. When asked to estimate if their ‘core’ personalities have remained consistent over time, the majority agree that while they have indeed changed, certain fundamental aspects of themselves remain the same.

People make important decisions based on the idea that personality continuity often underlies individual growth. You believe that person you choose to marry has essential qualities  which will remain good, that criminals have essential qualities which will remain bad, and that the people in your life all have dependable qualities. When attributing the incredible successes or failures of CEOs, celebrities, or pro-athletes, most tend to credit or blame their personalities.

While this convincing story pervades our culture, modern research indicates that this idea of an individual’s consistent personality is just a myth. A few months ago, the longest-running study on personality was published. Begun in 1947, teachers were asked to rate their fourteen-year old students on six personality traits. Sixty-three years later, researchers tracked down as many of the original participants as they could and analyzed their personalities.

Upon analysis, none of the six traits showed any significant stability across the time-span. While ideas about personality and experimental methods have changed drastically in the intervening decades, more modern neuroscientific research backs up these sorts of long-running surveys with fMRI studies of the changing brain.

While many ‘tests’ of personality exist on the internet, almost none of them hold any neuropsychological weight. This includes the famed Myers-Briggs model, which sorts individuals into sixteen distinct personalities according to four to five traits, each with a corresponding letter. If you have ever had someone tell you they are an ENFP, or INTJ, that’s the model they’re referring to. Though certainly entertaining, such tests have long-been discredited for being too myopic and binning people into binary categorizations.

Although many scientists disagree, the generally-accepted model of personality these days is the Big-Five, which gives individuals a rating from 1-100 on five distinct traits — Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. If you are interested, this is the best way to take it online.

Recently, neuroscientists have begun to examine how high scores on various factors in the Big Five might map onto brain structure. Using structural MRI, one team examined brain volume as it varies with brain region size, finding that extroverts had a larger medial orbitofrontal cortex, a brain region which processes reward. This area is heavily implicated in response to social reward, so it is  possible that extroverts enjoy social interactions because they supply them with a ‘hit’ of dopamine.

Increased scores on neuroticism correlate with bigger brain regions associated with threat, punishment, and negative behavior. It is possible that neurotic people feel the potential threat of a negative event more powerfully than those with smaller cingulate cortices, and therefore are more concerned over potentially troubling events.

Agreeableness correlated with a larger lateral prefrontal cortex, a region that loosely corresponds with planning and higher-order processing. Though they did not find a significant association with Openness, neuroscientists found some possible correlations with parts of the parietal cortex associated with integrating sensory stimuli.

While this study did not use functional MRI to tell us what regions are activated when exhibiting behaviors associated with these traits, there does appear to be some association between the sizes of these brain regions and an individual’s personality.

If psychology research tells us personality changes drastically over time, and neuroscience research indicates that our brains reflect our personalities, what underlying mechanisms in our brains are underlying these changes?

Some potential clues lie in memory research. A large body of evidence tells us that each time a memory is ‘accessed’, it is altered, sometimes dramatically, before going back into storage. As experiences pile up in our lifetimes, the memories we make are incorporated into the ways we face new information, and change the ways we make decisions.

The other massive factor in our decision-making comes from our surroundings — specifically, our social surroundings. The cultural norms which permeate a place can strongly influence how a personality changes over time, as new experiences permeate the neural wiring. With that in mind, it’s hard to think of a more distinct social environment in the U.S. than our home, New York City itself.

When asked what made a person a New Yorker, former mayor Edward Koch put it most succinctly: “you have to live here for six months, and if at the end of the six months you find you walk faster, talk faster, think faster, you’re a New Yorker.”  I have certainly found that a few years here have changed me in more ways than knowledge gained in the classroom — parts of my personality seem fundamentally altered by my time living in Columbia and in adapting to the the unique social norms such a city carries.

In a place as hectic, stressful, and sometimes isolating as New York City, the unconscious effect of environment likely affects us all. Combined with a student population of high-achieving and hard-working Columbians, it’s possible our particularly potent stress culture might be drawing heavily from the city itself for fuel. While we often talk about the culture-shock of NYC on many of our students during orientation weeks, we rarely take the time to analyze how exactly our city might be changing us.

Maybe the pressures of Columbian sub-culture paired with tough-it-out mentality of the city makes us feel busier and more focused, and therefore primes to think faster and act smarter. Maybe some of these changes are positive, learning how to ‘tough it out’ certainly has its benefits. But I’m more worried about the negatives, about how a city so known for indifference may be affecting our compassion and human integrity.

Luckily, any negative characteristics our brains may be picking up from the city aren’t permanent. The same neuroplasticity which hardened us can prioritize compassion again, if we make a conscious effort to make others as important as our busy schedules. We have the ability to change our own culture of Columbia and only let the positive aspects of the city in.

 

Meet Mathew Pregasen. Mathew is a Columbia junior studying computer science who founded a startup with Anuke Ganegoda (CC ’18), Sahir Jaggi (SEAS ’17) and Rikhav Shah (MIT ’19). Named Parsegon Inc, the company implements a new method of transcribing English descriptions of math into mathematical script. For example, Parsegon’s technology could take a sentence “integral from 0 to 10 in region D of 2x squared + 3x cubed – the square root of x” and convert it into visual, textbook-formatted math.

How did you come up with the idea of Parsegon? What experience made you want to start your own business?

The way it started was pretty accidental. It was first a small project that we had no intention of turning into a company, but as it developed we realized it had more potential. Soon, we started to think of this project in a business context. We did Almaworks, raised some funding, hired some people for the summer, and further developed our business. In the ending, it is a technology project.

How did Almaworks facilitate your business development process?

I think the most beneficial part is that it connects you with incredibly helpful mentors. At first, you might not know too much about design, planning, or the law associated with a startup business, but as long as you get close to a mentor, you will get proper advice on business direction, project development, and especially important legal services.

What’s the current entrepreneurial environment at Columbia like? How does it compare to other schools?

I think in the last two years, there has been some significant changes, where the administration—especially entrepreneurship administration—has been putting a lot of resources into the entrepreneurship community. They raised the amount of provided grants and have organized the Columbia Entrepreneurship Competition for the last four years.  Alongside that, you have clubs like CORE (Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs) and ADI (Application Development Initiative) that push this culture. I think ultimately the culture should be self-accelerating instead of accessory, but you need to have some initial velocity at the beginning.

 

Mathew Pregasen

Image via Mathew Pregasen

So back to Parsegon. It seems to be designed for people who are not fast at mathematical typing. How do you attract people who are already proficient at mathematical expression in typing packages such as LaTeX?

We are not competing with LaTeX and we don’t expect people to write papers in Parsegon. That being said, we do have a very user-friendly environment that reduces time and difficulty in typing. Parsegon is also educational in the sense that it makes teaching more accessible to students and enables the entire classroom to engage in interactive math.

 

You have been trying to integrate Parsegon into classrooms. What is the feedback from teachers and students?

We primarily focus on high schools, and we’ve been having very strong feedback.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for Parsegon?

I think the greatest challenge for us is to make a technology that provides a number of services for very diverse classroom environments. Some people might not be familiar with computer typing and some do prefer a very traditional and structured typing style, so although we are making it more accessible to people, it is still a big challenge to build the technology that accommodates the needs of everyone and strikes a proper balance between accessibility and formality.

Are there any computer science classes at Columbia that have helped you in this process?

Namely Operating Systems (W4118) with Jason Nieh. I also took a class called Computer Theory with Alfred Aho which was useful for the theoretical angle.

What do you think is the future of Parsegon?

We want to build the best tool for educational practices in the America. We believe that there is a big gap between the technology side of users and the technology provided for educational professionals, and we believe that our implementation will not only complement the traditional learning method, but also improve it. The importance of Parsegon is that it teaches students to understand the language of math. If you can understand the language of math, you usually also understand the theory of math much more coherently. And we believe that is the best way Parsegon could improve the learning process of math on a more cognitive level.

As the new semester begins, The Lion will be spending some time in Uniquely Human on other people — how we interact with them, how they interact with us, and how those interactions shape our personality. This is the first column in our new series.

Columbia students spend a lot of time in elevators. Imagine – you step into an empty elevator on the top floor of a building. As you descend, one, two, even three people walk into the elevator, an experience so typical you hardly notice. But this time as they enter, something curious happens.

After walking in the elevator, each person faces the back instead of turning around to face the front doors. While one person doing this may go unnoticed, after two or three people perform this strange action you too turn around to face the back.

Although your instinct may be to resist that ending to the story, from its origin on Candid Camera in the 1950s, through multiple scientific studies the result is always the same — the majority of people will adopt the new social norm.

This action of changing your behavior to adapt to those around you is called social referencing, and for decades, its powerful sway over social activities has been confirmed in sociological and psychological studies. That people would adapt their behavior to their social situations is not itself revolutionary, although the extent to which people adopt ‘non-logical’ behaviors to fit in a new social norm can often be humorous.

The truly controversial idea is a much newer one, and comes out of modern neuroscience: not only do you change your external behaviors to adjust to a new social environment, your core personality adjusts to fit with a new social reality.

This brain re-wiring can perhaps paradoxically be best illustrated by when the system goes wrong. Have you ever flinched when you have seen someone get hit in a particularly painful location, or felt warm when you have seen two people hug? Now imagine if instead of experiencing a vague sense of those feelings, you physically felt every sensation you saw in someone else. Every touch is replicated on your arm, with every swallow you see you feel the food slither down your throat, and the pain of another sharply becomes your own.

This condition is called mirror-touch synesthesia, and it is one of the most common synesthesias –  an estimated 1.5% of the population experiences the world this way. While the physical aspects of this disorder are fascinating and deserve their own column, where it really gets interesting is in how synesthetes experience emotional reactions.

In a number of mirror-touch synesthetes, the act of seeing someone respond emotionally causes a mirrored emotional response. Because they can acutely feel the happiness, sadness, anguish of the people around them, it can become incredibly difficult for mirror-touch synesthetes to distinguish their own emotions from the emotions of those around them. They find themselves disappearing into others.

As is common in neuroscience, observing such an extreme example of a system going wrong teaches us about how the system should work under normal circumstances. One possible explanation comes from mirror neurons. Discovered a little over a decade ago in monkeys and recently in humans, mirror neurons are cells located in parts of the brain corresponding to sensation and motor activity.

Unlike other cells nearby, these special mirror neurons fire identically both when they are performing an activity, like processing touch or moving your arm, and when observing someone else do the same task. While the purpose of these neurons is still speculative, there is evidence of their role in subconscious mimicry, empathy, self-awareness, and even theory of mind.

Of course, when a typical human observes other people, they don’t acutely feel those external sensations in the same way. That is because there are other inhibitory neurons ‘downstream’ of the mirror neurons, which stop you from acting on their firing. It’s likely that in mirror-touch synesthetes, that ‘turn off’ signal does not get sent, or the original signal from mirror neurons is so strong that it cannot be turned off.

So while mirror neurons might allow us all to understand each other at low levels of activity, cranking their response up causes people to in some ways become other people. Mirror touch synesthetes brings a normally subconscious process to the surface, and they raise some interesting questions in the process.

If we’re somehow experiencing the actions and emotions of other people within our own minds on a subconscious level, do these ‘outside’ factors become a part of us? Do we correspondingly change parts of our core personalities in response? We will seek to explore these very questions in the next column.

Do you often find yourself in a large lecture course required for your major and lose focus ten minutes in? Do you wonder if it’s even worth going to class, and decide your time would be better spent studying (or sleeping)?

In a previous column, I proposed that the current method of teaching undergraduates is increasingly at odds with mounting evidence from both education research and neuroscience. This column, I’ll be proposing a few easy and evidence-based fixes to make lecture courses not only more fun and engaging for students, but also easier for professors to teach in a more effective way.

My advice boils down to one simple idea: turn lecture courses into a hub of social activity. If you’re looking for the nitty-gritty of how to implement this technique either as a student or professor, stay tuned for next week’s column — this one is going to focus on the scientific rationale behind my advice.

It might seem counterintuitive that letting students engage in ‘distracting’ activities like talking in class results in greater learning, but education research has been supporting this idea for decades. One recent meta review of over 400 studies showed that engaging active learning techniques focused on social activity in lectures boosted not only the overall average grade, but also most improved the grades of those at the bottom of the class, without decreasing the high scores of those at the top.

Essentially, social learning has a ‘rising tides float all boats’ effect.

The most well-tested way to implement social learning comes from the well-studied ‘flipped classroom’ technique. In this approach, the ‘lecture’ component of the class is assigned as homework to be completed prior to the class, most commonly as a video file and more rarely as an interactive online assignment or textbook readings. In class, students are assigned to work on problem sets or discuss the material in groups, with the professor and TAs as facilitators who ‘check in’ with groups by answering questions and offering guidance. This model actively encourages cooperation and lively discussion among classmates. Sounds more fun than your normal lecture, right?

Now for the neuroscience. Humans are fundamentally social animals, with much larger brain regions dedicated to analyzing and understanding the emotions and motivations of other people. Social activity is so important to us that our ‘default’ brain network, the one that activates when you’re daydreaming or not thinking about much at all, overlaps heavily with your brain’s go-to area of activation for social activity, the mentalizing network. Your brain ‘wants’ to be in this state, because historically, cooperation with peers has been mutually beneficial to survival.

Social activity is in fact so rewarding that interacting with other people triggers a huge release of domaine, the same ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter responsible for chemically induced highs. Amazingly, the release of dopamine can also enhance the brain’s ability to create and store new memories. So to sum up, feeling happy while learning is not only positive for your well being, but can actually help to improve your memory.

It’s no wonder that social activity plays a massive role in our lives and correspondingly holds a massive influence over our brains. But by forcing students to unnaturally focus on fast-paced and unvaried information flow, traditional lectures put an unduly heavy strain on the brain’s working memory network.

As a lecture goes on, the brain’s pull to ‘wander’ gets more intense, and focus is eventually lost. Social learning works so well because it hijacks this drive to socialize and redirects it towards learning. By engaging the default/mentalizing network, group work enhances a student’s ability to focus for long periods of time, and the extra dopamine released from socialization helps that information be better retained.

Engaging in more socialization can have many positive side effects as well. Long-standing issues in the Columbia community revolve around the oppressive stress-culture and feeling of loneliness experienced by many students.

While switching to a social-learning based classroom environment won’t magically fix these issues, many sociological experiments on undergraduate populations link stronger social bonds to myriad positive outcomes, including but not limited to increased student happiness, improved levels of student well-being, lower rates of anxiety and depression, and more successful career outcomes post-graduation.

It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that encouraged socialization in the classroom can lead to more casual conversation and foster friendships outside of the classroom’s confines, creating a stronger and healthier community in the process.

With so much to gain and nothing to lose, I advocate for Columbia professors opening a dialogue around the efficacy of the lecture course and opening their classrooms to experimental techniques. Decades of support from educational research combined with exciting new evidence from the emerging field of neuroeducation combine to form a compelling case for social learning.

A small amount of effort in redesigning course curricula and pre-recording lecture segments can pay off in happier, more engaged students who are not only excited to learn, but can also retain information better and for longer. For both professors and students, incorporating social learning in the classroom is a win-win.
*While based in pre-existing research, the hypothesis about social learning put forth is my own original work and is further explained in a long-form scientific article (The Case for Social Learning). Contact the author for further information.

Photo Courtesy of James Xue (SEAS ’17)

“I’m bored.”

This is the cry of every student who finds themselves swimming in the ocean of free time that is summer vacation. As much fun as it is to sleep the mornings away, it gets old after the third week. So what exactly should you do with your newfound free time? Why not spend it becoming acquainted with a subject you’ve never tackled before? Never fear if you didn’t apply for summer classes. There are plenty of quality learning resources available if you have a computer and internet access. The following resources are primarily video-based, though some include outside exercises and quizzes that you can use as supplementary materials. 

CourseWorld (Free)

What do you do when you want to learn about a topic but Wikipedia isn’t good enough? CourseWorld is a not-for-profit online resource committed to giving a quality liberal arts education to anyone who wants it. The instructional videos, mostly curated from YouTube, cover everything from religion to freelance writing. If you’re looking to learn about a specific topic, say Korean literature, this is the place for you. The site allows you to make an account and queue up your videos for later viewing if you’d like. It’s easy to search for the videos you’re looking for based on a keyword, and the site includes courses, or a related series of videos, for most subjects. The site draws primarily from documentaries, lectures, and discussion panels. 

Coursera (Free, starting at $49 for course certificate)

Miss the hallowed halls of Columbia and wish you were still in class? Coursera can help. The website offers massive open online courses, or MOOCs from universities like Stanford, Yale, Princeton, and our fair Columbia. They’re completely free, and you can take as much (or as little) from the courses as you’d like, as instructors don’t give students grades. Coursera’s courses are true blue college courses, which means it carries the workload of a college course. Keep that in mind before you sign up to take ten of them at the same time. It might be hard to motivate yourself to stay inside and watch videos when the pleasant weather of summer beckons from outside.

Compared to CourseWorld, it might be a little more challenging to wade through Coursera courses if you’re looking for specific information. On the other hand, by the end of the course, you’ll be a verified mini-expert. Also, when you sign up for a course, you can sign up for a special track that will award you a certificate at the end of the course. This special certificate track costs money, but there are scholarships available. The site offers everything from computer programming courses to foreign language. You must make an account to view videos, and Coursera takes its honor code pretty seriously. 

Lynda ($25 a month, free for Columbia/Barnard students)

Want to up your internship game? Lynda is a site that offers a multitude of courses in business and technical skills, all taught by industry experts. You can choose to watch videos independently, or if you’d like, you can choose to be on a “learning path” that will give you the skills of a certain occupation once you’ve finished all the videos. Examples include how to become an project manager and how to become an iOS app developer, though there are many others. The material here isn’t usually as engaging as the material on the other two sites, though Lynda is the only website to offer courses on “soft” skills like leadership. When you finish a course, you can post an acknowledgement of this fact directly on your LinkedIn profile. You have to make an account to view videos. You can access Columbia’s Lynda portal here.  

Fight the summer brain drain with these three online resources. Each site draws its strength from the particular method it uses to teach you and you can pick the best site depending on your individual needs. Just remember: you can can always learn, even in the summer.