Uniquely Human

A Column by Heather Macomber

About The Column


This column will use recent discoveries in psychology, neuroscience, and sociology to tackle modern issues, unravel common misconceptions, and search for a scientific solution to uniquely human problems.

About The Author


Heather Macomber

Columnist

Heather is a junior in Columbia College, majoring in Neuroscience and Behavior. In addition to writing for the Lion, she is the Vice President of the Columbia Neuroscience Society, conducts neuroscience research at Columbia, and is a Tour Captain in the Undergraduate Recruitment Committee. While she originally hails from sunny San Diego, she’s adopted New York City as her home.

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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.

If you haven’t read my last column advocating social learning in large lecture courses, I recommend reading that first — that’s where I explain why I think this technique could be so successful in a lecture-based classroom. This article is for the nitty-gritty, actionable advice for both students and professors to incorporate social learning into their experiences.

For students:

1. Study groups are more than an excuse to hang out with your friends — they’re an excellent way to incorporate social learning into your study routine. Quiz each other, force full explanations by eliminating vague words, and don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Social learning works best when you’re with a group you’re comfortable with. To prevent non-productive chit-chat, place your study group in an environment more conducive to studying, such as a reservable library room or a study lounge space.

2. If allowed, work with friends on problem sets. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to actually do the problem first – don’t just rely on a friend who’s already done the work to explain it to you. Mull over a tricky problem, try your best, and explain your reasoning to a friend; often, in the act of explaining you’ll find where you went wrong. You can adapt this strategy for reading-based courses too — try finding time once a week to meet up with a classmate and talk over difficult parts of the reading, or explain a sequence of events.

3. Frame things as a story and anthropomorphize the characters. Give those cellular processes motivation and give the movement of atoms a plot. Humanizing inanimate objects may feel silly, but in the long run you’ll find that they become easier to remember. This technique works best when ‘telling’ the story out loud to a group of friends also in the course.

4. Is your professor receptive to new ideas or open to suggestions in office hours? Try talking to them about the ease and benefits of incorporating social learning into their courses! Change often comes from within, and I choose to believe that most professors care about the quality of their teaching. If they seem receptive and want more information, the experience of Eric Mazur (a physics professor at Harvard who pioneered large lecture social learning techniques) might be a good place to start — try here for a casual article and here for a peer-reviewed report.

 

For professors:

1. You’ve read this far and clearly have an interest in improving the quality of your teaching, and that’s great! If going ‘all in’ and flipping the classroom seems like a lot of work, start small. Try breaking your lectures up into more meaningful chunks. Three to four usually work best. Separate those segments with productive socialization by asking your students open-ended questions, or telling them to discuss what you just explained. Giving students a break to talk to their neighbors might seem counterintuitive, but research shows that you’ll increase engagement and information retention this way.

2. Switch it up – one surefire way to lose a classroom is by throwing a lot of information uniformly at your students. I get that there’s often a lot to cover, but if none of it is retained, or worse, your students give up ten minutes in, a high throughput approach won’t work. Try emphasizing that all of the material won’t be covered in lectures, and instead focus on the difficult concepts. Trust that your students can learn the easier stuff on their own.

3. For Tip #2 to work, you have to have a pretty good sense of what’s actually difficult for your students. As a professor, what you think is difficult and what your students are confused by may be two very different things. Often times, students will feign knowledge of a previous topic to avoid embarrassment if the class has already moved on. The best way to get past this is to foster an open environment where it’s encouraged to discuss what problems they’re having with the material. Take the pulse of your course frequently, and take advantage of your TAs. Not only do they interact with students more frequently and more informally, they’re closer in both age and experience level to your students and likely will have a better sense of where the material is difficult.

4. Use exams better. Too often, students will cram information a day or two before the exam, knowing that they’ll never need to access it ever again. Try to reward long-term learning by giving students an opportunity to get some credit for revising exams and spend time going over concepts where many students were incorrect. Administer low-stress and high-frequency mini-quizzes to both get an easy straw poll of where the class is and to lower overall test anxiety. Strive to ensure that all quizzes and exams are testing content and not process. While students are familiar with memorizing steps to solving a problem, many of them will not comprehend the underlying logic that you’re ultimately trying to test. Check out Eric Mazur’s physics concept inventory for an idea of what this sort of exam might look like.

5. Feeling good about the changes to your class so far? Think about diving into a full flipped classroom model for your next round of teaching. It’s more work up front than a traditional lecture, but the resulting increase in student engagement and exam scores should speak for itself. Review and edit the structure and organization of your lectures for digital format, and then pre-record shorter lecture-like segments explaining each topic to be assigned before in-class time. Make attending class required, but also make in-class time useful. Provide spaces for your students to work in structured small groups on practical assignments, and use both yourself and your TAs as roaming sources of assistance.  

This is only a short list of some easily-implementable ramifications of social learning – there are dozens more which I don’t have the room for in this column. To summarize all of the above into one comment it is this: socialization is a natural impulse and should be taken advantage of in the classroom accordingly.

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.

It’s that time of the year again — the air is colder, holiday carols blast from Ferris, and you are on your 11th hour sitting Butler, staring mindlessly out the window, with very little to show for it. Sound familiar? Even though you’re hardworking and want to do well on finals, studying doesn’t seem to be getting you anywhere. It happens to the best of us, because many of the ways students study don’t line up with how humans actually learn. Luckily, neuroscience has made major progress in figuring out how we learn — so you can hack your brain to study smarter.

1. Stop re-reading your textbook While it might seem like the obvious way to learn information, re-reading the textbook is actually one of the worst ways to learn if you’ve already read it. Textbooks are full of extraneous information that take lots of time to get through, so you’re wasting precious storage space on unnecessary information. It’s also incredibly difficult to focus on ‘passive’ learning of information, such as listening to a lecture or even reading a textbook — your brain has a tendency to revert to its ‘default-mode’ network and your mind wanders. If you haven’t read the textbook yet read it once while simultaneously making a study guide. Constantly ask yourself if the information is relevant, testable, and related to what was said in lecture. Write the important points down in your study guide to be referenced later.

2. Instead, study by re-creating the exam condition — Again and again, education research has found that constantly testing yourself is a much better way of learning than re-reading material. If your professor provides a practice exam, take it under real-exam conditions. The closer you are to taking a real exam, the more your episodic memory, powered by your hippocampus, can easily recall those memories on test day. After you take your practice exam and you’re reviewing your wrong answers, take the time to learn why you were wrong and focus on more practice problems that specifically test the troublesome concept. If you don’t have a practice exam provided or your upcoming exam is heavily essay-based, try coming up with practice problems/prompts for yourself. By becoming the test-maker, it’s easier to see what material lends itself well to making questions, and helps you to focus your studying on the low-hanging fruit that will likely make an appearance on an exam.

3. Study with friends/classmates — This one seems counterintuitive, as many nights spent alone in the libraries by all of us will attest. However, it’s one of the most powerful ways to enhance memory recall. Your brain is wired to prioritize social activity since we evolved as cooperative creatures. Set up a study session with someone else in the class, preferably two other people. Quiz each other on the material, asking each other the hardest questions you can come up with. Make your partners explain the entire concept through. When you have to interact with another person, your brain is more engaged and those memories will be ‘tagged’ with the importance of the interaction, leading to better long-term memory. As a bonus, being forced to explain material to someone else helps you to recognize weak points that you might have been skimmed over otherwise.

4. ‘Tell a story’ of the material to make it emotional — This works best when you’re telling it to someone else, but can also work alone. Human memory is predisposed to narratives; it’s why storytelling was one of our earliest art forms. Correspondingly, we remember best when the material has emotional significance. For some disciplines this may be easier than others, but it’s still possible to ascribe motivation to, for example, the movement of molecules. If you can personify information, your brain will ascribe it more significance and you’ll remember more of it.

5. Do one thing at a time — We all think we’re fantastic multitaskers, but neuroscience has shown that we’re actually horrible at it. On average, it takes you anywhere between 10-25 minutes to get back into an optimal ‘flow’ after a distraction. Switching rapidly between classes means you’re not giving yourself the opportunity to activate your executive attention network, and means you’ll spend more time staring blankly at information you’re not actually understanding. If you need the extra boost, apps like SelfControl for Mac, Freedom for PC, and Forest for both Android and Apple phones will help force you away from distractions. Find what distracts you most, whether it be Facebook, Instagram, or messaging friends, and block access to those activities during study blocks. Your brain will thank you.

6. Take a 15-30 minute study break every 1.5 hours — Attentional control research has found that people can’t really focus for more than 1.5 hours in a row without a break. Set an app like the aforementioned SelfControl for 1.5 hours, and sit down to work just for that time. It’s less daunting than realizing you have 8 plus hours of studying to do in one day, and by delineating specific times for work and breaks, you’ll be more productive overall.

7. Study more than one thing per day, and then repeat it — Reactivation of a memory is essential for long-term consolidation, as it lets your brain know that information is important and needs to be held on to. Those 1.5 hour ‘focus’ blocks provide natural breaks to switch topics. Where those switches happen and after how many blocks is up to you and your personal exam schedule, but switching it up helps to refocus your brain by exposing it to novel content. As a bonus, by studying for three smaller blocks on three days in a row before an exam, you’ll have enough exposure to do significantly better than if you studied for the same amount all on one day.

8. A little stress is good, a lot will hurt you — Much has been said about the ‘stress culture’ that permeates this campus, but being constantly stressed out has extraordinarily negative effects on not only your health, but also your ability to remember anything. Chronic stress has been shown to actually kill off the very neurons in your hippocampus you need to store and retrieve information, meaning the longer you’re stressed about an exam, the worse you’re going to do on it. Short periods of acute stress can actually help your brain remember information, because evolutionarily, if an event might cause you harm, it makes sense to remember what that event was. In an exam context, feeling worried about an upcoming exam can be a potent motivator of helpful study behavior, but feeling full-on panicked can be a detractor. Use those 30 minute breaks to do something that brings you joy, instead of  just mindlessly scrolling through the internet. Chat with a friend, meditate, watch a short TV show — it doesn’t matter what your happy activity is, just don’t forget to do it.

9. Get at least five hours of sleep between studying and taking the exam — I know that saying to sleep more is obvious advice, but the science here specifically for learning is the strongest. You need to sleep to consolidate that fragile, newly learned information into declarative memory, which lets you actually access that content when you need it. Five hours is the bare minimum you can get away with, because your brain will go through at least one sleep cycle in five hours. Optimally, you want to aim for at least seven. Your brain uses that crucial time offline from sensory experiences to make connections among all the new information you learned and store what’s most important, making recall that much easier on exam day.

10. Don’t change your routine on exam day — Whenever you usually wake up, whatever you usually eat for breakfast, if you drink a cup of coffee in the morning, try your best to leave all those mundane factors unchanged. Altering routine is one of the biggest sources of stress in animals, and floods your brain with the stress hormones that damage your memory neurons — not what you want before an exam. Give yourself at least 10 minutes before the exam to center yourself, and try to be as calm as you can when you’re taking your test. Stress will suppress your ability to access a lot of information, because your body thinks it’s under attack. Taking the time to calm down before or even during an exam will be much more valuable in the long run than an extra 10 minutes speed-reading notes.

Instead of being in classes this week, I had the pleasure of heading out to San Diego to attend the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting. Every year a community of around 30,000 neuroscientists gather to present their research, meet up with old colleagues, form new connections, and talk about the future of neuroscience.

Just like the rest of the country, attendees of the conference were overwhelmingly focused on the recent election results. In every panel and poster session, throughout the convention this year it was hard to avoid the implications in Washington’s change in leadership.

They have good reason to be concerned. Science chiefly relies on public money to pay for basic research and development, with 85% of the funding used for neuroscience research coming from federal agencies, chiefly the National Institute of Health (NIH). While a common belief in the scientific community holds that NIH funding increases when Democrats are in power, the truth is more complex than that.

Historically, when the House is under Republican control, funding for science decreases by six billion dollars on average, or approximately one fifth of the total yearly NIH budget. Generally aligning with stereotypes, a Republican presidency means increased defense spending, and less spending on all other aspects of science-related research.

But this upcoming government as many, many think-pieces have already elaborated upon, is not a typical Republican-controlled cycle. Last year, President-elect Donald Trump said on a conservative radio show that, “I hear so much about the NIH and it’s terrible.” On the other hand, Newt Gingrich, one of his closest advisors, has repeatedly called for doubling the NIH’s budget.

In Congress, Republicans are frequently divided on this issue. The powerful and populist Freedom Caucus, whose supporters are partially responsible for Mr. Trump’s rise, wants to slash funding for scientific research by arguing that the NIH spends money on frivolous projects. The current director of the NIH, Francis Collins, fired back that the effective 22% in budget cuts over the last decade has slowed the NIH’s ability to respond effectively to health crises, such as the recent Ebola scare.

For neuroscience funding specifically, Obama’s tenure in the White House has been a positive development. In 2013, the Obama administration launched the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN Initiative, to dramatically increase neuroscience funding over the next decade in the hopes of making progress on various neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, depression, and traumatic brain injuries. This initiative has provided over 300 million dollars of funding a year to neuroscientists throughout multiple arms of government funding, and has already helped advance a deeper understanding of how the brain is wired through the Human Connectome Project. While the BRAIN Initiative has a plan laid out for the next twelve years, it is up to Congress to approve its continuing budget on a yearly basis.

While climate researchers have good reason to fear for their funding sources and defense agencies await a bump in their budgets, the future of neuroscience research is entirely unclear. While once previously considered a non-partisan agency, the NIH has increasingly needed to defend its decisions against criticism from primarily Republican opponents, and neuroscience research has specifically benefited from the Obama administration.

However, significant bumps in NIH funding in the years following the government shutdown from a Republican-controlled Congress may bode well for the future of research funding. Ultimately, it’s up to the Trump administration to decide if this vital research is worth continuing. Until then, neuroscientists will just have to wait.

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