Tag: memory

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.

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.