behavior · children · education · mental health

Reading, Writing, Empathy: The Rise of ‘Social Emotional Learning’ | GOOD

Creative Curriculum: CDCs provide tools to con...
Learning how to empathize improves the entire learning process. Image by familymwr via Flickr

How does empathy and social learning improve the learning experience at schools? A lot, apparently! And some research is finding that actively teaching empathy and social understanding can be taught in a public school setting, with great benefits for the entire learning process:

At a time of contentious debate over how to reform schools to make teachers more effective and students more successful, “social emotional learning” may be a key part of the solution. An outgrowth of the emotional intelligence framework, popularized by Daniel Goleman, SEL teaches children how to identify and manage emotions and interactions. One of the central considerations of an evolved EQ—as proponents call an “emotional quotient”—is promoting empathy, a critical and often neglected quality in our increasingly interconnected, multicultural world.

Brackett quickly learned that developing empathy in kids requires working on their teachers first. Ten years ago, he and his colleagues introduced a curriculum about emotions in schools, asking teachers to implement it in their own classrooms. When he observed the lessons, he was struck by the discomfort many of the instructors showed in talking about emotion. “There was one teacher who took the list of feelings we had provided and crossed out all of what she perceived of as ‘negative’ emotions before asking the students to identify what they were feeling,” Brackett says. “We realized that if the teachers didn’t get it, the kids never would.”

So in 2005, Brackett and his team at the Health, Emotion, and Behavior Lab at Yale developed a training program—now called RULER—that instructs teachers in the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary for emotional health, then helps them shift the focus to children. The program focuses on five key skills: recognizing emotions in oneself and others, understanding the causes and consequences of emotions, labeling the full range of emotions, expressing emotions appropriately in different contexts, and regulating emotions effectively to foster relationships and achieve goals. Classrooms adopt “emotional literacy charters”—agreements that the whole community agrees to concerning interpersonal interactions—and kids use “mood meters” to identify the nature and intensity of their feelings and “blueprints” to chart out past experiences they might learn from.

Read more at Reading, Writing, Empathy: The Rise of ‘Social Emotional Learning’ at GOOD Magazine.

behavior · brain · environment · neuroscience

Human Brain Responds To Animals, Cute Or Creepy : NPR

Humans are hard-wired to spot animals in our environment. Image by Rennett Stowe via Flickr

Have you ever sworn you knew what your cat was thinking? You may have been right. It turns out we are more tuned into animals and their emotional status than we might think:

Animals have a special place in the human heart. Now, researchers are reporting that creatures great and small also have a special place in our heads.

A team led by researchers at Caltech has found individual brain cells that respond when a person sees an animal, but not when that person sees another person, a place, or an object.

The cells were found in the amygdala, an almond-shaped part of the brain involved in emotions, including fear. And they responded to any kind of animal, including spiders, dogs and rodents, says Christof Koch, a researcher at Caltech and the lead author of the study, published in Nature Neuroscience.

One reason present-day humans have these cells may be because some animals posed a threat to our ancestors, Koch says. Specialized cells could have helped the brain respond quickly to danger, he says.

more via Human Brain Responds To Animals, Cute Or Creepy : NPR.

I love the idea that urge to cuddle puppies comes from the amygdala, often referred to as the “lizard” part of our brain! It makes sense that as humans we’d survive better if we were more in tune with the animals in our surroundings and whether they wanted to eat us or not.

behavior · brain · creativity · learning · psychology

The Body Odd – Watching Jon Stewart might make you more creative

Jon Stewart
Watching sarcastic comedians like Jon Stewart exercise your creativity. Image via Wikipedia

Both my parents were fairly sarcastic, and even got chided for it by their parents since it “set a bad example” for us kids. According to this study, however, they were actually doing us a favor!

Israeli researchers found that when people overheard anger conveyed in a sarcastic way, they were better able to solve creative problems, according to a recent report in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

In one experiment, researchers recruited 184 Israeli undergrads, all engineering students, and had them listen to one of three versions of a fake customer service center phone call. In each conversation, a customer called to complain about cell phone service problems — the “customer’s” speech was either angry, sarcastic, or neutral.

After eavesdropping on these pretend exchanges, the participants were asked to solve a series of problems — some creative, some analytic.

“Observing anger enhanced analytic problem solving, but hindered the solving of creative problems,” write Dorit Efrat-Treister, Anat Rafaeli and Orit Scwarz-Cohen, all of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, along with Ella Miron-Spektor of Bar-Ilan University.  They add that “observing sarcasm improved the solving of creative problems.”

more via The Body Odd – Watching Jon Stewart might make you more creative.

Having to decipher sarcasm, interpreting the emotion behind the words, apparently helped the undergrads get into a creative problem-solving mode. The group didn’t speculate why this might be the case, but it is interesting to think about humor and how it can affect the brain.

This is also one reason why I feel email and writing aren’t always the best form of communication; it’s hard to indicate sarcasm in writing.

anthropology · education · learning · Nature

Come See My Gorilla Talk at Woodland Park Zoo on November 18th!

That’s right, I will be presenting a brown bag at Woodland Park Zoo on Thursday, November 18th, regarding my research with visitors to the WPZ’s gorilla exhibit. That’s next week, eep!

I have been volunteering with WPZ since June of 2009. During the summers of 2009 and 2010, I studied how visitors interacted with the exhibit, the gorillas, and what lessons visitors took away with them. I also interviewed visitors about their emotional responses to the gorillas.

I was amazed by how strongly people identified with gorillas, pointing out similarities between their hands, their facial expressions, and what they ate (even though Gorillas are vegetarians). They wanted to know how old the gorillas were, who was the mom and dad, if they got along, did they get bored, and all sorts of comments that indicated a high level of empathy. Interestingly, if people had read the signs they would have answered a lot of their own questions…

I will discuss what visitors responded to, what they learned, and what visitors missed.

 WPZ Flyer Gorilla talk

Mental · Social · technology

The New Face of Autism Therapy | Popular Science

I found this really interesting, since 2D interactions don’t seem to teach kids to teach kids how to empathize and be more social beings. However, a 3D robot seems to do the trick…

via The New Face of Autism Therapy | Popular Science.

A robotic therapist teaches kids how to read emotions

With one in 110 children diagnosed with autism, and therapists in short supply, researchers are developing humanoids to fill the gaps. But can robots help patients forge stronger bonds with people?

…There is increasing evidence that kids with autism respond more naturally to machines than they do to people. Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge in England, along with other autism experts, believes that robots, computers and electronic gadgets may be appealing because they are predictable, unlike people. You can pretty much guess what a computer is going to do next about 90 percent of the time, but human interactions obey very few entirely predictable laws. And this, Baron-Cohen explains, is difficult for children with autism. “They find unlawful situations toxic,” he says. “They can’t cope. So they turn away from people and turn to the world of objects.”


emotion · psychology

Physical language

From NYT: Psychologists have long studied the grunts and winks of nonverbal communication, the vocal tones and facial expressions that carry emotion. A warm tone of voice, a hostile stare — both have the same meaning in Terre Haute or Timbuktu, and are among dozens of signals that form a universal human vocabulary.

But in recent years some researchers have begun to focus on a different, often more subtle kind of wordless communication: physical contact. Momentary touches, they say — whether an exuberant high five, a warm hand on the shoulder, or a creepy touch to the arm — can communicate an even wider range of emotion than gestures or expressions, and sometimes do so more quickly and accurately than words.
“It is the first language we learn,” said Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life” (Norton, 2009), and remains, he said, “our richest means of emotional expression” throughout life.

Read full NYT articles

emotion · psychology

Abstract thoughts prompt literal physical response

From New York Times:

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen found that when people were asked to engage in a bit of mental time travel, and to recall past events or imagine future ones, participants’ bodies subliminally acted out the metaphors embedded in how we commonly conceptualized the flow of time.
As they thought about years gone by, participants leaned slightly backward, while in fantasizing about the future, they listed to the fore. The deviations were not exactly Tower of Pisa leanings, amounting to some two or three millimeters’ shift one way or the other. Nevertheless, the directionality was clear and consistent.
“When we talk about time, we often use spatial metaphors like ‘I’m looking forward to seeing you’ or ‘I’m reflecting back on the past,’ ” said Lynden K. Miles, who conducted the study with his colleagues Louise K. Nind and C. Neil Macrae. “It was pleasing to us that we could take an abstract concept such as time and show that it was manifested in body movements.”
The new study, published in January in the journal Psychological Science, is part of the immensely popular field called embodied cognition, the idea that the brain is not the only part of us with a mind of its own.
“How we process information is related not just to our brains but to our entire body,” said Nils B. Jostmann of the University of Amsterdam. “We use every system available to us to come to a conclusion and make sense of what’s going on.”
Research in embodied cognition has revealed that the body takes language to heart and can be awfully literal-minded.
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Even bacteria get lonely

Don’t worry if you’re feeling sort of lonely during this time of year; even bacteria feel alone sometimes, and there’s trillions of them.

But, if you’re really feeling blue, you can always move to Florida; states that get the most sun also tend to have the happiest residents.

emotion · psychology

Facial expressions cultural?

Read on:

A study in the journal Current Biology finds that Eastern and Western facial expressions related to emotional states may differ enough for possible nonverbal miscommunication.

Westerners traveling to Asia may expect some language barriers. Perhaps enthusiastic facial expressions will help them be understood. Well, not so fast. According to research published August 13th in the journal Current Biology, Easterners and Westerners might not speak the same facial language.

University of Glasgow researchers enlisted 13 Western Caucasians and 13 East Asians. They had everyone examine pictures of expressive faces that were labeled according to a recognized western system called the Facial Action Coding System. The faces were purported to be happy, sad, surprised, fearful, disgusted, angry or neutral, and the participants categorized them as such. Turns out the East Asians were less likely to categorize the faces by Western standards.

By tracking the subject’s eye movements, researchers concluded that Westerners look at whole faces. But Easterners kept their focus mainly on the eye region. So while Westerners may use their whole faces to show that they’re elated, Easterners may express that feeling mainly around their eyes. Which means that facial expressions are not a universal language. That’s a fact that international travelers are sooner or later forced to face.

—Cynthia Graber, Scientific American Podcast


Monkey see, monkey do, monkey approve


We humans often imitate the body postures or mannerisms of people we meet, usually without either person realizing it.

Previous studies have shown that this imitation promotes affection and empathy for the imitator in the people who are being imitated, suggesting thiscommon human behavior evolved to help us get along and thrive in social groupings. In short, it might help strangers become friends.

But whether or not the same was true for other primates wasn’t known. A new study, detailed in the Aug. 14 issue of the journal Science, suggests the effect works in capuchin monkeys, a very social species of New World monkey that lives in tight-knit groups.

Read full story.