Humor — It’s all in your head

Humor is generally regarded as an important and valuable tool for sustaining engagement with students (in moderation, of course). But what is really going on in the brain when it comes to humor?

In an article in New Scientist magazine, Daniel Elkan writes,

Yet humour is a far more complex process than primeval pleasures like sex or food. In addition to the two core processes of getting the joke and feeling good about it, jokes also activate regions of the frontal and cingulate cortex, which are linked with association formation, learning and decision-making. The team (led by Dean Mobbs of Stanford) also found heightened activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and the frontoinsular cortex – regions that are only present in humans and, in a less developed form, great apes. Indeed, the fact that these regions are involved suggests that humour is an advanced ability which may have only evolved in early humans, says Watson, who conducted the research.

He goes on to write,

More than anything, the recent research confirms the fact that humour, an oft-neglected trait when considering our cognitive skills, requires a tremendous amount of brain power. “Getting a joke would seem – on the surface – to be a very trivial, intuitive process. But brain imaging is showing us that there is more going on than we might think,” says (Andrea) Samson (of the University of Fribourg in Switzerland).

Below is the accompanying graphic for that article, showing the parts of the brain activated when under the influence of humor:

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Your Brain on Improv

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The below TEDx Talk by surgeon, researcher, and musician Charles Limb, unpacks some of his emerging hypotheses about the brain during improv, and how those might translate into understanding creativity. Or at least one small slice of it.

If he is correct, there are probably a broad range of implications for education. How might improv be used in the classroom to help students construct meaning, brainstorm, and build communication skills? What might educators do to help students develop skills at improv and can those skills help students as adults?

You can view the original on the TED Talks website.

Want to know more about the brain on improv?

Image: Nature.com

Neurology of Gaming, Infographic

As with most things, “gaming” (or being engaged in video games) has both positives and negatives when it comes to developing minds. Too much gaming, and the positive effects are overshadowed by the negative.

Yet, the right balance can add another avenue for pursuing educational goals and achievement. As a result, more and more programs are using gaming to reach and teach students in ways they never could before. Therapy programs, schools, and even research scientists have all benefitted from the strategic use of games to increase successes.

Below is an infographic from Online Universities looking at the brain on games. What do you think? How have you used games in your work with students? What might we need to be cautious of in incorporating gaming in our learning environments? Share your thoughts and any resources you find valuable in the comments.

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Image: Online University

Organization of Object and Action Categories in the Brain

article-0-1698BF2A000005DC-343_964x597The team at Gallant Lab at UC Berkley has been looking at how the brain processes and maps words/subject/objects. (Their recently published paper in Neuron) The result is a fascinating look into the workings of the brain and yet more evidence that we have only barely begun to uncover the mysteries of the mind at work.

Check out the video below explaining the research and then head over to their site where you can play with the data yourself (they recommend using Chrome as your browser).

While we can’t make assumptions or jump to conclusions about what this means for working with students, the research does offer a springboard for a whole host of other questions. For example:

  • What role does background knowledge play in the shaping and writing the semantic map?
  • Do the semantic maps look different when focused on a single topic — such as vehicles, buildings, or plants?
  • How might this research inform methods of vocabulary instruction?
  • If the information were provided in different contexts or delivery methods (text or verbal rendering vs. movie clip rendering), are the areas of the brain that are oxygenated different? What implications might this have for classroom learning?

Such research illustrates, once again, how little we know, and how much more there is yet to learn. What we do know is this: students’ minds are complex and pliable. The experiences and environments we design and deliver help shape how they process, understand, and interact with the world. It is up to us to make those experiences worthwhile.

Want to know more? Read Ben Thomas’s piece, “Meaning and the Brain: How Your Brain Organizes Reality” at Scientific America. 

Image: via Daily Mail via Gallant Labs

The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain

There is a common thread that connects the earliest parents to the current ones. It isn’t walking to school uphill in snow both ways, negotiating screen time, or bedtime battles. At some point or another we have all thought the same thing about our kids: “What in the world were they thinking?!”

While neuroscience still has a long way to go to truly and completely answer that question, the mental processes involved (or not) in making decisions in the adolescent mind are coming to light. Check out this great TED Talk by Cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore who studies “the social brain . . . and how it develops in the adolescent brain.” (From her TED Talk bio.)

Want to know more about the mysterious (and vexing) adolescent brain? Check out Dr. Judy Willis’s ASCD webinars archived here.

Royal Society’s Summary of Implications of Neuroscience on Education

The Royal Society, a self-governing Fellowship of scientists from around the world dedicated to “excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity,” released a series of modules in 2011 as part of their Brain Waves Project. The four modules explore the intersection of neuroscience, society and public policy with summarized analyses of research, challenges and recommendations.

The second module, Neuroscience: Implications for education and lifelong learning, is of particular importance for educators and policy makers alike. As we find that the world of neurology continues to make strides in understanding how the brain develops, changes and learns, we also find that there is a hunger for such knowledge at the classroom level. As a result there are more and more programs that help bridge the gap between research and practice.

Below is the Summary excerpt from the module. While the whole report is worth reading, these overarching key insights provide a good snapshot.

Education is about enhancing learning, and neuroscience is about understanding the mental processes involved in learning. This common ground suggests a future in which educational practice can be transformed by science, just as medical practice was transformed by science about a century ago. In this report we consider some of the key insights from neuroscience that could eventually lead to such a transformation.

  • Neuroscience research suggests that learning outcomes are not solely determined by the environment. Biological factors play an important role in accounting for differences in learning  ability between individuals.
  • By considering biological factors, research has advanced the understanding of specific learning doffculties, such as dyslexia and dyscalculia. Likewise, neuroscience is uncovering why certain types of learning are more rewarding than others.
  • The brain changes constantly as a result of learning, and remains ‘plastic’ throughout life. Neuroscience has shown that learning a skill changes the brain and that these changes revert when practice of the skill ceases. Hence ‘use it or lose it’ is an important principle for lifelong learning.
  • Resilience, our adaptive response to stress and adversity, can be built up through education with lifelong effects into old age.
  • Both acquisition of knowledge and mastery of self-control benefitt future learning. Thus, neuroscience has a key role in investigating means of boosting brain power.
  • Some insights from neuroscience are relevant for the development and use of adaptive digital technologies. These technologies have the potential to create more learning opportunities inside and outside the classroom, and throughout life. This is exciting given the knock-on effects this could have on wellbeing, health, employment and the economy.
  • There is great public interest in neuroscience, yet accessible high quality information is scarce. We urge caution in the rush to apply so-called brain-based methods, many of which do not yet have a sound basis in science. There are inspiring developments in basic science although practical applications are still some way off.
  • The emerging field of educational neuroscience presents opportunities as well as challenges for education. It provides means to develop a common language and bridge the gulf between educators, psychologists and neuroscientists.

To take a look at a quick look at the module’s education policy recommendations, check out this post over at Q.E.D. Foundation.

Your Brain By the Numbers

Scientific America recently published the engaging and amusing image below. It is the result of a collaboration between Wake Forest School of Medicine neuroscientist, Dwayne Godwin and the writer/illustrator of the Piled Higher and Deeper comic strip, Jorge Cham. Not only will some of these fact amaze you, you’ll have fun reading them, perhaps due to the associative memory the images activate and the dopamine secreted while reading them.

(click on the image to pull up a larger version)