Brain in Motion

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Psychology professor Louis Cozolino reveals how both our brains and our relationships shape how we learn.

Louis Cozolino is taking a fresh look at the challenges of contemporary education. in his latest book, The Social Neuroscience of Education: Optimizing Attachment and Learning in the Classroom, the GSEP professor of psychology explores how both the science of our brains and the quality of our social connections impact our ability to learn.

From foundational neuroscientific principles to factors that can hinder or stimulate learning,
the book explains why an understanding of our brains as social organs has the potential to transform education today.

In an exclusive excerpt for Pepperdine Magazine, Cozolino demonstrates this potential in action, highlighting how the social nature of storytelling makes it uniquely successful at stimulating our brains for learning.

Why Stories Are Essential for Learning

If history were taught in the forms of stories it would never be forgotten.
—Rudyard Kipling

Through countless generations, humans have gathered to share stories. Whether it be tales of brave ancestors, strategies for a successful hunt, or fun ways to pass the time with friends and family, the stories of tribe are a repository of shared knowledge and a matrix of culture. Stories connect us to one another, help to shape our identities, and serve to keep our brains integrated and regulated. The human brain co-evolved with storytelling, narrative structure, and the tale of the heroic journey as told in cultures throughout the world. Stories are, in fact, so ubiquitous in human experience that we hardly notice their existence.

Discounted by many educators as unworthy of the classroom, storytime is enjoyed by children but left behind to get on with the business of “serious” learning. Like our primitive social instincts, storytelling has a deep evolutionary history that has been woven into the fabric of our brains, minds, and relationships. The central role of storytelling in contemporary tribes attests to its early origins and central role in memory storage, emotional regulation, and social cohesion. Through the seemingly profound transformations from oral to written to digital-based record keeping, we have never lost interest in stories, especially about each other. Just think of all the energy we invest in gossiping across every new medium of communication.

By allowing for the articulation of personal experience and shared values, stories connect families, tribes, and nations, generate culture, and link us to a group mind. These connections, in turn, support the functioning and well-being of each individual brain. It is very likely that our brains have been able to become as complex as they are precisely because of the power of narratives to guide and organize our thinking. It is as if each of us has an external neural circuit existing in the stories of the group mind that helps us to regulate internal neural functioning.

Stories are a central aspect of personal identity and, in many ways, we become the stories of our  experiences and aspirations. Identity has even been defined by philosopher Daniel Dennett (1991) as the “center of narrative gravity” of the stories we tell about ourselves. As children we are told who we are, what is important to us, and what we are capable of. We then tell them to others and eventually
to ourselves. The impact of stories on the formation of self-identity makes them powerful tools in the creation and maintenance of the self (Bruner, 1990). These stories become organizing principles that serve to perpetuate both healthy and unhealthy aspects of self-identity. Positive self-narratives aid in emotional security and minimize the need for elaborate psychological defenses (Fonagy et al., 1991), while negative self-narratives perpetuate pessimism, low self-esteem, and decreases in exploration and learning.

Memory and LearningThe mind is everything. What you think you become.
—Buddha

Every culture has stories, myths, and fables born before the written word and passed down through the generations via storytelling and song. The Vedic song poems of ancient India were memorized, sung, and preserved by a class of scholars dedicated to the preservation of ancient wisdom. The accumulation and advancement of knowledge was completely dependent on the compulsion to hear and tell stories and on the brain’s ability to remember and repeat them. This is probably the reason why our brains have evolved to possess a limitless storage capacity for stories and songs.

Memory experts use this evolutionary legacy to recall large amounts of unconnected information by placing them in a narrative. They may picture a room and place each of the items they are trying to remember in a different location. For recall, they go back to the visual image of the room and visualize each item where they placed it. This is not superhuman, they have simply learned to use the deep well of contextual and narrative memory we all share.

I am a terrible speller and completely depend on spellcheck. I can, however, spell “Mississippi” and “encyclopedia” because when I was young, Disney cartoons placed the spelling of these words in songs. And I doubt that anyone from my generation can spell “respect” without hearing Aretha Franklin’s voice in their heads. It is also true that most of us can hear the first few notes of thousands of songs we learned years ago and almost intermediately recognize them and be able to sing along. The words and notes seem to be waiting in our brains even though it may have been decades since we last heard them. These are all contemporary holdovers of the brain’s evolutionary past and of our historic dependence on stories and songs.

Another window into our deep history is in the way elders and children relate to stories. It has always been the job of elders to tell stories, passing them on to the younger members of the tribe. Most of us have older relatives who tell the same story again and again as if they have never told us before. As we grow older, we also tend to tell more stories from long ago as the distant past becomes increasingly salient with advancing age.

Now think of who likes to hear the same stories again and again and again in exactly the same way. In fact, they will even correct you if you get a word or fact wrong. If you guessed young children, you are right! They demand that you tell them the same story every night for days, weeks, or months before they are ready to move on to the next one. What we are likely witnessing in these parallel processes is a genetically programmed process in both the older adult and child to transfer the stories, knowledge, and wisdom across the generations.

The impulse to repeatedly tell and listen to stories appears to be a lock-and-key mechanism of intergenerational information transfer, which fits into the child’s impulse to hear them.

Stories and Neural Integration

Anyone who says they have only one life to live must not know how to read a book.
—Anonymous

As the human brain evolved, an increasing number of specialized neural networks emerged to handle the vast amount of information required for complex social interactions, abstract thinking, and imagination. This increasing complexity eventually allowed for the emergence

of language, storytelling, and narrative structure. Keeping this ever-growing bureaucracy of neural networks integrated, balanced, and running smoothly became ever more challenging. My suspicion is that over time, language came to organize and integrate brain systems in order to allow for the emergence of even more neural complexity. Through language, individual brains gradually became able to use the minds of others through shared stories to aid in neural integration, emotional regulation, and enhanced executive functioning.

Although stories appear imprecise and unscientific, they serve as powerful organizing tools for neural network integration (Oatley, 1992; Rossi, 1993). A story that is well told, containing conflicts and resolutions and thoughts flavored with emotions, will shape brains and connect people. The structure of any story contains two basic elements: The first is a series of events grounded in the passage of time, and the second is some emotional experience giving the story relevance and meaning. In order to tell a good story, the linear linguistic processing of the left hemisphere must integrate with the emotional, sensorimotor, and visual information centers in the right hemisphere. Thus, a coherent and meaningful narrative provides the executive brain with a template for the oversight and coordination of the functions of the two hemispheres. In fact, the coherence and understandability of the personal narratives we generate are highly related to the security of our attachment relationships, self-esteem, and emotional regulation.

A good indicator of the power of stories is reflected in the faces of the listeners. Have you ever noticed what happens when you transition from talking about facts to telling a story? Eye contact locks
in, distractions decrease, and a series of expressions reflect the events and emotions that run through the story. You can see the unfolding drama reflected in the eyes, faces, and bodies of your listeners. Listening to stories is a basic form of learning that goes back long before the invention of reading, writing, or arithmetic; stories contain all of the elements required to stimulate neuroplasticity and learning.

Excerpted from The Social Neuroscience of Education, copyright 2013, by Louis Cozolino. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton.

Listen to an audio interview with Cozolino about The Social Neuroscience of Education.

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About the Author

Louis Cozolino is a professor of psychology at the Graduate School of Education and Psychology and a private practitioner. He has diverse clinical and research interests and holds degrees in philosophy and theology, in addition to his doctorate in clinical psychology. He has conducted empirical research in schizophrenia, child abuse, and the long-term impact of stress. Recently, his interests have turned to a synthesis of the biobehavioral sciences and psychotherapy. He is the author of The Healthy Aging Brain, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy, and The Making of a Therapist, as well as numerous articles and chapters on various topics. He maintains a clinical and consulting practice in Los Angeles.

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