Reflection and the Brain
by Kathleen Larsen UA ’21 and Jim Stellar
It is taken for granted that reflection facilitates the integration of affect and cognition that we believe work together in experiential education to build student maturity in a particular discipline (and perhaps in general). A particular interest in this blog series is the two-way communication between unconscious and conscious decision-making processes in the brain that makes it possible.? In this first blog, we begin with KL’s experience studying abroad.
KL’s study abroad trip:
Spring semester 2020, completed, but not how myself or anyone else expected. This semester was supposed to end on May 15th with me getting on a plane from Madrid, Spain to JFK in New York. From the time I was 16, I always imagined having the chance to study abroad. Something I did not always think I would be able to do. Little did I know, that in the second semester my junior year of college I would have the best two months of my life doing just that.
Before the departure, I had done everything possible to make sure I was prepared. I read every piece of information that was given. I decided to create a budget of seven hundred dollars a month for myself to make sure I was not over spending, while also making good use of my abroad time to make sure I traveled as much as possible. As the time to leave came closer, I noticed what I assumed was my amygdala taking action because I began to feel very nervous/anxious about leaving my family, and moving to a new country for four whole months. Fortunately, I am almost fluent in Spanish, so the language barrier was something I wasn’t too worried about. I was concerned with not knowing my surroundings, meeting new people, and being a whole ocean away from my family. Luckily, my host mother, Lydia, was one of the most generous, and kind-hearted people I had ever met.
Lydia and her family made my roommate and me feel very comfortable and happy. She cooked every meal for us, did our laundry, and took care of us if we got sick. Being away even made my Spanish get a lot better! Even my mother is impressed! This is something I will remember forever. Normally, this amazing adventure is supposed to last 4 months. The length of a full semester. To my surprise, the covid pandemic hit. My education abroad was cut short, and I was sent home in March. I was very upset to leave Madrid so soon. But as many of my friends said. It was not goodbye, it was a see you later, because I know I will be back to Madrid very soon.
Kolb’s cycle of experience and reflection:
David Kolb is an American educational theorist who works on reflection in experiential learning – the individual and social change, career development, and executive and professional education. In the 1980s Kolb wrote a number of papers that we are representing here by his diagram below. Notice how the experience itself is followed by reflective observation after the experience is over. That leads to a period where the person makes a conclusion or takes some cognitive learning from the experience that is abstract and intellectual. That abstract conceptualization (as Kolb called it in the diagram) leads the individual to think of various ways to look at that experience and plan new ways to engage with that experience. That takes the person back to that same type of experience, but this time slightly differently, and the cycle repeats.
McLeod, S. A. (2017, Oct 24). Kolb – leaning styles. https://www.simplypsychology.org/learning-kolb.html
What we would like to add to this cycle is emotion.
An example of a discrete emotional experience that KL went through in Spain would be when she and her friends were catcalled. Here is that story.
We all went out for a nice dinner and when we finished we were heading back home at around 11pm. Now in Madrid, it is very common for foreigners to be pick pocketed and if women are wearing tight or revealing clothing, they will be stared at, as well as have inappropriate words said to them. This particular night we were catcalled. I immediately wondered if it was anything I was wearing, or the fact that I looked like a foreigner. I realized I was dressed very modestly, and although I may look American, my mother is from a Latin origin which allowed me to grow up around the Spanish language, so the issue was not because of my “inability” to speak Spanish. It is possible that this happened because I am a young woman which makes me more susceptible to this behavior. In your own country, it is scary and uncomfortable enough to experience this. But in another country, scary and uncomfortable are both understatements. I looked at the man and rolled my eyes.
To relate this back to the Cycle of Experience, the Concrete Experience is obvious, but it came with a strong feeling of challenge and KL feeling uncomfortable. She writes:
In reviewing and reflecting on the experience I realized that it was enhanced by a feeling of vulnerability from being so far away from home. I never felt in danger, but I believe my reaction was stronger than it would have been had I been in America. By reiterating and going over everything that was said and done, I was engaging in Reflective Observation. I concluded that my eye rolling was the not action I should have done, especially while abroad. This was my Abstract Conceptualizing and it led to the last stage where I planned out what I would do in a similar situation if this were to happen again. Briefly, I determined that given my feelings of vulnerability from being abroad, I need to react in a much stronger (while safe) reaction. I determined to say either completely ignore him or to say something aggressive. My thinking was that either option would show my strength, even if only to myself. In America, that might not have been necessary, but given that being abroad I had to prove to myself, most importantly, that I could handle things in Spain. I now feel an eye-roll was too weak and did not show the strength of which I was capable. I learned from this experience and I now know because of reflection, was that I gave the man what he wanted, which was not what I wanted. I had to do some reflection to see what I would do if this situation happened again.
We know that our emotional brain circuits in the limbic system allow us to use our cognitive apparatus. Overall, KL feels an emotional, personal growth within. She is now better prepared because of this experience. If this situation arises again, KL will be ready and more sophisticated, while keeping her head up high. How did happen in the brain? What brain circuits might be involved? See our next blog.