Experiential education and decisions without words

June 6, 2015 at 10:10 PM
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Experiential education and decisions without words


Darya Rubenstein QC 14 and Jim Stellar


We two recently wrote a blog post that focused on Rabbi Akiva Tatz’s view of wisdom in the sense of da’as; a Hebrew term meaning a deeper/intrinsic knowledge coming not from words but from seeing an interconnectedness of many points, culminating in an “aha” moment when the pattern emerges.  Now we would like to link that idea to a curious story about a patient named Arthur, found in a 1999 book “Phantoms in the Brain” by V. S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee. The goal is to connect this thinking to moments of decision making in college such as discovering one’s career path on the basis of an experiential education activity or even in the classroom.  Let’s see how this goes.


We are all familiar with an experience from when we were children. It happens in public places filled with strangers; maybe at the supermarket or a family friend’s fiftieth birthday party. We lose track of a parent, for just a moment, and suddenly we are alone in a sea of giants. The one or two seconds it takes to find her may seem like hours, but when that familiar skirt or pant leg comes into view, things seem like they will resolve themselves just as quickly as it felt they would not. A comforting face with familiar features comes into view, and the emotional fibers in our body know beyond all doubt that we are safe. As children grow older, the confidence of knowing a parent seamlessly weaves itself into our reality from the inside out (feelings to logical reasoning). The feelings we take for granted dictate our reality. But what if this unshakeable reality of knowing your parent gets disconnected from their appearance?


As discussed in the book mentioned above, Arthur, a thirty-year-old man, was experiencing a disconnect in this emotional familiarity with his parents when he first went to see Ramachandran. He was able to recognize the features associated with his parents, but when it came to the feeling associated with seeing a parent, Arthur was at a loss. He just did not have those emotions. It was like Arthur’s mind was working from the outside in, first using logical reasoning to evaluate whether the person before him was his parent and then, upon realizing the absence of his feelings, concluding that these people were imposters. You can imagine the consternation this state of affairs produced in his family. An even more curious variation on this condition was that if Arthur spoke to his parents on the phone, he did not feel they were impersonators. His feelings kicked in upon hearing their voices, and Arthur knew he was speaking to his parents. He just did not have those feelings when he saw them.


Ramachandran suggested in the book that the circuits between visual recognition and emotional feeling in Arthur’s brain had been disconnected due to injury, but not for auditory recognition and emotional feeling. Thus the sight of his parents did not generate the positive emotional feelings even if hearing their voices on the phone could do that.


This story became even more impressive to us in a second phase of the study where the patient wore a device to measure emotional reaction through an old technique that measures stress and emotional reaction, the galvanic skin response or GSR. When a normal person sees the face of his parent he has a GSR reaction. When Arthur saw the face of his parent, he failed to show the GSR reaction. This observation makes the case for a behavioral disconnection between the cognitive and emotional learning around the parent’s appearance. It seems logical that without an emotional reaction time and time again, such a patient might conclude that these people – who say they are my parents – are actually imposters. How else could patients like Arthur make sense of their emotional non-reactions to their parents?


Notice that it is not necessary for a parent to verbally outline his or her caregiving role to his child. Rather, this concept is learned subconsciously through imprinting. Children quickly process the characteristics of a caregiver and then tie emotion to these characteristics without the need for a rational verbal explanation. It is a wisdom in children that is reminiscent of how Tatz suggests a teacher impart wisdom to his students without words. The teacher uses words only until a certain point is reached, after which Tatz says that words cheapen the achievement of the desired wisdom. Wisdom comes from the union of the verbal/rational logic brain circuits with the intuitive/emotional logic brain circuits. An “aha” moment in seeking wisdom or the imprinted experience of a child in her parent’s presence is felt much more than articulated.

What if we could model a similar pathway for higher education?  What if universities were to take advantage of a student’s non-verbal wisdom-producing brain circuitry in the most effective way possible, in order to prepare her for the profession she chooses? If emotion around that choice is left out of the equation, no field or major can be learned thoroughly or committed to with vim. Ironically, the most commonly used technique in universities is the classical learning environment in which emotional experience is hardest to infuse: the standard facts-and-theories classroom lecture. A college student that has a substantial and authentic experience (e.g. a good internship) in her field of study may have this convergence of rational and emotional circuity that will help them make a wise choice of a major and a deeper commitment to their study in college.

The Association of American Colleges & Universities provides a list of “high impact practices” that are riddled with emotional language of commitment. Unsurprisingly, a common factor in each item is the space provided for emotional learning and therefore the opportunity to thoroughly take advantage of this education brain circuit. David Eagelman’s book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain stresses that our subconscious experiences use emotion as a pathway to communicate with our conscious, rational brain. Taking emotion out of the equation is not only damaging to a student by robbing him of an all-encompassing education, but it is a detriment to the economy he will enter as a less well prepared professional. It is time for higher education to bring awareness to the importance of a well-rounded and fully experiential learning environment by using both processes in the brain. Through this recognition and implementation, true wisdom will be born.

Seeking experiential education in undergraduate research after transferring to a new university
1 Comment

One Response to “Experiential education and decisions without words”

  1. Sarah says:

    Really really interesting. And striking to realize how little “emotionally-oriented” teaching there is! Would love to learn about examples (aside from internships). Great!

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