Sympathetic Intelligence in Education

June 6, 2021 at 10:03 PM
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Sympathetic Intelligence in Education

by Robert Hamilton, Emily Barrett, and Jim Stellar



What underlies the success of the Ninja instructor as discussed in the last blog?  We think the answer is most visible in the experiential context of project-based courses as discussed in the first blog. But then it goes much deeper and well into the larger teaching environment as we will lay out in this blog.

We begin with two scenarios.

Scenario 1 – Student:  John, a student, is waiting for Emily, the instructor, to arrive. He forgets his natural anxiety at the start of a new class when he sees Susan, another student he knows and greets her with a smile. Susan smiles back but seems concerned there is nowhere to sit. John gestures that there is a seat beside him. When she gets close to where he is sitting he moves his books and makes room for her to sit down. This social gesture is another example of caring that began with a nonverbal exchange of a smile. The exchange occurred in a familiar context where both John and Susan are students in a university and where they interact with instructors in a way to which they have grown accustomed after years of K-12 education. They also know that some instructors care about them and others seem to just be doing their jobs. John and Susan will have a shared experience of meeting Emily, the instructor, for the first time.  But for now, at least, in a small way, they also have each other.

Scenario 2 – Instructor: After a long day of advising students, Emily glanced down at her notes again and went over the outline for her upcoming class. It was the first class she would ever teach and she was terrified. Emily thought, “I have no idea what I am doing and I am certain that the students will be able to tell immediately”. Years later, a student who happened to be in that class and who had become a colleague and then a friend, told her that he had no idea it was the first time she had ever taught a group of students.

The course she was teaching, a transition course for graduating students, has a strong emphasis on practical application and it was very important for her that the students see her as a resource and someone they could come to with questions, fears, anxieties, and excitement about their post-graduation journey. Emily wants to be approachable, and she also wants the material to be digestible and meaningful. Even though she was nervous and felt like she was out of her depth, this strong desire to connect with the students and to make the course relevant and meaningful to them, propelled her through that first class and the rest of the semester. Importantly, it did so in an authentic way to which her students could relate. Rather than seeing her fear and trepidation, they saw her desire to reach them. That climate of care created a dynamic in the classroom that allowed not only her students to flourish but also allowed her to bypass the terror of teaching her first class and embrace the positive impact she could have on those students.

Although Emily has an outline of the topics she wants to cover and information for the students of what the semester will look like, her main goal is to connect with the students in an authentic way. Now, the time has come. Emily steps up to the lectern, looks out upon the sea of eager faces……and smiles.


Sympathetic Intelligence

There are lots of words to describe what just happened in the above two connected scenarios.  One could say that both Emily and John engaged in empathy and we could even use the words “emotional intelligence.” But, we think that there is even more to it than that. We think the context plays a larger role than those words convey. After all, how many times have new students met a new instructor in the history of any university?  But the context is revealing. There is something about the way empathy spreads out between people in the classroom that permits a bond with the instructor and between the students themselves. This changes the empathy for another person into something else, something for the whole group and that is what we call “sympathetic intelligence.” In sports, this phenomenon might be called “momentum,” when the tide turns in a game and the team with momentum begins to play brilliantly.  It has much to do with the actions and reactions between people in the classroom.  When it works, the group functions as a whole, almost as a single organism.  One could even say that at that moment, the class has developed momentum.


Brain Basis of Sympathetic Intelligence

 In order to understand sympathetic intelligence better and expand on it, we think it is useful to first look at it as a natural manifestation of how the brain operates. Then we need to look at the entire socio-neurological continuum of intelligence. First however, the brain.

The most important feature here of how the brain operates is that it works on a number of levels. We will consider two: The highest level of the neocortex, the crowning achievement of evolution, that gives us our symbolic logic; and the next level down of the limbic and motor system that gives us the motivation and capability to take care of ourselves sorting out our needs and providing the positive and negative emotional reactions necessary for a healthy life. As one of us likes to say about this cognitive-emotional interaction by quoting the 17th Century mathematician and philosopher Blaize Pascale, “The heart has reasons of which reason does not know.”

The neocortex is the most recently evolved brain area. It uses a unique 6-layer internal structure that somehow underlies the abstract logical representation of the world that allows us to think, write, and speak. For example, when a child watches a ball roll behind a screen and their eyes jump to the other side and they show surprise if the ball does not emerge at the right time, you could say the child has an abstract representation of the ball’s trajectory. That child is not just tracking the ball with their eyes, like they do at an even younger age when they leave their eyes where the ball disappeared only to move them to the other side of the screen when it re-emerges.  We build these powerful abstract models everywhere and update them all the time from our experience. In higher education, this information sharing is very efficiently done in a one-to-many arrangement of a classroom with the instructor as the information dispenser – a so-called “sage on the stage”.

However, along the way and after many millions of years of evolution, much computational power was also built into the lower parts of the nervous system. Consider, for example, walking. It is something that requires a sophisticated set of lower motor programs, reflexes, and computations to position the legs and body in such a way that we move ahead with stability. Yet we typically do not even think about it. We think about where we want to walk.

A bit more interesting for us in this piece is the part of the brain in between these two higher and lower brain areas, that is often called the limbic system and involves mid-level motor control as seen dysfunctionally in Parkinson’s disease. Here are a set of brain circuits that make decisions about what is good for us – powerful motivations that appropriately direct us to nourishment when we are hungry or thirsty and make those things particularly pleasurable. In pathology, these brain circuits can underlie addiction. On the opposite side of the emotional range, other brain circuits generate fear when something goes wrong or constitutes a threat. Here, pathology can lead to PTSD, anxiety, etc.  Without these emotional brain circuits being part of our brains, evolution might never have had a chance to produce us and our fancy neocortex.

Yet like in the walking example, our powerful cortical cognitive circuits often leave us unaware of the influence of these emotional older brain circuits in daily life. That is, until we are struck by an emotion. Consider, for example, how beautiful it is to have a simple sandwich when we are very hungry, or how we have to take direct cognitive control of our walking behavior if we find ourselves on a patch of sheer ice. Much has been written about how emotions relate to cognition in decision-making and even thinking, e.g. Descartes Error by Damasio.

One idea about the operation of sympathetic intelligence is that it is the integration of the high-level, symbolic, conscious, decision-making circuits with the lower-level, emotional regulation circuits. We see that as brain natural and often ignored in many fields, including teaching. Look back at the Pascale quote and note the part about how the heart reasons (limbic system functioning) are often unknown to reason. Again, many scholars have written about this integration and how we make decisions under the influence of both. This question here is particularly important as we recognize that the classroom learning environment is essentially social and emotional as well as cognitive and informational.

Many of the interactions that occur in that classroom environment are like the example of John’s smile to Susan – nonverbal facial expressions, body postures, etc. These nonverbal communications serve to set the tone, drive interactions, and even emphasize key content points. Could this be why real-world experiences generally remain more impactful than the classroom, especially if delivered online where direct social interaction can be reduced? There seems to be something about the real-world presence of a “Ninja” instructor that makes a class more effective, even though the conscious intellectual content can be exactly the same. We think that difference can be explained by the impact of sympathetic intelligence.



In addition to cognitive-emotional integration in teaching discussed above, we must also briefly consider another simple idea. That idea is that human evolution really took off when our distant ancestors began to live in groups and started working together effectively for protection, to gather food, and to care for our slowly developing young. That group process shaped our brains at all levels, but most importantly for this discussion, it built ways that we could trust each other and work together as a team. Perhaps the most popular example is the social science research on the hormone oxytocin.

If oxytocin was first involved in a mother’s simple milk-let-down reflex in nursing and then developed to promote mother-daughter bonding, here is where it went further, and came to underlie a more general interaction. As researcher Paul Zak says, a very good way to release oxytocin in another person is to give them a welcome touch, even between men who do not nurse. What Zak and others have shown through modern neuroeconomics brain-scan experiments, is that oxytocin increases trust and resource sharing between in-group members. However, it also increases in-group bonding even to the point of having potential deleterious side-effects on someone from the out-group.

This group dynamic is powerful and may have driven much of our brain development. For example, a British anthropologist, Dunbar showed that the average size of an effective group where everyone pretty much knows everyone else is related to the size of the neocortex relative to the rest of the brain. Human groups are much larger than those of gorillas, for example, and so is the relative size of our neocortx. The military appears to know this feature of human groups, if only by practice. It designs its operation so that a platoon keeps a group size where fellow soldiers know each other and, in theory, are thus willing to die for each other in combat. Although much less dramatic, the average size of a class is roughly the same size as a platoon. The point is that a natural interaction between students, as mentioned above with John and Susan, allows the group dynamic to develop if they can know each other as individuals.  Or more to the point here, the right group size in a class allows sympathetic intelligence to strongly operate.


Sympathetic Intelligence as a Social Construct

In addition to a view that goes from the brain to social groups, sympathetic Intelligence can also be looked at from the perspective of a social construct – something that exists only because of human interaction. Our societies are built on how we behave together. Let us consider first that our social constructs take their lead from a place that is initially individually internalized and then becomes externalized. At some point, we cross from our own internal considerations to group external considerations. At some point the individual being becomes more than one being. But for this fact, all education would be meaningless and pointless. As educators, the writers believe that at a certain point in the neurological-sociological scheme, there develops a powerful “magic” in the interaction between individuals. As educators we also know that the quality of this magic is a critical player in the effectiveness of the student’s learning experience. As educators we have examined what we do, where we do it, how we do it, and why we do it. We are not surprised to discover that cognitive and emotional intelligence plays a central role, and we are not surprised to discover that the delivery and exchange involved in education is leveraged upon sympathetic intelligence.

So, why do we believe that sympathetic intelligence is so important in education?

First, as educators we have seen its impact firsthand. Second, as we have made clear in our previous blogs, we believe that a fundamental and essential, albeit sometimes under-appreciated, component of education is the actual instructor and how she/he operates. We believe that the key to understanding why instructing and instructors are so pivotal to the quality of the education process and to what makes great instructors is to be found in the idea of sympathetic intelligence and a subset of it – Epiphanicism (to be discussed later).

To probe deeper into sympathetic intelligence in action in a classroom or anywhere and to see it for what it really is – a Socio-Neurological phenomenon, it is important to see that sympathetic intelligence in action emerges from the interrelationship of three types of intelligence: Emotional Intelligence, Empathetic Intelligence, and an internal form of Sympathetic Intelligence. Empathetic Intelligence is informed by our Emotional Intelligence, enabling us to project our own feelings and emotions onto others – we can now imagine how others might feel. Sympathetic Intelligence is then informed by our Empathetic Intelligence as to how we should behave or might be expected to behave.


The Three Intelligences underlying Sympathetic Intelligence in Action in the Classroom

So, we see Sympathetic Intelligence in action as the visible consequence of the interplay between the three intelligences mentioned above. In the opening story, it is the instructional approach and the desire for authenticity that Emily brings to the classroom, and it is the smile and the protective caring that John shows to his classmate Susan. The culmination of these three intelligences is the transactional social behaviour that is exhibited in this small episode. But classes tend to be significantly larger than two people. It is our contention that larger groups also display sympathetic intelligence collectively. For example, to a musical performer, like Robert, the Country and Western audience is demonstrably different to the Punk Rock audience. The instructor who is alive to this component of social interaction and who has developed an understanding for the role that Sympathetic Intelligence plays in the classroom, will be better able to take each group’s Sympathetic Intelligence characteristics and make good on them for the purpose of learning effectively and in depth. We believe Sympathetic Intelligence in action can turn an otherwise passive collection of people into a powerful team that works together, or turn a classroom into something more like a family where students are inspired to learn together. To use our scenarios to illustrate this, the entire class senses Emily’s resolve and laughs at her throwaway introductional joke, so this is an example of Collective Sympathetic Intelligence, which helps the group to bond and creates a sense of unity. So, why does Emily smile? Of course, she smiles out of nervousness, but she also intuitively knows that the students will respond well to that smile. Her intuition comes from the interaction of the three intelligences described above.

At this point, perhaps the diagram below of the operation of sympathetic intelligence in an individual and in a two person interaction would help.


In the diagram above, note that Sympathetic Intelligence, when it is in action, is shown in the green filled boxes.  Here is where the culmination of the instructor’s skill at working with the individuals in class makes the whole class click or have momentum. Before that it exists as potential, it is internal within the instructor or within a student, but not yet acted upon, and it is shown in white.

Starting at the top row on the left of the diagram, the development of sympathetic intelligence in action in an individual begins with the basic structure of the brain that supports walking, breathing, homeostasis, reward/punishment, basic emotional reactions, etc, but does not achieve the higher level function of conscious awareness. We call that sub-liminality. Then conscious awareness develops as the brain either has evolved across species or as it develops in utero and early childhood. In this diagram that step is followed by the first of the three intelligences: emotional intelligence. Here is where one knows that emotions exist, even in other people, but it is just short of being able to put yourself in another’s place. The next step of doing that we call empathetic intelligence. We do note that both emotional and empathetic intelligence are terms that are often used in psychology and social science thinking. Sympathetic intelligence, on the other hand, seems to be a relatively new term. We use it to denote the potential to act and develop a reciprocal relationship with another person and in such a state we refer to it as internal sympathetic intelligence because the potential has not yet been realized. The final box, in green, in the top diagram is the execution of that sympathetic intelligence from one person to another and becomes powerful when reciprocated interpersonally as is shown in the second row.

The second row shows how two people would come together through these stages to end up engaging in a reciprocating relationship, either casual, friendly or for example a professional and caring relationship, such as can occur between a student and an instructor. When that happens, it becomes a self-reinforcing phenomenon. On a larger scale, the class has “clicked” and teaching is now occurring in greater depth as students and the instructor are in resonance.  To further explore this phenomenon, we refer you to the diagram below that focuses on a class or group and leads to the phenomenon of Epiphanicism as mentioned earlier.


In the diagram above and on the left, the outer edge is the automatic, reflexive, and/or subconscious state of Liminality coming from lower levels of the brain. We show liminality as taking us into the phenomenon of Consciousness, I think therefore I am. Like the first diagram above, next comes the three types of intelligence: Emotional Intelligence, Empathetic Intelligence, and Internal Sympathetic Intelligence. We see this as a progression toward the center of the diagram where finally, we are at Sympathetic Intelligence in Action (again in green fill).  Here one integrates with the group and the world outside of us – informed by all of the previous levels. We are a reflection of our world and because of that we act or attempt to act in harmony with it.

The diagram on the right represents how sympathetic intelligence envelopes a class with the white dots representing students. Here you can consider the green to be the ‘soup’ of society, or the wind that causes a flower to dance. Perhaps too, you can see that it is the ‘glue’ that binds us together. When that happens, the class “clicks” as we have already said and sometimes the effect is both explosive and powerful.

Epiphanicism: The origins of this concept lie with Robert’s years of rock music performance and in observing that the members of an audience become bonded by virtue of the fact that they have a shared experience. He called this phenomenon “epiphanicism” as it appeared to him that the people involved were having collective epiphanies. The extent to which people bond with each other at this moment in time, particularly in a rock concert, is very high. That bonding experience gets ‘coded’ into their existence in a way that appears very important to learning and memory.  It is also what can happen in forms of experiential learning such as in an internship at a worksite, in study abroad, or in other such activities.

From the point of view of classroom learning, the concept of sharing a collective epiphany explains the value that we place in this component of learning. The fact that shared realization takes place and others arrive at that same realization at the same time creates a relevance that causes it to be remembered. It leaves behind a positive motivational state that can drive future self-directed learning – very deeply in fact. In essence this is why we believe that instructor-led epiphanicism in the classroom is so important to student learning. In our previous writings, we have described these moments as ‘explosions of learning’. The importance we place on the role of the instructor is grounded in this fact. These moments should NOT be left to chance – the learning potential needs to be seized upon and crafted into a learning experience by the instructor/teacher.

Let us unpack this phenomenon a bit further.

Implicit/Subliminal Messaging: As a performer and communicator, Robert discovered the power that lies, not in what we actually say, but what is implicit in our entire demeanor. What words did we use? What meaning is in those words implicitly as opposed to specifically? How were those words delivered? Was there emphasis? Was it accompanied with positivity, with confidence or with caution? Regardless of what we say, sometimes what we don’t say but communicate unintentionally will undo the ability of our audience to consume or even understand what we are articulating.

As a musician for instance it is impossible to miss the relevance that the tone, timber, or note of a voice carries. Even the key that a piece of music is written in will affect the manner in which the message is received. The timber of a flute playing the note of A, is not the same as the timber of a bassoon playing the same note. Indeed, there is much that is hardly even referenced that differentiates one sound from the other. But, the significance in its meaning – is not lost on a musician. Certainly not any musician that has attempted to earn a living from the practice. As a musician Robert often refers to the role that attitude plays in delivering a musical piece. Drop a drumstick but keep smiling, no-one will notice. But drop the same drumstick and express your alarm, and that moment will become the centerpiece of the show. Stated more simply – who doesn’t know the value of a smile?

But, we are only scratching the surface here – there are many messages that are so subliminal, only deeper examination will reveal. For example when we say – “I, Like you, get excited…” are we sharing a common enthusiasm, or are we telling our audience that we actually like them? Most likely both. Right? So, the words we chose are in fact often loaded with more meaning than first blush will reveal. There’s the explicit meaning, and the implicit (or subliminal) meaning. What’s really interesting is that there’s reason to believe that both the communicator and the recipient understand and accept simultaneously both sets of meanings and react extremely well to words that have subliminal meaning and are chosen with our sympathetic intelligence to achieve maximum effect. So, can we be sure that our subliminal messaging is having the desired and supportive effect?

Consideration of the term “Care”: In the language of sympathetic intelligence, we really associate the word “care” with this component. In fact caring lies at the root of the concept. Stated simply, this is because people have Sympathetic Intelligence and it causes them to care about their environment. Sympathetic intelligence is a manifestation of each individuals’ desire to exist, assimilate, and resonate with their surroundings. It is our ‘social camouflage’ so to speak. The significance of the “care” word is also related to the empathetic intelligence component of the construct. And so, we are considerate and care about what is around us. But from the point of view of the use of sympathetic intelligence in the classroom – it is the presence of consideration and the sense of it that conveys caring to the students. That sense, perception or feeling of caring in the minds of students is a very powerful facilitator to the learning process. It adds authenticity and validity in a way that cannot be overstated. The package isn’t just delivered – the door opens and the package is brought inside.

We arrive at caring too when people refer to a communal endeavor as a form of social contract, and of course there is the bigger and wider concept here as conceived of by Jacques Rousseau. However, at the core of any contract is “consideration,” in that sense, it usually means money, but interestingly enough, even in Law – it sometimes can mean love and affection. So, to some extent consideration is also the currency of social interaction – it’s presence is like the oil or lubricant of an engine – without it, we become stuck – but, with it – so much friction dissolves and the purpose of endeavour becomes, not just functional but efficiently functional.

Sympathetic Intelligence in the Classroom: When Robert first began to investigate his own teaching methods or style he discovered remnants of his performance days. He still often walked into the classroom with the sort of trepidation that is outlined for Emily in the opening of this piece for example – but he immediately understood it as stage fright and managed it in exactly the same way he had done as a musician. How was that? – he turned it into positive energy using a variety of techniques he had developed as a musician! The point behind this reference is to establish that even at the outset – walking into a classroom – there are similarities between the role of an instructor/educator and the role of a performer. But, from a purely Sympathetic Intelligence perspective – Robert knew he wasn’t the only person who was nervous!

So, it’s no massive leap from there to acknowledging that there is a performance component to teaching. The relevance and importance of this goes back to our earlier pieces. Teaching is about engagement and resistance. Performance is about connecting and overcoming resistance. Performers succeed largely because the audience comes to identify with them. In this way, they overcome resistance and powerfully connect with the audience. And this is what Robert saw all those years ago in the music audiences and he came to initially call Epiphanicism as discussed above.


The Third and Final Piece – The Experiential, Environmental and Community Piece

What we have largely been talking about up until now is only two parts of the entire equation. One is the instructor, and the way an awareness of Sympathetic Intelligence promotes the ‘Ninja’ in them. The other is each individual student, and the way in which Sympathetic Intelligence impacts their behaviour in the classroom.  We have also pointed to the fact that together this causes Epiphanicism.

However, from our introduction you will have noticed that there are actually three players in the continuum of Sympathetic Intelligence that are critical to the educational impact and outcome. All three of these components; instructor, student and experience are feeding into the same shared Sympathetic Intelligence and this last and final part in and of itself contains three elements; The Experience; The Environment (or the Context); and the Community. This third part is the framing component of everything to do with sympathetic intelligence and in fact, it is one of this component’s elements that drives the writers’ shared passion for education – Experiential Learning. Let’s parse through each of these elements.

The Experience:  As we have seen, each student is using their own individual Sympathetic Intelligence to interact with each experience. They are interpreting the degree of harmony with the environment and those skill sets that they have which especially harmonize. Examples might be the young doctor on the ward who is discovering what they bring to the experience or the cybersecurity student in one of Robert’s classes who feels they have an especially good fit with the experience in which they are engaged.

The Environment:  Of course, the general environment plays such a big part in facilitating the specific classroom experience. The reason this is so important is because it is each college or university’s Sympathetic Intelligence that determines the level of success that each institution has with their students. One can think of this as the institutional environment of caring.

The Community:  Then lastly the community, which if you remember, was Robert’s first hint of the existence of Sympathetic Intelligence, the desire to be part of a community is one of the things that first attracted him to the concept as he saw his rock band’s fanbase become an actual community. It is possible that we could write separate assets for each of the components we have introduced here but certainly this, the final component of the community is probably the starting point for everything in higher education or indeed, any organization.  It is said in the case of strategic planning that “culture eats strategic plans for breakfast.” and this institutional level is a topic to which we plan to return in our final and fourth blog post.


Sympathetic Intelligence: A Final Definition

Sympathetic Intelligence is observed in a group from each individuals’ desire and ability to resonate and assimilate harmoniously with their surroundings. Sympathetic intelligence interprets our awareness and informs our senses as to how we should behave in response to our surroundings at any given moment. It is the visible component of how we show our feelings. Sympathetic intelligence is the visible consequence of how empathetic and emotional intelligence work together and are interpreted by a group

Stating the relationship in teaching as between these three elements is simple: We Feel, therefore we Care and then we act with Compassion but also strength.

Sympathetic Intelligence in action is a socio-neurological sensory/response mechanism which manifests individually, interpersonally and collectively as the desire and capacity to act/resonate appropriately and in harmony with our environment.

Furthermore, Sympathetic Intelligence is a socio-neurological sensory/response mechanism which reflects each individual’s desire and capacity to act appropriately and in harmony with their environment and that manifests individually, interpersonally and collectively in mutual sensitivity to participation and behavior.

Finally, Sympathetic Intelligence is a socio-neurological sensory/response mechanism visible individually, interpersonally and collectively as the desire and capacity to act in harmony with the environment and each other which manifests in sensing, interpreting and responding appropriately.


Where We Are Going

We started out looking at Education through the lens of our experiential model for higher education – Contributive Pathways. Then, we focused on the Instructional component of Education and introduced our concept of Ninja Instructing. Finally, we looked at the human characteristic that put the ‘Ninja’ into instructing – Sympathetic Intelligence.

What we are proposing is an entirely fresh approach to how we view education from both ends of the telescope. This fresh approach has been prompted from a sense that we are today in a totally different place now with technology and rapid social communication than we were when we first put education at the center of how society develops.

We don’t believe that changing education will be easy. Quite the contrary – we believe it will be hard and require great effort. In both our previous blogs, particularly in the Ninja teaching post, we referenced present and coming seismic shifts and the urgency for change in the world of higher education. By focusing here on Sympathetic Intelligence, we believe that dealing successfully with this seismic shift depends on the difference between traditional instructing and ninja instructing or the difference between doing and caring at the individual and institutional level – depth – which will be the subject of our next post.


The Insular Cortex and the Re-representation of Risk

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