The Social Brain and the Experiential Education in and out of the Classroom

June 6, 2014 at 8:47 PM
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The Social Brain and the Experiential Education

in and out of the Classroom

by Shalini Singh (City College CUNY ’15)

What is experiential education?Why is the social brain important? How does such an educational experience impact the students’ capacity to flourish in society? Finally, how can the concepts from experiential education be applied within the classroom? This paper attempts to address these questions from the point of view of a student.



The College Classroom and Teamwork

In a standard classroom setting, college students listen to lectures that are usually followed by an exam. The exam is used to demonstrate how well students retain the learned information. The traditional classroom teaching format does not provide a wide range of opportunities for students to engage in the application of the learned information. Today’s workplace’ concern is that higher educational institutions are not preparing their students with necessary skills for potential employers.

One problem is that traditional classroom settings do not easily permit an interactive design. Some of that is due to classroom size. For instance, in my experience in a classroom of above 30 students, the teacher does not have much of a chance to communicate with their students on an individual basis to provide individual attention and show concern for the student’s academic growth. Also, students often do not have an opportunity to interact with each other. The interaction and resulting growth is necessary, however, for an individual to develop the intellectual and social skills that are needed to thrive in the workplace. The workplace almost always consists of other people with whom to communicate on a daily basis to achieve a goal. Teamwork is an important, and employers often seek evidence of this quality before hiring.

For this reason interviews are conducted even when one is qualified for the position with the correct major and a high GPA. Employers want to know who they are hiring to represent them; specifically does the potential employee have the right mindset and skills to work with others for the company’s success. Therefore, the potential employee needs to develop social skills as a student that can facilitate their employment process and help them become an asset to their company or field. I see that many of my fellow students graduate and cannot find jobs with their degree because they lack social and other job skills that are necessary for their employability. The lesson of experiential education is that higher educational institutions can help their students achieve these skills by providing a workplace-like learning experience. Let us examine that concept first, see how it might work in the student’s mind, and then apply it to the classroom.

Learning from the Workplace

Experiential education is the approach in which the open sometimes, unpredictable workplace environment itself engages the students. They learn from direct experiences, increase knowledge and skills, and develop analytical adeptness. In my experience from internships, learners that work directly in this environment will have multiple, different, and spontaneous opportunities to enhance their academic knowledge of the field they desire to pursue. Moreover, experiential education, we think, draws on the social brain, because students learn from direct interactions with others under specific situations in their field of interest. For instance, a student that works (paid) or volunteers (unpaid) as an intern at a law firm (as did I) will have the opportunity to understand the real life circumstances that lawyers experience on a daily basis. Specifically, interns volunteering at a law firm are exposed to social occurrences that can enhance their ability to learn from the social situation at work; to better perceive clients’ facial cues to their state of mind, to determine the clientele’ credibility, and to learn what is business as usual duties by collaborating with the staff members in the office and even in the court. Typical classroom settings do not provide students such alternative ways to learn and explore their field of interest. In a classroom, one learns the facts and theories and maybe to reason about them. Whereas in the workplace, one learns to incorporate another’s perspective into one’s own views and that is essential for the workplace. Such experiential education provides students an opportunity to collaborate with one another to resolve conflicts. It is to this social interaction and the field of social neuroscience that I now turn my attention.


Social Neuroscience

About two decades ago, John Ciapocco and Bernston (1992) developed the term “social neuroscience” and defined this area of research to focus on how the brains of many individual collectively perceive and process social stimuli. The term social in “social neuroscience” indicates an individual’s ability to assess social stimuli during interactions with others. As stated, in the real world people work together to resolve issues and thereby multiple brains are involved. What we now know is that much of the collaboration that occurs is done unconsciously. The Solomon Asch studies in the 1950s still exemplify how people rely on others to answer simple questions about which line matches the test line. Today the phenomenon of conformity that occurs during social interactions is understood with a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) brain scan machine.

Asch (1951) conducted the famous line match study on college male participants in which the participants were unaware that everyone else in the room was a confederate in the experiment. In the room, the participants and confederates had to respond aloud to which of any of the three lines on one card matched the reference card that depicted a single line. Importantly, the participants were seated in the manner that they were the last of the group to answer the question. The trick was that on most trials the confederates responded with a single answer that was clearly incorrect. Asch’s study showed that approximately 75 percent of the participants conformed to the group’s answers at least once during the testing phase. During the debriefing, the participants stated that they did so either because they believed the answer was correct or did not want to go against the majority (Asch, 1951). This study reveal that people have a tendency to go along with the group, and even a group of just 3 members can produce the observed conformity. Many studies replicated Asch’s findings.

Following the Crowd fMRI Study of Asch’s conformity

Edelson, Sharot, Dolan, and Dudai (2011) revisited the Solomon Asch experiment      with an fMRI approach. These researchers also found participants in their study demonstrated the conformity response at about 68% of the time. However, they showed that this result was accompanied by an interaction between the amygdala and the hippocampus (Edelson, Sharot, Dolan, and Dudai 2011). Particularly, there was a heightened synchrony between the amygdala and hippocampus for long lasting memory errors, defined as persistent errors in the study in which the participants remembered the wrong conclusion as being correct and which occurred about 41% of the time.

Even more specifically, Edelson et al. (2011) found that there is an amplified    connection between the left amygdala and bilateral hippocampus during these persistent memory errors. They proposed the left amygdala serves as a mediator to ensue another person’s memory as their true memory. Edelson et al. demonstrated that there is an enhanced amygdala activity associated with a heightened functional connectivity in the anterior and posterior hippocampus that is associated with long-term memory changes that is due to social situations.

The Social Amygdala

The amygdala has many roles, but one of them is in the acquisition and storage of emotional memory, as well as social judgment (Adolphs, 2003) particularly in cognitive processing by ascertaining the motivational significance of stimuli from the environment. Interestingly, Bickart et al. (2011) suggested one’s amygdala volume shows a relationship to one’s social network size, the larger the group size the larger the amygdala. In a similar fashion, Dunbar (1992) has made similar claims for the neocortex, proposing that the size of the neocortex is correlated with the number of people that individuals associate with in a group. The larger amygdala volume may be due to the social network size and the need for greater correct identification of emotional cues because of the exposure to more people. Being able to understand facial cues from another person’s face is an advantage for a thriving group in latter human evolution.

Within the past decade, researchers have been focusing on the role of the amygdala in facial cues by studying participants with amygdala damage. Adolphs et al. (2002) found participants with bilateral amygdala damage demonstrated impairment in basic facial emotion judgment. Surprisingly, Adolphs et al. (2003) found that there is a functional dissociation between the left and the right amygdalae in emotion processing, with the left amygdala serving to decipher the arousal part of social stimuli and the right amygdala serving the fear response. The right amygdala association with fear response is a well-established inference within the scientific community.

Recently, Vrticka, Sander, and Vuilleumier (2013) conducted an FMRI study on female volunteers to reveal their amygdala’s sensitivity to emotional valences and social contents that were presented to them in pictorial stimuli. The researchers found their amygdala was activated for social stimuli regardless of the emotional valence being positive, negative or neutral. This supports the “following the crowd” study because the amygdala is activated by the social content independent of the emotional value.

Amygdala and Trust

Van’t Wout and Sanfey (2008) were interested in the implicit facial social cues such as trustworthiness and how it affects the social decision making process. Specifically, the researchers tested the effects of implicit trustworthiness from participants that would cooperate with their previous partners. The participants in their study played a trust game, in which the participants decided how much money they were willing to invest with their partners without a guaranteed return. Prior to the decision of how much money to invest with a partner, the participants rated their partner’s faces on a subjective trustworthiness scale. As a result, the participants that rated a partner as more subjectively trustworthy invested more money with that partner. Van’t Wout and Sanfey (2008) found there is a positive linear correlation between subjective trustworthiness and the amount of money invested with a partner. They then tested recognition memory after the participants completed the trust game. The results indicate that recognition was better for the faces that were rated as trustworthy, although overall participants were poor at recognizing their partners with only 67% hit rate and 60% correct rejection rate. This result indicates that the participants did not explicitly recognize their partners as well as the researchers initially expected. The researchers suggest that perceived subjective trustworthiness influences peoples’ decision-making process on investments in an implicit manner. Perhaps there is an underlying activity within the amygdala causing people to trust others even if the participants are not aware of it.

Oxytocin, Another Trust Brain Mechanism

Interns working at a law firm (again like the one at which I worked) are usually students      that know nothing or very little about the operation and procedures lawyers experience on a daily basis. Therefore, they must rely on the staff and supervisor(s) to guide them in their course of daily actions. Trust is an important social cue that would enrich this process and the learning. Oxytocin is a well-studied pituitary neuropeptide written about by Paul Zak (2012) and others. It exhibits a biological effect on trustworthiness and trust behavior. This neuropeptide seems to impact peoples’ trust behaviors to cooperate with others, and is known as the cuddle, love, and connected hormone. The hormone is known to increase maternal care and bonding, and enables social recognition. Rimmele et al. (2009) found intranasal application of oxytocin enables emotion recognition from facial expressions, such as trustworthiness. Detecting subtle facial cues such as trustworthiness triggers a decision to trust or not, and recently researchers are trying to understand the interaction between the neuropeptide oxytocin and its effect on the amygdala.

Hurlemann et al. (2010) conducted a double blind experimental design with an    intranasal or placebo spray of oxytocin. Subjects in this study were instructed to complete a reinforcement task that required them to classify category membership in a sequential manner, and the reinforcing feedback was either social or nonsocial. The social feedback changed from a neutral to happy facial expression for the correct responses or to an angry facial expression for incorrect responses. The nonsocial feedback changed from a black circle to green for correct responses or to red for incorrect responses. They found that learning was best for the social feedback subjects, and that oxytocin seemed to improve the social feedback effect of the reinforcer in the study. Interestingly, Hurlemann et al. (2010) also tested the performance of two women with selected bilateral amygdala damage. They found that these two women performed better with the nonsocial feedback and poorly with the social feedback. An interesting interpretation of these results is that the amygdala plays a role in detecting social cues. Moreover, oxytocin seems to enhance the capability of the amygdala’s function for social cue detection in faces.

Etienne Wenger’s Community of Practice and Trust

Etienne Wenger proposed community of practice to be a place where people    collectively share an interest for something that they are passionate about doing, and continue learning from each other as they work in partnership (Wenger, 1998). Partnership takes effort because the people that belong to that community (e.g. the workplace) participate in discussions and activities to enhance their knowledge collaboratively in their practice. The knowledge that is transferred from one person to another in practice can be explicitly or implicitly recognized.

The implicit process of learning from each other may be due to the interaction between the amygdala and hippocampus as found by Edelson et al. (2011) in the earlier discussed “following the crowd” study. For example, an intern in a law firm who has no experience will be dependent upon the knowledge of his/her supervisors because they lack the experience of the given situation. As Wenger (2010) states, social learning spaces in the community is a fundamental process precisely because learning depends on the individuals’ active participation in their community of practice. More importantly here, Wenger states that trust is pivotal in partnership during the course of social learning, because trust within the community enables the practitioners to build on their relationship and develop a cooperative pursuit of their practice (Wenger, 2010).


Back to Experiential Education

In the past, many scholars stated the importance of experience in higher education. John Dewey and Jean Piaget. John Dewey (1897) stated that education must be construed as a continued process of restructuring experiences. Dewey believed that the traditional concept of learning was ineffective and proposed that curriculum learning methods to be paired with experience to further develop students’ full education experience (1938). Jean Piaget (1976) proposed learning to be the process of assimilating new experiences into existing thoughts and accommodating existing thoughts into new experiences. It seems that individuals who train their mind to work with others develop useful aptitudes that enable them to thrive in their working and social life, and this can be perceived through the process of assimilating and accommodating to new experiences. As the Association for Experiential Education said in 2011, “Experiential education is a philosophy and methodology in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, and clarify values.”

Experiential education does not only educate the student’s conscious mind, but I submit also the unconscious mind. This is important, for as Eagelman describes in his well-known 2011 book Incognito, much of our decision-making is unconscious. In Experiential Education students engage actively in a social context with others to resolve problems and challenges to acquire knowledge, skills, and abilities (Sibthorp et al., 2011). This point is explicitly expressed in the guiding principles of experiential education. Learners in experiential education tend to adapt a personal responsibility to engage in active learning and explore environments that helps facilitate their experiential education foundation (Sibthorp et al., 2011). Additionally, Sibthorp et al. (2011) found participants learned to be autonomous while building on their knowledge in experiential education program. Experiential education programs include activities that almost always incorporate teamwork, which may aid in developing students’ leadership skills for the workplace. Encouraging this type of collaboration amongst students and their environment will construct task continuity and profound level of knowledge may arise from the quality of such learning experience (Dewey, 1938).


Experiential Learning in the Classroom

For many years, the traditional classroom learning experience makes experiential education looks like a new concept despite the fact that experiential learning has been prominent in our social lives. For instance, family researchers depict this concept very well; children are active learners as the parent is an active teacher in their day-to-day exploration of life and themselves in the environment. Wenger (2010) proposed that in adults trust is an underlying component that facilitates a community of practice to learn cohesively from each other. As stated, this interaction is likely an important application of the human brain size (Dunbar 1992), and a larger amygdala volume that works with the neurochemical oxytocin to allow students to engage with others in their group more cohesively. Learners that engage in experiential education programs more cohesively, e.g. an internship, should be better able to learn from those experiences to adapt to the real world at any given workplace.

Traditional classroom learning experiences often does not seem to include these experiential education ideas of interaction and active learning within their curriculum design. Nevertheless, even as a student, I can see how the standard classroom settings can use experiential education principles to enhance their students’ capabilities for the real world on a daily basis. For instance, a professor simply can divide his/her class into groups to find the answer to a problem as class activities. Students in these groups must then rely on each other for help with the answer to the problem and would have the direct supervision of the professor in a traditional classroom. In such situations, trust is a major underlying influence because the students that are not familiar with the topic in question will depend on other student (s) in the group, implicitly or explicitly, who have that familiarity. The problem is that this concept is not as applicable to a classroom of 100 or more students. Also, students that are shy to posit a question in a traditional classroom setting and who do not interact with other students or professors will most likely not have the same learning. This behavior in the classroom could have a strong influence on the success and failures of that student in a workplace setting. Numerous teaching methodologies have been proposed and tested to correct for this problem of taking students who are typically passive learners as the professor lectures and turning them into active interactive learners.

The Flipped Classroom

There are many ways in which the classroom can be made more experiential by the use of experiential education characteristics as seen in an internship in the workplace. One of those ways about which much has been written recently is what is called the flipped classroom (Fulton, 2012) where the professor gives the lecture on line before the class and the students do the reading. The purpose of the class is then to discuss the topic in an active format. Fulton states the benefit for the learning student in this new classroom setup is the availability of the teacher to guide the student on resolving difficult homework assignments. Another benefit of flipped classroom is the collaborative engagement of students, where they work in groups to resolve the assigned homework problems (Fulton, 2012). Herried and Schiller (2013) state the classroom time can be used to challenge students with the application of the material, real world problems, and development of meaningful questions. But to me here, the most intriguing attribute is the parallel to learning from experience because the learner in a flipped classroom directly engages with other students and the teacher to apply their knowledge to real life problems.

Peer Instruction

Another way in which the classroom can be made more active is seen in the work            of Eric Mazur who encourages student participation in his science classes by peer-to-peer discussion and by student voting with clickers on questions asked. Crouch and Mazur (2001) termed this approach as peer instruction, which is a slight modification of the flipped classroom notion. Peer instruction involves students to learn in-class presented material by focusing their concentration on the topics’ underlying conceptual questions and all readings must be done before class. The conceptual questions are then proposed to students, in which they answer individually followed by small group discussions (Crouch & Mazur, 2001). Students discuss the underlying logic for their answers prior to responding to the questions again, and student answers may change (Crouch & Mazur, 2001). The researchers found that the average performance on pre and post tests were better for the calculus peer instruction instead of the traditional based learning groups of students. There was a normalized gain in performance for the peer instruction group that ranged from 0.49 in 1991 to 0.74 in 1997 and the traditional comparison group demonstrated a normalized gain of only 0.25 on their test performance.


Summary – A Students’ Capacity to Flourish

A student’s capacity to flourish in society does not only depend on their cognitive abilities that are tested in traditional classrooms, but also on their ability to collaboratively work with others in the workplace and a variety of other skills that surround the application of that knowledge. Partnership is essential in group discussions to enhance a person’s knowledge collectively with their group members that share a common interest (Wenger, 1998) and that depend upon building trust. Remember that Rimmele et al. (2009) found intranasal application of oxytocin enhances emotional recognition in facial expressions such as trustworthiness, and Hurleman et al. (2010) demonstrated that oxytocin improved learning for the social feedback participants. Van’t Wout and Sanfey (2008) found a positive linear correlation between subjective trustworthiness and the amount of money a participant was willing to invest with a partner. Trust is an important element in social cue detection, which is essential for collaborative learning system.

Bilateral amygdala damage showed participants were unable to make judgments on basic emotions on facial expressions (Adolphs et al., 2002), and that may limit an individuals’ capacity to flourish in society. Correspondingly, Adolphs et al. (2003) established that there is a functional dissociation between the left and the right amygdala during emotional cue processing. The left amygdala’s function seemed to facilitate and decode the arousal part of a social stimuli and the right amygdala facilitate and decode fear responses (Adolphs, et al., 2003). More recently, Vrticka et al. (2013) showed female participants’ amygdala was activated for social stimuli independent of the emotional valences.

Although conformity has been viewed negatively for many years, evolutionarily, people learn more effectively through the process of conformity. People have a natural tendency to conform to others’ unconsciously as illustrated by Edelson et al.’s (2011) finding that heightened synchrony activation between the amygdala and bilateral hippocampus for long term memories that persisted from conformity. This evidence supports why students have the capacity to thrive in an experiential educational program such as internship, because they are actively engaged in the dynamics of unconscious learning. The same is true for adaptations that are made to classroom teaching that can take advantage of these same unconscious learning and decision-making principles and thus parallel learning from outside-classroom experience.

Thus, the flipped classroom and peer instruction strategies for classroom designs can be seen as products of experiential education. Both systems increase a students’ exposure to real life application on the topics that they learn in classroom by expanding students’ active engagement in learning from each other and with direct feedback from the teachers. This phenomenon sets the stage for students to be prepared to work with others effectively in the workplace, because they have the opportunity to develop their cognitive, emotional and social skills that are necessary to survive in today’s world




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4 Responses to “The Social Brain and the Experiential Education in and out of the Classroom”

  1. Naomi Ducat says:

    It may be advantageous to apply this idea of “social learning” to special education. Students with learning disabilities are often segregated into classes outside of the normal school setting in order to receive help. This seems problematic to me. Shalini mentions that Oxytocin levels increase during “social learning” and this enhances Amygdala sensitivity to facial- social cue detection. If this is true, than the special ed students are at a neural disadvantage because they do not receive the same social experience. Implementing group work between students who do and do not have social deficits would confront this and may even help repair the social skills of the students with the disabilities. Of course, it is important to note that a personalized curriculum is sometimes necessary. Nevertheless, I think the special ed system could benefit from the ideas in this paper and in the blogs. This would be an interesting area to research!

    -Naomi Ducat QC ’16

  2. Shalini Singh says:

    Hi Naomi,
    You are absolutely correct; the concept of “social learning” can be very beneficial to students with learning disabilities. I understand that you find it difficult to agree with isolating learning disabilities students from students who do not have learning difficulties. However, sometimes situations call for it in which it depends on the students’ psychological states. Besides, it would be a disadvantage (unfair academic testing) to test students with cognitive deficits in the same manner of that in which a student who can flourish on an exam without any difficulty. Imagine failing an exam because you were at a neural disadvantage to process questions at hand but your peer excelled because she/he understood the questions.

    In line with your thought, as a resolution experiential education principles can bring-together all students (with or without psychological deficits) for interactive play (workshop) sessions. This would serve to have all students work on a project (long-term) or task (short-term) together that can better enhance each of their performances along with teachers’ supervision in place. Many researchers found co-operative learning can effectively develop learning disabilities students’ psychosocial skills. Much like you, I also believe experiential education can change the way traditional classrooms are taught whether a child has a learning disability or not. Naomi, thank you very much for your thoughts. Take a look at the provided link.

  3. James Stellar says:

    As you know, I try not to comment on posts in my own blog website, but today I read this recent Journal of Neuroscience paper ( that fits very well with what you wrote about the amygdala and trust. Briefly, the study shows that we can process trustworthiness of faces in our amygdala after a very brief viewing of which we are not even consciously aware.

  4. Naomi Ducat says:


    Thank you for your insights and for sharing the study. I am glad that others have taken the time to study the application of social learning and special education! Based on your thoughts and the uncertainty of the results, I suppose there isn’t one correct answer. I agree that it wouldn’t be fair to test special-ed and mainstream students the same way. Perhaps it would be beneficial to slightly increase integration without changing the whole system so social learning, like the unconscious change in trust mentioned in Vice President Stellar’s comment, can be applied without interfering with academic criteria.

    -Naomi Ducat

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