Kind and harsh

cropped-christmas06-collide.jpgTwo research studies on the nature or empathy have caught my attention recently. One has found a genetic basis for empathy or at least the appearance of being kind and friendly. In this experience people watched the interaction of couples who they did not know for a brief period of time and then rated each individual’s empathy. Those with the highest rating for showing that they were able to understand other’s emotions had a statistically higher percentage of particular combination of oxytocin receptors which allowed more of this hormone to enter their nervous system.

The other study showed that people who had higher levels of oxytocin showed tendency to take sides with people in need and while becoming more harsher in their treatment of the person competing with the one in need. The competitor did not have to do anything wrong. Apparently the presence of oxytocin creates an empathy that is one-sided, spurring sympathy for one party and dislike of the other.

Research about oxytocin as a hormone determining level of affection has brought to light its increase as a person takes joy in another’s pain. Evidently increase in oxytocin occurs when a person takes pleasure in some social interaction, not just empathy for others but also Schadenfreude.

This reinforces my suspicion most wonderful new “discoveries” such as a hormone that makes us more loving and affectionate, are actually two-sided. Our tendency is to avoid considering the dark side. We want to bask in our feeling of empathy towards the abused and our hatred of the abuser. However as such we may become willing followers of feed on our empathy coupled with rage. According to columnist Paul Bloom:

“There is a history of this sort of thing. Lynchings in the American South were often sparked by stories of white women who were assaulted by blacks, and anti-Semitic attacks prior to the Holocaust were often motivated by tales of Jews preying on innocent German children. Who isn’t enraged by someone who hurts a child? Similar sentiments are used to start wars. As the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq in 2003, newspapers and the Internet presented lurid tales of the abuses committed by Saddam Hussein and his sons.”

Finally as there is a dark side to empathy, is there a converse bright side to being cold hearted?

Body Language Of Empathy Is Genetically Wired Say Scientists Published: Wednesday 16 November 2011 at 2am PST
Paul Bloom, September 25, 2015 The Dark Side of Empathy
Shamay-Tsoory SG, Fischer M, Dvash J, Harari H, Perach-Bloom N, Levkovitz Y (Nov 2009). “Intranasal administration of oxytocin increases envy and schadenfreude (gloating)”. Biological Psychiatry 66 (9): 864–70. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2009.06.009. PMID 19640508.
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Empathetic words

DSC_3033 smileThe use of pronouns and other functional words may provide a clue about our social status, our tendency to tell the truth, or how well we perform in academics. However in many circles today the desired characteristic is “emotional intelligence.” What exactly is this? Empathy, or the ability to sense what others are feeling usually ranks high on the lists of characteristics used to describe emotional intelligence. Is it possible to tell how empathetic a person will be by their speech patterns?

In order to find out, it helps to be able to judge the level of empathy in people. Ways of measuring empathy for research include a self-report survey such as the emphatic concern scale of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index developed by M.H. Davis. According to Davis empathy is defined as “reactions of one individual to the observed experiences of another.” It doesn’t measure this trait by how often a person says “Ah, I feel for you.” Rather it is how much an individual agrees or disagrees with statements such as: “I would describe myself as a pretty soft-hearted person.”

Evidently empathy is not shown by uttering certain words as much as body language. Empathy is evidenced by “more head nods, more eye contact, more smiling, more open body posture” according to Aleksandr Kogan, at the University of Toronto at Mississauga. Kogan measured empathy in his research by rating scales used by observers watching touching scenes between couples talking about a painful experience in their life. However Kogan used this research to validate another way to measure empathy – the level of the hormones, oxytocin. Variations in increase in the level of two hormones: oxytocin and vasopressin create the feeling of empathy according to University at Buffalo researchers Michael J. Poulin and Annette E. K. Buffone.

But the action of seeing oneself in another’s position is a two-edged sword. Let us look as one of the statements indicating greater empathy on the Interpersonal Reactivity Index: “When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them.”  The person that you are being protective towards may sense the kindness of your word and actions. However the person that you are protecting them from will sense something more like aggression. The expression of empathy may be shown by two different behaviors. Indeed Poulin and Buffone studies have shown that oxytocin and vasopressin increase both when a person shows greater compassion towards an individual and greater harshness to the individual’s adversary.

What words show a person is empathetic? It depends whether you are the object of their empathy or the brunt of their reaction to empathy for another.

Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 113– 126.
Body Language Of Empathy Is Genetically Wired Say Scientists. Published: Wednesday 16 November 2011 at 2am PST
Compassion for one person may lead to aggression toward another. Published: Sunday 9 November 2014 at 12am PST
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Wise words

2011-08-23-008How does our speech reveal our level of intelligence? A person employing word with more syllables may seem more intelligent or may just be repeating the latest erudite catch phrase. People practiced in business presentation learn to use vague multi-syllabic words to sound as if they are making an important pronouncement on a topic. However, if you listen carefully you may uncover that they are frequently reiterating what people before them said, just replacing “fifty cent” words with their own “five-dollar” versions.

Simple words and phrases such as “but,” “except,” “otherwise,” and “even though,” in speech shows the grasp of nuances. The tendency to use this type of balancing words indicates a comprehension of more complex concepts. Student who say these words more frequently, also make better grades.

It is also interesting to see how the types of words used in writing predict academic achievement. Students in college who use a higher percentage of nouns and lower percentage of verbs and pronouns typically make higher grades. It doesn’t really seem to matter whether they are majoring in liberal arts, science or engineering. The use of a large number of concrete nouns reflects the student’s ability to sort and categorize and be specific about ideas. More pronouns were typically found in narrative or “story-telling” typed of writing. Interestingly the use of more concrete terms actually shows higher comprehension than the use of abstract words.

However don’t take too long wondering how people perceive your intelligence based on your use of conjunctions and nouns. Most people do not catch onto these cues. They were discovered by recording a series of snippets of peoples everyday speech or parsing the use of parts of speech in thousands of college essays. If you don’t speak enough in face to face conversation, people will assume you are not as intelligent. Slow speaking is often regarded as a sign of being slow-witted rather it is true of not.

Jessica Wapner, “He Counts Your Words (Even Those Pronouns)”, Biography, New York Times October 13, 2008.
Gareth Cook. The Secret Language Code: Psychologist James Pennebaker reveals the hidden meaning of pronouns, August 16, 2011
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The “I”s do not have it.

15-07-05-Schloß-Caputh-RalfR-N3S_1712We may assume that people who are egotistical  talk about themselves the vast majority of the time. But if you really want to find out how people view their own status, you need to pay attention to pronouns that they use.

There is a reason that kings, queens and various heads of state use “we” rather than “I” because it indicates the power to speak for others. Maybe you have run into an ordinary Joe who makes a habit of using the royal “we” such as in “That is the way we’ve always done it around  here.” This person wants you to believe that they speak for their group. They are far more likely to be controlling than the person who offers the more humble explanation, “That is the way I’ve always done it.”

You may recall how your teachers spoke in school using the patronizing form of “we.” They would say such things as “We don’t run in the halls,” which was simply a way for teachers to sound superior.

Think about your reaction to the following directives in which the only change is the pronoun:

  • “You raise your hand before your speak.” This is basically saying Do what I command and sounds like a person showing positional power.
  • “We raise our hands before we speak.” This is like saying Child you should know how to follow the rules. It sound like the speaker is looking down on you.
  • “I raise my hand before I speak.”  This sound like Look at what I am doing voiced by a weak person who uses “I” to bring attention to their own proper behavior. It actually comes off as if the speaker does not have the authority to enforce the rule.

The people who use “I” more frequently are typically  of lower status. Students use “I” more than teachers, subordinates use “I” with their bosses and woman use “I” more than men. Also depressed people use “I” more frequently. It is not a matter of self-focus or egotism. The frequently use of “I” indicates a lone opinion, a single voice, and a lack of power to speak for others.

photo of painting “15-07-05-Schloß-Caputh-RalfR-N3S 1712” by Ralf Roletschek


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Easily deceived

Hendrick_ter_Brugghen_blame 4Our eyes may deceive us. Two witnesses of the same event rarely, relate tell the same story. On a smaller scale, we often misread words. If two words have a similar spelling, we may read the one that we think should go into a sentence rather than the one that is actually there. Our ears may deceive us. Research has shown that when people listen to a recording in which an occasional syllable is replaced by white noise, they think that they have heard the word they expected to hear. Most people do not even recall that part of the word was replaced with non-phonemic sound. [1]

However, most troubling if that other people deceive us and often we do not catch on to their lies. Despite believing that we can discern when people are lying, most people are not very accurate at this. The typical signs that we look for – eyes shifting, indirect eye contact, fidgeting or a stammer – may simply be evidence of nervousness. The more frequently a person lies, the better they are at looking and sounding confident about what they are saying.

However, no matter how proficient a person becomes constructing a lie, it is still more work than telling the truth. Typically while the mind is working harder, the body is less active. Often, the person who is lying may blink and fidget less than the person who is telling the truth. So you might look for such signs as a person pausing while speaking or appearing to think in between sentences. [2] But then pausing for emphasis is what good speakers are supposed to do.

On the other hand, you might just want to actually listen to the words people say. For example a person who uses “I” more often is more likely to be speaking from experience, and less likely to be intentionally lying. People that are not telling the truth use “we” or no first person noun at all. The equivocator is not likely to respond directly to a question, such as “Did you take my book from the desk?” with a simple “I did not take your book.” This person might respond with “We have not been near your desk.” A person who refers to “they” rather than naming specific names is more likely to conceal what actually occurred.

Negative people use negative words, right? Words like “but,” “no,” “none,” and “never.” Actually people who are more honest use these words much more frequently. People who are unwilling to answer a questions directly with a negation might be attempting to deceive you. Ask an experience equivocator and book thief about stealing your book and the initial response may be “There was a book on your desk?’’ or “What would I do with your book?”[3]

So what do you do if you suspect that someone is lying to you? Looking directly in their eyes really won’t help. You have to make them work harder to keep up the lie. Continue to ask for more specific information on events, or question the person on events out of order. The person who created the fiction must now keep up with the details. However, you, too, have to keep up with the details to identify the contradictions. Remember that exhibition of nervousness under this kind of interrogation is not an admission of lying. You must not be fooled by the calmness of someone who excels at lying.

[1] Cell Press. “Auditory illusion: How our brains can fill in the gaps to create continuous sound.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 November 2009.
[2] Robert Trivers. The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, 7 January, 2014)
[3] Gareth Cook. The Secret Language Code: Psychologist James Pennebaker reveals the hidden meaning of pronouns, August 16, 2011


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Failing to allow failure

359px-Shy_Guy_(Imagicity_55)During the fall semester of my son’s senior year we went on a mad rush of college visits. We were trying to find the most elite school offering a high level of computer science, where he would actually have a shot at getting accepted. MIT was out of the question.

In his early years of high school my son had pushed himself in some areas, such as progressing to calculus by his sophomore year and skipping the initial computer science class, but he had struggled to get good grades in calculus and neglected other areas. Although he managed to make it to the top 10% he was nowhere near the top of his class in grades. However, what caught the attention of some recruiters was a computer science major that had been co-president of the debate team.

This occurred almost by accident. While in junior high school, he was scheduled to attend classes at the high school, which was on a trimester schedule. The first semester the pre-calculus class was not offered, so he took speech instead. He disappointingly described to me a class full unmotivated seniors who loved to goof off and talk, except when it was time for them to present their speeches. However, the teacher realized this class was a waste of time for the few good students. So she offered my son and three others credit for work with a struggling debate team.

I did not believe this was a good match for a quiet boy who had a hard time expressing himself in front of crowds. My son came home from his first debate feeling like a failure except for a kind note from one of the judges stating that his problem was simply nervousness and he would improve if he kept at it. So now it was his senior year and he had kept at it, making his mark on struggling debate team.

As we went from one college visit to another, we frequently heard recruiters repeat the riddle of whether it was better to take the on-level class and make an A, or take advanced course and make a B. Their answer was the perfectionist view – take the advance course and make an A. But my son’s unusual combination of competing in computer science meets and in legislative debate was due to the fact that he had tried something he did not do well.

As students advance through the world of academics, too fearful to experiment in areas in which they made not succeed, they will emerge on the other side with one-sided skills. They may be highly proficient in a technical area or excellent communicators, but rare is the individual with both skills. The chance to try something new and fail is also the chance to develop. If we do not allow it in education or business it is to our own detriment.

Photo by Graham Crumb/

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Did you actually read what you thought you read?

457px-Théophile_Emmanuel_Duverger_Two_children_reading cThe first few years my daughter was in grade school, she would sit at the table in the breakfast nook and do homework while I prepared dinner. One evening while I stirred cracker crumbs into a meatloaf mix, she sat in her usual place, reading a passage too softly for me to hear. Then she suddenly cried out “They can’t be big and strong! They are dwarf horses.”

That was my cue to subtly look over her shoulder and identify the error. “It says draft not dwarf. Remember those big horses with the long hair over their hooves that pulled us around on the wagon ride?” I did not tell her then, but I saw that recognition of conflict with what she thought she read as an accomplishment. My daughter is dyslexic and she would try to figure out what a sentence said though recognizing a couple of letters in each word. Her mind would not always put the letters in the same order each time she read the same word. So she had learned to read based mostly on context.

However, context is actually what adults tend to lean towards when reading. Have you seen paragraphs in which interiors of words have scrambled spelling or numbers replace similarly shaped letters? A mature reader can usually find enough clues to surmise the meaning and read these correctly as their brain fills in the gaps for them. However this does slow down reading speed, and the longer the words, the harder they are to decipher[1].  Basically this puts the average reader on equal footing with my dyslexic daughter.

Often what we think we see, is often not what we really see. We learn to process visual information quickly because our brain takes short cuts. Our brains want to make sense of the world and without consciously thinking about it they fill in what is missing based on past experience. The reason visual illusions work is that past experiences shapes our minds so that even when we know something to be true or false, an illusion can force us to experience it the other way.

Unlike my daughter I assume I can read well and just let my mind correct what doesn’t make sense. So what if I am not aware of a misspelled or omitted word. Haven’t I read what the author intended to write? But how often do I actually misread a passage because I were expecting it to say something else?

Art based on painting by Théophile Emmanuel Duverge


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The mystery behind the motivation to learn

Picture 012a3 No matter how much we dissect the functioning of the brain to illuminate how people learn, the bigger mystery is what causes people to learn. Typically when someone dives down into what why some people excel at learning they will come back up with “intrinsic motivation” as an answer. However an intrinsic motivation to learn is simply another way a saying a person has as a strong internal desire to learn.  We still know nothing about how this drive to learn occurred.

Let us step back from the realm of learning question why people are motivated to do any action. Typically it is because:

  • they think they must
  • they believe they will gain something.

Thinking that one must do something is accompanied by threat of loss. For example a man believes he must have a job because otherwise he would lose the respect of others due to poverty, or even die of starvation and exposure. However a man may decide he must steal for the same reason.

Believing one will gain something emphasizes working towards a goal more than avoiding a loss. A man may go beyond what is expected of him at work because he believes he can gain a promotion which gives him more money and a higher status. One the other hand the motivation to gain the promotion may lead to him deceiving his boss and backstabbing other employees.

The tricky thing is no clear cut line exists between why a man works. Is it to avoid poverty or gain wealth? Also, the same motivation may lead to helpful or harmful action.

Now let us return to the motivation for learning. People learn because they think they have to. The threat of a failing grade or losing a job. However if a person learns because of the belief that this will lead to some kind of gain, it really is not intrinsic. Students may study to make the grades to get into an Ivy League college to earn money, or status or feeling of superiority over others. In each case there is an outside motivation.

Steven Reiss, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University has proposed that there is no such thing as truly intrinsic motivation. This concept has arisen because the goals that motivate students to learn vary widely. One may be motivated to get good grades to please parents, another may be competing with fellow classmates and a third may satisfy curiosity and a need for novelty by learning new things. However, we should not force the idea on educators that all students should be learning to satisfy their curiosity. Some simply do not have the need for novelty that others do.

Finally, when I consider the idea of intrinsic motivation for learning, I think of people who proudly announce how much they love to learn. This announcement shows that their learning in not completely based on an internal drive. A person who learned just for the sake of learning would not find the need to tell anyone else. So I suppose if a truly intrinsically motivated learner existed, we would never know who it was.


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Feeling and knowing

ink1007 sunsetAlmost all articles on brain based learning will emphasize the importance of emotions in learning. Emotions are supposed to direct our attention and aid our memory. Learning accompanied by emotional impact lasts far longer than a lecture that goes in one ear and out the other. How exactly do emotions affect our ability to learn?

Our emotional state (often referred to as affect) may motivate us to learn, but emotions are not information stored in the same as cognitive learning. Cognition involves cortical processing from what we learn of the outside world through our senses. It is harder pinpoint precisely where emotions come from.

There are theories that emotions develop as a method of protection, an instant unthinking warning of danger based on past experience. But the instantaneous impulse of flight or fight do not serve us in the modern world very well. As we grow older most people learn to suppress displays of negative emotions they figure out the source of danger and come up with a plausible response. It is this replaying of events and sensory input that lead to greater memory. Basically we “mull over” or rehearse the event repeatedly in our mind.

So how do we use this information to increase students learning? First we have to realize that when students are stressed or fearful, retention goes down. They are mulling over what causes the stress rather the rather neutral facts we are teaching. Also, people tend to suppress the memory of events causing unpleasant emotions. Therefore being presented with a reminder of such an event may interfere with our ability to retrieve a memory. How do instructors know if reference neutral to them will result in the suppression of an unpleasant memory? Basically they don’t. As wonderful as it sounds to be able to increase learning through emotional impact, the realization that this requires emotional manipulation that may backfire puts a bit of a damper on creating “emotional memories” to enhance learning.

Panksepp, J. The Affective Brain and Core Consciousness How Does Neural Activity Generate Emotional Feelings? In M. Lewis & J. M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 742-756). New York: Guilford Press.
Christianson, S. The Handbook of Emotion and Memory: Research and Theory. Psychology Press.
Levy, B.  & Anderson, M. (2002). Inhibitory processes and the control of memory retrieval.  Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 6(7), 299-305.


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Neat little boxes

Dec 026 c copyNot all research on how the brain functions comes to the same conclusions. In fact one of the major problems with applying brain-based theories in actual instruction is that the findings are frequently contradictory. The cellular structure of the brain is complex and changes as we learn. But the tendency of the human mind is often to simplify information into easily identified compartments. In fact pattern finding is measured as a kind of intelligence. It is one of those intellectual skills that students practice to ace their College Board exams. The brain is complex, the brain seeks patterns. Are these two ends of a spectrum or parallel characteristics?

Considered prejudice, the concept of using a few superficial things about a group of people to make a large number of preconceived conclusions. The very fact that most people are unconsciously prejudice shows how much we like to sort data into neat little boxes. This is basically an attempt to simplify the complexity of humanity into a few easy patterns. Researchers have shown that people who are not comfortable with ambiguity are more prone to clump humans into prejudicial patterns. These people are quick decision makers who have a higher need for cognitive closure. They want to find the right answer by boiling down masses of data down to their essence.

So how do you teach people to accept ambiguity? You don’t. What you do is introduce them to people in a group that they have negative preconceived concepts about. If they form friendships with a few of these people then there will be less negative prejudice, but there will still be prejudice.

The need for an authoritarian figure, or willingness to submit to authority has also been linked to greater prejudice, specifically racial prejudice. But few would promote the teaching of rebelling against authority as the antidote to this.  So we try to examine the human brain to find out about prejudice and discover it seems to fulfill a basic human need for cognitive closure. We know what causes the problem, but have no answer.

And that is the conundrum of implementing brain based learning.

Side Effects of Multiculturalism: The Interaction Effect of a Multicultural Ideology and Authoritarianism on Prejudice and Diversity Beliefs. Pers Soc Psychol Bull March 1, 2013 39305-320
Adorno, T.W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D.J., & Sanford, R.N. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper


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