The Heart-Brain Connection: The Neuroscience of Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning

The Heart-Brain Connection: The Neuroscience of Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning


>>Richard: Thank you
all very, very much. It really is just a delight
to be here and an honor to be considered a part of
this amazing collaborative which I have been a champion and
fan of from afar and it’s just great to be here and, in a very
short amount of time, share with you what has been
some absolutely amazing work that has been going on in
neuroscience and its relevance to social and emotional education. And if there’s one take home message
that I’d like you to walk away with from my presentation today it’s that social-emotional
learning changes the brain. And the brain is really the organ that is the target of
these interventions. So this is a very ambitious
outline of what I hope to cover. I’m going to tell you a
snippet about neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain is the
organ that’s built to change in response to experience. I’ll then tell you a little bit
about what we know about one of the key attributes which is shaped
by social and emotional learning which is a child’s capacity to
regular her or his emotions. And finally, I’m going
to conclude by suggesting that we can change the
brain by training the mind through social and
emotional learning. We know that environmental factors
influence and shape the brain. We know that the emotional
environment in early life, in particular, is absolutely central
in shaping the circuits of the brain in ways that persist throughout an
organism’s entire adult lifespan. The brains of children are
constantly being shaped. They’re literally being molded
by experience, both of a negative and positive sort, both
wittingly and unwittingly. And I think our task
must be to take the reins and to promote positive brain changes
and one of the central vehicles is through social and
emotional learning. One of the things I
tell my students is that behavioral interventions
are biological. That is, if you do something
to intervene in a way that changes behavior
it’s got to be the case that you’re changing the brain. There is no other way that we
know for behavior to change other than through it’s change
in the brain. And, in fact, there’s
every reason to think that behavioral interventions can
produce more specific brain changes than any quote biological
intervention like a medication because behavioral
interventions have the capacity to affect very specific
brain circuits in ways that modern medicine does not have. So I’m going to invite you to
consider the idea that social and emotional learning
can change brain function and actually brain structure and
can produce adaptive emotional and cognitive functioning
as a consequence. So, for those of you who
are not used to looking at brains all the time I want
to just show you a little bit about where these things occur in
the brain, what these circuits are, and time does not permit me
to spend a lot of time on this but I’ll just tell you
a little bit about this. So, the upper left here is the
ventral surface of the brain, the bottom side of the brain. If you turn the brain upside-down
this is what you would see. And the area that’s shaded in
green here is very important for making emotional
judgments about information, deciding whether something
is good or bad, and that’s called the
orbitofrontal cortex. Now, this diagram here,
the blue area, is the dorsoateral prefrontal cortex. This is the area of the brain that
historically has not been considered to be important for emotion
but it’s critical, we now know, for certain aspects of emotion
particularly the capacity to guide decision-making
through positive emotions. So if a child has a goal to
achieve a certain positive outcome and is directing her or his
behavior to the achievement of that goal we know that the
dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is critical. These areas in this bottom
diagram here are areas in lower brain regions,
subcortical regions, that play a very important role in
emotion as well and the area shaded in orange, I’ll specifically
mention in a few minutes, called the amygdala is a key site,
particularly for negative emotions, for detecting threats and so forth. And this is another important area
called the anterior cingulate that’s very important conflict resolution of
both a cognitive and emotional sort. And, again, I’ll say a little bit
more about these a little later but right now I want to talk a little
bit about the prefrontal cortex, this area that Dan mentioned, which up until quite recently
was regarded much more in terms of its role in thought
than in emotion. Now this is a very
interesting study and I want you to mostly pay attention
to these pie charts here and I’ll give you a
definition of what these mean. This is a study that’s done
with kids, with adolescents and with adults all of whom
were performing the same kind of working memory task. This is a task where if, for example,
I give you a telephone number and I ask you to remember
the telephone number. I’m going to ask you what that number
is in just a couple of minutes. This is what working memory is. It’s maintaining information
in a conscious buffer. And it turns out that the prefrontal
cortex is very important for that. And if you look at the area that’s
shaded in blue in these pie charts, it indicates the amount of the
prefrontal cortex that’s activated as a child, as an adolescent, and
as an adult does at this task. And you can see in the kids, the
area in blue is really a thin slice but then the adolescent is
using a much larger expanse of prefrontal cortex,
much more of the brain that is activated is
the prefrontal cortex, and in adults you see the
most extreme form of this. And so there’s a huge
developmental change between children and adolescents and, in
fact, adolescents is a period when the prefrontal cortex is really
coming online in very important ways and plays a critical role in the
integration of thought and emotion and particularly in the
regulation of emotion. Now, this is a diagram that’s meant to illustrate one very important
aspect of the regulation of emotion and it illustrates two hypothetical
kids, Person A and Person B, and imagine that something
bad happens at this point. There is an episode of
bullying or some other– someone says something
nasty to a child and on various physiological
parameters we can measure the time course of a child’s response. And Person B is shown to recover
much more quickly compared to Person A. Person A shows a much
more long-lasting, a perseverative, response to this negative event. And we’ve been learning about
what are the brain systems that may be involved in these
differences among kids and, of course, our goal in social
and emotional learning is to foster this kind of pattern,
a more adaptive pattern, where following a negative
event a child is able to better and more effectively regulate his or
her emotions so that they can calm down more quickly permitting
a more effective kind of thinking in that situation. Now, this is the kind of experimental
stimulus we might use in a study which depicts, in this case, a child
with a tumor growing out of its eye to provoke some negative emotion
and there are dramatic differences that occur in the amygdala,
which is this part of the brain I mentioned earlier,
very important for negative emotion if an individual learns to actively
reappraise that negative stimulus in a way that facilitates a more
positive and adaptive response. And so, the bar graphs
here indicate– in the yellow, when an individual is
actively reappraising this stimulus in a healthy way, we see that
there is a decreased response in the amygdala. And so what this simply shows is that
using skills that are very similar to those taught in social
and emotional learning, and in this case the
training was only one hour, these were older adolescents who
were being studied in this case, what we see is that they can
actually change their brain. The brain changes in
a very systematic way. Now, it turns out that people
who are the most effective in down regulating their amygala
show activation in this part of the prefrontal cortex, which is
the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and there is a tight reciprocal
relation between this part of the prefrontal cortex
and the amygdala. So this is a part of the prefrontal
cortex that modulates activity in the amygdala and this
shows that relation. And I won’t bore you with
the technical details but what this means
is that people who– these dots represent individual
participants, and that people who are up in this corner of the
diagram, those are individuals who show very strong activation
of the prefrontal cortex and they show much diminished
activation in the amygdala, which is plotted here, indicating that these are very
effective emotion regulators. Now one question that we’ve
asked is whether this matters in terms of people’s health. And one of the ways we
assess this is by looking at a hormone that’s very important
in stress called cortisol. And we asked the question
whether people who are good emotion
regulators, defined on the basis of their brain pattern, actually show
a more adaptive profile of cortisol where they show lower levels of
cortisol particularly in the evening. And it turns out that not
only are these strategies of the emotion regulation
good for your brain but they’re good for your body! They actually lower the level of
the stress hormone cortisol which, it turns out, if it’s present in high
levels is actually very deleterious to the brain and interferes
with both your emotions as well as with learning and memory. Now, I want to just show you– this is from a very new study
that we’ve done in adolescents. This is from a group of
about seventy adolescents, average age about fourteen, and what
we did is we showed the very same thing in these kids. That is, those kids who are showing
strong activation in this area of the prefrontal cortex when they
are regulating their emotions have lower levels of cortisol
in the evening. And what this means is that,
particularly when it persists over time, good emotion regulation
skills is good for your brain and good for your body and lowers
your levels of this stress hormone. When this stress hormone is
present in high levels cumulatively over time it actually interferes
with circuits in the brain, specifically the amygdala
and the hippocampus both of which are very important
for learning and memory. Now this is other work
where we have shown that if you make a individual
anxious, this is done in adolescents, you actually interfere with your
ability to perform certain kinds of working memory tasks, the sort
of tasks that I described earlier. And this is a study
that involved very, very careful experimental controls. We were able to show that
it’s specifically the anxiety that is interfering with this
particular kind of working memory and the more anxious a person
is the worse their working memory performance. We’ve replicated it in another
study here and we’ve shown that it’s specifically through
changes in the prefrontal cortex that the interference
in memory occurs. And so, the implication here is
that if you can lower your anxiety, if you are learning skills to calm
you, you will improve the function of the prefrontal cortex. It will be less jangled by threats
that occur in your environment and you’ll actually not
only show improved emotion but you will also show improved
cognition, you will do better on tests like this of working memory which other research
indicates underlies a lot of academic performance. Now, I want to just
show you, before I end, that there are new imaging techniques
that we can now use non-invasively and this is the just really, really
cool stuff that we’re doing now. This actually shows the
individual connections between the prefrontal cortex
and the amygdala anatomically! We can now visualize this and
quantitate it in individual kids, which we are now doing, to
determine the impact of interventions like social and emotional learning
not just on the functioning of the brain but literally on the
connections between these regions that are absolutely essential
to effective emotion regulation. So let me summarize and conclude. I’ve tried to show you
that the brain is plastic. It’s built to change in
response to experience. The prefrontal cortex
is absolutely key. We call it a convergence
zone for affect and cognition or thought and feeling. And we also know that negative
emotions will interfere with cognitive prefrontal function
that is with cognitive operations that are occurring in
the prefrontal cortex. Social-emotional learning is an
empirically verified strategy to improve skills of emotion
regulation and social adaptation and, as such, social-emotional learning
likely produces beneficial changes in the brain. Education that shapes the child’s
brain and likely produces these kinds of alterations lay the
foundation for all future learning for emotion regulation and
for social functioning. Qualities such as patience,
calmness, cooperation and kindness should
really now best be regarded as skills that can be trained. They are not traits that
we are irrevocably given by our early environment or by our
genetics but everything we now know about the brain, including down
to the level of gene expression, indicates that training like social and emotional learning
can shape the brain and literally change gene
expression in the brain. And research is critically
needed now to document the impact of social-emotional learning.>>Question: Is there any age at
which point it may not change?>>Question: How old is the child?>>Richard: Here’s the good news. Definitively no. No age. It occurs through–
plasticity occurs throughout life and we know– there’s
hard data to show this. So we know that, for
example, neurogenesis, which is the actual growth of
new neurons which, by the way, is an idea that when I was a graduate
student was regarded as fiction. We thought that the brain was
different from other organs in not regenerating cells. We now know that that’s
just definitively not true. Neurogenesis occurs throughout life. It is the case, though, that there
are sensitive periods of plasticity. We don’t exactly know what
those sensitive periods are for social and emotional learning. They are probably not the same
kind of steep curves that you see for something like learning a
second language where we know that the period of plasticity
it dramatically drops off after you pass early adolescence. So there are likely to be sensitive
periods but I would say that, based on what we now know, I
don’t think there’s any period after which we need to say that the
door is closed although it may take more intensive intervention
after a certain age.>>Question: Larry Aber from NYU. The affective chronometry, comment
about how everybody’s aroused when the tiger’s about to eat us and then there’s patterns
of change after that. I think it’s pretty important
to help non-scientists think about context dependence. We don’t want to not flee from the
tiger, so any thoughts about that?>>Richard: Yeah, that’s
a very helpful point and I appreciate you making
it and I actually tried to– [inaudible] I tried to
illustrate the graphs in such a way that they both reached the
same amplitude of responding yet they differed in the
rapidity with which they recovered but you’re absolutely right. When certain kinds of stress occurs,
when something dangerous occurs, it’s adaptive for certain
physiological systems to kick in. What’s not adaptive is for
those systems to persist. It’s also the case that in our
modern culture the honest truth is that we are rarely confronted
with the evolutionary dangers that have been part of our
philo-genetic past. And yet these same
systems are recruited when our self-esteem
may be questioned or when a child is being bullied. They are not physical
threats to our survival but they hijack the same
biological machinery. And that is, I think,
where the importance of social-emotional learning is in
helping to modulate those circuits and I think those are things
that we can see in the brain and in the body using the
right kinds of methods.>>Narrator: For more
information on What Works in Public Education
go to edutopia.org.

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31 thoughts on “The Heart-Brain Connection: The Neuroscience of Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning”

  • I'm sure there are some good training exercises to teach emotional regulation, but it can also be learned from the "school of hard knocks"…it takes practice, but persistence pays off. Next time you are in an intense situation, make the conscious effort to keep your emotions under control and maintain self-control…just with this intention and by foucusing on the intention, you might be surprised at how 'easy' it can be to regulate your emotions, instead of being overcome by your emotions.

  • But, as I mentioned, it does take practice. I doubt that many people would achieve long-lasting self-control and ability to consistently regulate their emotions, if they only consciously focus on it just once or a couple times and then quit. It takes persistence. Every intense situation is an opportunity to practice self-control. If you look at it this way, you might find that you no longer loathe intense situations, but welcome them as a significant aspect of life and as opportunities to grow.

  • I have had the honor to spend some powerful and life-changing days with Richard Davidson at the UPAYA Zen center in Sta Fe, NM and totally admire him!
    He is an eminence in neurological fields!
    Thank You Richard!

    love n light 🙂
    Erika Ramelli

  • "Compassion Can Be Voluntarily Cultivated"(Davidson,20004) Let us practice voluntary cultivation of compassion: May Richie Davidson and other renowned American scientists stop secret human experiments of mind control, stop ignoring the existence of the mass mind control technologies, and stop COINTELPRO designed to camouflage it. May the pertrators of COINTELPRO notice they are going to hell unless ceasing their evil-doings. May all the victims, dead or alive, liberated from sufferings.Metta

  • Ms. Jones.
    Ms. Gapinski.
    "I realized underneath the containment, the secrecy-containment umbrella, is a really glaring inability of the U.S. to ever apologize for anything. To be able to say I am sorry, the rest of the world is waiting for us to say I’m sorry or I admit to something."
    Report of the U.S. Presidential Commission for Bioethical Issues –Public hearing under Obama administration

  • — Let us make positive neuroplasticity!
    Dhammapadda 233. Beware of the anger of the mind, and control thy mind! Leave the sins of the mind, and practise virtue with thy mind!

  • This information must be applied to the curriculum studied in elementary schools. The earlier practicing this neuroscience is exposed to society the better for mankind's future.

  • Totally agree.
    Make the understanding and knowledge available to everyone. Get it into schools. Inject billions of dollars into exhaustively researching it. Make it known through television media, breakfast and 6pm news, hollywood films, news papers, magazines, and mobile devices. Basically just get it out there asap that we can do many things to affect our brains in positive ways that can have a significant impact on our lives and the lives of others.

  • Please type "True Theory of Everything Quadrant Model of Reality 1" into YouTube for the theory of everything. The Truth is known. Thank you.

  • Good job, one and all, especially for the true and accurate audio transcription of Dr. Davidson's presentation. Alan at VerbatimIT dotc om

  • We are masters of: our brains => our emotions and feelings, our health, our thinking, our attention, our learning capabilities, our sense of happiness… We can sculpt ourselves at any age. Isn't that a great realization?…

  • Learning about the brain is just fascinating….. thanks for sharing!
    http://mylearningjourneyineducation.blogspot.com.ar/

  • I think as a result of stress experienced in the "resource" rooms children can become more disabled. Typically developing peers loose our on the oportunity of team work with the more diverse populations . Isolation also causes disabled persons damage in social situations and social emotional learning therefore we create services such as hiring friends called companion services. inclusion will save millions if it ever happens

  • Fascinating . I suffered terrible disabling panic as a child and was in many foster homes . I always found school hard as a child and my memory very poor . This explains a lot . I've done quite well in life and have got through quite a bit but have always been quite hard on myself .

  • For a common man's understanding, the function of the heart in a human body is very much like a microprocessor in a computer, it performs all function, where the brain is like a hard drive. how heart writes and reads this information from the brain is another subject of research for a present-day scientist.In my understanding frequency at which heart beats play a critical role in human memory and growth, in all emotions heart beats at the different frequencies.

  • It's 2018. I hope he has changed his mind by now. The "jangled" mess of emotions from the amygdala that has to be sorted out and regulated by the PFC is such classic cognition over emotion prejudice. I'm sad that it's coming from a neuroscientist who knows or should know the limits of correlative data – even in brain scans. Emotions are not a jangled mess. In fact, he should know that if there is no emotion, there is no memory and no learning. The very memories that the prefrontal cortex uses for judgment and "modulation" are created by emotions. One other thing the "positive" vs. "negative" emotion language is very harmful. Fear is not a negative emotion. It's also the motivation and modulator for PFC problem-solving. This seriously needs to be update or removed.