The Heart-Brain Connection: The Neuroscience of Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson presents his research on how social and emotional learning can affect the brain. More to this story.
Release Date: 2/27/08
This presentation was recorded on December 10, 2007, at the CASEL Forum, an event in New York City that brought together seventy-five global leaders in education and related fields to raise awareness about social and emotional learning (SEL) and introduce important scientific findings related to SEL. Learn more about Richard Davidson here.
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The Heart-Brain Connection: The Neuroscience of Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning (Transcript)
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 [inaudible] 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.
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