Emotional Intelligence

Jennifer Kahn writes in The New York Times about new programs for teaching emotional intelligence to children.  The goals of the programs are to:

  • Help children learn awareness of their own emotions as well as those of others
  • Teach children methods of self-soothing when emotions are triggered
  • Help children recognize the connection between emotions and behaviors.

Scientists believe children who learn these skills have a much lower chance of turning to substance abuse, violent behaviors, bullying, and other unhealthy coping strategies.

emotional intelligence

Photo by: Holly Anders, New York Times

 

Jennifer Kahn teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism.

Here is her article in its entirety:

One day last spring, James Wade sat cross-legged on the carpet and called his kindergarten class to order. Lanky and soft-spoken, Wade has a gentle charisma well suited to his role as a teacher of small children: steady, rather than exuberant. When a child performs a requested task, like closing the door after recess, he will often acknowledge the moment by murmuring, “Thank you, sweet pea,” in a mild Texas drawl.

 As the children formed a circle, Wade asked the 5-year-olds to think about “anything happening at home, or at school, that’s a problem, that you want to share.” He repeated his invitation twice, in a lulling voice, until a small, round-faced boy in a white shirt and blue cardigan raised his hand. Blinking back tears, he whispered, “My mom does not like me.” The problem, he said, was that he played too much on his mother’s iPhone. “She screams me out every day,” he added, sounding wretched.

Wade let that sink in, then turned to the class and asked, “Have any of your mommies or daddies ever yelled at you?” When half the children raised their hands, Wade nodded encouragingly. “Then maybe we can help.” Turning to a tiny girl in a pink T-shirt, he asked what she felt like when she was yelled at.

“Sad,” the girl said, looking down.

“And what did you do? What words did you use?”

“I said, ‘Mommy, I don’t like to hear you scream at me.’ ”

Wade nodded slowly, then looked around the room. “What do you think? Does that sound like a good thing to say?” When the kids nodded vigorously, Wade clapped his hands once. “O.K., let’s practice. Play like I’m your mommy.” Scooting into the center of the circle, he gave the boy, Reedhom, a small toy bear to stand in for the iPhone, then began to berate him in a ridiculous booming voice. “Lalalala!” Wade hollered, looming overhead in a goofy parody of parental frustration. “Why are you doing that, Reedhom? Reedhom, why?” In the circle, the other kids rocked back and forth in delight. One or two impulsively begin to crawl in Reedhom’s direction, as if joining a game.

Still slightly teary, Reedhom began to giggle. Abruptly, Wade held up a finger. “Now, we talked about this. What can Reedhom do?” Recollecting himself, Reedhom sat up straight. “Mommy, I don’t like it when you scream at me,” he announced firmly.

“Good,” Wade said. “And maybe your mommy will say: ‘I’m sorry, Reedhom. I had to go somewhere in a hurry, and I got a little mad. I’m sorry.’ ”

Reedhom solemnly accepted the apology — then beamed as he shook Wade’s hand.

emotional intelligence
Holly Andres for The New York Times

Wade’s approach — used schoolwide at Garfield Elementary, in Oakland, Calif. — is part of a strategy known as social-emotional learning, which is based on the idea that emotional skills are crucial to academic performance.

“Something we now know, from doing dozens of studies, is that emotions can either enhance or hinder your ability to learn,” Marc Brackett, a senior research scientist in psychology at Yale University, told a crowd of educators at a conference last June. “They affect our attention and our memory. If you’re very anxious about something, or agitated, how well can you focus on what’s being taught?”

Once a small corner of education theory, S.E.L. has gained traction in recent years, driven in part by concerns over school violence, bullying and teen suicide. But while prevention programs tend to focus on a single problem, the goal of social-emotional learning is grander: to instill a deep psychological intelligence that will help children regulate their emotions.

For children, Brackett notes, school is an emotional caldron: a constant stream of academic and social challenges that can generate feelings ranging from loneliness to euphoria. Educators and parents have long assumed that a child’s ability to cope with such stresses is either innate — a matter of temperament — or else acquired “along the way,” in the rough and tumble of ordinary interaction. But in practice, Brackett says, many children never develop those crucial skills. “It’s like saying that a child doesn’t need to study English because she talks with her parents at home,” Brackett told me last spring. “Emotional skills are the same. A teacher might say, ‘Calm down!’ — but how exactly do you calm down when you’re feeling anxious? Where do you learn the skills to manage those feelings?”

A growing number of educators and psychologists now believe that the answer to that question is in school. George Lucas’s Edutopia foundation has lobbied for the teaching of social and emotional skills for the past decade; the State of Illinois passed a bill in 2003 making “social and emotional learning” a part of school curriculums. Thousands of schools now use one of the several dozen programs, including Brackett’s own, that have been approved as “evidence-based” by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, a Chicago-based nonprofit. All told, there are now tens of thousands of emotional-literacy programs running in cities nationwide.

The theory that kids need to learn to manage their emotions in order to reach their potential grew out of the research of a pair of psychology professors — John Mayer, at the University of New Hampshire, and Peter Salovey, at Yale. In the 1980s, Mayer and Salovey became curious about the ways in which emotions communicate information, and why some people seem more able to take advantage of those messages than others. While outlining the set of skills that defined this “emotional intelligence,” Salovey realized that it might be even more influential than he had originally suspected, affecting everything from problem solving to job satisfaction: “It was like, this is predictive!”

emotional intelligence
Holly Andres for The New York Times

In the years since, a number of studies have supported this view. So-called noncognitive skills — attributes like self-restraint, persistence and self-awareness — might actually be better predictors of a person’s life trajectory than standard academic measures. A 2011 study using data collected on 17,000 British infants followed over 50 years found that a child’s level of mental well-being correlated strongly with future success. Similar studies have found that kids who develop these skills are not only more likely to do well at work but also to have longer marriages and to suffer less from depression and anxiety. Some evidence even shows that they will be physically healthier.

This was startling news. “Everybody said, Oh, it’s how kids achieve academically that will predict their adult employment, and health, and everything else,” recalls Mark Greenberg, a Penn State University psychologist. “And then it turned out that for both employment and health outcomes, academic achievement actually predicted less than these other factors.”

Should social-emotional learning prove successful, in other words, it could generate a string of benefits that far exceeds a mere bump in test scores. This prospect has led to some giddiness among researchers. Maurice Elias, a psychology professor at Rutgers University and the director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, has lauded emotional literacy as “the missing piece” in American education.

But finding ways to measure emotional awareness — never mind its effects — is tricky. It’s also still unclear whether S.E.L. programs create the kind of deep and lasting change they aspire to. The history of education reform is rife with failures: promising programs that succeed in studies, only to falter in the real world. The phenomenon is so common that researchers even have a name for it: the Hawthorne effect — the fact that simply focusing attention on something, like a school, is enough to cause a temporary uptick in performance.

The problem of evaluating S.E.L. is compounded both by the variety of “prosocial” programs on offer and by the ways in which they end up being used in the classroom. Some of them — including one of the most popular, Second Step — are heavily scripted: teachers receive grade-appropriate “kits” with detailed lesson plans, exercises and accompanying videos. Others, like Facing History and Ourselves — in which children debate personal ethics after reading the fictionalized letters of a Nazi colonel and a member of the French Resistance — are more free-form: closer to a college philosophy seminar than to a junior-high civics class. ” ‘Mindful eating’ is social-emotional learning, according to some people,” Brackett told me. “It’s a mess. Everybody wants to jump on the bandwagon.”

David Caruso, a psychologist who does consulting and training in emotional intelligence, has called the current boom in social-emotional programs “promising,” but he worries that the field might be getting ahead of itself. “There are people who want to write this into the Common Core right now,” Caruso told me. “But before we institutionalize this, we’d better be sure that it makes a difference in the long run.”

Leataata Floyd Elementary, a school in a low-income part of Sacramento, has few problems with gangs or guns but a long history of dysfunction. Until recently, the staff attrition rate was more than 20 percent a year, and student test scores were regularly among the lowest in the state. Before the current principal, Billy Aydlett, was hired in 2010, there were six separate principals in five years.

Not long after he arrived, Aydlett created a detailed plan to boost the school’s academic performance. He recruited a roster of highly regarded teachers and developed an aggressive new curriculum full of rich and invigorating lessons. Once the school year started, however, it became clear that the new strategy was a bust. “Literally within the first month of school, we realized that we hadn’t planned for the right thing,” Aydlett recalled when I visited the school last spring. “What we discovered was that these kids weren’t going to be able to make progress on the academics until they’d gotten help with their social and emotional issues.”

emotional intelligence
Holly Andres for The New York Times

With the district’s support, Aydlett attended social-emotional learning training. The program was an unlikely choice for Aydlett — a socially awkward man who confesses to being “awful” at ordinary human encounters. But since beginning the emotional-literacy work, Aydlett said, he had become more aware of interpersonal dynamics, and even made going on a vacation with his wife a priority — something he never bothered to do before. (“I didn’t see the point in that kind of connectedness,” he admitted. “But I’ve learned that it’s important.”) On the morning I visited, he stood greeting children at the gate with high-fives, then led me to the classroom of Jennifer Garcia, who teaches second grade.

As Aydlett and I watched, Garcia walked her class through an exercise in nonverbal cues, asking the children to imagine times when they felt sad or angry or frustrated, and then to freeze in those expressions and postures. As the kids slumped forward in exaggerated positions of woe, Garcia complimented them on small details: a bowed head or hangdog expression. Afterward, Garcia turned to the class. “This is the thinking part of your brain,” she said, holding up her thumb. She pointed to her fingers. “And this is the feeling part of your brain.” Folding her thumb into the center of her palm, she closed her fingers around it. “When we have strong emotions, the thinking part of our brain can’t always control them,” Garcia explained, waggling her fist. “What do we do in those moments?” As the kids called out answers — counting to five, “self-talk,” “dragon breaths” (a kind of deep-breathing exercise) — Garcia nodded.

Such strategies may seem simplistic, but researchers say they can have a profound effect. When I spoke with Mark Greenberg, who developed a social-emotional curriculum known as Paths (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies), he noted that repeatedly practicing these skills means they gradually become automatic. “The ability to stop and calm down is foundational in those moments.”

The value of such skills was evident later that day, when I sat in on a fourth-grade class meeting, in which students worked through interpersonal conflicts as a group. Sitting in a circle on the carpet, Anthony, a small boy in a red shirt, began by recounting how he cried during a class exercise and was laughed at by some of the other students. Asked whether he thought the kids were giggling to be mean, or just giggling because they were uncomfortable, Anthony paused. “I think that some people didn’t know what to do, and so they giggled,” he admitted finally — though he was also adamant that a few of the kids were actually laughing at him. “I was really sad about that,” he added.

Though Anthony was still upset, his acknowledgment that not all the kids were snickering — that some may just have been laughing nervously — felt like a surprisingly nuanced insight for a 9-year-old. In the adult world, this kind of reappraisal is known as “reframing.” It’s a valuable skill, coloring how we interpret events and handle their emotional content. Does a casual remark from an acquaintance get cataloged as a criticism and obsessed over? Or is it reconsidered and dismissed as unintentional?

Depending on our personalities, and how we’re raised, the ability to reframe may or may not come easily. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, notes that while one child may stay rattled by an event for days or weeks, another child may rebound within hours. (Neurotic people tend to recover more slowly.) In theory, at least, social-emotional training can establish neurological pathways that make a child less vulnerable to anxiety and quicker to recover from unhappy experiences. One study found that preschoolers who had even a single year of a social-emotional learning program continued to perform better two years after they left the program; they weren’t as physically aggressive, and they internalized less anxiety and stress than children who hadn’t participated in the program.

It may also make children smarter. Davidson notes that because social-emotional training develops the prefrontal cortex, it can also enhance academically important skills like impulse control, abstract reasoning, long-term planning and working memory. Though it’s not clear how significant this effect is, a 2011 meta-analysis found that K-12 students who received social-emotional instruction scored an average of 11 percentile points higher on standardized achievement tests. A similar study found a nearly 20 percent decrease in violent or delinquent behavior.

When I spoke with teachers at Leataata Floyd, they reported seeing similar results. One teacher remembered the pre-S.E.L. school as being out of control, with kids throwing food and angrily upending their desks in class. Now, she says, “they may still blow up, but they take responsibility. That’s a new thing: they always used to blame somebody else. For them to take responsibility — it’s huge.”

emotional intelligence
Holly Andres for The New York Times

Starting in the late 19th century, the philosopher John Dewey argued against the development of purely vocational elementary schools, insisting that the true purpose of schooling was not simply to teach children a trade but to train them in deeper habits of mind, including “plasticity” (the ability to take in new information and be changed by it) and interdependence (the ability to work with others).

Social-emotional learning takes Dewey’s theory further, suggesting that all emotions — not just the right ones — are adaptive if properly managed. Studies have shown that people in a slightly sad mood are better at analyzing or editing a written document (they focus better on details), while people who are slightly angry are better able to discriminate between weak and strong arguments. The purpose of a social-emotional learning program, then, isn’t to elide emotion but to channel it: to surf the rapids rather than to be swamped by them. This can be hard to do. When we feel angry, we usually act angry — even when that makes the situation worse. The nature of emotion is that it tends to run away with us. “When a feeling is unpleasant, how are you going to handle it?” asks Stephanie Jones, a Harvard psychologist who has studied a number of social-emotional learning programs. “Do you default to an angry response, a defensive response? Or do you go into a mode that’s more information-seeking?”

Social-emotional learning programs often rely on strategies from conventional therapy, like the ability to get distance on a feeling, or to unpack the deeper emotions that may be hidden within it. But fostering these skills in a child is a complex undertaking. For a child to master empathy, Jones notes, she first needs to understand her own emotions: to develop a sense of what sadness, anger or disappointment feels like — its intensity and duration, its causes. That awareness is what lays the groundwork for the next step: the ability to intuit how another person might be feeling about a situation based on how you would feel in a similar circumstance.

When it comes to making social-emotional learning effective, Jones says, determining which skills can constructively be taught at what ages is “a critically important question.” So far, however, few studies have been done on which skills are actually acquired through S.E.L., and even fewer have included the kind of rigorous, controlled trials needed to prove that acquiring a specific skill produces a specific outcome over the long term. “If skills aren’t nurtured in an ongoing way,” Jones says, “it may be that those skills are lost.”

Even a handful of poorly designed programs, Caruso notes, could cause educators who are just warming up to the idea of a social-emotional curriculum to dismiss the entire field. Critics already charge that social-emotional programs are a kind of “therapy light” and a waste of valuable classroom time. In 2010, a report from the U.S. Department of Education that evaluated seven different S.E.L. programs found no increase in academic achievement and no decline in behavioral problems. S.E.L. supporters criticized the study’s methodology and pointed out that the researchers couldn’t be sure that the comparison schools weren’t using S.E.L. techniques even if they weren’t using a formal program. Still, to show that S.E.L. is effective, Caruso says, programs will have to be tested the same way a new pharmaceutical is: through a randomized trial that could distinguish short-term placebo effects from lasting improvements. Without such evidence, social-emotional learning could go the way of the self-esteem movement, an ill-fated program from the 1980s in which schoolchildren repeated mantras like “I am special” and “I am beautiful.” At the time, it, too, was considered the height of progressive education. The program was largely abandoned after it ended up being connected to rising rates of narcissism.

“It’s a big messy field, with a lot of promises, but very little data,” Caruso says of S.E.L. “Right now I think people are just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.”

One of social-emotional learning’s “stickiest” programs is Second Step, the plug-and-play curriculum that provides teachers with grade-appropriate emotional-skills lessons. Originally developed as a violence-prevention program in 1986, Second Step is currently used by approximately 25,000 schools in the U.S. and Canada, according to Joan Cole Duffell, executive director of Committee for Children, the nonprofit behind the program.

At Ella Flagg Young School in Chicago, I sat in on a sixth-grade Second Step class taught by Latasha Little-Brown, the dedicated “social-emotional learning coordinator” who has worked at the school for nine years. That day, Little-Brown began by playing a Second Step video featuring good friends, Lydia and Maria. In the story, Maria’s aunt gives her a cool new necklace, which has beads made of paper. Lydia loves it, so Maria lets her borrow it. But as Lydia is walking back from the party, it suddenly starts to rain and the necklace is ruined. Lydia doesn’t know what to do.

In the teachers’ edition of the exercise, the goal is for students to write out the steps of an apology, including reparation. (Step 1: “Maria, I was wrong for taking the necklace and not caring for it properly.” Step 2: Offer to pay for the necklace.) Little-Brown nudged the students in this direction, until one boy — a chubby kid who had kept his jacket and backpack on during the entire class — finally raised his hand in frustration. Lydia hadn’t been negligent, he pointed out: she’d just been walking home and got soaked by a thunderstorm. How was the loss of the necklace her fault?

Lawyering ensued. One girl insisted that Lydia could have put the necklace in her pocket, or balled it up in her hand — leading another student to argue that just clutching the necklace in a downpour wouldn’t have protected it. Meanwhile, Backpack Boy was still trying to parse the details of friendly obligation. If someone dumped a bucket of water on you as you walked by, he wanted to know, would that be your fault? What if someone robbed you or threatened you with a gun?

Little-Brown allowed the debate to go on for several minutes, then moved crisply to the official point of the lesson: that once a thing is in your possession, you are responsible for it. The class ended with each group writing the steps of restitution on a piece of poster board. It was a disappointing moment. Though Little-Brown was engaged and thoughtful, the class still felt more like a rote exercise in social obligation than a nuanced exploration of a complicated issue. It was hard to believe that the resolution was satisfying to someone like Backpack Boy — one of the few students who seemed eager to wrestle with the knotty issues on which justice can turn.

Later, I mentioned this incident to Marc Brackett. Like many researchers, Brackett worries about the spread of programs like Second Step, in part because they can be overly formulaic. He is also concerned that they can serve as social-emotional placebos, allowing administrators to seem as if they’re working to fix a troubled school without actually doing anything. “When the superintendent wants to show the state that they bought their anti-bully program, or whatever, they buy these kits,” he said. “But then the box just sits on the shelf.”(To be fair, Brackett’s program is one of Second Step’s competitors. Duffell says that Second Step is “dedicated to good-quality implementation” and now has an online system to monitor how teachers use the program.)

Brackett’s program, Ruler, created with David Caruso and others, is more intensive. A school interested in trying Ruler must sign a three-year commitment that involves regular training, including Brackett’s four-day “Anchors of Emotional Intelligence” workshop, which costs $1,800 per person. Though Brackett emphasized to me that Ruler is used by a variety of schools, in a range of income brackets, the program costs significantly more than Second Step, especially when teacher and staff training is factored in. (Only about 500 schools use Ruler.)

In the Ruler cosmology, social-emotional lessons aren’t restricted to one class a week, or even to one class a day. Rather, such moments of observation are expected to pervade every class, from English and math to music and P.E. “Emotional skills aren’t something that develop overnight,” Brackett emphasized. “For most people, it will take a lot of practice.”

Starting in kindergarten, students begin each day by locating themselves on the “mood meter,” a set of four colored squares — blue for moods like malaise, yellow for excitement — that represent the four quadrants of emotional experience. (The other squares are red, for anger, and green, for calm.) The goal is to develop children’s capacity for self-reflection and critical thinking. “We never say, ‘The best thing to do is to take three deep breaths,’ ” Brackett told me. “For some people, taking deep breaths works. But for me, when I take deep breaths, I just think about how I can wring your neck.”

Growing up, Brackett told me, he was bullied “horrifically” — the kind of experience he believes Ruler could help prevent. Not long after being hired at Yale, he said, he went back to his old school, hoping to persuade it to implement the program. “I said, ‘I’ll give you a gift that would normally cost $100,000’ ” — what the Ruler program can amount to, with all the training. “They said, ‘Oh, that’s O.K. — we already have a speaker on emotional intelligence.’ ”

Even now, Brackett says, many educators don’t grasp the importance of emotional awareness. For Ruler to work, he maintains, the tools need to be embraced not just by students but also by teachers and administrators. “They have to be able to walk around that school and say: ‘Hey, where are you on the mood meter? I’m in the yellow right now. I’m feeling excited, how about you?’ or ‘Man, I had a really tough morning. I had to take a meta-moment because that parent was so crazy, I really had to manage my emotions.’ ”

Brackett’s approach may strike some as overkill, but a growing number of social-emotional learning programs now offer separate training for teachers. “It’s like that old airplane maxim,” Mark Greenberg told me. “Put your own mask on before you put your child’s on. You have to help yourself first.” Greenberg notes that a great teacher can change how students learn and behave, creating a climate that is engaged, caring and respectful. In theory, S.E.L. training could help more teachers develop those skills. “The one constant in education research has been the power of these great teachers,” Greenberg said. “What has been less clear is how you bottle that.”

Located high in the hills a few miles north of Berkeley, Prospect Sierra, a private elementary school, is also a Ruler school. It’s a cheerful place filled with the subtle accessories of wealth: airy classrooms outfitted with iMacs and a sprawling sports field with an unobstructed view of the San Francisco Bay.

Walking the halls one day last spring, I spied posters for empathy (“I say what I am feeling, and listen empathetically to what the other person is saying”), with examples of various mood meters, including one made by first graders that struck me as both impressive and alarming. Alongside “energetic,” “peaceful,” and “curious,” the meter listed “frantic,” “lonely,” “depressed,” “excluded” and “joyless.”

In the afternoon, I joined a P.E. class to watch a capture-the-flag-style game, in which teams tried to retrieve colored banners without being tagged. The teacher, a lean, blond woman named Jacqueline Byrne Bressan, began by having students sit in a circle to discuss problems that came up in the last game and how they could be prevented this time around. One boy, whose silky brown hair gave him the look of a miniature British soccer star, raised his hand to note that “some people” hadn’t been willing to “roshambo” — do “rock, paper, scissors” — the school’s accepted practice for settling disputes over whether a player had been tagged or not. When Bressan asked what he did about that, the boy sat up. “I told them they weren’t playing fair,” he said solemnly. “And then I let it go.”

Not long after this discussion, I watched as a beefy blond kid in a red shirt and white Nikes was patently tagged by a small brown-haired girl, but kept running. “You’re tagged!” the girl yelled. Another boy echoed her: “You’re tagged!” The boy yelled back, “No, I’m not!” Glancing at Bressan, he slowed briefly to a walk — then moved furtively around the edge of the field and sneaked back into the game.

Watching this, Bressan smiled dryly. The beefy boy, she observed, is “one of the kids who really struggles” with basic social-emotional concepts like fairness and accountability. But she also said she felt that he was gradually improving. “It used to be, he wouldn’t roshambo at all,” she said. “Or he’d lie and say that he did. Now it may take a minute, but he usually does it.”

While it was hard to tell if roshambo was teaching deeper lessons of fairness and problem-solving, Bressan told me that it radically cut the number of arguments she had to resolve, and also made it easy to identify the kids who needed more help socially. She also said that it gave the other students the moral authority to hold another player accountable.

There seemed to be something to this. While the game had its share of elementary-school drama (at one point, a girl started to cry after a boy bragged that he was faster than her “by a million miles”), it was noticeable how quickly most kids moved on. A tiny blond girl who was in tears over being pushed — her new white jeans now had a grass stain on the knee — handled the matter by walking once around the field, then talking about it in the postgame debriefing. “We talked about not tagging too hard during the game, but it was still happening,” she said, sounding surprisingly sanguine.

When I mentioned this to Bressan, she nodded. “I think it makes a difference sometimes for them just to be able to say it,” she said. “Just to have it discussed.”

Talking later, Bressan told me that in her last job, at an inner-city school in New York, students behaved differently; when one kid was punched in the stomach during recess, she recalled, he didn’t even go to the teacher. By comparison, it was hard to know how the kids at Prospect Sierra might fare in the “real world.” But she added, “The real question is: What kind of world do we want?”

That question is one that Marc Brackett thinks about often. He envisions a generation of kids who have grown up immersed in an environment of total emotional awareness — who receive new insights at the developmentally appropriate times, and in deliberately constructive ways.

“If you have that kind of instruction, from kindergarten,” he said, “I think that in 20 years the world will be a very different place.”

Jennifer Kahn teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism. She last wrote for the magazine about prepsychopathic children.

Our emotions do not obstruct our logic, they create it

Have you ever been trying to make a decision and thought to yourself, “I wish I could just leave my emotions out of this, and decide on a logical basis!”  It is a widely accepted theory that humans’ feelings and emotions cloud and hinder their decision-making abilities. Scientists have been able to prove this theory wrong.

white man in black tshirt

Our emotions do not obstruct our logic, they create it.

In 1982, Antonio Damasio, a neurologist, discovered a patient named Elliot who was incapable of making decisions.  Elliot’s frontal lobe had been damaged when doctor’s removed a tumor from this area of his brain.  Tests showed his IQ and cognitive skills were not changed after the surgery.   If Elliot still had his intellect and cognitive skills, why could he not make even a small, daily decision such as what shirt to choose among two options?


Further post-surgical tests found Elliot was incapable of  possessing and expressing emotion.  His brain was no longer able to access the opinions and ideas created over his lifetime that guided his actions in the past. By studying Elliot’s and several other patient’s brains, scientists have determined that the combination of emotion and judgment creates the foundation for a decision.  Without our emotions, we have no means to decide what is logical and what is not. Humans are not irrational, we are emotional. Our emotions do not obstruct our logic, they create it.  Savannah Krantz (Greenhill, 2014) writes a more detailed accounting of Damasio’s research and findings below:

Decision Making
by Savannah Krantz, Greenhill (2014)

In 1982, Antonio Damasio, a neurologist, discovered a patient named Elliot who was incapable of making decisions. This peculiarity was acquired during the removal of a brain tumor near Elliot’s frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain tasked with decision making. After Elliot’s surgery, his daily routine became impossible. Simple and quick errands turned into long and difficult ordeals. However, his intelligence level and cognitive skills had not been damaged by the surgery. If his IQ was well over high enough for him to be able to make decisions, why couldn’t he? Imagine not being able to make simple decisions such as what clothes to wear, what food to order, and when to schedule an appointment. What exactly in his brain had caused this massive obstruction in his life?
Elliot was emotionless. Damasio ran a series of tests, and none of which triggered Elliot to feel any form of emotion. How could he have the ability to make a decision with no feelings to base the decision off of? Elliot’s tests did prove a common fallacy, humans are irrational, wrong. It is a widely accepted theory that humans’ feelings and emotions cloud and hinder their decision making abilities. However, Elliot, who was incapable of  possessing and expressing emotion, was unable to make decisions. The combination of emotion and judgment creates the foundation for a decision.
Many ancient philosophers believed that homo sapiens were given the frontal cortex as a gift. They believed that the frontal cortex was able to separate reason, intelligence, and morality, from the limbic region of the brain, which is responsible for emotion and impulse. The ancient philosophers thought that this magical frontal cortex gave humans an extreme amount of logic, which enabled us to ignore our feelings when making decisions. This concept is false. The ancient philosophers were unaware that the regions of the brain were not segregated from each other with distinct tasks. The frontal cortex is also associated with emotion, as is the orbitofrontal cortex.
As Antonio Damasio began to study other patients with Elliot’s symptoms, he continued to find that their cognitive abilities were untouched, yet their ability to make decisions was nonexistent.  He found a similarity within all of his patients: the orbitofrontal cortex was either damaged or missing. The orbitofrontal cortex, also known as the OFC, is a part of the frontal lobe that connects instinctive emotion to decision making. Without the orbitofrontal cortex, the brain is incapable of accessing emotion while making a simple choice, resulting in extreme indecisiveness. With a damaged OFC, the brain is no longer able to access the infinite amount of opinions that guide a human’s course of action.
Elliot, an average grown man, not only lost his ability to decide, but also lost his job and family in the process. Elements of his life that he once cared so much about no longer triggered any emotional response, whether it be positive or negative. Without our emotions, we have no means to decide what is logical and what is not. Humans are not irrational, we are emotional. Our emotions do not obstruct our logic, they create it.

Source: How We Decide, 2009, Jonah Lehrer

College and Mental Health

Adolescents-2The Jed Foundation is a not-for-profit organization that promotes emotional health among college students.  The foundation’s Medical Director, Dr. Victor Schwartz, states “of the 20 million students in post-secondary education in the United States, 20 percent have received counseling or some type of mental health diagnosis.”

Many colleges and universities are reviewing and updating their comprehensive mental health and suicide prevention programs.  In an article based on an interview with Dr. Schwartz, Matthew Lynch, Ed. D. summarizes the Jed Foundation’s recommendations for schools to strengthen their mental health support systems.  The foundation recommends:

  • Engaging in campus-wide strategic planning to identify specific issues related to mental health and substance abuse and develop action plans to address them
  • Training new faculty, students and staff to identify at-risk students and refer them to appropriate counseling services
  • Advocating for mental health as a campus-wide issue
  • Creating a task force to promote mental health
  • Increasing programs to identify and support incoming at-risk students
  • Engaging in environmental safety scans of a campus to locate potential sources of danger
  • Building student affairs programs that enhance life skills and student connectedness
If you have a college student, I encourage you to explore the school’s mental health program.  Increasing awareness of resources available to students is key to their success.
  Dr. Lynch’s entire article appears in his HuffingtonPost blog here.

New School Year: Easy Exercises for School Counselors

The Center for Greater Good at Berkeley has found that creating a Positive School Climate is so important because it:

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decreases absenteeism, suspensions, substance abuse, and bullying, and increases students’ academic achievement, motivation to learn, and psychological well-being. It can even mitigate the negative effects of self-criticism and socioeconomic status on academic success. In addition, working in this kind of climate lessens teacher burnout while increasing retention. All really good stuff!”

While meeting their criteria for having a Positive School Climate can be challenging, small steps can be made relatively easily.  School counselors may want to consider the Behind Your Back exercise with student groups, faculty groups, and maybe even parents.

Here’s to happy, healthy, students, teachers, and administrators in the coming academic year!

Feeling Stressed? READ!

Research shows taking just a 6 minute break to read something can significantly lower stress levels. 

happy teenagerIn this study, it took volunteers only 6 minutes of silent reading to lower heart rates and relax muscle tension. Next time you need a break, try reading.

This excerpt from Cynthia Cruz’s beautiful essay on www.therumpus.net describes the reading and relaxing process so well.

ON READING
BY CYNTHIA CRUZ
April 29th, 2013
So deep into this other world do I drop, I no longer notice, nor do I care, what’s happening outside the book, in the “real” world. Like a drug, the book seduces me. I can’t resist. And is this not a small simulation of death, of suicide? And suicide, let us not forget, is what this specific book is about. The confection-like seduction Adorjan creates for us, the warm promise of the other world inside the book, is an enactment of the seduction she imagines her grandmother and grandfather felt, their drive for the drug of death: a lozenge, a garden, an invisible lullaby only the two could hear. And isn’t this precisely what the experience of reading a book is?


Happy Reading!

Image courtesy of [image creator name] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

How do you become confident?

confidence

www.ProudToBeMe.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taylor Kirkham writes on the website ProudToBeMe.com about the power of confidence.

The Power of Confidence
By Taylor Kirkham–It’s human nature to crave feelings of acceptance from our peers. The problem is that we are continuously fed the myth that we’ll gain this approval not by accepting ourselves, but by battling our bodies and tearing our self-image into shreds.
Somehow the dieting industry has convinced even the smartest people that confidence is directly related to your weight loss, your caloric intake, and the number that appears on a scale. This disgusting myth is not only false, but actually has the opposite effect on how we view ourselves on a daily basis. The steps to actually gain confidence couldn’t be farther from the story we have been told since we first were able to read the advertisements on the TV and in store windows.
Confidence is an extremely powerful factor in your appearance. Many people assume that the first thing somebody notices about them is their weight, the clothes they are wearing, or another trivial piece of their appearance. However, I would say that confidence is by far the strongest element of your appearance. People notice if you are proud of yourself, if you stand tall, and ultimately if you feel comfortable in your own skin. They don’t examine you BMI or what type of clothes you are wearing. They don’t estimate your jean size or the number of pounds you lost over the summer. Confidence is the single most attractive feature somebody can obtain, and it holds more power than all of the ridiculous diets we read about combined.
I was not always as confident as I am today, and I thought that the more weight I lost, the more confidence I would gain. However, this myth that the dieting advertisements feed us from a young age couldn’t be farther from the truth. Confidence doesn’t come from shedding some pounds, but rather from when you find the courage to trust yourself and accept yourself for who you are. Even if you don’t feel confident at first, and you have to fake it to you make it, with practice it will come. And it will be AMAZING. P.S. No Diet Needed 🙂

Her thoughts of self-acceptance are so powerful.  What do you think?

 

 

 

More Breast Cancer Treatments Hinted in Study – NYTimes.com

cancer treatment doctorSO many treatment advances have been made since my diagnosis of breast cancer in 2002.  We are going in the right direction in terms of finding a cure.  Please consider donating your time and/or resources to cancer research.

Here is an article published in the New York Times outlining current treatment strategies:

By GINA KOLATA
Published: September 23, 2012

In findings that are fundamentally reshaping the scientific understanding of breast cancer, researchers have identified four genetically distinct types of the cancer. And within those types, they found hallmark genetic changes that are driving many cancers.  These discoveries, published online on Sunday in the journal Nature, are expected to lead to new treatments with drugs already approved for cancers in other parts of the body and new ideas for more precise treatments aimed at genetic aberrations that now have no known treatment.

The study is the first comprehensive genetic analysis of breast cancer, which kills more than 35,000 women a year in the United States. The new paper, and several smaller recent studies, are electrifying the field.

“This is the road map for how we might cure breast cancer in the future,” said Dr. Matthew Ellis of Washington University, a researcher for the study.

Researchers and patient advocates caution that it will still take years to translate the new insights into transformative new treatments. Even within the four major types of breast cancer, individual tumors appear to be driven by their own sets of genetic changes. A wide variety of drugs will most likely need to be developed to tailor medicines to individual tumors.

“There are a lot of steps that turn basic science into clinically meaningful results,” said Karuna Jaggar, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, an advocacy group. “It is the ‘stay tuned’ story.”

The study is part of a large federal project, the Cancer Genome Atlas, to build maps of genetic changes in common cancers. Reports on similar studies of lung and colon cancer have been published recently. The breast cancer study was based on an analysis of tumors from 825 patients.

“There has never been a breast cancer genomics project on this scale,” said the atlas’s program director, Brad Ozenberger of the National Institutes of Health.

The investigators identified at least 40 genetic alterations that might be attacked by drugs. Many of them are already being developed for other types of cancer that have the same mutations. “We now have a good view of what goes wrong in breast cancer,” said Joe Gray, a genetic expert at Oregon Health & Science University, who was not involved in the study. “We haven’t had that before.”

The study focused on the most common types of breast cancer that are thought to arise in the milk duct. It concentrated on early breast cancers that had not yet spread to other parts of the body in order to find genetic changes that could be attacked, stopping a cancer before it metastasized.

The study’s biggest surprise involved a particularly deadly breast cancer whose tumor cells resemble basal cells of the skin and sweat glands, which are in the deepest layer of the skin. These breast cells form a scaffolding for milk duct cells. This type of cancer is often called triple negative and accounts for a small percentage of breast cancer.

But researchers found that this cancer was entirely different from the other types of breast cancer and much more resembles ovarian cancer and a type of lung cancer.

“It’s incredible,” said Dr. James Ingle of the Mayo Clinic, one of the study’s 348 authors, of the ovarian cancer connection. “It raises the possibility that there may be a common cause.”

There are immediate therapeutic implications. The study gives a biologic reason to try some routine treatments for ovarian cancer instead of a common class of drugs used in breast cancer known as anthracyclines. Anthracyclines, Dr. Ellis said, “are the drugs most breast cancer patients dread because they are associated with heart damage and leukemia.”

A new type of drug, PARP inhibitors, that seems to help squelch ovarian cancers, should also be tried in basal-like breast cancer, Dr. Ellis said.

Basal-like cancers are most prevalent in younger women, in African-Americans and in women with breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2.

Two other types of breast cancer, accounting for most cases of the disease, arise from the luminal cells that line milk ducts. These cancers have proteins on their surfaces that grab estrogen, fueling their growth. Just about everyone with estrogen-fueled cancer gets the same treatment. Some do well. Others do not.

The genetic analysis divided these cancers into two distinct types. Patients with luminal A cancer had good prognoses while those with luminal B did not, suggesting that perhaps patients with the first kind of tumor might do well with just hormonal therapy to block estrogen from spurring their cancers while those with the second kind might do better with chemotherapy in addition to hormonal therapy.

In some cases, genetic aberrations were so strongly associated with one or the other luminal subtype that they appeared to be the actual cause of the cancer, said Dr. Charles Perou of the University of North Carolina, who is the lead author of the study. And he called that “a stunning finding.”

“We are really getting at the roots of these cancers,” he said.

After basal-like cancers, and luminal A and B cancers, the fourth type of breast cancer is what the researchers called HER2-enriched. Breast cancers often have extra copies of a gene, HER2, that drives their growth. A drug, Herceptin, can block the gene and has changed the prognosis for these patients from one of the worst in breast cancer to one of the best.

Yet although Herceptin is approved for every breast cancer patient whose tumor makes too much HER2, the new analysis finds that not all of these tumors are alike. The HER2-enriched should respond readily to Herceptin; the other type might not.

The only way to know is to do a clinical trial, and one is already being planned. Herceptin is expensive and can occasionally damage the heart. “We absolutely only want to give it to patients who can benefit,” Dr. Perou said.

For now, despite the tantalizing possibilities, patients will have to wait for clinical trials to see whether drugs that block the genetic aberrations can stop the cancers. And it could be a vast undertaking to get all the drug testing done. Because there are so many different ways a breast cancer cell can go awry, there may have to be dozens of drug studies, each focusing on a different genetic change.

One of Dr. Ellis’s patients, Elizabeth Stark, 48, has a basal-type breast cancer. She has gone through three rounds of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation over the past four years. Her disease is stable now and Dr. Stark, a biochemist at Pfizer, says she knows it will take time for the explosion of genetic data to produce new treatments that might help her.

“In 10 years it will be different,” she said, adding emphatically, “I know I will be here in 10 years.”

Surviving a Sexual Assault: Beautiful Article by Sady Doyle

Sady Doyle writes on www.RookieMag.com about her recovery from the trauma of a sexual assault. The five very different emotional states she cycled through are:

1. Solitude
2. Confusion
3. Pain
4. Being OK

As you read her article, you are able to truly understand the emotional trauma caused by this type of assault. You are also, however, able to believe she really has come through the experience and is OK.

I encourage any trauma survivor to read Sady Doyle’s powerful story.

 

Abstainer or Moderator? Gretchen Rubin explains why it matters to your Happiness

Couples-2During therapy, people often identify behavior changes (stop smoking, be more social, rekindle friendships) as one of their primary goals.  Changing behaviors comes more easily to some than others.  Gretchen Rubin writes in The Happiness Project about how to apply the studies and theories on happiness to your life.  The quiz below provides information on how to make changing behaviors easier for you.

Identifying yourself as a moderator or an abstainer is important for you to make better choices about the easiest way to make positive behavior changes.

 
You’re a moderator if you…
– find that occasional indulgence heightens your pleasure–and strengthens your resolve
– get panicky at the thought of “never” getting or doing something
 
You’re an abstainer if you…
– have trouble stopping something once you’ve started
– aren’t tempted by things that you’ve decided are off-limits
Knowing which strategy works best for you can be a great tool to help you change. There is no right way or wrong way.
Let’s say you want to start walking every morning before work.
If you are a moderator, you may want to use the 80/20 rule.  Ask yourself to adhere to the behavior change 80 percent of the time, but do not try to go “cold turkey”.  Plan to walk 5 or 6 days, but plan to allow yourself 1 or 2 days off each week.
An abstainer would want to plan to walk everyday.
If you are struggling with trying and failing to make a change in your life, try the above quiz, apply the results, and see if you are more successful!

Happiness Manifesto by Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin, the author of the NY Times bestselling book, The Happiness Project, posted her Happiness Manifesto.  Here it is.  What do you think?

A HAPPINESS MANIFESTO

jumping girl

WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY?

  • To be happy, you need to consider feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.
  • One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.
  • The days are long, but the years are short.
  • You’re not happy unless you think you’re happy.
  • Your body matters.
  • Happiness is other people.
  • Think about yourself so you can forget yourself.
  • “It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.”—G. K. Chesterton
  • What’s fun for other people may not be fun for you, and vice versa.
  • Best is good, better is best.
  • Outer order contributes to inner calm.
  • Happiness comes not from having more, not from having less, but from wanting what you have.
  • You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.
  • “There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy.” —Robert Louis Stevenson
  • You manage what you measure.

Image: Rosen Georgiev / FreeDigitalPhotos.net