Mindful Brain First-Aid for Test Season

breathing1Well, we’ve made it to Spring Test Season ’16! Students, teachers, administrators and parents experience this part of the school year in many different ways, but most would agree that it can be a high-pressure moment in our educational lives.  We all know about getting enough sleep, eating a good breakfast, and having our lucky socks and pencils on those upcoming test days, but what are some other ways we can prepare our brains and bodies to set ourselves up for success?

Practicing a bit of mindfulness at different points before and during the testing sessions can help us feel more calm and grounded, both good states to be in when we’re asking our brain to perform at high levels. What is mindfulness? How about a definition from a leading expert on it, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn:

mindfuldef

Notice the words “paying attention” and “non-judgementally” in particular.  The term ‘mindfulness’ is thrown around quite a bit these days, and often people think that it means working hard to make one’s brain completely empty and free of thoughts–if your brain isn’t perfectly clear and empty, you’re not doing it right!  This is simply not true, however; our brains are wired to think all the time.  Practicing mindfulness is learning to pay attention non-judgementally to all those thoughts, giving us some space and perspective to really notice and honor them.  Here’s an example of a simple mindfulness practice that can help us pay attention to our thoughts before or during a stressful testing situation…when we feel our bodies getting nervous and our brains buzzing with anxiety, try this strategy:

Describe 5 things you see in the room/area. (“The walls are light blue.” or “The trees outside the window are green and lush.”)

Name 4 things you can feel. (“My feet in my shoes, and my shoes on the floor.” or “The air in my nose.”)

Name 3 things you can hear. (“Traffic on the highway.” or “My own soft breathing.”)

Name 2 things you can smell. (“New pencil smell.” or “fabric softener.” Or remember 2 smells you really like.)

Name 1 good thing about yourself. (“I’m a thoughtful friend.” or “I’m feeling stressed, but I’m handling it.”)

Doing an exercise like this can help us take a step back from our buzzing brain, bring us back to the present moment, and allow us to gently observe and name our feelings. If we’re feeling a measure of panic or powerlessness due to test anxiety, being able to say “wow, I’m feeling pretty stressed! I can take a moment to remember where I am right now and give my brain a break” can help  us back into the thinking, logical, frontal part of our brains and out of our fear-feeling amygdala and mid-brain.  The strong feelings coming from our amygdala during stressful situations can help keep us safely out of physical and emotional danger, but it’s not the best place to stay when we’re trying to get our brains to work logically!

Safe-brain

One of the best, simplest ways to come back to the present moment and pay attention non-judgementally to our thoughts is to intentionally notice our breathing.  Here is a basic breathing exercise adapted from Calm Classroom:

Sit up straight and comfortably in your chair.  Rest your hands on your desk or in your lap.  Close your eyes.  Feel your feet flat on the floor.  Relax your shoulders back and down.  Let your whole body be still.

Feel the air moving in and out of your nose.  [wait 10 seconds]

Remember, when you breathe in, you will fill your lungs completely.  Make each breath slow, smooth, and deep.

Now, breathe in for a count of 1….2….3….hold.  Breathe out for a count of 3…2…1…hold.

Breathe in for a count of 1….2….3….hold.  Breathe out for a count of 3…2…1…hold.

Breathe in for a count of 1….2….3….hold.  Breathe out for a count of 3…2…1…hold.

Breathe in for a count of 1….2….3….hold.  Breathe out for a count of 3…2…1…hold.

Now breathe normally and relax.  Feel the air moving in and out of your nose.  [wait 20 -30 seconds]

Now, take a deep breath in, hold and exhale slowly.

Notice how you feel. [wait 10 seconds]

Slowly open  your eyes.

Happy-Brain

The beauty of exercises like these is that they require no special preparation, space or equipment; they are tools at our disposal any time we need them, and they are highly effective at inviting our brains back into a calm, logical space.  For a special treat, however, definitely check out Calm.com for some peaceful sounds and visuals anytime you have access to a mobile device or computer with the internet!

Even though testing time can be a stressful time in school, practicing a little mindfulness can help us all get through it with a little more awareness and self-compassion. Take good care of those brains and bodies, Austin ISD SEL fans!

strongbrain

Pareido-WHAT? Or…You are an Emotion-Reading Facial Recognition Machine!

Hello once again, SEL fans!  And a very happy Halloween to everyone!   Let’s start with a little experiment this week.  Does this group of shapes do anything for ya?

random

Not really? How about this?

notrandom

That one looks like a slightly bemused squareface guy, right?  Same shapes, different arrangement, and all of a sudden we’ve got a new little buddy on the screen.  Well guess what, dear reader: you have just participated in our neurological word of the week…

Pareidolia! (pear-uh-DOL-ee-uh)—The illusory perception of non-existent faces .[i]

Humans are hardwired from the moment we are born to recognize faces.  Newborn babies have underdeveloped distance vision, but they are capable of seeing clearly up to about 12 inches—just about the distance at which nurturing caregivers hover to feed, smile and coo at the new little human.   From this early foundation we continue to focus on faces…after all, we don’t usually show off pictures of our family and friends’ ears or knees!  Studies have shown that we have a special area of our brain that contains neurons dedicated only to recognizing faces.[ii]

coffee

Further, as you may have done with this rather enthusiastic cup of coffee, we don’t just recognize facial features; we also are so good at reading emotion that we almost always assign a feeling or personality to faces we see.  After all, humans have over 40 different facial muscles, allowing us to perform thousands of distinct and complex facial expressions that we use for nonverbal communication with each other. [iii]

sinkguy

Our expertise in both recognizing faces and facial expressions could come from an advantageous evolutionary adaptation.  For tiny baby humans, being able to interpret and respond to parental faces early on could help kickstart bonding, leading to more positive attention from caregivers and therefore more opportunity to thrive.   Also, being able to quickly recognize friendly faces vs. hostile faces may have promoted the early survival of our species. [iv]

mop

You were a little worried about that mop, right?  You emotion-interpretation expert, you!  How about this one?

happy-stick

Did you empathize with that twig a bit?  A ha!  There’s the distinct social and emotional aspect of pareidolia.  Even though our ability to identify faces and facial expressions may have been an early adaptation for safety and survival, our frontal cortex—the part of our brain responsible for higher thinking—gives us the ability to imagine how we would feel undergoing the emotion or experience that we recognize in others.  Pareidolia, this innate tendency to search for and see faces, could be an ancient sign of our profound human capacity for empathy.

happy chairs

So the next time you are startled by a creepy countenance emerging from a wooden door:

wizard-in-wood

Or feel cheery with a cheese grater:

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Feel connected to your ancient roots, and your wondrous frontal cortex.  You are a finely-tuned human expert!

[i]  (Jiangang Liua, 2014)

[ii]  (Vincent, 2014)

[iii]  (Ekman, 2008)

[iv]  (Vincent, 2014)

Works Cited

Ekman, D. M. (2008). Facial expression analysis. Retrieved October 31, 2014, from ScholarPedia: http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Facial_expression_analysis

Jiangang Liua, J. L. (2014, January 13). Seeing Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia. Retrieved October 31, 2014, from Science Direct: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010945214000288

Vincent, J. (2014, May 9). The Independent. Retrieved October 31, 2014, from Pareidolia: Scientists say ‘don’t worry, it’s normal to see Jesus on a slice of toast’: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/pareidolia-scientists-say-dont-worry-its-normal-to-see-jesus-on-a-slice-of-toast-9345350.html

Celebrate Good Times…Come On!

Hello SEL Fans!  Happy Diwali y’all!

diwali-diyas-diyas_

Diwali is a huge and ancient Hindu celebration of light, prosperity, and renewal.  It’s observed for 5 whole days of parties, fireworks, food and revelry. And what a coincidence…this week’s bloffering is all about SELebration!

See what I did there?  Okay, full disclosure: This post will be about celebration in general, not just with regard to Diwali (although what a great celebration!) or to AISD Social and Emotional Learning (which is a lot to celebrate as well!). Celebration is a crucial aspect of social and emotional well-being, and we highly recommend you partake in celebration as soon as possible.  Why? Read/listen to this!

Two Guys on Your Head: Celebration

According to the Two Guys from NPR (and also Austin Texas, baby!), celebrating accomplishments both major and minor activate the pleasure center of our brain.  This pleasure center also happens to play a big role in motivation.  It makes sense, right?  If your brain is working on something, and it gets a little shot of those delightful brain-chemical pleasure makers dopamine and endorphins (among others!), it is likely to want to keep on keepin’ on.

happy-chemicals

As the article/broadcast mentions, humans have the great ability to set long-term goals, but we have a hard time actually doing them unless we plan short-term steps to reach the long-term goals.  If I feel like I have a long and arduous road ahead, I’m less likely to see it through to the end, or even get started.  But if I set short term goals to reach my ultimate goal, and I also plan to celebrate my little steps along the way, I am much more likely to get it done!

Confetti

Celebration also helps us to increase our level of gratitude, and “perpetuates the positive,” as the article states.  So create your next celebration right now!  Used the stairs instead of the elevator a couple times this week? Treat those feet to a pedicure!  Get your blog post published on time for your job? Go on a picnic! (bwahaha) But truly, whatever little celebration you can fit into your life, give yourself permission to have it and enjoy it. It’s good for your brain and it’s good for the world.

earth_hear_041808

To Sleep…Perchance to Dream

Hello there, SEL fans!  I’m your friendly new blogger, Katie Cameroneil.  I became part of AISD’s Social and Emotional Learning team this past July, and boy am I glad to be here!  I’ll be posting weekly, usually on Fridays, and I’ll be keeping my eyes out for the most interesting, useful, smart and tasty tidbits the world has to offer related to Social and Emotional Learning.  I give you my first blog offering (bloffering?)…I hope you find it dreamy.

We talk a lot in SEL about the amygdala.  The amygdala is our primal brain, and the center of strong emotions and self-preservation.  When we are really angry or afraid, or so happy we get choked up, our amygdala is firing all over the place.

Luckily, when we’re awake and doing day-to-day things, we have our frontal cortex—our rational, logical brain—to keep us from doing anything crazy!  We may have really strong feelings sometimes, but we generally don’t hurl ourselves on the

floor screaming, or attempt to fly, or run howling through the streets.   Good thing we have our frontal cortex to keep society (mostly) civilized!

That’s when we’re awake…but what about when we’re asleep?

Excuse me…Your Amygdala is Showing

Research shows that the amygdala is highly active when we’re dreaming, while the frontal cortex is basically turned off  (Nir & Tononi, 2010).  The amygdala can run wild with feelings and emotions, with no interference from the logical cortex (Big Think Editors, 2014)!   This is why dreams can seem so vivid, colorful, intense and even really scary (Big Think Editors, 2014).  Dreams can even stick with us, the emotional experiences coloring our day.   The amygdala is a powerful influence in our brain, and unchecked, it can come up with some pretty wild scenarios.  Often the activity from the amygdala during dreaming radiates into other parts of the brain, including the frontal cortex, which could explain why dreams sometimes seem to have a linear or logical story structure (Nir & Tononi, 2010).  But, for the most part, dreaming is the amygdala’s time to shine!

Luckily, our brains are also usually equipped with mechanisms that prevent our physical bodies from acting out the events of our dreams.  So, dreams are very complex brain functions (Cromie, 1996).  Why do we have them?  Why do we appear to need sleep and dreams?  Guess what—scientists don’t know yet (Nir & Tononi, 2010).  All they really know is, good sleep appears to be vital to having a high quality of life, and that extreme sleep deprivation can be fatal (Cromie, 1996).  So what could this mean?

Dream On!

Could it be that sleeping gives the frontal cortex a time to rest and rejuvenate, at the same time allowing the amygdala to get some unfettered free time to explore feelings and fears (Big Think Editors, 2014)?  Neuroscientists have also shown that tell-tale signs of learning occur in the brain during sleep and dreaming (Nir & Tononi, 2010), perhaps demonstrating that the wandering amygdala can present scenarios to our brains, however crazy, that help us become more functional humans during our waking hours (Cromie, 1996).  Could dreams allow us to deepen our empathy and perspective-taking skills?  The latest sleep and brain research is seeking the answers to these questions.

In conclusion, thank your amygdala for creating our dreams, and thank your brain for being such an amazing tool.  And next time you have a dream, keep in mind that it has possibly enhanced and enriched your brain’s experience.   Even though they are ‘just dreams,’ they affect the brain in a very real way.  So sleep well, and keep on dreaming!  Happy weekend!

Works Cited

Big Think Editors. (2014, October 14). Big Think. Retrieved October 17, 2014, from This is Your Brain on Dreams, with Michio Kaku: http://bigthink.com/think-tank/this-is-your-brain-on-dreams-with-michio-kaku

Cromie, W. J. (1996, February 8). Research Links Sleep, Dreams and Learning. Retrieved 10 17, 2014, from The Harvard University Gazette: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/1996/02.08/ResearchLinksSl.html

Nir, Y., & Tononi, G. (2010, January 10). Dreaming and the brain: from phenomenology to neurophysiology. Retrieved 10 17, 2014, from National Institute of Health Public Access Author Manuscript: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2814941/