LIBRE : An integrated brain approach to education
14.3 trillion or 12.6% of world GDP was the economic impact of conflict in 2016
The year 2017 marks the seventy second year after the second world war, infamous as the deadliest war in human history, which resulted in nearly eighty-million casualties. The primary cause for this war was the absence of a common identity, namely that of humanity. Post war efforts since have focused on rebuilding economies, however, have lost sight of the primary cause for conflict, namely the lack of a common identity.
According to the Global Peace Index published in 2017, the world continues to become less peaceful and a ten-year trend in peacefulness finds that global peace has deteriorated by 2.14% since 20081. Although the number of interstate conflicts has decreased, internal conflicts have increased. In 2016, the economic impact of conflict was $14.3 trillion or 12.6% of world GDP. These global challenges emphasise the mutuality of peace and sustainability, as well as their relationship with society, economy, culture and environment. Understanding this demands a fundamental shift in our current world view which perceives reality in the form of binaries ‘us’ vs ‘them’, ‘good’ vs ‘evil, ‘black’ or ‘white’, thus ‘othering’ those who are different from us. Difference not inclusion has emerged as one of the underlying factors for conflict and has emerged as the root cause of intolerance, discrimination, violence and apathy towards others and the suffering of others and has allowed for the dehumanization of those who are different from us.
This lack of ability in peaceful conflict resolution may be attributed to a decline in empathy reported recently. For instance, a study conducted in college students2, which examined trait or dispositional empathy found significant reduction in empathic concern and perspective taking with the decline being most pronounced in samples after 2000. There has also been concern about the reduced ‘human connect’ permeating all aspects of life due to the technology revolution and its possible consequences on how humans communicate and relate to other human beings. Electronic devices are cherished with copious amounts of attention while compassion towards fellow human beings wanes. However, human beings are neuro-biologically designed to be ‘social beings’ and the human brain – is a social brain. “Use it or lose it” is a basic tenet of both human and brain connections. In the face of technological invasion, we may stand the danger of losing empathy and compassion for human beings.
Human beings are neuro-biologically designed to be ‘social beings’ and the human brain – is a social brain. “Use it or lose it” is a basic tenet of both human and brain connections.
In an attempt to rescue this scenario, we draw upon recent research findings from the field of neuroscience that has revolutionised our understanding of the human brain and behaviour. The advent of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has allowed researchers to capture changes in brain activity in real time though the data is analysed later. Experiments using fMRI have demonstrated specialised areas in the brain for empathy and compassion and
the connections between these areas3 4 5. It has also demonstrated that connections between these areas can be altered because of a phenomenon called neuroplasticity (Figure 1). Neuroplasticity is defined as the ability of the brain to form and reorganise connections, especially in response to learning. This has brought to fore an important reality – the capacity of the brain to be trained.
Since training the brain begins in education curricula, we propose embedding such training in the education system. Clearly, it is not enough for education to produce individuals who can read, write, count and earn a good living. For a peaceful society, we need education that would allow learners to recognise the inherent interconnectedness and dignity of all life and instill the values of acceptance, equality, respect for diversity, empathy and compassion in us. Education that is based on this approach has the potential for triggering a powerful surge of positive transformation in the student and in society.
We argue for a revolution in education – one that is restructured to promote global citizenship and human flourishing rather than only catering to the narrow political or economic agenda of countries. We advocate the development and promotion of a new curriculum. Entitled LIBRE, this curriculum proposes a novel integrated pedagogy with a vision and mandate to build global citizens. Based on evidence from neuroscience, the LIBRE curriculum is designed to integrate the pedagogical approach of critical inquiry with mindfulness, empathy and compassion training resulting in a student-led and interactive learning experience. With roots in neurobiological design, LIBRE will be the first curriculum designed to nourish the ‘whole brain’.
. . . the LIBRE curriculum is designed to integrate the pedagogical approach of critical inquiry with mindfulness, empathy and compassion training resulting in a student-led and interactive learning experience.
In the sections below, the domains of LIBRE, namely critical inquiry, mindfulness, empathy and compassion are described along with the brain circuits primarily associated with each domain. While the brain networks of learning are quite complex, the LIBRE curriculum will focus on training specific structural areas of the brain, enhancing the abilities primarily associated with those brain areas. LIBRE uses evidence based approaches, which build skills/competencies and will consciously foster what historically has been understood as intellectual thinking with socio-emotional learning. LIBRE re-connects those with differences so that we can resolve the pressing challenges we have today, restoring peace and sustainability where it currently is challenged.
Core components of LIBRE
1. Critical Inquiry
Critical inquiry is the process of finding out about a concept, phenomena or claim, through one’s own observation, experience, thinking, reasoning and judgement. Inquiry oriented learning is a pedagogical approach, which encourages learners to find answers to their inquiry either through their own or through collective observation, thinking and reasoning and based on their own judgement and experience6. That such skill needs to be consciously built and inculcated in students is evident from a 2016 survey conducted by Stanford University amongst 7,804 middle-schoolers in US7, in which a staggering 82% of the participants could not differentiate between real and fake news. A majority of the students judged the validity of the information based on how much detail was available or whether a large photo was attached, instead of weighing the source of the information. This is where the role of training in critical inquiry becomes most apparent.
The process of inquiry involves several intricately connected parts. Initiated by the student or the teacher, it often starts with an idea triggered by curiosity, or by an intuition or speculation based on experience, and crystallizes into a question during the process. Our objective of inculcating skills of critical inquiry will be to equip students so they are able to clearly deconstruct and reconstruct claims, definitions and concepts to arrive at conclusions that are robust, logical and humane, both independently and collectively as a classroom. Also referred to as divergent thinking, there has recently been an increase in research to emphasise its role in education8.
Our objective of inculcating skills of critical inquiry will be to equip students so they are able to clearly deconstruct and reconstruct claims, definitions and concepts to arrive at conclusions that are robust, logical and humane, both inde-pendently and collectively as a classroom.
Rational inquiry is committed to accepting the conclusions that logic leads us to, even when they go against our intuitive sense. It is also committed to avoiding logical inconsistencies; asking for rational justification for the claims and conclusions presented before us; and above all, compassionately doubting and questioning ourselves, our peers, teachers and other authorities. By the end of this rigorous process, the students develop a certain degree of intellectual rigour and resilience to desist any form of indoctrination. The idea is to develop these abilities beyond narrow specialisations, cutting across disciplines such as mathematics, the sciences and the humanities. The transdisciplinary approach of critical inquiry is what makes it unique and transformative.
A meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies9 that have investigated the process of rational inquiry, involving moral cognition suggested an extensive network in the brain involving bilateral prefrontal cortex (ventro-medial and dorso-medial), the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), as well as the right TP and MTG (Figure 2). Since this same meta-analysis research indicates that rational inquiry and moral cognition can involve one maintaining a distinct self and other approach to rationalising behavior, we also believe it would be extremely important to add some training that cultivates awareness of when this social disconnect is occurring when one engages in critical inquiry.
Mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention to the experience of right now, non-judgmentally10. It is designed to cultivate conscious awareness of (a) where attention resides, (b) how emotions are experienced in the body, and (c) how thought, beliefs, values and emotions may influence one’s ability to pay attention and regulate emotion. Mindfulness is often described as a series of exercises/practices that bring about training attention so that choices can be made about how to respond to stimuli, as opposed to reacting to it – such as experiences or people that are different from what we are accustomed to.
In LIBRE, the purpose of including mindfulness practices is to cultivate the neural networks that associate with these three objectives. Mindfulness training in the LIBRE curriculum involves a series of breathing exercises as well as other evidence-based mindfulness practices, such as bringing intentional attention to everyday types of activities such as walking, brushing teeth, eating, listening, speaking, and includes a series of reflective journal prompts. In addition, students are carefully guided through exercises that invite them to explore bodily sensations associated with thoughts and feelings in order to become aware of where emotions are experienced in the body and how those experiences may relate to specific thoughts, ideas, and beliefs. The curriculum seeks to engage the students with playful curiosity, kindness and non-judgement of their inner experience.
fMRI studies on mindfulness have revealed a brain network involving both hemispheres of the brain consisting of regions in the frontal and parietal cortex, which control voluntary deployment of attention and a network that is responsible for reorienting attention that the frontal cortex primarily in the right hemisphere and temporoparietal junction (TPJ)11. In addition, the emotional awareness part of mindfulness training is associated with greater activity in areas such as the anterior insula, ACC and the ventro-medial medial prefrontal cortex12. The insula is associated with self-awareness and is linked to emotion. The ACC is also associated with emotion, but in particular with impulse control and decision-making.
We believe that the compulsory implementation of mindfulness practices in schools will ultimately lead to increased attentional awareness and reduced task effort13 14 along with better emotional regulation15, which may dramatically improve learning both inside and outside the classroom.
Empathy is our general capacity to resonate with others’ emotional states such as happiness, excitement, sorrow, or fear. Eloquently but simply explained by Matthieu Ricard ‘ When we meet someone who is joyful, we smile. When we witness someone in pain, we suffer in resonance with his or her suffering’. Empathy is manifested when sports fans are delirious with joy when their favourite team wins and the sorrow and anger that is demonstrated when the team loses. Despite not explicitly participating in the game or the act, the brain produces an explicit response. However, as we pointed out earlier when discussing critical inquiry, not everyone is able to share in another’s experience. Nonetheless, empathy is naturally embedded in the human brain in the ‘mirror neuron network’16 and forms the basis of societal structure. As discussed earlier, human beings today are decreasing in expressing empathy for human beings. Thus, explicit training in empathy, particularly for the “other” needs to have a distinct presence in the classroom.
Carefully and cautiously guided by the teacher, through discussions of personal experience and those in the classroom, the LIBRE curriculum builds empathy by guiding students through various scenarios that include similarities and differences, often encouraging students to get into the shoes of the other and thereby developing a feeling for and cognitive perspective taking of the other. Such cognitive perspective taking provides students with the opportunity to avoid emotional contagion, which can lead to empathy fatigue17.
LIBRE curriculum builds empathy by guiding students through various scenarios that include similarities and differences, often encouraging students to get into the shoes of the other and thereby developing a feeling for and cognitive perspective taking of the other.
Training in empathy comes with caution. Research has indicated that feeling for others can be turned on or off18. If turned off intentionally, violent behaviour can emerge19. It is therefore important and critical that empathy training build on a foundation of mindfulness methodology and compassion training so that it contributes to participants’ altruistic and pro-social behavior to form social connections20 21 22. And this is why the training of compassion must necessarily accompany training in empathy.
Building upon mindfulness and empathy, compassion as characterised by feeling for another yet, not confusing one’s self with another. Rather, one can resonate with another’s emotion and remain distinct from that emotion23. Such compassion cultivation training, adds another dimension, characterised by a desire to improve the other’s wellbeing24. This practice makes it possible to avoid emotional contagion, or distress when empathising with those who are suffering, while also cultivating a desire to see the other alleviated from their emotional and/or physical pain and suffering25.
. . . compassion cultivation training has been known to reduce implicit bias , stereotype threat and reduce racial bias. The objective of the LIBRE compassion training is to cultivate altruistic behaviour.
Compassion training increased activations in a non-overlapping brain network spanning ventral striatum, pregenual anterior cingulate cortex, and medial orbitofrontal cortex26 27 (Figure5). The compassion cultivation of the curriculum builds on the mindfulness and empathy training by engaging in practices that invite students to send positive wishes to others who are experiencing joy, as well as physical and emotional pain and suffering. In addition, the curriculum invites students to offer kind wishes to people whom they don’t know as well as to themselves. One’s ability to be kind to another/to offer compassion to another in a wish or to take action to assist another in pain and suffering is mediated by perception. As such, compassion cultivation training has been known to reduce implicit bias28 29, stereotype threat30 and reduce racial bias31. The objective of the LIBRE compassion training is to cultivate altruistic behaviour.
The LIBRE curriculum aims to reclaim education with utilitarian to that of human flourishing. Critical inquiry acts as a bulwark against a person’s intellectual and emotional predispositions towards violence and constantly questions deeply held beliefs and assumptions to rigorous scrutiny, builds resistance to any form of indoctrination. Training of neurocognitive skills, previously referred to as socio-emotional skills, as described by mindfulness, empathy and compassion, will create responsible and caring global citizens who are aware of the consequences of their choices. The ultimate fusion of the LIBRE module recognises the inseparability of the four pillars. Thus, critical inquiry complements mindfulness, empathy and compassion training to liberate learners from deep-seated assumptions, patterns of thinking and biases whilst empowering them to become more aware of the choices and consequences of their compassionate actions and global citizens of the world. This integration is critical in order to achieve the desired objective of re-orienting the purpose of education to human flourishing and well-being.
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