Episode 106: Reflecting with Jane on “The Art of Changing the Brain”


GLP Founder Dr. Jane Vella joins us to read a passage from a book that has stuck with her through the years: The Art of Changing the Brain by James Zull. We’ve talked a lot about the principle of “Safety” this season and its importance to learning. In this episode we reflect with Jane on the biology behind this core principle as she reads a section on “The Amygdala and the Teacher.”

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Theme music: ‘Pretty Face’ by Una Walkenhorst. You can hear more of Una’s music at her website!

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Read transcripts for the episode below.


Intro (11s): Hello and Welcome to Shift the Power: A Learning-Centered Podcast where we talk about the revolutionary power of a learning centered approach. Through this podcast. We hope to inspire creative thinking and provide practical tools and techniques to deepen learning through dialogue. I’m your host, Meg Logue with Global Learning Partners. And today I had the pleasure of welcoming our founder, Dr. Jane Vella, back to the show. Welcome Jane.

Jane (36s): Thank you, Meg.

Meg (38s): So Jane is joining us today to read a passage from a book that stuck with her over the years. The Art of Changing the Brain by James Zull. Jane. The passage that you selected is on the amygdala and the teacher. It touches on the science of how our brain filters, everything we experienced through the fear center that has our amygdala. Before we dive right into reading. I wonder if you might share how you came to select this passage?

Jane (1m 4s): Well, Meg, as you know, one of the major principles that we’ve used and seen work for people all around the world is the principle of safety. And when I came up with that, it was, as I said, last time, it came out of my experience. I realized that when people were safe, they seem to get to work and learn the learning they came for and I read Zull. And I found a very simple biological reason that -that phenomenon manifested all around the world.

Jane (1m 48s): And it was because of the little gland. It’s a little gland called the amygdala, as you know, which throws adrenaline into the bloodstream. When we feel mad, scared, sad, and Zull explains very accessibly. Is that when that adrenaline is in the bloodstream, there can be no synapses. The dendrites don’t grow. Learning cannot take place. Now this is not epistemology, the study of learning, it is biology.

Jane (2m 32s): The science confirms the system. Wow.

Meg (2m 37s): It’s a pretty beautiful thing. When you can do this thing that you’ve been aware of, you can find a way to explain why it is the way that it is.

Jane (2m 44s): I hadn’t. I had no idea. I had no idea. I mean, I had no idea of the source. I just knew it worked. It was utterly pragmatic.

Meg (2m 54s): Well with that Jane, I’ll pass it back to you to go ahead and read the passage.

Jane (2m 58s): James E. Zull. We’ve called the amygdala. This is his word. The fear center, another perhaps more useful than name would be the danger center or the negative emotions center. Our amygdala says this is bad for me. It is taking care to be sure that we react to bad developments. Oh my goodness. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been in some graduate classes where the professor said, well, there are a a hundred of you in here. They’ll probably be 40 before we finish the course. Oh, doesn’t that just jig the amygdala.

Jane (3m 43s): So the amygdala is, starts throwing me. And this is me talking now this isn’t Zull. I had that experience and I didn’t realize that as soon as he said that I could not learn. There was no possibility of a dendrite growing because it’s biology. Isn’t that amazing. Here’s more from Zullle. The amygdala is located at the end of the sidewalk as see, under what we have called the back cortex. We said this part of our cerebral cortex is mainly for analyzing her experience and making meaning of it.

Jane (4m 26s): Isn’t that amazing. This certainly fits the idea of what the amygdala does. It helps decide, meaning it doesn’t solve problems, create new ideas or plan new actions. Once again, the structure, this is still so the structure of the brain supports an idea for teachers. Experience is always monitored for danger. We don’t need to know all the details, but some physical facts about the amygdala seem relevant for teachers. Perhaps the most important one is that the amygdala gets its information rather directly from concrete experience.

Jane (5m 11s): Now this is not Zull. This is Jane, Zull uses the phrase, experiential education. You know, I’m going to argue with my good man. I say Jimmy, Jimmy Z, that’s like saying wet water. All education is experiential. It begins with experience. Oh dear. And I don’t mean listening to a power point. I may not have the experience or remember the experience you had and then lets find the meaning it had for you and go through the four steps. Isn’t that amazing?

Jane (5m 52s): It’s it’s, it’s been there all along.

Meg (5m 58s): Wired into the very way that our brains work.

Jane (6m 2s): I imagine. Okay, let’s hear Zull a little more. The amygdala gets its information directly from concrete experience in his book, the emotional brain. LeDoux describes how sensory signals go directly to the amygdala, bypassing the sensory cortex before we are even aware of them. And isn’t it true. And here’s Jane now. Before the professor said, there’ll be 40 of you here at the end. And do you know, I already felt fear before the- the words hit my brain.

Jane (6m 43s): Of course, we’ve all had that experience. So those emotions scared, mad, and sad. They anticipate the event. Wow. Okay. Here’s more, Zull. Sorry, I’m jumping in here. This could also call lower route, begins to make meaning of our experience before we have begun to understand it cognitively. Wow. And consciously our amygdala is constantly monitoring our experience to see how things are wow. When we want to help someone learn, we should be aware that our learner will be quickly and subconsciously monitoring the situation through her amygdala this isn’t something she decides to do.

Jane (7m 38s): It just happens. It’s biology. Wow. That’s what I chose this passage. What it means to me is. I translated it as safety. How can we make the learning situation is safe now that doesn’t make it easy? No, no. I can do a hard job. I’m doing it right now making this podcast, but you have to make sure you got what you need.

Meg (8m 9s): Yeah. As I was reading the passage, when you shared it with me, I was reminded of both of our principles of Safety and Respect.

Jane (8m 17s): Exactly. And absolutely. Dear.

Meg (8m 21s): Yeah, because you have to respect the inherent experiences that all of your learners are coming to the room with. And if you don’t acknowledge those and make people feel safe to experience the own, you know what they’re learning through their own past experiences, which they’re going to do either way, but if you don’t create the space for them to reckon with that and feel comfortable, well, I guess comfortable as maybe the wrong word, but challenged in a safe space.

Jane (8m 52s): Well, comfortable as an important word. As I said earlier, if it’s a safe place, it doesn’t mean it’s easy. You can be comfortable. I’m comfortable right now because Paula is here and because of the computer’s working and you’re there, do you know what I mean? You’ve created the space for me to learn not only how to do this, but to do it. So it’s, it’s a decent product. And that is a game connected to the issue of when you face a class of learners, you are facing. If you got 30 people in the room, you’ve got 30 different experiences.

So people have to learn to listen. They have to learn to listen and to honor the other’s experience. And when we’ve done a good learning needs and resources assessment, you know, find out about the learners before they come, we know the variety of experiences, not in particular is perhaps, but certainly we have a sense of it. People coming from what kind of context I told a story last time about The the literacy conference. We’re the experts would talking to people that had just learn to read and right. And that’s one of the, I guess is when you talked about a practice, I think that early work, finding out who the learners are and what their context is, is a practice might be a primary practice. And not to me in terms of sequence being earliest, but also in importance. And you got to work at that point.

Meg (10m 41s): Yeah. And its its hard work, but it’s, it’s worth it. As you said, it, it makes all the difference for the learning experience.

Jane (10m 48s): Exactly. And you know what, one of the things I used to do when I was teaching at the university, it was a graduate course. And I think folks were a little frightened. You know, what is this all about health? They were health workers. It was a school of public health. I would have a party at my house and people would come with their wives and girlfriends and their boyfriends. And they always had such a good time. And I discovered I did a learning needs and resources assessment as a walk around with a glass of wine. Wow.

Meg (11m 25s): My favorite way to do an LNRA.

Jane (11m 28s): That’s what we want to do is become creative. And it isn’t. We want to, if this happens, as we do this work, I’ve discovered I’ve become so creative ’cause you got to find a way, you know, you got this crowd of graduate students from all over the world at UNC chapel Hill. How am I going to discover who, what they are, what they’re about. And I invited them to a party at my house supper and they brought this up.

Meg (11m 59s): Well, that’s a beautiful story. Jane thank you so much for sharing that.

Jane (12m 6s): And again, imagine after they left, honestly, I’ll never forget. It was right here in the room behind me. I met Jay and Jay was a, a young doctor, a nurse or something. I don’t know what he was. He had just come back from Africa with standing there talking and drinking wine. And I, and I said something about, tell me about your experience, what happened over there? And he said, well, the last thing I did before I left, I crossed the river holding on. I can’t believe you said this, holding on to the tail of, I thought he said, and I can’t remember, but I thought he said a hippopotamus, but it was just crazy.

Jane (12m 51s): And he said, well, you know, it was the only safe way to get across the river. I said, Jay, I want to teach you. I want you in this class. Don’t think of dropping it. But isn’t that amazing.

Meg (13m 9s): It is fair. Very amazing.

Jane (13m 11s): Well that’s the kind of thing that you can discover in a comfortable. And that’s why I want to go back to your word comfortable. The word means con at the front means with and forte to is like fortitude- fortitude is the Latin word strength with strength. So when you are comfortable, you have the strength to do the job at hand and isn’t that because the amygdala is quiet and you’re not sad, mad, and scared. You’re glad. And you’re laughing.

Meg (13m 52s): I love that way of looking at the word comfortable.

Jane (13m 56s): Isn’t that beautiful?

Meg (13m 57s): Yes.

Jane (13m 57s): That’s comfortable. Well, so when you used it, I thought of it immediately because its not easy. It’s a hard job. This as I said is a hard job for me. If Paula weren’t here and if you weren’t supportive and sending me the materials and you know, you are, you created the context of Safety and that is not easy to do with an old lady.

Meg (14m 26s): Well, why don’t we try, try to model our principles and practices and everything that we do even podcasting.

Jane (14m 34s): Yes, indeed, absolutely. Sweetheart.

Meg (14m 37s): And it’s, it’s a, a way of being

Jane (14m 40s): That’s interesting. You used that word a way. When Peter first wrote to me, he said, I read your book. I’m not sure what it all means. And that was the book learning to listen, learning to teach. He said, I read the book and I’m not sure. Is it a, a way of being or a way of teaching? I said, yes, it might just be both. It might indeed.

Meg (15m 15s): Well, thank you so much, Jane, for, for joining us on this episode of Shift the Power: A Learning-Centered Podcast. It’s just such a delight to get the chance to talk to you about some of these core principles and the science that as you said, corroborates it. Yeah. Jane (15m 32s): Yes, yes. My pleasure. And thanks for all your preparation.

Meg (15m 37s): And now to our listeners here is your way for today. In what ways are you attentive to your learners? Dangerous enters as you design and facilitate learning. We look forward to continuing the dialogue online.

Jane (15m 59s): Wonderful.

Closing (15m 60s): Thank you for tuning in to another episode of Shift the Power: A Learning-Centered Podcast. This podcast is produced by Global Learning Partners and Greg Tilton with music by Una Walkenhorst to find out more about Global Learning Partners whether it be our course offerings, consulting services, free resources or blogs, go to www.GlobalLearningPartners.Com. We invite you to sign up for our mailing list, subscribe to our podcast and find us on social media to continue the dialogue. If you enjoy the show, please consider leaving us a review on Apple podcasts or your preferred podcast player.

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