Learning as an emotional process?

I also read Descartes’ Error, by the neuroscientists Antonio Damasio. Damasio had noticed an unusual latter of symptoms in patients who had suffered brain damage to a specific part of the brain—the ventromedial (i.e., bottom-middle) prefrontal cortex (abbreviated vmPFC; it’s the region just behind and above the bridge of the nose). Their emotionality dropped nearly to zero. They could look at the most joyous or gruesome photographs and feel nothing. They retained full knowledge of what was right and wrong, and they showed no deficits in IQ. They even scored well on Kohlberg’s tests of moral reasoning. Yet when it came to making decisions in their personal lives and at work, they made foolish decisions or no decisions at all. They alienated their families and their employers, and their lives fell apart.

Damasio’s interpretation was that gut feelings and bodily reactions were necessary to think rationally, and that one job of the vmPFC was to integrate those gut feelings into a person’s conscious deliberations… The head can’t even do head stuff without the heart… When the master (passions) drops dead, the servant (reasoning) has neither the ability nor the desire to keep the estate running.

(p. 34 of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt )

I believe that one of the things that experts and scholars should actively try to avoid is being narrow-minded. Mark Twain has appropriately put it; “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Just because we are familiar with the subjects and tools and we are also required to go deep, rather than wide, in our own fields, we often forget that we are sometimes confined by the boundary of our own making. Reading The Righteous Mind, which talks about morality being based on emotion, I stepped back and started to wonder whether I mistook the cognitive part of learning for its entirety. Isn’t learning also an emotional process? Current learning assessment tools and rubrics are designed to measure how much students learned; educators rarely focus on how much students enjoy learning. Self-assessment questionnaires are mostly about students’ confidence on the lecture contents and/or cognitive abilities, not about their feeling. Maybe we educators should ponder how to integrate emotional boost into learning.

Here I am quoting again. “The head can’t even do head stuff without the heart.”



Why tennis?

After watching me for more than a year playing tennis almost every day and remaining enthusiastic about it, my friend Anh asked me “what about tennis makes you crazy about it?”

After a long, haphazard answer to it, I summed it up in a satisfying way. “It requires a combination of power, speed and control.”

Thinking back, I realized that’s the kind of person I want to be. I want to be a person with determination, who also understands and values the power (and weight) of words. I desire to be someone who seizes the opportunities, rather than waiting for them to come. I would like to be a person who respects the boundary between people and knows her limit in experiences/perspectives so that she never judges anyone in haste.

Maybe that’s the reason I love tennis 🙂



Experts vs. non-experts/pseudo-experts

When people saw MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) reshaping the landscape of higher education, they mainly talked about technology. Cathy Davidson, a scholar and author of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World In Flux, on the other hand, saw human interactions in MOOC.

When people were talking about Airbnb and Uber, they said these companies are leading a sharing economy. Rachel Botsman, a scholar and author of Who Can You Trust, recognized they change something more fundamental—how we trust each other.

This is what experts do. When non-experts or pseudo-experts see what’s presented on the surface, experts lift up the cover and look for the crux of the matter.


(Image credit: CC0)


“Learning is social”


Cathy Davidson, who was invited to the campus to talk about higher education, said it was a great experience to run a MOOC course with the enrollment of ~18,000 students from all over the world. She also mentioned that her teaching assistants were exhausted from communicating with students 24/7. “Learning is social and interactive,” she added.

Acquisition of information could happen in solitary, but learning requires interactions for two reasons. First, in order to explain something to somebody, the speaker needs to break the information into bite-size pieces, fill any missing links between concepts, come up with analogies, make a story line, etc. These active mental engagement, largely overlooked in education for a long time, is what converts information to knowledge. Second, having a listener means that somebody cares about you—your understanding, thoughts or opinions on something. It’s an implicit, simple but warm gesture that makes your learning relevant and, more importantly, fun.

An effective teacher evokes an image of an eloquent speaker whose clear explanation, charisma and charm overflow from the stage and grab students’ attention. Nonetheless, in light of the importance of human interaction in learning, I wonder if that image may not be correct. As a professor, I should perhaps strive to be an active listener—someone who finds holes in students’ logic and/or asks smart questions that challenge the student to look at the information from different angles.


Image credit: “Listen” by Steven Shorrock is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Where to get honest answers


To a young poet who asked Rilke to evaluate his poems, Rilke responded:

“No one can advise or help you—no one… Ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? … Keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your whole development; you couldn’t disrupt it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to questions that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer” (11).

Letters to a Young Poet written by Rainer Maria Rilke and translated by Stephen Mitchell

Solitude is not the absence of the crowd, but the presence of yourself filling in the space left by the crowd.


(Image: CC0, credit Carlyn1982)


The magical power of old friends

Old friends have a magical power. When they are together, no matter how far they were apart in time and space before, they stretch out the ephemeral present moment to the point that now it can be loaded with years of past and future. Their past years had little overlap. So will their coming years. However, their separate paths enrich their friendship, rather than eroding it.

Maybe a good friendship is more like buttons than zippers. We don’t need to be together all the time to maintain a lifelong friendship; we just need to spend some time together here and there. While a missing tooth breaks a zipper, separate paths are inherent in a good friendship and they allow two friends to complement each other.

My middle school friend Haneul came to DC to visit me on October 10, 2017. I don’t even remember when we saw each other last time. Was it 2010? or 2011? I spent the whole Sunday with her and she transformed my ordinary Sunday into a very special day.

We often judge the quality of time by how much we accomplished during the time. Sometimes (or more often than you think), what matters is whom you spent that time with.


What a 20-hour-long flight entails

Having a 20-hour-long flight from Korea to DC means more than just changing the time zone and the language that I will use most of the time. It means changing my identity from a daughter to a professor. From the one who can be indecisive and whining to someone who should be on the top of her things and will be always on the alert for any mistakes/errors as they could affect the whole class and other colleagues.

Entering my office that had been dark for the past three months while I was having a once-in-a-life break in Korea, I stepped on a thank-you card left by one of my previous students.

“Professor Choi”

I picked up the card, read it and made a full transition with heightened self-confidence.

Yes, I’m back.