Tapping into the Mammalian Brain, or How One Man Helped Make School More Interesting

“I’ve been waiting my whole life for a robot that can walk on two legs,” says James R. Stellar, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Albany. “It’s complicated.”

Stellar, who is a psychologist by training, has spent his career delving into the complexities of the human brain and its hidden powers. After teaching at Harvard and conducting research in neuroscience at the McLean Hospital of Harvard Medical School, Stellar served as Dean of Northeastern University's College of Arts and Sciences. There he helped extend the school's famous cooperative education program, which provides opportunities for students to learn outside of the classroom—through community service, research, and on-the-job training.

Ironically, perhaps, Stellar and others have found that tapping into the animal part of the brain—the one that cares more about eating chocolate than studying it—offers the surest way to engage students. I recently asked Stellar about experiential education and how it might benefit students before they reach college. Here are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

How would you define experiential education?

There are two definitions. The first is programmatic—that is, it is some sort of experience outside of the formal classroom, where students use the knowledge they’re getting in the classroom. It could mean a student who takes an accounting class and then works in an accounting firm. To cite another example, a student who volunteers in a homeless shelter as part of his community service could also be thinking about how aspects of a society’s economic system lead to homelessness. Someone who studies psychology might work in a clinic helping patients, or she might work in that same homeless shelter and observe the psychological needs of the individuals. It could also mean undergraduate research, study abroad, or a paid internship. Northeastern is known for its cooperative education program, which allows students to alternate semesters of academic study with semesters of full-time employment.

There is a second definition, which has to do with how experiences affect our thinking. There is the type of thinking that we express through words, which is conscious. Then we have a more instinctive, gut-level thinking, where we try on the knowledge that we have gained. So, a student might think, “The legal profession is the one for me. I enjoy working in a law firm, so I’m going to push to get into law school.” An internship might reinforce that career choice on a gut level.

This is where I use words like “substantial” and “authentic.” These are characterizations of experiences that are powerful because of their impact. For students, this means that you really want to immerse yourself in the law firm if you’re going to have the full experience at the gut level. If you just took a tour, if a professor just took you down to an office for the afternoon and showed you around, it wouldn’t have the same impact.

What is the difference between the primate and the mammalian brain?

In the 1960s, neuroscientist Paul MacLean proposed a theory that the nervous system is composed of a hierarchy. The primate brain [conscious, abstract thinking] is more advanced than the mammalian [emotional, motivational]. There’s also a third component that we don’t talk much about. MacLean called it the reptilian brain. It has to do with things like being able to get up from your chair and walk around and other, even more basic, functions.

The mammalian brain is one where logic circuits determine how something grabs you, how it feels. In my research, this involved studying the brain basis of cocaine addiction in adults and the genesis of the craving. The decision to use the drug clearly fought with an individual’s better judgment, which would be at the rational level. This is what people mean when they talk about fighting with themselves. A cocaine addict craves cocaine, even though he or she knows it’s not good for them. That’s what sustains the addiction.

This conflict is a reflection of the conflict between the primate and mammalian brains. We’ve all experienced it, with the temptations of chocolate, say, after we’ve unwrapped a candy bar. The time to restrain oneself is before it’s unwrapped. The mammalian brain is firing on all cylinders with the sight and smell, while the conscious, primate brain asks, “What's this all about?”

Freud wrote about the conscious and unconscious parts of the brain, but often, we’re not aware of their interaction. These circuits, according to David Eagleman in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, communicate through feelings, emotions, and desires. For example, an awareness may come to the student who enjoyed working in the law firm through words. He will tell you that the law is about social justice, say, and that lawyers are agents who interpret social justice for the masses, making it come alive. But really, when you talk to the student face to face, what comes across are his facial expressions, his commitment, his enthusiasm, and his tone of voice.

The professor comes away with an impression. This, by the way, is also very helpful for employers, who know that a student may have taken a class in economics but not whether the student can put that knowledge to work in a group environment. That’s why employers conduct interviews. The ultimate interview is an internship, where an employer can observe how an individual works over a span of weeks or months, not just for an hour, to see if that person can take the knowledge and put it to work. That is the power of experiential education, when the mammalian brain and the primate brain work together.

That’s my goal. Historically, higher education has missed the mammalian brain. It built itself on the primate brain. Who takes advantage of experiential learning the most? Teachers in training! You have to leave the campus and teach with an established teacher. Then you come back and sit with your classmates and reflect on how theoretical learning plays out in the classroom. So it’s odd that teaching doesn’t play out that way in American education, generally. We haven’t taught kids how to work in teams, how to apply their knowledge. That stuff has a powerful impact.

I want students to have experiences that they can integrate into their academic program. That's how you keep students engaged—when college is useful to them. It’s also how you produce passion in the K-12 sphere, where charismatic teachers get students to think deeply. They are touching their emotions. They project a caring attitude, and the students respond with an enthusiasm for learning.

How might experiential education benefit students before they reach college?

In our desperate attempt to measure outcomes, we pay too much attention, through testing and other means, to the primate brain. We’re only rowing the boat with one oar. The classic academic curriculum and passion-building experiences, which can happen in the classroom, help us row the boat with two oars.

Teachers already know how to complement classroom lessons, by taking students on field trips, for example. But you have to manage the interaction well. There is often little preparation for that because these types of things get called “extra-curricular” activities. The term is sort of a put-down. It implies: “We’re going to take time off from the curriculum, stop our work, and go outside.” The overall attitude saps an integral part from such experiences.

In the lower grades, we're forced to work more with the mammalian brain because the primate brain is still developing. Students are learning how to read, of course. But beyond that, one of a teacher’s main jobs is to help kids learn how to get along with each other, to show respect, and to cooperate. That’s all social psychology and mammalian brain-type stuff, even though there are words involved. Then students settle down to acquire increasingly complex vocabulary and mathematical skills.

Later on, there are more project-based activities. My favorite teachers in elementary and middle school would say things like, “I need to get the kids doing something.” If teachers just talk, the kids tune out. Good teachers seem to have an intuitive sense for how to blend activities with the learning from the book or the lecture. You have to encourage students to develop themselves.

The higher you go, in high school and in college, the lessons become more complex. But you’re still dealing with students who have a mammalian brain. If you don’t turn that on, they don’t learn.

To learn more about Stellar’s work and experiential education, check out The Other Lobe.