The Other Lobe (of the Brain)

Now that my Ph.D work has concluded (yes!), I have reestablished communication with the former Dean of Arts and Sciences at Northeastern University, Dr. James Stellar, a neuroscientist, who recently created this very interesting blog called ¨The Other Lobe¨. Here´s the latest entry written by both of us in which we establish an interesting correlation between BICULTURALISM (bilingualism) and the hidden cognitive part of the BRAIN...

If a Rose is a Rose*…, when is a Reflection a Reflection?

By Sarah Platt and Jim Stellar

Sarah was an undergraduate at Northeastern ¨University when I was Dean. We always had these great conversations. Then a few years intervened but now we are back even though she is in Poland where she just finished her PhD degree in Public Communication from the Universidad de Navarra in Pamplona, Spain. She wrote in disagreement with an idea that I expressed in a previous blog that “students who studied abroad independently engaged in much less reflection that students who went as a group led by a faculty member.” She wrote the following, which I find fascinating.

I guess I disagree with this because in my experience (I went on 4 study-abroad and international fieldwork projects during my 4 years in Northeastern), I always went independently and in comparison to those students who went as groups, I had a COMPLETELY different experience, and in my opinion, a more enriching and reflecting one.

First, I believe that going abroad independently allows for reflection with locals. When you are alone, you are forced to embrace the culture in a more direct way, speak the language, learn the customs, etc. This allows for direct reflection with yourself and the local people and culture. In my experience I noticed that students who went in groups, only spoke in English, hardly connected with the locals, only went to touristic places, and lived their lives abroad in a very similar manner as they would in the US. I believe that when you transport yourself to another country, it´s not really just about being somewhere else, but about reinventing yourself as one of the locals, disconnecting from your homeland, and learning from these experiences. When students study abroad in groups, many of them are only able to partially disconnect and partially take in the experience if they still hang out with their friends from the US, speak in English, and are not completely open to their new surroundings.

Then again, I guess I might be an exception and my experiential education experience probably does not reflect the majority of cases, but I believe that the real way of maturing and learning from fieldwork does not necessary come as a result of group study abroad trips or group projects.

You might be an exception. You came to Northeastern with a background from Puerto Rico and in that way are like many of my current students at Queens whose families have immigrated from a place that spoke a different language. To what extent do you think that starting bi-cultural background matters in a student’s need for peer reflection and why?

I think that every person´s experience must be evaluated independently whether he or she comes from a bicultural background or not. Some people are more open to intercultural experiences and are willing and happy to embrace them completely, while for others, it is a harder process. Coming from a bicultural background, however, definitely influences one´s way of viewing other manifestations of life in foreign countries and the way in which one digests and reflects upon these experiences. I think that, in a way, individuals who come from bicultural backgrounds are used to being outsiders because they are neither 100% part of one culture nor the other. This may make them adapt easier to experiential ed projects abroad and cause the way in which they reflect upon these experiences to be a more introspective process (with oneself) rather than a collective one (among peers).

I wonder if anyone has studied how being bicultural leverages experiential activities in college where those activities occur in the culture of family origin. One would think they would get more out of them because they have all these schemas for operating in that culture of origin, and then one might think that they would be no better than monoculture students when operating in a different culture. But you suggest that because they do not belong 100% to one culture or another, they may make adaptations easier and thus learn more. This fascinates me from the perspective of the books I have been reading on the “Hidden Brain” or the brain as “Incognito” (out of consciousness) or the “Thinking Fast and Slow” process that seems to suggest much of our thinking is automatic, unconscious, and rapid. The role of reflection could be very different in person with the “Incognito” part of the brain that grew up in another culture. Does this make any sense to a person like you who is bicultural?

According to an article published recently in the New York Times, bilingual (and therefore, bicultural) persons demonstrate more advanced cognitive skills than persons who have only been exposed to one culture and language. The article also points out that there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain ¨both language systems are active even when he is using only one language (…) This interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles¨. Returning to your question regarding bicultural students and their ability to adapt in intercultural and experiential ed projects, it might be possible to note that if the cognitive skills in these students are in a way, keener, this will in turn allow them to develop quicker problem solving abilities that may also help them adapt quicker to different environments.

The article goes on…¨Bilinguals, for instance, seem to be more adept than monolinguals at solving certain kinds of mental puzzles (…) The collective evidence from a number of such studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks. These processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind.”

There seems to be scarce research regarding this topic, although fortunately, this leaves space for further reflection and debate on the relationship between the brain´s other lobe (nature) and culture (nurture)…

This last comment sums up what we both think, that there are brain processes that operate below conscious awareness that can be exercised by experiences that compliment what we study in the classroom and in college, that operations (such as being bilingual) in that other lobe of the brain can have a significant impact on the kind and type of learning in which a student engages, and that culture and programs of colleges and universities can do much more to leverage this kind of learning to strengthen what we called at the beginning of this blog, “educating the whole student.”

*borrowed from Gertrude Stein’s 1913 poem Sacred Emily

(Original entry is posted in

Una mirada al mundo