Teaching Students about Emotions: Will Smith and the Amygdala
GUEST WRITER: Pedro Juan Sánchez Murillo is a Humanities teacher at the International School Zurich Schule Barcelona, a bilingual German-Spanish school in Spain that follows the IB (PYP and MYP) programmes.
Teaching students about emotions involves more than structured exercises where students can increase their emotional awareness and how they experience emotions in their bodies. Some of our best teachings occur during ‘teachable moments’ – teaching opportunities inspired by our students’ natural curiosity about emotions.
In this article, Pedro explains how he taught his Year 8 students about emotions and the brain by responding to their questions about the incident where Will Smith slapped a comedian in front of the whole world. This is an example of a teacher who is responsive to Middle School students’ innate curiosity. Pedro noticed a ‘teachable moment’, and he used it as an opportunity to teach his Year 8 students about social-emotional learning and the human brain.
TEACHING STUDENTS ABOUT EMOTIONS: WILL SMITH AND THE AMYGDALA
We all remember the image of Will Smith getting up at the ceremony of the Oscar delivery. The presenter made a joke in reference to alopecia that the actor’s wife suffers. Only five seconds later, Will Smith, walked over to the presenter and slapped him in the face. The incident shocked and perplexed the public.
I am not going to judge the action. I am going to try to analyze and explain what happened in the actor’s brain, This is how we did it in the four grades of Secondary Education where I teach.
We know that the evolution of the human brain has evolved from back to front. That is, the newer parts like the neocortex are in our prefrontal. We have a more reptilian brain that developed first and the newest and most rational part developed later. The question we should ask ourselves is “Which of them should govern my actions?” Obviously, the newest and most rational should be able to control the reptilian’s reactions.
However, evolution endowed us in our earliest moments as humans with a structure called the amygdala, which is the center of fear. When the amygdala tracks and detects danger or a threat, it sets in motion a mechanism of flight or attack. This mechanism has allowed us to get here since if it were not so we would have easily succumbed to the dangers we encountered in the jungle. What is the problem? Well, today there are no lions, snakes, or other groups of hominids that attack us but our amygdala continues to act and prepare our body for the attack.
"SIR, HOW DO WE NOT DO A WILL SMITH?"
At this point in the article, one may be wondering how to control a reaction led by the amygdala every time you feel attacked or threatened so as “not to do a Will Smith”, as my students say.
Will Smith suffered from what Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence (1991) calls an Amygdala Hijack. Effectively, when the amygdala is activated and fired we suffer a kidnapping of our person and we are pure reaction. It dominates us, it traps us and we cannot think since there is a theft of blood from the front of the neocortex that is needed elsewhere such as muscles to flee or attack. Can such a reaction be controlled to avoid problems and annoyances? The answer is yes, obviously with training, as says Dr. Mario Alonso Puig in his book, The Guts Ratio.
The amygdala, in the case of Will Smith, played a trick on him. The amygdala doesn’t know about reason or reflection. Just by the mere fact of reading this text and thinking about it, we are already a little less prone to the emotional brain hijacking the thinking brain.
My purpose, as an educator, is precisely to be more aware of our reactions. Ultimately, I encourage that we look inside ourselves and get to know ourselves better. That’s when we can better understand others. In other words, emotional intelligence begins in the first place with ourselves. We cannot be empathetic or understanding towards others if we are not
empathetic and understanding with ourselves, first.
TEACHING STUDENTS ABOUT EMOTIONS BY MODELING THE EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE WE WANT TO SEE IN STUDENTS
Studies in affective neuroscience show that those people who have a more optimistic outlook on life have greater control of their amygdala. Through that inner dialogue about reality, we can send orders to keep at bay our amygdala.
We know from the press that Will Smith regretted what happened that same night coming to apologize. There is a highway between the prefrontal lobe part of our brain and the Amygdala part of our brain. Sometimes this motorway is under construction and we’re late in preventing an Amygdala Hijack, just like Mr. Smith was. Possibly, now, with his psychologist, they are talking about how he can learn to control his anger and fear reactions.
We can all suffer from an Amygdala Hijack, but if we train and strengthen our prefrontal cortex, the Amygdala will not activate so easily. This objective, this goal, is reached by cultivating attention to see opportunities rather than problems, borders instead of walls. Physical exercise, conversation, active listening, visualizing moments of success (even when they haven’t yet arrived), cultivating the smile, the sincere hugs, learning to defuse things – all these result in a better way of living.
I invite you to continue delving into this topic. Let’s start training today because we have a lot of time ahead of us.
With the summer break upon us, I say goodbye as a homeroom teacher of the Year 8 class. And I hope my reflections help train us to be the principled people that we want our students to be.
Daniel Goleman (1991) Emotional Intelligence
Dr. Mario Alonso Puig (2013) The Guts Ratio
Frances Jensen & Amy Nutt (2014) The Teenager Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pedro Juan Sánchez Murillo is a secondary school Humanities teacher. He has been dedicated to education for 34 years. He is currently working on and researching the importance of teaching emotional intelligence in schools, that is, knowing how to manage our emotions. His book, Success Is Born From True Failure, will come out in September 2022.