Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Challenge 7: Study

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#122. What would you like to study? Describe your academic interests.

I recently watched a Discovery Science program about the most fascinating experiment: Researchers had test subjects rank how funny cartoons were; they wanted to see if the subjects' brains could be tricked into thinking something was funny or not. And they proved that, yes, the brain can be tricked. Here's how they did it: All of the subjects had to read cartoons and then check responses while holding pens in their mouths; half of them held the pens between their teeth, and the other half with their lips. In effect, the people holding pens between their teeth unknowingly forced their face into a smile; they found the cartoons funnier and ranked them higher than the other group, who had forced their mouths into a frown. In other words, this experiment shows that how people respond to outside stimuli depends, in part, on whether or not they are already smiling.

I am interested in studying why this is true, and what the implications of this may be.

For years, I have "known" that the brain can be tricked, or that the brain can trick the rest of the body. For example, I have observed in myself the following: When I feel cold or flu symptoms coming on, how I respond determines whether or not I actually get sick. If I stay positive and think, "I cannot and will not get sick" (maybe because the weekend is approaching and I have awesome plans), I end up not getting sick. If, on the other hand, I think, "Darn it, I'm going to be sick, I just know it," I end up bedridden the next day. This is not a fluke, I don't think. General health -- I'm talking about day-to-day stuff, not necessarily major diseases -- can be influenced by a person's attitude and outlook. (And maybe I'm writing this now to remind myself, as I've been hit by flu symptoms in recent days, and I need to fight biology with psychology.)

We've all heard "mind over matter" and that "laughter is the best medicine." I think it's true, and I want to study the power of laughter, not just in medicine but in other fields as well. I read once that students who laugh during a lesson learn more than those that do not. So, when I taught ESL in Japan, I tried to make my students laugh. I tried to be funny. (It was quite easy; just act like a fool and they'll laugh; it's much more difficult in a high school classroom.) I'm pretty sure they had a good time, but I don't actually know if they learned more than if I had been serious. This is what I want to study.

The fields of neuroscience and social psychology are expanding, and superstar scientists like David Eagleman and Dan Gilbert are reaching out to the masses with best-selling books on what goes on in the brain. I am unsure which exact branch of science I wish to study, but I would one day like to join the ranks of Eagleman and Gilbert with some new information on how and why laughter affects the brain the way it does.

No comments: