Emotional Intelligence, Vulnerability and the Brain : Part 1 I Oxford Open Learning

Emotional Intelligence, Vulnerability and the Brain : Part 1

Boyd_Waters_profile_pictureHuman beings are born with a much greater vulnerability and dependence than other mammals due to their larger and not fully developed brains. Therefore we look to others to protect and care for us for many years as we grow. What happens during these years is crucial in terms of developing an emotional intelligence or emotional maturity. Insufficient care can leave us with a fear of vulnerability, resulting in us trying to mask this in ways that we then label as values and strengths, when in fact they are weaknesses. Such mechanisms can be expressed as bullying behaviour. For example David Cameron’s “calm down dear” put down comment to Angela Eagle in the House of Commons. He shows here a lack of emotional intelligence and a fear of vulnerability.

Our development is strongly affected by the fact that we have a brain divided into two hemispheres with a significant degree of independence. We can now monitor the activity of these two sides through MRI scanning. The two sides have different functions that need to harmonise in order to produce well balanced responses to complex situations.

The classic tendency of the left side of the brain is to focus on specifics, ignoring the bigger picture which belongs to the right side. The left tends to acquire and dominate, fearing failure. It seizes a context and makes it THE context, ignoring the right side of the brain and the bigger picture. From this perspective it is difficult to pause reflectively, doubt oneself and admit mistakes. A partnership needs to exist between both sides of the brain to avoid this.

An enlightened education system ought to educate its pupils in the ways of this partnership, moving pupils away from self-protective defence mechanisms with their consequent stress, and towards emotional intelligence. The main task in teaching young people and developing this partnership would seem to lie in putting feelings as well as facts and figures at the service of the bigger picture, in other words training contextual thinking. Following the natural processes of the brain would help to enhance learning and to make the acquisition of facts and skills stick. We know that children’s brains have a large capacity for rational learning, as exampled by the ease they have for learning several languages when young. However to use this facility for rational learning children need to feel safe and contained within themselves, otherwise their minds will not have sufficient freedom to learn.

The Second part of this article will follow shortly and focus on Vulnerability and of this subject’s relevance and benefit to our education.

This rational learning needs to be done in cooperation with a developing emotional intelligence, part of which is not being afraid to be vulnerable. This is an incredible skill to learn and one that needs to be taught from a child’s earliest days. Vulnerability is a central part of being alive and being human. There is a paradox in the nature of vulnerability in that when an individual is not being afraid to be vulnerable it makes them extraordinarily powerful as a more fully functioning human being. Learning this art, of striking a balance between the left and right of the brain, has not been culturally developed or supported, but it is not impossible to learn or teach it.

In place of the fear of vulnerability, children could be taught to befriend and speak about their feelings in a creative and useful way. This does not detract from their ability to learn rational subjects at the same time. Thinking and feeling can go together. In practice it would be very helpful to start the day with a brief check in on a personal and emotional level combined with witnessing the check in of others. I have tried this to a limited extent with some classes when I was teaching, combined with using some meditation to help calm and settle pupils. It was quite effective, but to develop its potential requires the time and support to allow you as a teacher to carry it out regularly. It needs to be built into the philosophy of the individual school, which of course requires the management and staff of a school to know what this is all about. Unfortunately the education system as a whole is fundamentally ignorant about this type of brain and emotional development.

The expression of emotions and personal stories being heard promotes pupils’ capacity for rational learning. This stimulates both hemispheres of the brain while allowing each pupil to experience safety, and the acceptance that fosters the ability to think for themselves. As they become aware that the emotional realities of others are a constant background to human life, pupils receive a clear grounding in emotional intelligence, which we now understand is a necessary condition for good decision making. A secondary benefit is the practice of empathy skills, which is an essential component of relating to others.
In summary, feeling loved, wanted and cared about is crucial.

Source of material and for further reading on this topic,
Wounded Leaders by Nick Duffell 2014

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Andrew Bateson is 57 years old and initially trained as a Geologist. He has been a secondary school teacher for 22 years teaching Chemistry and Science to 11 to 18 year olds. Previously he worked in the Ceramic industry in research and development and then management. He has experience of both the independent and state sectors, teaching in single sex and mixed sex schools. As a Union Rep., he followed educational policy closely throughout his teaching career. He has retired from teaching to continue working with OOL and to retrain as a Psychotherapist.

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