Humor In The Classroom: amygdala > hippocampus

I was blessed with a demeanor that helped me quickly create fairly strong bonds with my high school seniors.  Despite my dry sense of humor, students could always tell that I cared about them whether I intended on communicating that fact or not.

One sure fired way to build relationships was to use humor as a teaching strategy.  Later in my teaching career, I would try to use humor in the classroom to some degree (as this post on humor attests to).  Our year would usually start off with self demeaning humor to let them know that I wasn’t too full of myself.

At first, though, I relied too much on what I knew and not enough on learning about my students early in my career.  I knew how to use Socratice questioning effectively and how to challenge my students thinking in a few other ways, but I over emphasized the surgical use of questioning strategies before I developed strong social bonds.  Few realize that questions, while they do make people think deeply, also look like attacks to those not used to them.  As we moved through the semester, I often to teach my students the lesson that thinking deeply means to think about thinking.  Students though, year after year, saw open ended questions as arenas to showcase their failure to grapple with them (or rather their lack of being exposed, in some cases, to questions like the ones I was throwing out).  The lesson I learned? You gotta take care of Maslow’s before you take care of Bloom’s.


I have become a relationships first person.  Since those days, I’ve come to see that if you don’t package what you’re selling correctly…ain’t nobody gonna buy your product.

I was goofing around with my children at a local Barnes & Noble a couple months ago.  They found the “Thomas the Train” table in the children’s section, so I stole a few moments to peruse the newest offerings.

I came across Emotional Intelligence, a decade old book that I had heard about but never read.  I decided to purchase it in CD format and have since finished listening to it as I commuted to my new job.  As far as emphasizing relationships is concerned, I’m not sure I learned too much that I hadn’t figured out or experienced in my 10 years of teaching high school government.  However, “the why” of what I do that the book illuminated was astounding!

EmotionalIntelligenceOne of my favorite lines in his book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman recounts an explanation a neuroscientist at the Center for Neural Science at NYU, Joseph LeDoux, gave Mr. Goleman concerning the relationship between the emotional (amygdala) parts of the brain and the rational (hippocampus) parts of the brain:

The hippocampus is crucial in recognizing a face as that of your cousin.  But it is the amygdala that adds you don’t really like her.

While I’m certainly no neuroscientist, I can compare my personal experience to what I’ve read in chapter 2 (Anotomy of an Emotional Hijacking) of Emotional Intelligence and see some very distinct lines of symmetry between the two.

 The lower levels of our brain, the book continues, developed first, as far as evolution is concerned.  Emotion came about as unthinking short cuts to action.  The hippocampus and neocortext are the thinking parts of the brain that developed later and allow us to be the complex creatures that we are.

Everything we learn, Mr. Goleman states in his book, gets stamped to varying degrees with the “flavor” of the emotional environment via the amygdala.

We recognize failure as debilitating if other’s reaction to our shortcomings (especially early in our lives) overshadow our attempt to learn from that failure.  If a student or friend fails and we support them in that failure, however, the supportive emotional flavor of the moment stamps our shortcoming as a step on our way to self actualization.  If educators (and many do) redefine “failure” as an open invitation to continue the learning the first few weeks of school, then students will be more willing to “fail”.

Once I learned to work on relationships, I found that I could ask deep and probing questions of my students.  Because of the safer environment AND because I announced that the most important questions in life are often “unanswerable” student’s felt secure that the only task I was asking them to perform was to support their answers.  The answers weren’t the point…the process was.

This kid spent an inordinate amount of time preparing for a couple dozen failures.  When his contraption worked on the fourth attempt he was thrilled!  However, his success lasted mere moments…but his struggle to learn began the moment he was introduced to rube goldberg machines and likely continued far after his “success”.  The true success here was the fact that his parents and teachers taught him that “failure” isn’t really a stopping point.

Just as we need steps on stairs to ascent a building, failures can be thought of as mini stopping points on our climb to success.

Plato once wrote “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a mighty struggle.”  What he meant was that we are all fighting demons and the strongest demon is ourselves.  We really don’t need help from others to give that phantasm a voice.  We are our own worst enemy in our struggle to become self actualized.  To be told that we “failed” in  such a way that we no longer want to try…now we’re fighting two fronts in our battle to become who we were meant to be.

Our perception of reality flows first through our senses, then the amygdala, and then the rest of the brain.  Everything gets stamped by emotion first and reason second.  It does not mean that emotion is superior to reason in every case, but it does mean that we must consider emotional environments before we consider reason.

Humor, creativity, and innovation have a common ground…they challenge the status quo.  Being challenged to be innovative and creative can also be fun… again, as I outline in this post.

About Thrasymachus

2013 Northwest ISD teacher of the year, Humanities Texas 2012 Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, and 2011 Outstanding Educator of North Texas Award (North Central Texas College). I'm currently a Regional Digital Learning Consultant with the Education Service Center Region 11 in Ft. Worth, Texas and a college government educator who incorporates philosophy, technology & humor. A student through and through, I walk with my students in their learning. Most importantly, I'm blessed with the 3 most perfect kids eva! I love on them ery day!!!
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5 Responses to Humor In The Classroom: amygdala > hippocampus

  1. Doug Timm says:


    Love the parts about emotion before reasoning. I think this is often forgotten, especially when dealing with older students and adults. Great blog!


  2. Maura says:

    Charles, We would like to use one of the images from this blog entry in a presentation. Is the context before content image free to use? Do you have contact information that I could send a formal request to?

  3. Pingback: Shari Rhinerson

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