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Goldie Hawn Plunges into Brain Science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Goldie Hawn in 1989 at 61st Academy Awards. Photo by Alan Light via Wikimedia Commons.

ASPEN. When I arrived at the Aspen Meadows Resort for the Second Annual Aspen Brain Forum last Thursday evening, Goldie Hawn was getting out of a vehicle near the entrance. I knew she was about to give the keynote address, but I was startled to practically run into the actress. A grandmother now, Hawn looked fabulous in over-the-knee black leather boots and a chunky silver belt strung around a black miniskirt. It wasn’t so much her looks, though, that made her instantly recognizable. Her trademark laugh and general effervescence mark her like a strobe light, quite visible even in the bright Colorado sun. I watched her stop to enthusiastically greet—hug, kiss—various other conference attendees, who seemed equally eager to chat her up, whether to advance their work or sidle up to celebrity, I couldn’t say.

Hawn spoke without notes, claiming to be a born communicator, a claim she backed up by her performance. As she talked, it occurred to me that vivaciousness and beauty did not alone propel her to stardom. Unlike most people who wing it, Hawn strung together rhythmic sentences that made sense. If the neuroscience community was going to be delivered an advocate, they could have done a lot worse.

She answered the obvious question first: Why is Goldie Hawn speaking at a brain conference? I already partly knew the answer. Just as any 7-year-old can now do, I had looked it up on the web. Six years ago Hawn established a nonprofit group called The Hawn Foundation “to promote children’s academic success in school and in life through social and emotional learning.” It is based on the notion that kids’ intellects do not exist in isolation from their emotions, their connections to others or the rest of their bodies. The MindUp program, the Foundation’s signature educational initiative, is designed to address these oft-neglected components of learning. It was a perfect fit for the forum, which this year addressed “The Cognitive Neuroscience of Learning: Implications for Education.” But more on that in a bit.

Hawn’s version was more personal. Decades ago (in 1972 she said), when she became famous, she felt newly anxious and something hard to imagine happened: she lost her signature smile. The change was foreign to Hawn—and not welcome. “When I was 11 years old, I decided that what I wanted to be in life was happy,” she said. “I thought, `All I want to do is hold onto this joy, this tickle I had when I was little.’” Having lost that tickle Hawn went spelunking, in her own psyche. She saw psychologists and began meditating, embarking on a nine-year psychological journey. Such an adventure might make lesser folks crazy or depressed in itself, but Hawn became surprisingly analytical about it. It led, she said, to her first understanding of the brain, “what it can do, how it can change.” She was particularly interested in neuroscience and spirituality, fancying questions such as “What is that God part of the brain?”

Hawn moved to rainy Vancouver, because her son, Wyatt, wanted to play hockey. While watching the rain outside her meditation room sometime in 2002, Hawn’s quest turned outward—in particular, to children. “I was a happy child,” she recalled. “I signed all my 4th grade papers, “Love, Goldie.” But in the wake of 9/11, she perceived U.S. children as being profoundly unhappy. “And I thought why can’t we do something that gets kids to understand their potential? Why don’t we teach our kids about the brain?”

colorful human brain illustration

The brain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Hawn was no brain expert, but she reasoned that teaching kids about the brain might make them more aware of their own thoughts and emotions. It might help them to develop the ability to think about thinking, or metacognition. That awareness would then give them better control over their own mind—directing their attention more appropriately or calming themselves down—in ways that could improve learning. Hawn seems to give kids lots of credit. I doubt most grownups would be similarly confident that kids could ably control their minds if shown how. Hawn saw this mission as urgent, though. She particularly wanted to prevent stress from shutting down executive function, the self-control of thought, action and emotion that is essential for learning.

So Hawn asked a team of educators, neurologists, psychologists and social scientists to develop a new curriculum built, in part, around lessons about how the brain works. Nowadays teachers in about 65 U.S. schools, nearly 150 in Canada, seven in the UK and one in Venezuela are using MindUp. Some of its young students now weave brain anatomy into casual conversation. One six-year-old girl, Hawn says, explained that it was her aunt’s amygdala that saved her life when the aunt pulled her out of the way of an oncoming car. Another kid reportedly said, “Oh, that lights up my prefrontal cortex, I know how to do this.”

Not all scientists think explicit knowledge of brain anatomy is necessary for prepping kids for study. But it is kind of cool. And why not? “I don’t think kids need to know about the amygdala,” says Adele Diamond, a developmental cognitive neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia. “But kids enjoy learning about the brain. I don’t think it hurts.”

Another component of MindUp, also apparently aimed at metacognition, is meditation. For three minutes, students concentrate on their breathing. The activity not only promotes calm but also sharpens attention. “It is very hard to stay focused on something for three minutes,” Diamond says. “This is training the mind.”

Courtesy of woodleywonderworks via Flickr.

An equally important objective of MindUp is social and emotional development. Kids are taught, for example, that random acts of kindness matter. They know about mirror neurons, Hawn says, and they learn that you become happy when you give to someone else, a lesson in line with the teachings of the Dalai Lama. Similarly, in “gratitude journals,” children regularly jot down what they are grateful for. I think this is also designed to make them feel good (Hawn invoked dopamine, the brain chemical for reward, in her talk), and to build better relationships. My kids are told to do this at Thanksgiving, and every November I have the passing thought that we really should be counting our blessings more often.

Preliminary data suggest the program works. Kim Schonert-Riechl, an applied developmental psychologist at the University of British Columbia and her colleagues tested the effectiveness of MindUp in 75 schools in her area. So far, the program seems to have had “incredibly positive effects,” says Diamond, who helped parse the data. It not only boosted kids’ self-reported feelings of happiness, liking of school, and sense of belonging, but also moderated kids’ cortisol levels, suggesting it lowered stress in the classroom. Perhaps most strikingly, it improved children’s executive function.

Scientists I spoke to about MindUp were enthusiastic about its potential to benefit children, particularly those at risk of being unhappy and failing in school. A lot of it did make scientific sense. After all, meditation exercises of the type used in MindUp can help adults better orient their attention, according to work presented by psychologist Amishi P. Jha of the University of Miami. And stress can shut down the ability to think—so reducing it should do the opposite. Some studies exist on the effects of gratitude as well: expressing your appreciation for a romantic partner, for example, seems to solidify those important bonds. (See “The Happy Couple: Secrets to a Long Marriage,” By Suzann Pileggi, Scientific American Mind, January/February 2010.) MindUp is reportedly gaining the support of teachers as well. “Teachers love it,” Diamond claims. “That’s why it’s spreading.”

MindUp is far from the only educational program designed to nurture kids’ executive function through novel means or to focus on social and emotional needs. Among the experimental are Tools of the Mind and the Responsive Classroom. Sandra Brettler, a fourth-grade teacher from Seattle (who also holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience), wrote to me about the impressive results seen with the latter approach. “So much of our struggle in education today does not take into account the whole student or our need for positive contributors to our society,” she wrote. “It’s a gift to be able to say that my students get daily practice in becoming cooperative, assertive, responsible, and empathetic community members and that through this lens, they become competent and advanced academic thinkers.”

But Hawn’s program is unique, if for no other reason, because she’s behind it. I couldn’t help admiring this scientific novice for doggedly following up on the instincts she had a decade ago, far-fetched as they might seem, and molding them into something undeniably real and data-driven. Hawn’s determination obviously cuts across disparate fields. “We are going to change education as we know it,” Hawn said.

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. crdcalusa 3:11 am 10/4/2011

    Goldie Hawn’s direction in education is refreshing and is a foretaste of a better world towards which many are working. In the Summer of 2011, a leader of Ashlag Research Institute, Dr. Michael Laitman established an active relationship with the United Nations/UNESCO, through activities in Paris, Moscow, and New York, He presented the panel with a proposal of a new global and integral education method:
    “In the process of studying they have to sit in a common circle and feel that they are strong only when they are united together. A teacher is not really a teacher, but an educator, a mentor. He is like an older friend of the children. Sitting in a circle with them, he conceals his grown-up understanding of the world and skillfully guides them toward unity of equals. The most important thing is to keep this unity.
    Every person attains success only on the condition that he is united with others and attains group results with them. The success of each person is determined by how much he helps others. We evaluate each person not by himself, but only by the achievements attained in the group and through the group.
    We don’t need “outstanding” or smart students, and we don’t ask, “Who knows?” looking for a “hero” who will prove himself more clever or knowledgeable than others. We do not want this. What we want is for the children to feel that the question and the answer are aimed at the group, that the most important thing is to be together, and even if the answer is incorrect, it is still correct because it brings about a common solution in which everyone takes part.”

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  2. 2. Mike Anderson 9:40 am 10/6/2011

    As a Responsive Classroom consultant, I’m excited to hear about the work that Goldie Hawn is doing. Any approach that helps students take more ownership for their learning and more control of their own emotions and thinking will be beneficial.

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  3. 3. iwickelgren 1:03 pm 10/12/2011

    Thank you, crdcalusa and Mike Anderson, for your feedback and commentary. I hope to learn and write more about this topic.

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  4. 4. blubberguts 1:50 pm 03/24/2012

    I found crdcalusa’s comment horrifying.

    “We don’t need ‘outstanding’ or smart students, and we don’t ask ‘who knows?’, looking for a hero who will prove himself more knowledgeable than others. We do not want this.”

    Who’s this “we” you are referring to?

    Children come in a natural range of intellects and talents. To speak of what you “need” in the classroom smacks of social engineering. What would you do if you found a gifted student – disparage him/her for trying to be a hero? Are you trying to squeeze everyone into the same mold? Are you trying to make reality fit your politically correct preferences? How far would you go to make sure NO-ONE excels, no-one outstrips the group? It seems in your educational philosophy there would be no Einsteins, no Newtons, no Ramanujans… it’s not just offensive, it doesn’t even accord with reality…

    As someone previously considered a gifted student, I find your implication that I am unneeded and “trying to be a hero” offensive…

    There’s something deeply troubling in your comment, and I find it also sad and telling that Ingrid Wickelgren accepted your comment without criticism.

    We don’t need an ideologically guided approach to education. Ideological guides to anything are doomed to fail. Instead, we need approaches based on reality. The reality is, just as some people are dullards, some people naturally excel. I find it incredulous that you, who have presumably made it through the educational system, are either unaware of this or unwilling to acknowledge it.

    I suspect that any benefit shown from Ms. Hawn’s program is sheerly from the placebo effect. I also suspect the program will quietly fade away. (I’d thank god but I’m an atheist.)

    As a teacher with ten years experience, I classify this as a load of rubbish. Worse than ineffective, it’s actually counter-productive – instead of leading to effective or useful innovations in teaching, it is instead wasting energy leading people down blind paths.

    If there’s one thing America doesn’t need, it’s this. America’s got enough troubles already without throwing away it’s gifted children.

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  5. 5. photojack53 10:52 am 06/8/2012

    I also found the one comment by crdcalusa to be troubling, that “we” don’t need outstanding or smart students AND especially that “even if the answer is incorrect, it is still correct…!” This type of inhibiting of gifted or independently thinking students is NOT desirable. As a gifted student, like blubberguts, I could see where this strategy could lead to Creation “Science” being accepted as a valid part of the curriculum when it definitely is not! Luckily this is NOT part of Goldie Hawn’s great program. I think blubberguts mistook crdcalusa’s statement as part of the MindUp program. I’ve had a lifelong interest in education and learning and I explored the MindUp, Tools of the Mind and Responsive Classroom links and found them ALL to be beneficial and desired. I wish those had been available during my school days. I was particularly impressed with Caltha Crowe’s article, “Bullying We Ignore” on the Responsive Classroom site. THAT would go a long way toward eliminating the ugly behaviors that all too often permeate our school environments and nip them out quickly. The “Teaching Tolerance” program from the Southern Poverty Law Center is another fantastic program that is given free to every school in our nation and has award-winning educational videos and materials perfectly targeted to each age group to eliminate the scourge of bullying. These 4 or 5 programs, if implemented in EVERY school, could radically change our educational system for the better!

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  6. 6. turtle2258 8:50 pm 11/28/2012

    I agree with photojack53 and see how he’s has a high emotional intellegence to enhance his academic reasoning as well. I think this is what Goldie Hawn’s program is doing. Teaching students about their emotions and the reponsibilities they have in controlling them rather than being controlled by them. Crecalusa 3:11am’s assumptions were made in the middle of the night and maybe she was in some dreamy state of mind. Or perhaps she beleives everyone should attend her type of “therapy group”. The “groups” that Dr.Laitman proposed may benefit bullies & other anti-social people if there is no other way to teach them. But other than that and maybe helping with some “team playing” in sports and business ideas, it seems like it would be harmful for most learning as well as making people fear their own emotions and beleifs for the benefit of the ? ? No individual benefits, really. In any event it’s a very SEPARATE “class” some people may wish to take if anything. It’s not education. And if each person success is determined by how much he helps others, then those who arn’t able to help others much are less successful? Only the stronger student can help make the weaker one feel stronger. So you can’t “wait” for everyone to be united before you can feel strong. I wonder if that ‘united control freak’ has a cultish mindset. It just isn’t worded right to make good sense even for “therapy groups”. I’m happy Ingrid Wickelgrin didn’t critisize anyone, not even blabberguts. That’s our job. Had she done that people would stop commenting. A critisism isn’t a comment on the article anyhow. It’s a comment on a person that didn’t write the article. In crdcalusa’s case it’s mostly about Michael Laitman who has no idea about our comments, no doubt. Anyway we DO NEED outstanding smart students and to be smarter still to respectfully communicate what is understood. That’s the essence of a great teacher. Not only to know, but to understand how each student can grow; what will motivate unique learners at every end of the spectrum. All I know is what I know and that’s all. I know I liked Mike Anderson’s comments very much. “Any approach that helps students take more ownership of their learning, emotions and thinking is beneficial”. Now if there can be a way to teach parents how to direct their children in more self-control and autonomy (unless they’re fortunate enough to already know) then students will be ready to learn even without these programs in place. If learning delema’s like ADHD and/or disfunctional homes are understood and addressed, then classrooms and teachers would be much less stressed. And the students that we’re struggling with these issues would really appresheate it.

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