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This newsletter is the fourth in a series on complexity. Our informal
and formal educational systems, and our everyday life experiences, help
us learn to deal with the complexities of complexity.
This also is the first newsletter in a set of three that focus on
specific kinds of development that occur as we come to understand and
master complex phenomena. The process can sometimes begin with a Eureka
moment, as the article below suggests. The subsequent article suggests
that some developments begin with a basic natural capability (such
as speech) that then expands into something far
more abstract and complex (reading). This is followed by
a discussion in the third article on major cognitive neuroscience
developments that gradually expanded our naïve understanding of
brain processes, and how the education profession then began
to incorporate these discoveries into instructional policy and
Understanding and Mastering Complexity:
Spontaneously Clarifying Complexity
Southern Oregon University
A Sudden Realization
As a young teacher, I wondered if many of my students were
unwittingly acting out suggestions given to them by authority figures
during natural moments of high suggestibility. Eureka! It's just like hypnosis.
This sudden realization led me through a Ph.D. dissertation (Rousell,
1991) and to a university position. Now it's leading me further into
the cognitive complexities of personal development and life-changing
The actual story below illustrates a common event that parallels the
hypnotic process. Cathy, a graduate student and veteran teacher,
recalled a profound moment that I would later call a Spontaneous
Influence Event (Rousell, 2007).
Cathy's faith in her capability had plunged considerably by the time
she reached the fourth grade. She felt like the dumb kid in class. Efforts to excel
only reminded her that she was a failure. She discounted occasional
successes by attributing them to luck, not ability. She felt hopeless,
avoiding any effort, afraid that attempts on her part would only
confirm her feelings of inadequacy.
A life-changing event occurred while playing Monopoly with her favorite
uncle. He casually asked Cathy how she was doing in school. She burst
into tears. She described how she felt dumb and frustrated with school.
She wondered if she would ever add up to anything worthwhile. Her uncle
then told her something that she would remember vividly for the rest of
her life. He said, “Someone who struggles so hard with school will make
a great teacher. Discouraged students need a teacher like you.” This
simple statement stunned Cathy, instantly changing her mind-set.
It doesn't necessarily follow that those who struggle at school will
become good teachers, but the comment did spur Cathy on, and that's the
Cathy retrospectively noted that she, her parents, teachers, and
friends hadn't noticed a conspicuous change in her behavior, but her
inside world profoundly transformed. Before that event, school aroused
feelings of weakness and incompetence; it now awakened a sense of
challenge. Schoolwork changed from an unattainable task to an ordained
rocky pathway on her journey to become a teacher.
Something triggered a moment of high susceptibility to suggestion
whereby Cathy automatically and unconsciously accepted her uncle’s
assertion that she’d be a great teacher. This became a self-affirming
mindset that colored her view of herself and her experiences. She began
acting as if her new mindset
was authentic. What was it about this ordinary event that created such
a profound effect?
To Find Enlightening Answers, Formulate
My graduate program led me to hypnotic susceptibility as a major
factor. My studies concluded that the conditions for hypnosis are
regularly and substantially present in events such as those experienced
by Cathy. I thus needed to generate a thorough cognitive and
neurological model to explain how and why these spontaneous
transformative events take place. As indicated above, hypnosis was my
initial explanatory model but it proved unsatisfactory because teachers
don’t really hypnotize their students in the traditional sense.
Importantly though, I discovered that all of us experience natural
spikes in susceptibility to suggestion that are similar to the
heightened suggestibility induced in hypnosis. During these moments, we
may profoundly change a mindset that in turn generates a dramatic shift
in a belief. This is what happened to Cathy. Current models better
explain how and why these events occur.
Fast and Slow
The cognitive processing of strong emotional events typically occurs
outside our conscious awareness and rational processing. In his recent
book, Thinking, Fast and Slow,
Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman (2011) dichotomizes our cognitive
mechanisms into two systems he names System One (quick and automatic)
and System Two (slow and effortful). Regarding surprise he states,
“Surprise then activates and orients your attention: you will search
your memory for a story that makes sense of the surprising event.” He
describes how impressions made by System One during surprising events
often turn into your beliefs that in turn become the source of the
impulses for the voluntary actions made by System Two. In Cathy’s case,
her uncle’s comment stunned her; she accepted the literal message
without rationally disputing it. If she hadn’t been stunned, her
I’m-not-good-at-school mindset would probably have dismissed her
uncle’s comment as sweet, but empty, praise from a loving uncle.
Activates Revision Impulses
Our brain evolved to adapt to expected regularities, and to focus on
events that surprise us (Itti & Baldi, 2009). Surprise suggests
that something significant has happened. Our heart rate increases,
attention becomes riveted, and adrenaline encodes subsequent
interpretations with a neurological highlighter. Surprise is perhaps
the most important causal precursor of belief change (Lorini &
Castelranchi, 2007). The main effect of surprise is revision. We must
either revise our knowledge of the environment or our beliefs about
ourselves. In Cathy’s case, her uncle’s surprising statement generated
a revision impulse. His statement provided a positive frame for the
instant accommodation of a new mindset. This new mindset triggered the
activation of underground emotional machinery.
Machinery: Emotions and Tags
The emotional contribution to mindsets displays itself quite
demonstrably in the framing effect (Goldberg, 2009). Think “glass half
full” or “glass half empty.” If Cathy feels weak at school, academic
struggles are cognitively framed as “glass half empty.” Once Cathy
reflexively accepts the comment, “Your struggles with learning will
make you a great teacher,” academic struggles are now cognitively
framed as “glass half full.” It creates a positive emotional tag.
Damasio (2003, 2010) refers to this as a “somatic marker.” Cathy then feels that working hard to overcome
deficits is the tell-tale sign of a successful teacher. This half-full
perspective or yes-I-can mindset triggers an optimistic outlook that in
turn allocates more cognitive resources. A cascade of subsequent
behavior thus generates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cathy subsequently
responds to learning struggles as engaging challenges.
and Perception Mechanisms
Cathy’s new mindset trains and restructures the cognitive networks. The
predictive mechanisms of the brain play a huge role in determining what
we attend to and thus, what we perceive. In other words, Cathy used to
attend to signals that affirmed her hopelessness. After her uncle’s
comment, her cognitive mechanisms now prime her to attend to signals
that affirm accomplishments through hard work.
Interesting Speculation About the Role of Brain Lateralization
Goldberg (2009) illustrates how our brains’ hemispheres evolved to
specialize in particular tasks. Our cerebral hemispheres have
complementary processes. The hemisphere that specializes in a task
(such as handedness) may vary from person to person. For most humans,
the right hemisphere is organized to effectively interpret and
creatively respond to unfamiliar challenges. The left hemisphere is
organized to identify familiar challenges and then to activate
effective responses. The right hemisphere’s neuronal systems are thus
broadly connected to permit the consideration of many alternatives. The
left hemisphere’s primary task is to activate established routines.
During an unfamiliar event, the left hemisphere has no routines to
activate. The right hemisphere thus generates a response. If the
response works, it eventually becomes adopted by the left hemisphere
and is automatically applied in similar situations. It thus becomes
During her uncle’s remark, “Someone who struggles so hard with school
will make a great teacher,” Cathy's left hemisphere (that specializes
in routine) had nothing to activate. It didn’t have a
“Cathy-will-make-a-great-teacher” story. Her uncle’s remark triggered
the right hemisphere to generate a new response. The new response from
Cathy, “I-will-become-a-great-teacher,” strengthened through
self-affirming evidence generated by her new attentional and perceptual
shift. This new response triggers underground mechanisms to
instinctively scan for evidence that confirms this new perspective.
This new perspective then routinized to the left hemisphere as the new
Codify What You Learned and Make it Operational
Over the years, I've examined hundreds of life-changing
anecdotes. Clear patterns appeared. Positively framed comments that
surprised the recipient turn up regularly in these stories. Cathy was
surprised by her uncle’s comment. The structure of his statement is
also a critical factor in her mindset transformation. He named some
skill, disposition, or quality that was already present and then linked
it into a forecast. Cathy’s uncle connected her current experience,
“Students who struggle with learning,” to a desired result, “will make
a great teacher.” This communication pattern also appears regularly in
I teach this simple structure to my pre-service teachers. The structure
has two elements:
Create an element of surprise with the content or the timing of
Name a skill or disposition and express the result it will create.
The following example from a pre-service teacher illustrates both
Nevil is a very creative student. He plays music,
acts, and draws
pictures on all his assignments. He sometimes questions why we are
doing a particular assignment, especially when there is a lot of
writing involved. One day when he complained about a particular writing
assignment, I told him, “Your ability to put creativity into everything
you do should make this one a breeze!” The piece he turned in was very
creative and by far the best writing I had seen from him.
My own sudden developing awareness of the complexity of a
“life-changing-moment” generated a 30-year search for the mechanisms at
play. I’m encouraged to see a new generation of pre-service teachers
who are now aware of the fragile emotional state of their students and
cognizant of a productive communication pattern. I’m also excited to
teach a simple, yet powerful, mechanism for the intentional production
of positive and resilient mindsets in our youth.
Damasio, A. (2003). Looking for Spinoza: Joy,
sorrow, and the feeling brain. San Diego: Harcourt.
Damasio, A. (2010). Self comes to mind: Constructing
the conscious brain. New York: Random House.
Goldberg, E. (2009). The new executive brain:
Frontal lobes in a complex world. New York: Oxford.
Itti, L., & Baldi, P. F. (2009). Bayesian
surprise attracts human attention. Vision Research, 49:12, June 2,
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking fast and slow. New
York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Rousell, M.A. (1991). Hypnotic conditions: Are they
present in the elementary classroom? (Doctoral dissertation).
Eugene, OR: University of Oregon.
Rousell, M.A. (2007). Sudden influence: How
spontaneous events shape our lives. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Michael A. Rousell
Michael A. Rousell is a certified psychologist and
Assistant Professor of Education at Southern Oregon University. His
two-decade study of life-changing moments culminated in his award
winning book, Sudden Influence: How Spontaneous Events Shape Our Lives
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