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Orange bike on Windansea Beach in La Jolla, CA. Overexposed and then photoshopped to make it slightly psychedelic. Somehow it felt fitting for this article, mixing reason and emotion.

Apologies if you saw a draft published- I was sitting on a very long graduation ceremony and was making notes on my smartphone, and then clicked on an icon I thought was “save” but it was “publish.” Some scrambling ensued. I am writing now from my laptop.

As I advance deeper into the book, I feel myself more and more engaged.  It reads almost like a detective novel, slowly and steadily unraveling the mechanics of the brain, easily combining biological descriptions of anatomical structures with personal stories of students and colleagues, as well as reflections about teaching and learning.
Chapter 5, titled  A feeling of this business, starts with a personal story about a biology professor who insisted in incorporating math into his biology classes, something very logical that did not earn him popularity among students. That hit home-much has been said how the lack of math and physics in biology education has damaged the future experts of the discipline. But what really hit home was a comment of this professor: that when asked by a student how did he know what to do to solve an equation, he couldn’t answer. “I cannot really explain…I just feel it.” And this is something I often feel: a sense of what is the right way of doing something. Often it becomes almost artistic- a sense of balance or something aesthetically pleasing. When designing an experiment, for instance, positive and negative controls line up with the samples in a matrix that is not only scientifically sound, but also complete in the artistic sense. There are no overhangs or holes.

Zull goes on explaining how emotions and feelings, although similarly sounding, are not the same. Basically, emotions become feelings when we become conscious of them. He cites William James’ example of meeting a bear: emotions transmitted by the amygdala make you run like hell, but it is only later when we feel the fear. Which makes perfect sense. The few times in my life when I have been in direct danger I acted coolly, and fear came only later.

After this there is a section dedicated to the hypothalamus- the center of homeostasis in our brain, but also a center of control, which, upon receiving signals from the limbic system (fear, particularly) is able to release hormones and other cellular mediators to act in our body. Typical example is the adrenalin rush, the classic flight or fight response of the sympathetic nervous system.

What I really like is how Zull’s book jumps from the descriptions of brain structures back to teaching scenarios. How do we know if a certain fact is true? In a way, it is a feeling– and if that feeling if certainty is challenged, we feel fear, so we try to prove we are right- and the more we do it the more confident we feel. And so we learn.

I hope you realize that I am reading this book slowly, because I am writing about it, so I need to be able to paraphrase and summarize it. Along the way, associations pop up, ideas blossom, and I get distracted in the good way, but then find my way back to the book. It is a great intellectual experience, which I am able to do because I am on a week vacation away from home. I will stop now, as this requires some processing before moving on.

As for the Gettysburg address memorization project, I just hit sentence #6. “But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” I am absolutely blown away by the usage of words in this speech. It plows forward, inexorably, with s sense of purpose and no distractions. Amazing writing.

Be back tomorrow.

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