Faculty Experiences - Eran Zaidel

Eran Zaidel - photo



Interview Topics:

What matters most to you in your teaching?

How are you using technology as a tool to achieve your teaching goals?

How have your students responded to your use of technology?

What new goals do you have for using technology in teaching?

How could the university better facilitate the use of technology in instruction?


Think like a researcher
Learning through doing
Work with real data


Computer-based experiments
Web-based experiments
Brain mapping

Learning about the Scientific Method, Learning about Yourself

I teach introductory psychobiology, advanced courses in cognitive neuroscience, and lab courses in brain and behavior, and in all of them what I’m trying to convey is the scientific method. How do we carry out a scientific experiment or project? How do we find out about ourselves and the world? And how does the mind work? What I want students to get is a sense of how one goes about finding out, not the details, the names of people or the exact experiments that they did, but how one goes about finding out, how one changes one’s approach, and what the general principles are that govern our behavior.

At first, students may not appreciate these goals. First of all, they want to get a good grade. They don't necessarily care to learn, so I have to teach them almost in spite of themselves. I’m exaggerating a little, but you do have to be an entertainer and a good speaker in addition to a good scientist. I ask them, "How do you explain this phenomenon?" And then I say, "Here’s an explanation, but it seems to be wrong, because of this or that experiment. Let’s then consider what the alternative could be." Then I may show them an alternative theory, but that turns out to be wrong, too. So I go though the theories and they say, "Why are you showing us all the wrong ones? We need to know the truth." And I respond, "No, there’s no such thing as truth, because we know that even if we have a theory that works, it will most likely eventually be, at best, revised, at worst, discarded." So the idea is to learn how one finds out, and how one improves knowledge. That’s what I’m trying to teach more than anything else.

There are a few ways I use technology to help achieve these teaching goals. All of this is with the help of the Office of Instructional Development (OID), which has funded all of the improvements that I introduced over the years. At present, I am particularly attracted to the new opportunities provided by the Internet. There is already webcasting, the Bruincast, where they film me lecturing. That means that the students don't have to be in class; they can see the lecture at home. Moreover, I can watch myself and see what's wrong and what's good about my lectures, and try to improve them. That's important for me.

And then of course there's the use of computers as an aid to instruction. Since I'm interested in teaching how to do science, I love the opportunity to actually do science as a part of the class. And that's what the computers allow me to do now. I take some of the more dramatic and successful experiments that we run in my lab and gear them towards the material that we cover in class. I actually make the students go through the experiments as part of the class. They do it in a computer lab, either in Life Science or Psychology. And then we discuss the results. The idea is not only that they learn how to do science, and how I go about doing science, but the data is about themselves, so they learn about themselves in the process. This makes the material more engaging, and the students, more personally involved with it.

For example, we give the students an experiment where they have to recognize their own face and their own emotional expression. It's a really simple experiment. We flash briefly the face of a stranger or the face of the student (we have to prepare it ahead of time). And the expression is either sad or happy. Sometimes we flash it in the right-, sometimes in the left- half field so that the stimulus projects either to the left- or the right- hemisphere, respectively. The student sits in front of a screen and views the pictures. In one block of trials they have to decide, "Is that me, or somebody else?" They respond by pressing one button or the other. In another block, they have to decide, "Was that a happy expression or a sad expression?" Nothing could be simpler, but it turns out to have very interesting results. It turns out that one is faster at detecting oneself when the self-face stimulus is happy. One is faster at detecting a stranger when the stranger-face stimulus is sad. Secondly, we find that there are differences in the ability to perform the two tasks in the two sides of the brain. When we flash the image to the right or left side we actually engage one side of the brain or the other. And it turns out they process the information differently--the right hemisphere is specialized at detecting emotional expressions on the face. Further, we then ask them to fill out an anxiety questionnaire, or various other mood checklists. It turns out that the degree of anxiety correlates with the reaction time with which they respond to recognizing the face or the emotion in the right hemisphere.

To make a long story short, the test shows something anatomical/physiological related to their mood. They may not even want to tell me about their mood, but the test will tell me what their mood really is. In other words, the brain state can actually indicate something about the mind or how they feel. So, by showing the students how to do experiments about the two sides of the brain, the material in the class becomes much more concrete. When I then tell them that one hemisphere does this, the other one does that, they know exactly what I mean.

Furthermore, they are now in the position to know more about themselves. Here’s how. In addition to that test I also give them cognitive paper and pencil tests, verbal tests, visual-spatial tests, and, since I'm interested in sex differences, we may look at differences between male and female students in the class. Now they can see if any of these brain measures relate to their cognitive skills. So they see the relationship between their abilities and cognitive and personality variables, on the one hand, and their brain, activity on the other. The brain and the mind are all becoming one, and that's an important lesson I'm trying to teach them.

To be honest, some of the students feel that some of the experiments are boring. The fact is that boring and tedious experiments can tell you a lot of interesting things about the mind/brain. These experiments may be boring to take, but they are beautifully designed. That's the name of the game, to do a simple experiment that tells you something really interesting. But by the end of the class, I think that most students appreciate why I am doing it. How do I know that? The nomination for the 2008 Copenhaver Award came from one of them. I was really surprised to learn that someone nominated me, and I was really delighted about the sentence they used about how I try to teach them the scientific method. That's true, but I don't tell them that explicitly, and the fact that somebody recognized my goal was really gratifying. So at the end, the students do appreciate the combination of experiments and theory.

As far as new goals go, I'd like to develop a way to use technology to conduct cross-cultural research. How does one currently do cross-cultural research? One goes to various countries and one does the experiments there. One has collaborators. But what happens if you have a web experiment instead? Anybody from anywhere can get on and do the experiment. There are some challenges one needs to address, such as making sure that what participants say is true, that they're not cheating and that they're giving accurate demographic data. But there are ways to test for inconsistencies. For example, we could run an experiment on the phenomenon called alexithymia, the inability to describe your emotions with words. An interesting question is, do those symptoms of alexithymia differ across cultures? We can design a simple questionnaire, and translate it into different languages so that people from different countries can take it. Now, there's an interesting hypothesis that alexithymia results from a functional disconnection between the emotional right hemisphere and the verbal left hemisphere. The experiment I told you about before can test that. So, let's run that experiment in Japan and Italy and England and Scandinavia and let's see the results. It's very exciting.

When one writes a scientific paper one writes an Introduction, a Method section, Results, and Discussion. One may even include the data at the end as a table or graphs. But with the advent of the computer, why not have the real experiment attached at the end of the paper when you submit it for publication? Now the reader can reanalyze the data to look at new things, or rerun the experiments after changing some parameters. The whole process becomes much more interactive.

Our University is doing really well in facilitating these kinds of projects. Certainly in my case, the Office of Instructional Development was always really responsive. Some years ago I wanted to take some clinical tests that were use for testing brain damaged patients and computerize them so that we could illustrate them in the class. OID gave me the money to do that and we developed the tests for the Mac platform. Then we wanted to adapt it to the PC platform and they gave us money to do that. More recently, they gave me money to buy the software for developing new experiments and the funds for students to program in it. The result is that I am able to incorporate experiments into both introductory- and advanced-classes in brain and behavior.

I had another idea that I would like to implement but it turns out to be difficult. Ideally, in my behavioral neuroscience lab, I would give students the behavioral experiments I’ve been describing, some cognitive tests, verbal tests, visual-spatial tests, personality tests, and mood questionnaires, and relate all of these behavioral measures to the students’ own anatomy and physiology. I would love to take students to the Brain Mapping Center, scan their brains, take an anatomy of the brain, especially the corpus callosum, and then relate their anatomy and their physiology to their behavior, so they can see how it all fits together. I actually proposed it to the department chair once, but he thought it was a bad idea to scan the students. Not necessarily because it's expensive, but because in 2% of the cases, one may find an abnormality, and then the University might be legally liable, and it could get complicated.

The opportunity to combine the resources on campus to study the anatomy, the physiology, and the behavior of the brain, is really fantastic. UCLA is unique in facilitating an interaction across departments. The Brain Research Institute is an umbrella organization that has many people in many different departments. Half of my students are advised by somebody from another department. That way, I can extend my technological arsenal by having students work with somebody else who has a new technology that I don't have. Ours is an integrated, coherent campus. The medical school is right here. We have close ties with the neurology, psychiatry, and brain mapping, and even undergraduate students enjoy the variety and take advantage of it. It certainly helps them in applying to grad school or medical school.

Graduate students who come here are very smart, but often intellectually timid. You ask them what they want to do, and they say, "I don't know yet. I need to take classes to find out what are the right questions and what are the right approaches." That's not the answer I'm looking for, I want to know what really interests them. But they're afraid to come up with anything. So we spend some time discussing this, and after half an hour I learn how they feel, what they care about, I put my own two cents-worth of theoretical and methodological insight, and we suddenly have a project that they feel is theirs, I feel is mine, and everybody is happy and ready to go. Sooner or later, they realize that the best way to learn is to go ahead and do experiments, and pick up knowledge on the way, not to learn first and then do. For instance, with statistics, if you learn statistics before you run experiments, you may not appreciate it or remember it very well. But when you do an experiment and you have to analyze your own data, you really learn stats quickly.. At the end, the students need to experiment by themselves, and we need to give them the tools to do that. That’s when the imagination is engaged, and the result is creativity and innovation.

Oral interview, April 2008