Middle School Posts

February 01, 2015

Misreading Emotions

Hello everyone,

I hope you are enjoying this snowy day.  Of course I finally got around to washing my car yesterday, just in time for it to be snowed on today!

I was glad to see many of you on Friday at the talk given by Mark Twarogowski, the Head of School at Denver Academy, about the teenage brain.  So much of what he said was really interesting and helpful to me, both as a parent and as an educator.  One of the things he touched on that I found particularly interesting was the difficulty teens have with reading emotions.  I did some research into this idea and found an article on the Frontline website that detailed the study that Mr. Twarogowski mentioned.  The study, done at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, showed pictures of adult faces to groups of adults and teens and asked them to identify the emotions displayed.  While the test subjects determined the emotion, their brains were observed to determine which part of the brain was active.

The results were fascinating.  First, the teens were wrong in their guesses much of the time, misreading the emotions on the faces.  Second, they were using a totally different part of the brain than the adults in their determination.  Whereas the adults used mostly the frontal cortex, the area of the brain that handles reason, the teens used mainly the amygdala, an area that deals with “gut” reactions.  Rather than thinking about the emotions in a rational way, they responded instinctively; yet their instincts were often incorrect.

The most interesting thing for me, however, was the fact that when teens do misread emotion, they usually think it’s anger.  That’s their go-to emotion, it seems.  And when I think about it, it’s not surprising.  I remember once when I was an upper school dean, I was sitting in the school’s student common area, and I noticed a student was out of dress code.  I... » read more

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