Your Brain on Study Abroad: The Experience Changes Lives, and Neurons, a Scholar Says

Karin Fischer, The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 31, 2013 (subscription required)


This is a summary of a session at the recent NAFSA conference in St. Louis, which Dr. Craig Cobane, Director of the Honors College and Chief International Officer of WKU, attended. There are previous posts on the conference and Kofi Annan’s keynote address on how study abroad promotes international understanding.

Cultural neuroscience says culture shock is good for you! (And Facebook could ruin it)

We are wired to recognize patterns, and culture is a deeply ingrained metapattern, a pattern that not only connects the dots, but connects the patterns, all the more powerfully the less aware we are of it.

Study abroad helps us to break up old patterns and create new patterns. The challenge for educators and advisers is to prepare students for that transformation and to help them integrate the old and the new patterns once they return (see reverse culture shock).

This argument can be further generalized. All learning can be understood as a restructuring of cognitive patterns and networks. The unique value of being abroad is that it is so immersive, appealing to all of our senses. The longer we are abroad, the more likely it is that we break out of our ‘bubble,’ and the deeper and more lasting the learning will be. This is how I always experienced studying, working and living abroad: As a form of accelerated and deepened learning.

Study-abroad advisers can use the lessons of how the brain works to better help students prepare to go abroad and adjust more quickly to a new culture.
Holding workshops for students before they go overseas can “lay foundations for new neural networks” by talking about cultural differences they might encounter or brainstorming ways to deal with unexpected situations, Ms. Kartoshkina said.
Once students are abroad, engagement with the local community can hasten the process of building new neuron patterns. And having students write or blog about their experience can help them make connections with their existing ways of thinking and learning.
While colleges and study-abroad programs already do much to help students adjust to going overseas, Ms. Kartoshkina said they needed to pay as much attention to ways of easing students’ return home. That’s because new neural networks have formed, and transitioning back to old patterns of thinking can be bumpy.
The key, Ms. Kartoshkina said, is to find ways to preserve and integrate the old and new patterns of thinking. For example, she said, one student who returned from overseas tried to look at her home culture as if it was a fresh culture, bridging the experience abroad and back on the campus.

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