Discovering the lizard brain in Seminar

Students in Middle School Seminar recently gained a better understanding of the form and functions of the brain stem (in Seminar, this is called the “cave brain” or “lizard brain”)—the parts of the brain that do the basic work of keeping us alive. These include automatic functions like breathing, moving , and blinking, as well as scanning for safety, subconscious behaviors, and automatic sorting/categorizing activities.

These automatic functions lead to a discussion of biases, which we all possess. Biases were useful during the early days of Homo Sapiens—the ability to quickly categorize everything allowed us to survive. In contemporary society, however, the automatic brain functions that result in biases can blossom into prejudice and discrimination. After learning how and why the brain sorts, students were introduced to tools they can use to interrupt or redirect the assumptions and impulses that can lead to discrimination against others based on race, sex, gender, class, religion, culture, and sexuality. Teacher Kate Ziminsky guided students through an activity where they categorized a variety of items (including keys, dice, game pieces, blocks, and toys), then explained why they made those decisions.

Next week’s class will focus on the attributes or preferences we all have that are invisible to others. Students will use their “thinking brains”—the cortex/prefrontal cortex—to get curious, then interview their classmates and ask the kinds of questions that help override stereotypes and assumptions.