Contagion in the Classroom: Or, What Empathy Can Teach Us about the Importance of Face-to-Face Learning

Debates over online education versus old-school brick-and-mortar, face-to-face instruction generally go in one of several directions, often at the same time. Advocates for online instruction might point to the freedom it provides the learner who can advance at his or her own pace, retrieving and reviewing materials, attending “lectures,” solving problems at 3:00 a.m. as well as at noon. Such advocates also point to the increasing elasticity of online delivery, which is now not simply based on a bulky and impersonal interface in which students “post” papers and other materials into a web portal and wait to hear from the instructor. Today, of course, students have access to lectures, notes, live-streaming, real-time interaction with other students and instructors, instant feedback (or nearly so), and even platforms that allow professors to “see” students and vice versa. To be sure, many enthusiasts also argue for its increasingly cheaper cost.

Even advocates of the lecture hall or the seminar room have to be impressed by these developments, and one can foresee future refinements in platforms and technologies that will make the online experience even more seamless.

In a recent debate sponsored by Columbia University between online advocates and those who favor more traditional modes of learning—“More Clicks, Fewer Bricks: The Lecture Hall Is Obsolete”1—the case for traditional classroom instruction was eloquently made by educational columnist and adjunct professor Rebecca Schuman, who noted that in her experience nothing can replace human contact in the classroom, those moments in which the instructor and the student achieve something together, something, one might say, that necessarily escapes the technological interface. She meant that no amount of fancy software or hardware can measure what it is like to be present for a student with a learning disability, or can walk a student through an oral presentation when he is frightened out of his wits. Direct personal contact, Schuman and other advocates of the classroom argue, cannot do these things because the mediation of technology necessarily disrupts such moments of human intimacy. In other words, there’s no accounting for the human element.

And while I tend to agree with Schuman and others who note that face-to-face contact is essential for learning (which isn’t the same thing as arguing that learning cannot or should not occur online), I do so for different reasons. Missing from the arguments of the pro-contact, pro-classroom advocates are the recent advancements in learning and cognition coming out of the sciences. We are now beginning to understand that humans and other primates learn through mimicry and imitation, by seeing, sensing, and hearing what others do and say who are in close bodily proximity to ourselves. We need presence. I call this the power of contagion.

The power of contagion

If we want clues to classroom dynamics in the “interface” between teacher and students, and between students themselves, then we might look to primatology, neurobiology, and cognitive science and advances in the understanding of empathic primate behavior. For instance, many current studies of learning, mimicry, and empathy suggest that what happens in the classroom is no different from what happens in “real life,” and that the classroom is a kind of laboratory in which the potential for learning is already hard-wired through the sheer presence of human beings in close proximity with each other.

The discovery of mirror neurons in macaque monkeys by Italian researchers in the early 1990s has been a boon to scientists and philosophers interested in what has become known as theory of mind, whereby humans (and, apparently, some animals) come to understand the emotions and intentions of others. How do I know what another person might be feeling, regardless of whether she tells me or not? How might this knowledge become so real, so embedded in me, that I feel what she feels? Where does empathy come from?

Primatologists and neuroscientists such as Frans de Waal, Christian Keysers, Marco Iacoboni, and V. S. Ramachandran, among others, speculate that mirror neurons may be partially responsible for the ability to understand the behaviors and feelings of other people, their particular moods, even their actions—as if we (the observers) were experiencing the same thing without being consciously aware of what is happening. In other words, we can “know” another person without their having to disclose through language since our neurons have the capability to “read” the bodies of others. To put this another way, one might say that deep learning requires that our bodies need the bodies of others.

Much of primatologist Frans de Waal’s research, for example, points in the direction of physical and emotional interconnectedness whereby primates are biologically driven to behave in ways similar to those nearby, thus the “contagion” of laughter or yawning. It makes little difference whether we consciously think about it (mostly we don’t); we cannot escape the biological imperative to imitate. In fact, for de Waal and others interested in primate learning, imitation is not simply a way to learn something; it is a means of survival, encoded deep within us.

For instance, it may well be that I “know”—in a corporeal way—what you are feeling even if I don’t “know” it at the level of conscious or linguistic articulation. My neurons may be reading your actions and facial expressions and encoding them, so to speak, within me. If you reach to grab a piece of paper, I reach to grab a piece of paper without literally doing so. While it ought to be kept in perspective that such research and its potential implications for understanding human behavior are in their early stages—mirror neuron enthusiasts certainly have their detractors in the scientific community—these advances provide a theory of what may be going on in the classroom when things go well and when they go awry.

If we remember that the classroom is one kind of social experience, then thinking about the classroom through the lens of mirroring and imitation at the neural level might help us understand more clearly classroom dynamics that frustrate or confuse, and help us focus our attention on what works and why. This cannot be done in an online environment where the proximity of body to body, human to human is lost, and where “metrics,” the educational equivalent of the bottom line, is the word of the hour. Just as irony is virtually impossible over e-mail, the technological interface is the receding horizon of empathic learning.

To take another example, we might posit that there is a sort of connection, perhaps even identification, when we lose ourselves in a literary work. We may or may not consciously see ourselves in the main characters, but mirroring presents the possibility that we become the story, at least at a subconscious level. Such neural and somatic interconnectedness demonstrates that the inability to recognize the difference between what is real and what is fiction is largely immaterial to learning. These connections explain, in part, the recent growth in the study of empathy, both in and out of the sciences. (I would point readers interested in the nexus of empathy and literature to the work of Suzanne Keen.)

Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that the pleasure we derive from works of the imagination and the pleasure of the real world are part of the same overall process; whether we know Breaking Bad to be fiction is often of no consequence to the way we experience it. That our minds are “indifferent” to whether an aesthetic experience is real or not perhaps explains the appeal of good storytelling. We are evolutionarily programmed to be in contact with other people, and they do not necessarily need to be present for us to become another, to connect. “The pleasures of the imagination,” Bloom says, “are parasitic on the pleasures of real life.”2 At a level that escapes conscious cognition (and certainly where some learning takes place), identification and perhaps imitation help explain why we feel pain or pleasure when we are not the subject of either one.

While we know that what is fictional is fictional and what is real is real (at least, most of us do), our neurons and our bodies—this other “we”—know something else entirely. Our response to storytelling, whether by getting “lost” or by “losing oneself” or by identifying with the characters, points to a transference between self and other in which the divisions between the two are increasingly arbitrary the smaller we go. I am what I read.

Presence and the learning environment

That being the case, why can’t online instruction offer the same neuronal “firing” that we might see in face-to-face interactions, especially given the difficulties in telling the difference between the “real” and the “false”? Looking at teaching as a form of embodied connection, we can begin to understand why so much pedagogical theory and practice looks awry at the traditional lecture format. Remembering, for instance, that mirror neurons are for sharing—transforming private action into “social experience to be shared with our fellow humans through language,” according to neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni3—we might imagine the classroom as a system in which each student and instructor has the capacity to alter the whole at the neuronal level.

We might think of the classroom as a web of mirroring inputs in which the system is constantly seeking to reorganize itself. In other words, the classroom-as-web replicates our understanding of the brain-as-web in which it is constantly reorganizing itself and creating new pathways for learning. Our ability to learn from each other therefore creates an infinite number of pathways when we are present to each other. The infinitely more static online environment is just that—an online environment, entirely lacking the multiplicity, the cognitive give-and-take that is available when we are present to each other. Call this full-contact learning, if you will.

If Iacoboni and others are to be believed, this mirroring may have something to do with the success or failure of a class. Lucky enough to have a class that is firing on all levels, one in which the discussion is alive and the students seem to be nourishing each other? They may be experiencing this curious intersection of biology and learning. Everything going south in the classroom? Perhaps the instructor and the students are fostering their own negativity, a self-other neuronal spiral. What if we could use some of the insights of both neuroscience and literary history to heave-to this ship before it sails into the shoals?

To that end, we might look to the writer Alberto Manguel, whose History of Reading reminds us of the importance of reading as a social act.4 When only one or two people in the community could read, for instance, humans still desired the kind of communal gathering once reserved, I take it, for oral storytelling. According to Manguel, public and semi-public readings for the illiterate or for those who did not have access to books were widespread throughout Europe from the eleventh through the nineteenth centuries, in various manifestations. Much later in Cuba, public readings in the workplace were instituted in many cigar factories, and as immigration to the United States increased during the Cuban War of Independence, workers who migrated to the United States brought the lector, the reader, with them into the factories.

One might speculate that such performances helped foster and enact the intersubjectivity, the theory of mind, inherent in the connectivity posited by mirror neuron theorists. Looked at in this way, the reading self and other readers and listeners are always already connected through language and its potential relationship to empathy.

The point here is that reading and study have not always been the kind of private and solitary activity we erroneously associate with them today—an association that, to my mind, contributes to many of our students’ distaste for working and thinking alone, which is the essential mode of online education (even given current developments). If you will allow me a certain leap, I mean that if a class is outwardly failing, it may be failing inwardly, biologically, as well, and there’s no way to “read” such failure or success online.

If our students are going to be “transported,” to borrow a term from Paul Bloom—and if we are going to learn from our students—we are going to have to be present to each other.

Our neurons may already know what to do.

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1. Anant Agarwal, Ben Nelson, Jonathan Cole, Rebecca Schuman, John Donvan, “More Clicks, Fewer Bricks: The Lecture Hall Is Obsolete,” Intelligence Squared U.S. Debate Series, April 2, 2004,

2. Paul Bloom, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 177.

3. Marco Iacoboni, Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others (New York: Picador, 2008), 95.

4. Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (New York: Penguin, 1996).

William Major is professor of English at Hillyer College of the University of Hartford.

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