Volume II - 1994
Whole Brain Learning and Relaxation Techniques
by Maraleen Manos-Jones
Maraleen Manos-Jones teaches ESL at York College and at the International English Language Institute at Hunter College in New York City. She has a B.A. in psychology and art, an M.A. in TESOL, and a Movement Specialist Certificate from the New School for Social Research. An experienced presenter, she is now working on a book, Whole Brain Learning and Relaxation Techniques in the Classroom.
Why is the imagination important? It obviously plays an important part in the creative process. Is the creative process only for artists? Of course not. We all have to use our faculties of creativity and imagination to function in the world. We take in myriad pieces of information through our senses and then have to put all the information together to make sense of it. We are the creators of our lives, depending on how we edit, connect and interpret the vast array of input accosting our senses. The more flexible our imagination, the more it is possible to come up with creative ways to solve problems and to deal with the obstacles, trials and tribulations that befall us all. In fact, most scientific discoveries came about because scientists were willing to look at the world in a different, creative way.
The 'I Can't Change' Mode
We are all imaginative as children, but as we grow older, we get stuck in patterns that don't allow us to solve problems or deal with any number of things with a fresh and different perspective. We are all creatures of pattern, from the little things in our lives to the larger picture. To prove that right now, I want you to fold your hands together, interlocking fingers. Go ahead, do it this minute! Now, I want you to change your hands so that the opposite thumb is closest to you with your fingers interlocking. Got it? Does it feel different and strange? The only reason it does, is that we are used to doing things one way and the minute we change that, it feels strange and awkward and different, and we don't like that feeling because it's too scary so we go back to the way we always do things. That way it feels more comfortable, familiar and basically stuck. This is the "I-can't-change," or worse, "I don't-want-to-change" mode. What's wrong with that? Just what is wrong with doing things the same way all the time other than it's a little boring? For starters, life is not neat and predictable. Remember the saying, "expect the unexpected"? Are we ever ready for the unexpected? Is it always a surprise? The world is changing rapidly, and through technological advances we learn about changes as they're happening. But wait a minute! Basically people don't like change, because it makes us feel unsure of ourselves and our position in the world. In our ever-changing world, by tapping into and exercising our creative, imaginative selves we can feel confident that we will be capable of dealing with and improvising in unexpected situations. But how do we do that and deal with all the stress of modern living? And what does it have to do with language learning?
We know that everyone is affected by the stress of daily life. Besides normal stresses, students who have not mastered English face formidable challenges. In addition to uncertainty because of unfamiliarity, many do not have their families with them, much less their network of friends and relatives who know and respect them. I teach in New York City, one of the toughest urban settings in the world, where the students need all the tools they can get to cope with pressures. In order for deep learning to take place, tensions and stresses have to be diffused. Anxiety lowers our focus, and we miss important cues and information. This is true, of course, in any setting and true for learning any subject deeply and well. The more our energy is blocked, the less access new information has to reach us and the less ability we have to put all the information together into a clear, coherent whole.
Encouraging and nurturing the imagination is a gift to your students and yourselves. In the realm of the imagination, anything is possible. In the realm of the imagination, there is no competition. In the realm of the imagination, we don't make mistakes. In the realm of the imagination, we feel graceful and at ease. In the realm of the imagination, images perceived are powerful and transpose into the written or spoken word or the drawn picture with a force that helps students transcend the limitations of their language abilities. It helps to stretch the ability to feel and intuitively understand image and language. It also enhances everyone's confidence level. Everyone has an imagination. How well we use it is a matter of practice. How can we practice? Consider the following two exercises.
Before I proceed, I always explain what I am going to do and go over any new vocabulary. This first exercise lowers the stress level through a guided deep relaxation. There are many and various techniques to achieve relaxed states. I have found that the following, which is one of my "classics," is highly effective.
First, I start by asking the participants to imagine a beautiful place. It can be a place they know or a place they have never been before. It should, however, be a place where they feel safe, secure and calm. I find that it is important for all of us to find a quiet place within, a place that is serene and soothing to all our senses, a place to "recharge our batteries" and feel comfortable, happy and confident. It is from this calm place that we make our best decisions, and are able to clearly hear our "intuitive voice" and absorb and remember new information with more ease.
In the paragraphs that follow, is the script that I use. Of course, you can change and vary the words to suit the mood and moment. When everyone is familiar with the process, you can shorten it a bit. The brain will have learned a pathway to relaxation; and the more it is used, the easier it is to get there.
The First Script
"Sit comfortably and straight in your chairs and uncross your legs. Put down pens and papers and let your hands relax. Now close your eyes. Take a deep breath in, breathing in relaxed energy and exhale, breathing out tensions and worries. Another deep breath in, taking in relaxed energy. Another exhale, breathing out problems and worries. One last deep breath in, breathing in relaxed energy; and exhale, breathing out tensions. All right, let your breath return to normal.
"And now I am going to ask you to imagine a blue white wave of relaxed energy that is going to wash over you, like a wave from the ocean. And this wave is going to gently wash over the top of your head, flowing over your forehead and over your eyes. You can feel your eyes let go of tension as this relaxed energy passes over them. And this wave of blue white energy gently slides down your cheeks, over and around your mouth and jaw and in and through your head, so that every cell in your brain is being washed in a blue white wave of relaxed light. "And this wave of relaxed energy continues to flow down and over and through your neck, into and around your shoulders and slowly down your arms. Every muscle, bone, artery, vein and cell of your arm is being washed in a relaxed energy as this blue white wave continues down your arms, into your wrists and palms and in and through each finger.
"And now this blue white wave of relaxed energy is at the back of your neck, flowing gently down your spine, vertebrae by vertebrae and your back is being washed in a blue white relaxed light. And this relaxed energy is spreading out and over and through your shoulder blades and out and around and through your ribs and slowly and gently down, around and over your hips.
"And now this relaxed energy is at the front of your throat and is flowing slowly and thoroughly down your chest, penetrating all your internal organs, heart and lungs and intestines, all your internal organs are being washed in a blue, white, relaxed light. And as this blue white energy fills you up, it pushes tension from every part of you. And this wave of relaxed energy is spiraling gently in and around your stomach and around your hips and flows and washes down your thighs, in and around and through your thighs, around your knees, down into your legs, into your ankles and feet and into and through each toe. It continues to flow, like roots, from the bottom of your feet, through the floor, down into the earth, connecting you with the earth.
"You are now in a deep state of relaxation. I would like to remind you that everytime you are in this state, your health improves, and your ability to learn improves. In fact, your ability to learn, understand and remember your new language, English, is getting easier and better all the time. Also remember that you retain complete awareness and control throughout this exercise. You are aware of any sounds around you and anything that is happening around you. And at the same time, you are calm and relaxed within.
"Now I am going to ask you to imagine a beautiful place. It can be a place you know or a place you have never seen before. It is a place where you feel very secure and safe and calm. A place where you feel happy and centered. I would like you to wander around and explore your beautiful special place. And after you wander around, you might want to sit and just observe and be. And you will remember all the details you are going to notice. If other thoughts come into your mind, let them float by as clouds passing in the sky. They come and go. "And now explore and be in your beautiful places until you hear my voice again."
Allow two to three minutes for everyone to explore their beautiful places.
"And now, counting from one to five, you are going to open your eyes only at the count of five--feeling wide awake, refreshed and alert. So, one, slowly coming up, feeling relaxed and calm and centered. Two, feeling lighter and filled with a gentle, yet strong energy. Three, coming up even more, feeling relaxed and refreshed. Four, feeling more awake, refreshed, relaxed and centered. Five, open your eyes, feeling wide awake, refreshed, relaxed and alert."
If the teacher is in a writing class, he/she can have the students immediately start writing about their experience, rather than disperse their energy talking. The teacher should have them put down everything they can remember. From these notes, they will develop a descriptive essay. They will be encouraged to use language to make their experience as vivid for the reader as it was for them. If this exercise is being done in an oral skills class, I recommend that the students discuss and compare their experiences in pairs or small groups. Usually this would conclude with the whole class sharing highlights and similarities. If the teacher is working with young students, then drawing their experiences would be appropriate, as well as discussing their experiences and beautiful places. One of my students wrote that his family and friends were in his beautiful place. His imagining was so vivid that he felt he had visited with his family, which made him very happy since he missed them so much. This simple exercise enabled him to deal with one of his pressing issues and do something positive about it. In the realm of the imagination, the possibilities are infinite.
This next exercise, "Imaging," stimulates and utilizes the imagination. Involving imagery and dichotomies, it is a great tool for expanding vocabulary. Possibly, it calls on both hemispheres or sides of the brain. Some researchers thinks that for deep learning to take place, both sides of the brain must be engaged and involved. Generally, the right side of the brain is involved in the creative, intuitive aspects; the left side is generally concerned with the logical, rational realm. If both sides of the brain are engaged in the learning of new material, understanding and retention is enhanced and accelerated. The images for this exercise must be concrete enough to visualize. The pre-exercise is brainstorming opposites that will work. Concepts like big and small do not work. Be specific: mountain and molehill work. Purple and green work. Old and young don't work, but ninety-nine year-old man and new-born infant do work. The opposite concepts do not have to be only in the visual realm. They can stimulate the imaginary use of other senses, such as smell. Imagine the smell of a roomful of roses versus the smell of a roomful of old garbage. Or in the tactile realm, imagine the feel of a butterfly's wing against your cheek versus rubbing your hand over rough sandpaper. Or in the audio realm, imagine the sound of seagulls cawing as they are flying over the ocean versus the sound of fire truck sirens passing by.
I suggest doing about a dozen to fifteen images in a session. Save other suggestions for the next time. When the students can use their imagination more easily, you can start to layer the realms and concepts so that complex images utilizing different senses are visualized simultaneously. The possibilities are infinite. Start out slowly and get more intricate as time goes by. Stretch the brain, and learn new vocabulary along the way. Enjoy the exercise along with your students. If you do it, you will understand the pacing necessary to imagine vividly and then move on. Here is a sample of this left/brain-right/brain exercise.
Have the students sit tall in their chairs, uncross their legs, close their eyes, and take three deep inhalations of relaxed energy and three exhalations of tension and stress.
The Second Script
"For this exercise, imagine two white movie screens in your brain--one screen on the right; and one on the left. On the "left side" of your brain imagine an elephant, and on the "right side" of your brain imagine an ant. Now reverse that. Imagine the elephant on the right side of the brain, and the ant on the left side of the brain. All right. Now on the left side of the brain, imagine the sun and on the right side, imagine the moon. Now reverse the images so the sun is on the right side of your brain and the moon is on the left." Of course, the teacher has to leave enough time for everyone to focus in on an image.
"Imagine a very large tree on the left side of your brain, and a small seedling with four tiny leaves on the right side of your brain. Now reverse the images. Imagine the tiny seedling on the left and the huge tree on the right. Imagine a tiny pebble on the left side of your brain, and a tall mountain on the right. Now reverse images so the pebble is on the right and the mountain is on the left. Imagine a dewdrop on the right side of your brain and a large lake on the left side of your brain. Reverse the images."
Notice that I change which side of the brain I start with, just to avoid getting caught up in a pattern.
"Imagine the sound of sirens on the right side of your brain, and on the left side of your brain imagine the sound of the wind rustling through the trees on an autumn day. Now reverse the images. On the left side of the brain, imagine the taste of a lemon, and on the right side, the taste of chocolate ice cream. Now reverse the images. On the right side of your brain imagine a sunset over the ocean; and on the left side, a sunrise over the mountains. Now reverse the images. On the left side of your brain, imagine the sound of children's laughter; and on the right side, the sound of crying. Reverse the images.
Daffodils and Snow
"Now on the left side of your brain, imagine walking through a thick forest. It is early in the morning, and there is low mist along the ground. It is springtime, and the birds are singing a sweet song. There are hummingbirds, and bright yellow daffodils fill a meadow in the middle of the woods. You are going to visit someone you love and feel very peaceful with. On the right side of your brain, imagine you are walking in a snowstorm--the only sound is the wind, the snow is a white blanket over everything. You are dressed warmly enough, but it is still very cold. You see a light shining through the snow. It is the house of someone you love, and you are going there to sit in front of the fireplace, have something warm to drink and talk. Now reverse images.
A Beautiful Island
"Imagine on the right side of your brain, that you are on the most incredible vacation of your life. You are captain of a beautiful yacht, and all your best friends are with you. The sun is shining and shimmering on a blue/green ocean near an island. The island is not far, and the island is covered with wild roses. The smell of the wild, fresh, spring roses is mingling with the smell of the salty, briney sea. The air is clear. Seagulls are flying low looking for fish, and they are cawing and calling to one another. The sound of the waves is rhythmic and soothing. You can feel the ocean breeze against your skin . The sun feels comfortably warm as you are enjoying an exquisite lunch with your friends. You feel extraordinarily happy, peaceful, relaxed and that all is well in heaven and on earth.
"On the left side of the brain, imagine walking along the shore; you are alone; it is raining and you are in a gloomy, reflective mood. The seagulls are crying. The waves are crashing and the cold ocean spray is hitting your face. It is night. The clouds are mostly covering the moon, which peeks out; the dark clouds are running mythical shapes in front of the moon's cool blue white light. There is low fog along the beach. You feel sad and lonely. Then reverse images to opposite sides of the brain. So that now the sad image is on the right, and the joyful experience is on the left.
"Now clearing your mind of images, I would like you to look up into the left side of your brain, and notice what the left side of your brain looks like. Suspend judgment and just let whatever image come to you. It could be a color, or a symbol, just let whatever it is come to mind. And now let your attentĦon return to center. Now look into the right side of your brain and notice what the right sĦde of your brain looks like. Let your attention return to center. Now slowly opening your eyes, feeling awake, aware and refreshed. Open your eyes."
Discussion always follows any exercise. You can also encourage picking a favorite image, drawing it, writing about it and evolving it. Also, I always share my left and right brain images because the students feel unsure and shy about what they've experienced. They need to be assured that there is no "right" and "wrong". Every image is valid and images totally vary. However, a typical image is one side of the brain more filled with light and a different color than the other. Sometimes the light and color are balanced. In addition, images of our brain change from day to day or vary within a twenty-four-hour period. It depends on cycles and stimulation. It is interesting and important to "keep in touch with, check into and look at" our brains from time to time. In my forthcoming book, I will offer other ways to have dialogue with and stimulate the brain.
The idea of this and other right brain/left brain exercises is to stimulate the firing of brain cells so that both sides of our brains are functioning more optimally. The brain is designed to respond to stimulation and expand its powers to meet new challenges. We usually feel a little different after doing any exercise that allows us to focus our attention. When we are not focused, we don't take in all information being offered because we are distracted. Our minds wander or fuss or worry. Here, we're learning relaxed attentiveness as well as tickling our imagination, both essential if deep learning is to take place.
Relax, have fun, explore and learn--not a bad motto to teach by.
I am very interested in hearing from those of you who would like to use these exercises and from those who are already doing these types of exercises in your classrooms. Your experiences are valuable as research for the book I am writing on the topic. Thank you.
There is a cassette tape available from the author with the relaxation exercise and one other right brain/left brain exercise. To cover the cost of the tape, please send $5.00. plus $1.00 postage to:
465 State Street
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11217
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