by Danny Recio, Ph.D.
Cultural immersions have been historically perceived and studied as a negative, kind of shocking experience (aka “culture shock”), but research now tells us quite the opposite: that these experiences can help us grow beyond what we ever imagined! Intercultural encounters can help us shift and restructure our mental structures, allowing us to make significant growth and life changes.
In our brain, learning happens through the creation of mental structures called schemas. These structures are very useful because they allow us to be more efficient in processing and making meaning of the world around us, which in turn allows us to respond more efficiently to life’s challenges. On the other hand, schemas create blindspots. As we use existing schemas to assess new situations, our brains may ignore or overlook important incoming information and misjudge it, thus behaving in ways that ignore or overlook more beneficial alternatives.
We reinforce schemas through a process called “assimilation”, but can morph or add new schemas through a process called “accommodation”. Accommodative learning contributes more to personal development, as it allows us to change our cognitive structures to adapt to new life conditions and keep on growing. If you want to learn more about schemas, assimilation and accommodation, watch this short video by ByPass Publishing:
As people make more and more accommodative leaps, their schemas grow, and the connection between these structures does too, leading to the development of a highly useful cognitive skill called integrative complexity. Those who possess this skill can take in many perspectives on a situation, collect information from all those perspectives, and come up with efficient and effective solutions to life problems. Research has recently revealed that cross-cultural immersions can lead to the development of higher levels of integrative complexity, because when you interact with people with different schemas, traditions, lifestyles, and worldview, these challenge you to expand and adjust your own. Watch our students reflecting on their cultural immersions, and how they have changed their worldview:
With regards to psychological and emotional growth, the skill of integrative complexity can be very useful, as when people are struggling in these areas, they are often stuck repeating unhealthy patterns, are failing to see or act on other alternatives and thus their solutions to life problems end up being inefficient. However, when they are deliberately exposed to other cultures through a person-centered therapeutic experiential learning approach such as our supportive immersion model, they discover new ways of being that break through old schemas, and build new and more efficient ones.
Through our experience with our students in conjunction with the literature available, we have found four main benefits that come from cross-cultural supportive immersions:
It is probably not a coincidence that many young men I interview before coming to the Bridge explain that one of their main goals is to “come out of their shell”. This is not only a very powerful metaphor for their struggles, but it also defines, in a nutshell (no pun intended!), one of the key profile characteristics of the students we work with. This metaphorical shell provides a safe place, protecting them from any (perceived) harm or threat in the outside world. The shell is sometimes their parents’ basement, their room, electronic devices, excuses, fronts, or substances. But if this shell is safe and protective, why would they want anything to change?
Perhaps they have come to realize that the shell deprives them from fulfilling many needs, especially an intrinsic and basic one: growth. And that’s because inside the shell there’s not much of anything, at least not in the case of hermit crabs. We have to come out of the shell in order to grow, and it is through interacting with our environment that we do so.
However, in hermit crabs and metaphorical shells, coming out is directly related to feeling safe; as long as there’s a sense of considerable threat out in the environment, there will be no coming out. Thus, coming out of the shell entails both feeling confident in one’s own skills to deal with the world, as well as trusting that the world is not just going to sweep us away.
The equivalent of the metaphorical shell in the nervous system is the vagus nerve, which plays a fundamental role in a process Steven Porges namedneuroception. This process allows people to decipher signals from their environment, both from objects as well as detailed cues from people, to help determine whether a situation deserves a threat response (get in the shell) or is safe (come out of the shell and engage). Porges explains that this process can go “out of tune” so that people activate defense systems when it’s actually a safe situation, or exhibit engaging or risk-taking behavior in an unsafe environment.
So, how does one support someone’s desire to come out of the shell and continue to grow? Not by frantically tapping on the shell, which will only reinforce the sense of unsafety in the environment, and not by just feeding the hermit crab so he’s nourished without having to come out of the shell. Why? Because neither of these strategies will help the person fine-tune his neuroception of safety; he will continue to perceive erroneously his capacity to engage the world.
At The Bridge and our high school program, New Summit Academy, we believe in a middle-way approach we call supportive immersion. Supportive Immersion is an approach to learning that focuses less on instruction and product, and more on experience and process. It is highly individualized in that it relies heavily on the lived subjective experience of the learner toward what he’s learning, and it keeps at its center the goal of learning how to learn. The facilitator (teacher, therapist, etc.) of this learning process is both hands-off and very involved at the same time; walking with the learner in the process, but not doing the walking for or just shouting instructions from the sidelines. Empathy is a key element, and it’s used to see the task from the worldview of the learner while also using the facilitator’s own knowledge to guide experiences and invite shifts in the learner’s worldview. It’s teaching how to fish, instead of being given a fish type of approach.
This process is very successful for people that are in the shell, because it provides the feeling (neuroception) of safety coming from the support, guidance and processing of the (often out-of-the-comfort-zone) experiences our students are going through and, at the same time, it allows the learner to walk his own path, and feel what it’s like to poke his head out of the shell, and find his own way to gradually make changes that allow the growth they are seeking.
by Danny Recio, PhD
Alice and the Mad Hatter as an example for Supportive Immersion:
Alice is feeling lost and encounters Mad Hatter and says:
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
Mad Hatter responds: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to”
Alice: “I don’t much care where –"
Mad hatter: "Then it doesn’t matter which way you go."
Mad Hatter does not jump at the chance of directing Alice as if there is just one path to take, but instead wants to know where she is intending to go. AS many learning experiences begin, the learner may not know exactly how to even get started, so just getting going might be plenty good. In the end, if Mad Hatter is indeed using Supportive Immersion, he knows to favor process, and will encourage starting to walk as part of the process of finding direction.
Let’s imagine Mad Hatter continues the Supportive Immersion growth process. He then proceeds by letting Alice know that they can walk together, and that as they do so, he can support her in finding her way, as well as learn how to find her way in future situations. Mad Hatter pays close attention to Alice’s walking and how she chooses where to go; he wants to tap into how Alice is experiencing the walk. Sometimes he allows her to lead, and at other times, he will offer suggestions and provide useful information toward learning how to navigate the forest. By doing this, Alice begins to understand how Mad Hatter finds his way and makes choices in the forest, and she can, with Mad Hatter’s support, apply and practice those skills so she can creatively develop her own method of navigating the forest.
After a while of walking, talking, practicing, reflecting, exploring and integrating the experience, Alice has gathered enough applicable information on how to walk in the forest. She is now able to make an intentional, responsible and autonomous choice of where she wants to go, but more importantly, she now knows how to navigate the forest and how to change course if she so needs or desires.
by Heather Tracy
I remember John* - sweet and slow. He was a senior in high school but had never actually done much work. I'm not even sure how he made it that far. His processing speed was the lowest I'd seen, and yet he was a bright young man, frozen in anxiety. Schoolwork - after years of struggle - froze him.
We sat down to work on a history assignment - just a few questions to answer on a reading they had done. He couldn't write a word. So I asked him to just tell me his answers and I wrote them for him. We did that for about 2 weeks.
John had had a list of accommodations for his learning disability - scribes, dictation devices, extended time, etc., and yet we knew there was more to it than LD. His social and emotional fears and anxiety were creating blockages in his cognitive functioning. With our supportive immersion program and nurturing, empowering milieu, he began to feel safe. He began to feel appreciated. He gained confidence with our gentle validation and patience as well as the other enrichment activities he began to enjoy as he saw his own confidence grow and capabilities expand. He felt no pressure to be anyone other than who he was, and his anxiety began to lift. The wheels began to turn.
So then I asked him to write his own answers, but just 3 words for each answer. Then it became a sentence. Then three sentences. Before too long, he was writing his own essay (well, let's say paragraph) answers to complicated history questions.
This is not to say that John didn't need academic accommodations or support. He did. But he was not limited to his learning disability. He was more than that, and once he began to realize and feel that, he began to thrive academically. Did he go to college? No. He has since gone on to less-scaffolded supportive immersion programs and environments. He has explored internships and experiential learning to find out what motivates him and allows him to contribute to society productively. He is functioning and finding a vocation that feeds his social and emotional needs while also allowing him to succeed to independence and productivity.
*Name was changed to protect privacy.
It's never as easy or quick as you want it to be - that's the reality. Change isn't going to come overnight and it's not going to come when you're in the same situation.
I've made it this far, done things I'm proud of, and don't see why I can't continue to do so.