“I’m most excited to learn from my students,” shares Dr. Allyson Mackey, an expert in brain development and plasticity. She joined the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) faculty in 2017 and is teaching her first course in the program, Positive Education, in spring 2018. “I have a line of work on how the environment shapes the brain and what that means for cognition,” she continues, “I think about positive effects like high-quality education, as well as negative effects like stress and poverty. Brain plasticity goes both ways.”
In Positive Education, MAPP students study how character strengths are formed, and what the brain can tell us about the process. During the beginning of the semester, Dr. Mackey is joined by guest lecturer Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of Temple University, whose book Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children is a foundational source for the class. The book examines the “six c’s,” which are critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, content and confidence.
The course also welcomes guest lecturers who have successfully applied psychological interventions in the field, including Dr. Jane E. Gillham from Swarthmore University, Dr. Alejandro Adler from the University of Pennsylvania and expert on creativity, Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, who authored Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind.
Dr. Mackey explains, “We’ll start by giving everyone a foundation in neuroscience and its applications to positive psychology. Then, we explore scale, applicability and context of interventions that have been shown to improve these skills.”
Much of Dr. Mackey’s academic research focuses on improving reasoning and processing skills in young people. She is currently refining a curriculum that she created for schools, which uses computer and board games to develop cognition. She found that students who regularly played games—whose structures were based on reasoning, processing speed and the ability to hold information in the mind—showed improvement in their math scores and abilities.
“Scientists used to question if the brain was plastic. It was believed that intelligence and reasoning were set in stone,” she continues, “Now, we know it’s not a question of ‘whether,’ but of ‘how.’ Having a growth mindset improves students’ outcomes, and my research provides the mechanism.”
Dr. Mackey’s passion for combining neuroscience and education stems from her childhood. “I grew up with children facing major socioeconomic disparities,” she adds, “It was the problem I felt most compelled to work on. I have found that people can rebound from the effects of early traumatic experiences. An individual’s psyche, well-being, reasoning, math and reading skills are shaped by environments, especially during childhood. Though we can’t erase those experiences, we can give kids strategies to catch up.”
For her PhD research at the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Mackey studied brain plasticity in adults, using the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) as her case study. “I thought, if there was anything that could change reasoning circuitry in adults, this would be it,” she laughs. “We did brain imaging on test-takers before and after studying for the LSAT. We also had a control group of adults who wanted to, but hadn’t started studying yet. We saw in terms of function and structure that adult brains are not immune to plasticity.”
What is so compelling about these findings is that the brain is meant to be unchanging. Dr. Mackey explains, “You want your brain to be stable. Your body should build an expert system and glue it into place to be less susceptible to influences. However, if your environment changes dramatically, you want to maintain plasticity to adapt to that. You can do that by managing stress, getting enough sleep and creating strategies to manage new challenges.”
Connecting neuroscience to positive psychology, Dr. Mackey shares, “People are very curious about how to improve cognitive skills in themselves, employees or children. I am eager to explore how we can shape strengths in the areas that MAPP students are most engaged.”