Strathcona Centre for Learning Futures

The future will require a high level of emotional intelligence from the workforce. Strathcona Centre for Learning Futures heard from Dr Mark Williams, Professor of Neuroscience from Macquarie University as he unpacked emotions, the power of the brain and the unique human capacity for emotional connection.

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Strathcona Centre for Learning Futures hosted its first event for 2021 in March. Dr Mark Williams, professor of neuroscience at Macquarie University, spoke to a large online audience on the topic of emotions, their role in the workplace and work futures. 

In his presentation Mark Williams outlined what is known about emotions and the brain and the importance of emotional connection for human beings. Emotional interaction and recognition are among the features distinguishing humans from animals. We are more connected and interdependent than any other species. Unsurprisingly then, a large portion of human brains are used for social interaction.

Mark reflected on how the disappearance of jobs has long been feared but he believes the jobs that tend to disappear are rarely the ones people aspire to. He believes this will continue to be the case in this current period of transition. However, there are some jobs that are valued and seen as 21 Century that may not be so available. For example, coding jobs in digital technologies continue to move offshore to India and China due to the large relatively cheap labour force who can train themselves on a laptop. Instead, in Australia, the big growth areas are in health. Those in health need good people skills – the ability to read what others are thinking and feeling, to empathise.

Mark spoke about the role of the part of the brain called the amygdala in recognising threat, particularly in facial expressions. The amygdala sets up the flight or fight response. In one-on-one interactions the amygdala can do its job quickly but in the modern world we are confronted with such a vast number of people and situations that we are overwhelmed by the potential threat. This can lead to anxiety problems.

He also related our ability to assess the threats around us to the time spent alone on devices. Year 6 students attending a technology free camp for a week were measured before and after to assess their recognition of facial expressions. Prior to camp, the technology adapted children showed an impaired ability to recognise facial expressions. This ability had improved after a week on camp without their phones and computers.

Humans and their predecessors have evolved for around eight million years to communicate through facial expressions and other body language. Spoken language is relatively recent and the world where nearly all humans can read is only a couple of generations old. The brain is therefore well evolved to read the signals from others but increasingly children are raised with less human interaction and more screen time, impairing their ability to read those signals.

Mark also mentioned the importance of sleep for our emotions – especially those of teenagers. Sleep helps to reset our emotions.

Mark’s talk was engaging and filled with fascinating insights about what it means to be human and how we can foster and harness the capacities we have through our emotional life, to remain vital and relevant contributors in the future of work.

The next Strathcona Centre for Learning Futures event will be held on 12 May at 6.30 pm in Featherstone Hall (34 Scott Street, Canterbury). Sarah Davidson, former lawyer and current author and entrepreneur will present “Seize Your Yay!” Bookings are currently open.