Language, emotion and social connection

“In an era where mankind seems to be faltering, to be viewing the future with fear, we stepped forward and attempted something bold.”

This is the opening line from the script of the movie Europa Report. It was also the opening line to my pecha-kucha presentation (20 slides x 20 seconds per slide) at the FAB5 International NeuroELT Conference last weekend!

1) “In an era where mankind seems to be faltering, to be viewing the future with fear, we stepped forward and attempted something bold.” This is the opening line from the script of “Europa Report”, a movie …

2) … about a scientific, multinational mission to search for life on Europa, one of the Galilean moons of Jupiter. This is what scientists do: where mankind seems to be faltering, they boldly step forward and work across borders.

3) In 1919, for example, right after the end of the first world war, the English astronomer Eddington led a mission to an equatorial island to record a solar eclipse and demonstrate that spacetime is curved – as predicted by the German physicist Einstein.


4) Science truly is a multinational enterprise. This network map – from a Royal Society report called “Knowledge, Networks and Nations” – shows scientific collaboration between African countries, based on numbers of jointly authored research papers.

5) But, there are barriers. A recent report for the UK government found that STEM graduates – who come from the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – lacked “broader behavioural skills” such as “teamworking” and “communication”.

6) My own research tends to support this finding. My research is mostly based on telephone interviews with scientists and other personnel involved in cross-border collaborations, such as CERN, and the International Space Station.

7) So my colleagues and I, in our own small way, decided to step forward and attempt something bold. We’re taking small, cross-border groups of scientists on trips to Europa. The aim of our mission is to improve teamworking and communication skills.

8) With the support of Start Motion Pictures, we’re bringing non-native English-speaking STEM practitioners – from all over the world – together in Skype group calls to do read-throughs of the script for “Europa Report”. It’s all part…

9) … of a wider project that we call SkypeRead. To date, we’ve done virtual read-throughs with three movies and participants from 20 countries, and we’ve achieved some fascinating results in terms of developing teamworking and communication skills.

10) There are two reasons why movie read-throughs can be powerful. The first is to do with language. Robert Lane Greene, who wrote “You Are What You Speak”, and who very kindly gave me comments and feedback on the project, calls it ‘full spectrum’ language learning.

11) He told me: “Once a learner is at a certain level it’s important to start learning different registers of the language. Making people repeat — out loud — good quality writing that approaches natural spoken English is a great idea.”

12) The second reason why movie read-throughs can be powerful is to do with how the brain works. We often think of the brain as being like a funnel, capturing everything that happens around us. But it’s actually much better to think of the brain as being like this.


13) A sieve. The fact is that the brain captures only a tiny part of what is happening around us. So how does the brain decide what to pay attention to? This is where the first maxim of neuroELT comes into play: emotion drives learning.

14) Things that excite the brain are things that get processed and gain potential for future recall. Now doing a read-through of a movie is an emotional experience. It’s fun and exciting, but it’s pretty scary, too. Everyone gets nervous.

15) Plus, there are the emotional ups and downs of the movie itself: all of the good things and bad things that happen to the characters in the story. And there is one more key emotional element: the social element.

16) The fact is that humans are social animals. Social connection is a basic human need – studies show that it links to both psychological and physical health. This all leads to another maxim of neuroELT: collaboration boosts levels of cognition.

17) A read-through is an extremely collaborative group exercise: every person is a critical link in the chain. But the really interesting thing about a read-through is that it is a controlled group exercise. Participants can be given the opportunity …

18) … to explore different sides of their personality, and see the world from other perspectives. A very simple example: a member of the group who is an extrovert can be given a character in the movie who’s an introvert. I’m going to give the final word to Eddie Jemison …


19) … who starred in “Ocean’s Eleven”, one of the movies we’ve used in our studies. I was fortunate to get an interview with him, and he talked at length about camaraderie and, in particular, how script read-throughs can boost team-building.

20) He said: “It makes everyone realize they are all pulling for the same cause. It gives the experience shape and purpose. Plus, it’s fun and every one feels more a part of a team. And teamwork is always better than the sum of the work of individuals.”

FAB5 was … FABulous! For me personally, the highlights included three presenters I’d never seen before: Vanessa Rodriguez (Harvard University), who presented “The Teaching Brain!”; Curtis Kelly (Kansai University), who talked about “How Poor Memory Is Unlocking the Secrets of Language Processing”; and Tim Murphey (Kanda University), who demonstrated “The Positive Social Neuroscience of Singing!”.

Thank you so much to EVERYONE who made this such an amazing event! And special tanks to Robert & Ai Murphy – whose energy & organisational skills are out of this world – and the brilliant & wonderful Tom Gorham, who MC’d the three days with me.

Published by Graham Jones

Astrophysicist and science communicator