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Visiting Scholar Provides Scientific Justification for Safe Spaces at the University of Alaska Anchorage


“Do you feel safe, here?” Dr. Emma Coddington asked, sitting straight up in her chair.

The look on the visiting scholar’s face was one of curiosity. When none of the eight students readily answered, choosing to munch Moose’s Tooth pizza and sip from mini-cans of soda, she pointed downward, indicating the University of Alaska Anchorage’s (UAA) Multicultural Center.

“Do you find the Multicultural Center is a place where you feel you can recover? Take a break?” she asked again.

A few students nodded their heads.

The UAA Honor Department’s John Mouracade smiled as he finished chewing. He formally started the event and introduced Coddington as a biologist, who specializes in neuroendrocrinology, or how hormones affect brain functioning. She teaches at Willamette College in Oregon.

The subject the sign in the Rasmuson building hallway advertised was, “Your Mind at Work: Understanding Our Brains Can Improve Decision Making and Collaboration at Work.”

However, that subject wasn’t capturing Coddington’s attention the afternoon of Friday, March 3. She appeared to be far more interested in the way students were choosing to internalize their collegiate experience.

Coddington shared a little of her past. She spent her childhood in a small rural town of 800 dominated by a Maori community and experienced culture shock when she moved into Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, to attend high school. Similar to the experience of many Alaskan Natives who immigrate from the bush communities into Anchorage, the urban environment overstimulated Coddington.

“It was my opportunity to either grow or be crushed. Many times growth doesn’t feel like growth,” she said.

She related another experience of “overstimulation” inside of an American grocery store.

Her friend assumed that Coddington was familiar with shopping at a big box department store. She wasn’t. The friend found Coddington in tears wandering aisles muttering to herself, “Where is the food?”

The friend explained that the food was inside the boxes on the shelves. This did not alleviate Coddington’s confusion. “Where is the meat? Where are the vegetables?” she asked.

The friend took her to those sections in the store, which, according to Coddington, felt like they were half a mile away from the aisles of prepackaged boxes.

She stated that the human nervous system has five responses to overstimulation, which produces fear and anxiety. Three of the responses students are familiar with: fight, flight, and freeze.

“We have all experienced this,” Coddington said.

You go to the first day of a class, a convention, or a conference. Someone responds with fight and becomes a psychological bully. “I’m in control! I am running this meeting and we are going to do it this way!” Another person withdraws into silence, trying to cope. That’s freeze. And, then, there’s the person who goes to the bathroom and isn’t seen for the rest of the day. That’s flight.

The students laughed.

The other two are not so popularly acknowledged, or, as Coddington put it, “not supported by Western culture” — food and cuddling.

In indigenous societies, communal eating is a bonding experience. Being so basic to survival, the need for food is not contested in Western culture and under many social conditions is used as a mechanism for sharing.

Cuddling is a pure comfort activity. Children are really good at demanding cuddling to get their emotional needs met so that they can feel safe and recover from overstimulation.
Both activities fulfill the biological need to belong to a group, which is the subject that interests Coddington.

She stumbled onto the need for individuals to belong to a group while running a department at Willamette.

She and her students were doing science — meaning, establishing a hypothesis, preparing experiments, recording the data, and interpreting the data to reach a conclusion which supported the hypothesis or denied it. Yet, when it came time to present the findings, she learned that neither her students or academic colleagues considered the students to be “scientists”. The title wasn’t one the students felt comfortable with, and her colleagues didn’t feel justified in using the term to describe the students, despite the fact the students were practicing science.

This led Coddington to explore the concept of impostor phenomenon. Whenever an individual chooses to suppress their personality in order to fit into the behavior standards of a group, a mask is put on. Impostor phenomenon is the academic word for the psychological process individuals engage as justification for wearing this mask.

She asked Dr. Andre Thorn, the director of the Multicultural Center, to assist her by operating her PowerPoint presentation. The first slide read: “Candid vs. kind.”

Coddington explained, “This is a false dichotomy that we set up in Western culture. We value being kind, not hurting someone’s feelings, over being candid, or honest. This is how we regulate membership in the group.”

Essentially, we are taught to lie to ourselves and to each other in order to maintain the social contract of civility.

Living so close to nature, the need for accurate information is why indigenous societies are extremely well-skilled at having candid and compassionate conversations. In contrast, civility is more highly valued in Western settings because it is necessary to maintain the distribution networks which sustain the resource web. A farmer growing food has different data needs than a city person visiting the grocery store.

Thus, in Western culture, being candid is seen as confrontational. By sharing one’s true feelings, one can risk belonging to the group.

Coddington argues a biological basis exists for our willingness to conform to societal rules. Before urban society, at the level of tribal organization, belonging to the group was a matter of life and death. The environment could be hostile, with dangerous animals and challenging weather. Chances of survival greatly increased within the group, as opposed to being isolated and alone. This remains true in urban areas, due to how public policy is implemented.

The need for belonging is so great that it will override higher-order thinking processes, even forcing choices against a person’s self-interest.

“Our brains are wired to create a story.” Coddington said. “It searches for meaning. The more data we have, the more accurate the story. If information is missing, the brain tries to fill in the gap.”

Filling in the information gap is what coping skills are made of.

Coddington asked the group, “Do we own how we psychologically stress ourselves out?”

Self-talk is the number one cause of stress and the basis for justifying the impostor phenomenon, she said. Individuals judge their performance based on the emotional rewards received from the group, seeking reassurance their individual status within the group has improved or — at the very least — not declined.

The second slide presented two modes of decision-making — rational and emotional —
managing stress, the fixed mindset, and the growth mindset. The two options are an outgrowth of the false dichotomy of individual needs versus group membership.

Falling back on her indigenous-based upbringing, Coddington argues that the human body is an integrated system. Emotional and rational processes are at play at the same time and are necessary for sound decision-making, not separate from each other. Data first flows very quickly through the emotional process, to keep us safe and cued into what we need or desire. We might think of this as intuition and embodied wisdom.

For example, the human being must determine if the shadow in the forest is a threat or not a threat. This is a binary choice, meaning either/or. It is not nuanced, like rational thinking.

The rational process uses the same data but processes at a much slower rate, and is too slow to make the determination of safety/non-safety, especially, if the shadow is a threat. Interestingly, if emotional processing occurs unacknowledged, or un-examined, then these emotions provide an additional filter to rational thinking — essentially shifting the focus and attention of the individual unconsciously.

So, emotions provide an immediate feedback loop and they also set the state of mind of an individual changing how they consider any future information coming in. It is this later effect of emotions that inadvertently helps to cement us with biases.

So much information exists that decisions are inhibited/assisted by our individual biases. A bias is given to us by our interaction with the environment, be it a natural environment or an urban environment. The biases are largely imported by the individual through the culture the individual is immersed in. This is what marketing firms study and their research is the basis for much of the behavioral science understanding of the decision-making process.

Both mindsets are self-fulfilling prophecies; literally, how an individual speaks to themselves puts their brain into a state where the fixed- or growth-experiences play out.
To get out of the fixed mindset, Coddington suggests using indigenous methods by asking ourselves questions.

Questions switch the brain out of processing data through emotion by searching for additional information. This is the rational process.

Some studies suggest that behavior changes neurological connections inside the brain upwards to 70-percent overnight. This means that trauma can impact a person tremendously. Without a method for dealing with trauma, individuals are unable to recover from stress and, thusly, remain stressed.

Hence, this is why Coddington began her talk with the question about the Multicultural Center being a place of familiarity and low-level stress, where students already know the rules of engagement and can relax from class, or traveling between events throughout the day. It is a place where students can take their masks off and be themselves.

Studies show that every human being is wired to experience the impostor phenomenon. In order to maintain our belonging within the various groups that we enter in and out of throughout the day, we “act fake.” We experience the stress of believing that those we are interacting with will find out we are acting fake and make us “other than them,” which generates stress at a biological level.

Because impostor phenomenon is universal, Coddington cautioned students to not overthink it. If an individual is aware of when they are using impostor phenomenon, it means, “caring about those you are in a group with” is happening. It is a form of empathy.

Yet, impostor phenomenon is stressful. To assist students in coping with impostor phenomenon, Coddington went through the fixed brain/growth brain slide, asking questions.

To “cope” means, asking yourself, “Am I okay?” “What am I doing right now — freezing, fleeing, fighting?” and then ask, “What am I doing here?” If you find that you are experiencing fight/flight/freeze then you are most likely experiencing a stressful event.

“Ask yourself, ‘where is the stress coming from? Is it self-imposed or stress from others?'” she posited. “Freeze means that your body/mind are out of alignment. Bringing these parts of yourself back into alignment by asking yourself questions is coping. It allows you to work with and through the stressful event — while allowing you to do what you need to do in the moment.”

Finally, finding a way to re-balanced afterwards and sharing possible ways to diminish stressful encounters is critical — hence cultivating community and safe spaces.

Institutions, like UAA, possess a self-identity of their own. It’s college. A self-selected group of people in society choose to have the collegiate experience. The rules “push-back” on individuals as a force.

As the event concluded 30 minutes late, because students could relate to the subject matter, Coddington invited them to “belong” with her by sending her emails.