One College’s Method to Prove Its Value: Scanning Students’ Brains

June 04, 2015

Many colleges go to great lengths to encourage their students to study abroad. Is the effort worth it?

In an attempt to answer that question once and for all, officials at Westmont College, in Santa Barbara, Calif., are making an unorthodox appeal to science: They’re scanning students’ brains and looking for signs of growth.

Last fall researchers at Westmont started a study that uses headsets to test electrical activity in the brains of 30 freshmen. The students will be scanned again in two years, after they have had a chance to study abroad, and they will be scanned once more after they graduate. The tests can be used to measure empathy and nine categories of "executive functions," which include areas like memory, reasoning, and problem solving, said Gayle D. Beebe, Westmont’s president.

"We really don’t know what we’ll find," Mr. Beebe said in an interview. "We just know we’ll discover some things that we anticipate and then be utterly surprised by other things that we discover."

The theory, Mr. Beebe said, is that students who spend 15 weeks abroad in a highly structured, fully immersive program end up with a greater intellectual capacity and an increased ability to work with people from different cultures than do their peers who stay on the campus. That’s an important matter at Westmont, where Mr. Beebe said about 70 percent of students study abroad.

The college has big plans for its study. This fall Westmont’s psychology and neuroscience professors will scan another group of 30 students and continue monitoring the initial group, with the hope of securing funds to scan an entire class of about 325 students. Mr. Beebe said the tests would let campus officials build a "databank" to help them "shape some of the experiences and teachings" in Westmont’s curriculum.

Westmont is paying for the tests, he said, with about $50,000 from a set of three private donations totaling $1 million. One headset costs about $400, according to the website of SenseLabs, the company that designed them.

Though Mr. Beebe has not used the current headset equipment, he said that he had undergone an hourlong electroencephalogram scan, which is similar to the headset technology, at Westmont.

"I don’t want it to seem just like we’re being too mechanistic," he said. "But it’s fascinating to me if we can, in fact, see the ways in which the brain is impacted by education."

‘Just a Gimmick’?

Experts questioned, however, whether Mr. Beebe and Westmont officials would gain anything of value from the brain-scan study.

"I was trying to think of something more ridiculous, but I couldn’t," said Robert A. Burton, a neurologist and author of A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves (St. Martin’s Press, 2013). Brain scans could show increased activity during an act of empathy, he said. Or they could demonstrate brain development that occurs normally between the ages of 18 and 22. But researchers would be hard-pressed to link any results from the scans to the experience of studying abroad.

Many EEG-scan studies "are truly scams not based on scientific validity, and don’t have parameters for measuring accuracy or good measures for defining what you’re looking for," Mr. Burton said.

Russell Poldrack, a professor of psychology at Stanford University who studies neuroimaging, said a more accurate test would require using an MRI machine. EEG headset technology is "pretty close to useless for telling how the brain is changing," he said. "This is just a gimmick. It’s somebody trying to use our infatuation with brain stuff to try to sell a product."

The manufacturer of the headsets has posted on its YouTube channel a video in which Mr. Beebe discusses the study.

In the Chronicle interview, Mr. Beebe said he would "always go with an expert opinion," but he’s still interested in seeing the results once researchers at Westmont collect more data.

"It’s just an avenue of intellectual curiosity that I run in," Mr. Beebe said. "I’m just anxious to see what we’ll discover, and I have no idea what it will be."