Course focuses on students’ wellness, explains well-being through neuroscience
(Jae Su/Daily Bruin)
In Alex Korb’s office hours, students talking about their mental health is typical.
“Students will come to me in office hours to talk about their mental health problems, and they’ll preface it with, ‘Well, I’m not sure if this is what office hours are supposed to be about,’ and I’m always like, ‘Well, of course (it is),’” said Korb, who teaches Psychiatry 79: “Applied Positive Neuroscience: Skills for Improving Productivity and Wellbeing.”
Another class, Community Health 179: “Life Skills for College Students,” and Korb’s class both aim to teach students skills they can use in their everyday lives in college.
Community Health 179 was introduced to UCLA by a health psychologist over 20 years ago, said D’Artagnan Scorza, who currently teaches the course. Scorza took over the class three years ago, and updated it to reflect modern challenges students face – such as body image insecurities resulting from social media use.
Each class begins with a 10-minute meditation period. After leading the meditation, Scorza lectures for roughly half the class period, then begins an activity such as relationship-building exercises among students in the class or a discussion of stressors in the students’ lives.
Stress is inevitable, Scorza said, and these activities and assignments are designed to equip students with skills to manage it.
“Even though the course is really practical, it’s also helpful because it gives UCLA students the opportunity to understand the theory behind the work we do in the class, as well as strengthen their practice … of things like meditation and building coping strategies to stress,” Scorza said.
In 2017, Korb, an adjunct assistant professor in the department of psychiatry, formed Psychiatry 79 – a class that integrates the life skills material of Community Health 179 with the neuroscience behind wellness.
The class aims to teach students the neuroscience and psychology behind well-being. It also teaches students the scientific method and scientific process.
While students in both classes are taught applicable life skills, those in Psychiatry 79 are given more insight into the actual neuroscience that explains why such coping skills work.
“Simply by making small changes in your thoughts, actions, interactions and environment, it’s possible to change the activity and chemistry of key brain circuits that contribute to depression and anxiety,” Korb said. “Yes, depression and anxiety are rooted in biology. But your biology can be reshaped. And that’s a very powerful message.”
Psychiatry 79 aims to teach students about the brain so they can improve upon their happiness and productivity, Korb said.
During class, he lectures on a specific subject, such as how exercise can improve well-being.
Then, the course requires students to participate in week-long interventions based on what they learn in class. For example, if they spend the week learning about meditation, their assignment will be to meditate for a certain number of days that week and record how it affects them.
They also record their health indicators – such as mood or productivity – on several days they do not complete the intervention. By comparing them to intervention days, students learn which interventions are more effective for them.
Arnav Mathur, a second-year computer science student who took the course, said he appreciated the external application of what was taught in class, and specifically remembered how the class allowed him to improve his sleep quality through the course’s interventions.
“It was a lot of interesting content for sure,” Mathur said. “But also, it was delivered at a reasonable enough pace that someone who wasn’t from from the field could grasp it pretty quickly.”
Korb said his primary goal is to teach students skills that are useful to them in their day-to-day lives. This is usually surprising to them, Korb said, as they aren’t used to taking classes with material directly applicable to them.
Psychiatry 79 fulfills a life science general education requirement, Korb said. The university hopes students gain an introduction to life sciences through the course, in addition to growing their knowledge on wellness, he added.
The class structure provides students with basic knowledge about themselves, which can help lead them to their own self-improvement through the assigned interventions, said Lauren Baczewski, a graduate student in human development and psychology and a former teacher’s assistant for Psychiatry 79.
“It allows them the space to really take a step back from their busy, everyday lives and think about what’s going on inside of them in terms of their own mental health, their well-being, stress level (and) how they’re managing (the) transition to college,” Baczewski said.