Moving to a new city and starting college is both an exciting and anxiety-inducing time for first year students as they adjust to new routines, new people, and new coursework. In fact, the 2022 APA Stress in America study reported a heightened sense of stress among 18-to-25-year-olds compared with other adult age groups, especially when considering the lingering effects of COVID-19.
Neuroscientist, author, and long-time NYU professor Wendy Suzuki is eager to address the stress and anxiety felt by undergraduate students and has made this one of her top priorities since assuming the role of Dean of the College of Arts & Science last year. The science of mental well-being was the topic of her recent and first ever first-year seminar: How to Build a Big, Fat, Fluffy Brain. Dean Suzuki's course combined lessons on brain anatomy and neuroscience research with her own work on anxiety and exercise.
Each class focused on practices such as exercise, meditation, sleep, or creativity, and their effect on brain plasticity—the ability of activity to change the brain. Dean Suzuki explained, "you want a big fat fluffy hippocampus and a slim and slender amygdala, which is the stress and fear conditioning area of the brain." Students learned that over time, physical activity, meditation, and sleep grow the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, helping to increase attention span and better regulate emotion.
Dean Suzuki told students: “The point of this class is to learn something you can incorporate into your life—to learn methods to implement in your routine.” The class featured guest speakers, including Robert Taylor Jr. and Amy Coombs from MindfulNYU and the Department of Global Spiritual Life, who led a guided meditation and introduced students to the mindfulness resources NYU offers.
Students like Psychology major Mahima Khan were excited to learn about the brain through this lens, saying "I watched Dean Suzuki's TED Talk and this course sounded cool because of its relation to my major." Others wanted to learn more about the tangible effects exercise and other lifestyle choices can have on brain anatomy. Mackenzie Richard said, "as an athlete, I wanted to learn more about the effects exercise and sleep have on the brain and stress level." Some students, like Anta Thiobane, plan to pursue premed, “so I chose this class as an introduction to neuroscience."
Students also had the chance to track the effects of these interventions on their own wellbeing through projects and extra credit assignments. Dean Suzuki helped guide the research process throughout the course as students implemented new daily habits like stairmaster workouts, yoga, increasing their daily sleep, and journaling. Students then tracked their resulting productivity, attention span, self-esteem, overall positivity, or other goals over a set number of days to complete the experiment.
Max Kim enjoyed How to Build a Big, Fat, Fluffy Brain, saying "everything discussed in this class is related to our lives—about the design of the brain, our daily experiences, and dealing with anxiety and stress. This is all a goal of Dean Suzuki, and what we're learning sounds helpful, so I'm taking time to consider implementing these lessons into my daily routine."