From Autopilot to Engagement: The Neurobiology of Presence

10.23_neurobiology-of-presence

The increasing prevalence of stress and overload among students in higher education continues to be a point of concern for educators, administrators, and mental health professionals alike. In this essay, I will first discuss the core elements of a course I teach on stress, then share insights into the challenges I’ve observed in my courses this semester, and finally offer strategies to foster student engagement.

The course I’m going to discuss in this essay centers on understanding the biology of stress and trauma, learning how to calibrate our relationship with stress, and cultivating biological resilience. In my syllabus, I describe how our nervous system is like the control center of our body and does a lot more than just keep us alive: it “helps you rock that job interview, ace your exams, and even dance like no one is watching.” I also note that our nervous system governs both the stuff we decide to do—“like picking up your phone to avoid studying,” and the stuff our body does on autopilot—“like making your heart race when you’re nervous.”

The segment of the nervous system running those autopilot functions is the autonomic nervous system. I make it a point to explain that contrary to popular belief, we can exert control over this system. This is what the course is ultimately about: cultivating resilience. After establishing the basics of the nervous system, we turn our focus to the crux of the matter: stress and resilience.

With stress, we spend a lot of time talking about what is healthy (eustress) and what is unhealthy (distress), taking both a reductive approach (looking at the molecular mechanisms of stress) and a system approach (looking at how different systems interact to make it possible for our body to adapt and bounce back from challenges).

Regarding resilience, students learn about key principles in system theory, such as that resilience occurs in contexts of challenge (in other words, we can’t develop resilience if we are not challenged); is a process (it doesn’t happen overnight, and it takes work and preparation); and involves connectivity, learning, and participation. We delve into what each of those principles means at the molecular, system, and behavioral levels.

Even with this framework, I’ve observed challenges in student engagement.

Only six weeks into the semester, I have encountered students expressing feelings of overload, asking for extensions, unable to complete assignments, and asking for extensions and not being able to turn their work in. I also noticed that a lot of them have a hard time being present in class and engaging. They seem to be either on their phones or behind their laptops.

A few times, I asked them to put their computers and phones away, and some of them did, but I still felt that my students were there but not there.

Recognizing these challenges, I decided to address them directly. So, I decided to use this opportunity to talk about resilience, community, and setting expectations. Specifically, I sent them an email talking about what it means to be present and why it matters. Here’s what I wrote:

As we continue to navigate our learning journey together. I am both grateful for and proud of each one of you.

I wish to bring to light an important aspect that has been playing on my mind (and heart) recently—the engagement and focus in our class. Over the past weeks, I have noticed an increase in the use of computers and phones during our class sessions. While I appreciate the demands of today’s interconnected world and the multiple roles that each one of us is balancing, I am also reminded of and have been wondering about the intrinsic value and irreplaceable nature of active and engaged participation in our shared learning environment.

If I’m to be honest with you, I often find myself wondering, at times when I see screens lit with non-class content, if the words spoken, not only by me but more importantly by your peers sharing their perspectives, are being given the respect and attention they deserve. It is in these moments that I feel a pinch of sadness, envisioning the untapped potential of richer and deeper connections that we are missing out on.

I’ve had wonderful mentors over the years who not only imparted knowledge to me but also instilled in me that courtesy, kindness, and respect form the bedrock of a fruitful learning experience, one where every voice is honored and heard. It is in this spirit that I invite each one of us to embrace a conscious shift in our digital habits while in class.

Therefore, starting from our next session, I will ask that we limit the use of laptops and phones in class to activities directly associated with our course material—like research or lab work. Of course, I understand that there might be exceptional circumstances, and I am more than willing to discuss individual needs for technology use on a case-by-case basis, granting the necessary accommodations as needed.

Please know that this isn’t about setting rules per se but about fostering a nurturing and inclusive environment where each one of us can be present, engaged, and respectful towards the learning process and each other’s contributions.

Last, I recognize that many of you are feeling overwhelmed; several of you shared with me that you’re having a hard time with the amount of homework and exams in all of your classes. I want to remind you that in this class we are studying about resilience—the ability to bounce back from challenge.

In the spirit of what we’re studying, I want to remind you that resilience—our ability to bounce back from life’s challenges—doesn’t just magically happen. It’s not a solo act either; we all play a part in building a resilient community. The more we’re there for one another, the stronger we all become. So, during the 75 minutes we spend together in class, let’s commit to being fully present, both for ourselves and each other. It’s in these moments that we can practice co-regulation—helping to balance not just our own emotional and physiological states but also those around us. This real-time practice is what our course is all about, and it’s one of the most direct ways we can apply our learning to everyday life.

What I didn’t include in the letter but later shared in class is that when we are deeply immersed and focused on an activity, our brain releases dopamine, a “feel-good” chemical linked to pleasure and rewards. This is the same sensation we feel during enjoyable activities, often described as being “in the flow.”

The urgency of addressing student stress, disengagement, and overload extends far beyond the walls of my classroom and the confines of my specific course. As educators, we find ourselves in a unique position to shape not just our students’ intellect but also their well-being. By focusing on themes of resilience and community, we can create classrooms that are not just spaces of knowledge transfer but incubators for holistic development.

Based on these experiences, I have several suggestions for improving classroom engagement and fostering resilience:

  1. Clarify expectations early. I assumed certain things about my students and how they would show up and engage. I was wrong. I had to step back and clearly outline my expectations for engagement and participation. To do so from the start of the course sets the tone and helps students know what is required to succeed in the course.
  2. Incorporate active learning. I asked myself, “Why aren’t they engaged with the course materials?” and came up with many reasons. I also asked my students, and one of the reasons they shared was that they were tired, and multitasking (e.g., fiddling around on their phones) helped keep them from falling asleep. I started changing things up, like how much we move around, and incorporating more interactive activities or short projects that require active participation and move them away from passive scrolling on their devices.
  3. Check in regularly. Conduct periodic check-ins (either anonymously through surveys or directly in class) to gauge how students are feeling about the workload, the classroom environment, and their own engagement levels.
  4. Personalize feedback and interventions. I noticed that some of my students seemed more disengaged than others. I decided to try to understand the root cause. I scheduled a 10-minute check-in with everyone and used that time to learn more about how each student was doing and to also incorporate some personalized interventions.
  5. Foster peer-to-peer learning. I moved things around in my schedule so I could encourage students to engage with each other through peer reviews, study groups, or joint projects. This not only fosters a sense of community but also allows for co-regulation and collective resilience, which are part of the course objectives.

In a time where stress and digital distraction are ubiquitous, there’s a poignant need to foster environments where students can truly be present—not just physically but emotionally and intellectually. By fostering engagement and community, we are doing more than teaching a subject; we are facilitating the lifelong process of learning and resilience.

After sending the email, I was genuinely touched by the palpable shift that occurred in our classroom. I found that students took the message to heart; the glow of phone screens and laptops during class has been notably absent. Instead, my students seem more present—both physically and emotionally—and engaged with the material and with each other in a more authentic way.

What is particularly striking for me is the newfound engagement in nondigital classroom resources. Students began to make active use of the board, scribbling questions, jotting down thoughts, or even diagramming concepts for their peers to see.

I feel that this change didn’t merely signify reduced digital distraction; it signified an elevated state of collective engagement. The classroom is slowly but surely becoming a space where students could interact more genuinely, and this transformation has served as a real-time case study for the principles we’d been discussing: resilience, community, and being present. This case has provided me with “evidence” that shifts in behavior, however small, could indeed lead to a change in the classroom atmosphere, subsequently affecting individual and collective resilience positively.


Mays Imad, PhD, is an associate professor of biology and equity pedagogy at Connecticut College. Previously, she taught for 14 years at Pima Community College, where she also founded the teaching and learning center. She is a Gardner Institute Fellow for Undergraduate Education, an AAC&U Senior STEM Fellow, and a Mind and Life Institute Fellow.

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The increasing prevalence of stress and overload among students in higher education continues to be a point of concern for educators, administrators, and mental health professionals alike. In this essay, I will first discuss the core elements of a course I teach on stress, then share insights into the challenges I’ve observed in my courses this semester, and finally offer strategies to foster student engagement.

The course I’m going to discuss in this essay centers on understanding the biology of stress and trauma, learning how to calibrate our relationship with stress, and cultivating biological resilience. In my syllabus, I describe how our nervous system is like the control center of our body and does a lot more than just keep us alive: it “helps you rock that job interview, ace your exams, and even dance like no one is watching.” I also note that our nervous system governs both the stuff we decide to do—“like picking up your phone to avoid studying,” and the stuff our body does on autopilot—“like making your heart race when you’re nervous.”

The segment of the nervous system running those autopilot functions is the autonomic nervous system. I make it a point to explain that contrary to popular belief, we can exert control over this system. This is what the course is ultimately about: cultivating resilience. After establishing the basics of the nervous system, we turn our focus to the crux of the matter: stress and resilience.

With stress, we spend a lot of time talking about what is healthy (eustress) and what is unhealthy (distress), taking both a reductive approach (looking at the molecular mechanisms of stress) and a system approach (looking at how different systems interact to make it possible for our body to adapt and bounce back from challenges).

Regarding resilience, students learn about key principles in system theory, such as that resilience occurs in contexts of challenge (in other words, we can’t develop resilience if we are not challenged); is a process (it doesn’t happen overnight, and it takes work and preparation); and involves connectivity, learning, and participation. We delve into what each of those principles means at the molecular, system, and behavioral levels.

Even with this framework, I’ve observed challenges in student engagement.

Only six weeks into the semester, I have encountered students expressing feelings of overload, asking for extensions, unable to complete assignments, and asking for extensions and not being able to turn their work in. I also noticed that a lot of them have a hard time being present in class and engaging. They seem to be either on their phones or behind their laptops.

A few times, I asked them to put their computers and phones away, and some of them did, but I still felt that my students were there but not there.

Recognizing these challenges, I decided to address them directly. So, I decided to use this opportunity to talk about resilience, community, and setting expectations. Specifically, I sent them an email talking about what it means to be present and why it matters. Here’s what I wrote:

As we continue to navigate our learning journey together. I am both grateful for and proud of each one of you.

I wish to bring to light an important aspect that has been playing on my mind (and heart) recently—the engagement and focus in our class. Over the past weeks, I have noticed an increase in the use of computers and phones during our class sessions. While I appreciate the demands of today’s interconnected world and the multiple roles that each one of us is balancing, I am also reminded of and have been wondering about the intrinsic value and irreplaceable nature of active and engaged participation in our shared learning environment.

If I’m to be honest with you, I often find myself wondering, at times when I see screens lit with non-class content, if the words spoken, not only by me but more importantly by your peers sharing their perspectives, are being given the respect and attention they deserve. It is in these moments that I feel a pinch of sadness, envisioning the untapped potential of richer and deeper connections that we are missing out on.

I’ve had wonderful mentors over the years who not only imparted knowledge to me but also instilled in me that courtesy, kindness, and respect form the bedrock of a fruitful learning experience, one where every voice is honored and heard. It is in this spirit that I invite each one of us to embrace a conscious shift in our digital habits while in class.

Therefore, starting from our next session, I will ask that we limit the use of laptops and phones in class to activities directly associated with our course material—like research or lab work. Of course, I understand that there might be exceptional circumstances, and I am more than willing to discuss individual needs for technology use on a case-by-case basis, granting the necessary accommodations as needed.

Please know that this isn’t about setting rules per se but about fostering a nurturing and inclusive environment where each one of us can be present, engaged, and respectful towards the learning process and each other’s contributions.

Last, I recognize that many of you are feeling overwhelmed; several of you shared with me that you’re having a hard time with the amount of homework and exams in all of your classes. I want to remind you that in this class we are studying about resilience—the ability to bounce back from challenge.

In the spirit of what we’re studying, I want to remind you that resilience—our ability to bounce back from life’s challenges—doesn’t just magically happen. It’s not a solo act either; we all play a part in building a resilient community. The more we’re there for one another, the stronger we all become. So, during the 75 minutes we spend together in class, let’s commit to being fully present, both for ourselves and each other. It’s in these moments that we can practice co-regulation—helping to balance not just our own emotional and physiological states but also those around us. This real-time practice is what our course is all about, and it’s one of the most direct ways we can apply our learning to everyday life.

What I didn’t include in the letter but later shared in class is that when we are deeply immersed and focused on an activity, our brain releases dopamine, a “feel-good” chemical linked to pleasure and rewards. This is the same sensation we feel during enjoyable activities, often described as being “in the flow.”

The urgency of addressing student stress, disengagement, and overload extends far beyond the walls of my classroom and the confines of my specific course. As educators, we find ourselves in a unique position to shape not just our students’ intellect but also their well-being. By focusing on themes of resilience and community, we can create classrooms that are not just spaces of knowledge transfer but incubators for holistic development.

Based on these experiences, I have several suggestions for improving classroom engagement and fostering resilience:

  1. Clarify expectations early. I assumed certain things about my students and how they would show up and engage. I was wrong. I had to step back and clearly outline my expectations for engagement and participation. To do so from the start of the course sets the tone and helps students know what is required to succeed in the course.
  2. Incorporate active learning. I asked myself, “Why aren’t they engaged with the course materials?” and came up with many reasons. I also asked my students, and one of the reasons they shared was that they were tired, and multitasking (e.g., fiddling around on their phones) helped keep them from falling asleep. I started changing things up, like how much we move around, and incorporating more interactive activities or short projects that require active participation and move them away from passive scrolling on their devices.
  3. Check in regularly. Conduct periodic check-ins (either anonymously through surveys or directly in class) to gauge how students are feeling about the workload, the classroom environment, and their own engagement levels.
  4. Personalize feedback and interventions. I noticed that some of my students seemed more disengaged than others. I decided to try to understand the root cause. I scheduled a 10-minute check-in with everyone and used that time to learn more about how each student was doing and to also incorporate some personalized interventions.
  5. Foster peer-to-peer learning. I moved things around in my schedule so I could encourage students to engage with each other through peer reviews, study groups, or joint projects. This not only fosters a sense of community but also allows for co-regulation and collective resilience, which are part of the course objectives.

In a time where stress and digital distraction are ubiquitous, there’s a poignant need to foster environments where students can truly be present—not just physically but emotionally and intellectually. By fostering engagement and community, we are doing more than teaching a subject; we are facilitating the lifelong process of learning and resilience.

After sending the email, I was genuinely touched by the palpable shift that occurred in our classroom. I found that students took the message to heart; the glow of phone screens and laptops during class has been notably absent. Instead, my students seem more present—both physically and emotionally—and engaged with the material and with each other in a more authentic way.

What is particularly striking for me is the newfound engagement in nondigital classroom resources. Students began to make active use of the board, scribbling questions, jotting down thoughts, or even diagramming concepts for their peers to see.

I feel that this change didn’t merely signify reduced digital distraction; it signified an elevated state of collective engagement. The classroom is slowly but surely becoming a space where students could interact more genuinely, and this transformation has served as a real-time case study for the principles we’d been discussing: resilience, community, and being present. This case has provided me with “evidence” that shifts in behavior, however small, could indeed lead to a change in the classroom atmosphere, subsequently affecting individual and collective resilience positively.


Mays Imad, PhD, is an associate professor of biology and equity pedagogy at Connecticut College. Previously, she taught for 14 years at Pima Community College, where she also founded the teaching and learning center. She is a Gardner Institute Fellow for Undergraduate Education, an AAC&U Senior STEM Fellow, and a Mind and Life Institute Fellow.