Feeling and knowing

ink1007 sunsetAlmost all articles on brain based learning will emphasize the importance of emotions in learning. Emotions are supposed to direct our attention and aid our memory. Learning accompanied by emotional impact lasts far longer than a lecture that goes in one ear and out the other. How exactly do emotions affect our ability to learn?

Our emotional state (often referred to as affect) may motivate us to learn, but emotions are not information stored in the same as cognitive learning. Cognition involves cortical processing from what we learn of the outside world through our senses. It is harder pinpoint precisely where emotions come from.

There are theories that emotions develop as a method of protection, an instant unthinking warning of danger based on past experience. But the instantaneous impulse of flight or fight do not serve us in the modern world very well. As we grow older most people learn to suppress displays of negative emotions they figure out the source of danger and come up with a plausible response. It is this replaying of events and sensory input that lead to greater memory. Basically we “mull over” or rehearse the event repeatedly in our mind.

So how do we use this information to increase students learning? First we have to realize that when students are stressed or fearful, retention goes down. They are mulling over what causes the stress rather the rather neutral facts we are teaching. Also, people tend to suppress the memory of events causing unpleasant emotions. Therefore being presented with a reminder of such an event may interfere with our ability to retrieve a memory. How do instructors know if reference neutral to them will result in the suppression of an unpleasant memory? Basically they don’t. As wonderful as it sounds to be able to increase learning through emotional impact, the realization that this requires emotional manipulation that may backfire puts a bit of a damper on creating “emotional memories” to enhance learning.

Panksepp, J. The Affective Brain and Core Consciousness How Does Neural Activity Generate Emotional Feelings? In M. Lewis & J. M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 742-756). New York: Guilford Press.
Christianson, S. The Handbook of Emotion and Memory: Research and Theory. Psychology Press.
Levy, B.  & Anderson, M. (2002). Inhibitory processes and the control of memory retrieval.  Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 6(7), 299-305.

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