Almost 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 way 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 unconscious 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. We often lash out in anger in response to a danger that that is not yet detected. As we grow older most people learn to suppress displays of fear while they figure out the source of danger. Basically we “mull over” or rehearse the event repeatedly until the sensory input is encoded into the part of our memory that responds with emotion.
Because we remember emotional content better, there have been many attempts to use this relationship to increase learning. But, there are draw backs. When mulling over information that causes stress rather than listening to neutral facts, retention goes down. 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 we know if an emotional reference will result in the suppression of an unpleasant memory? Basically we 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.
Illustration by S.L. Listman
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.