Emotions play a critical role in learning
Emotion drives attention. The relationship between emotion and thinking can be conscious or unconscious and can often be both at the same time.
Current research into neuroscience is connecting the central role emotions play in learning to emotional relevance. There are far more neural fibres emanating from the brain’s emotional centre into the logical/rational centres of the brain than the other way round, so emotion is a powerful determinant of behaviour than logical or rational processes. Reason may override emotion, but it rarely changes your real feelings about an issue. Your emotions allow you to bypass conscious thought processes around an issue, which enables quick responses based on almost innate general categorisations of incoming information. At times, this may lead to irrational fears and foolish behaviour. Often you don’t consciously know why you feel as you do about something or someone.
The limbic system is composed of several small interconnected structures, is your brain’s principal regulator of emotion and plays important roles in processing memory. This may explain why emotion is an important ingredient in many memories. The limbic system is powerful enough to override both rational thought and innate brain stem response patterns. In short, you tend to follow your feelings.
Your brain regulates your body functions whilst your body provides support services for your brain meaning that the two are integrated into a single system. Your emotional system is located principally in your brain, endocrine, and immune systems (an integrated biochemical system), but it affects all other organs, such as your heart, lungs, and skin.
Emotions are involved in the neurological changes that are shaped by learning. This is because the emotional mind is integrated into unconscious systems such as breathing, circulation, digestion, etc. So, experiencing an emotion leads to changes in physiology and, by inference, these changes in physiology are involved in the learning process. Essentially, you feel your way to solutions to problems that matter to you, and that are emotionally relevant to you, because you experience them through subtle physiological change.
When you struggle with a problem in which you feel engaged — you draw upon memories of past experiences with similar problems. You search for strategies that might apply to this new problem. As a solution is approached a series of small emotional jolts of recognition are experienced that leads you to feel that you are on the right path, that you are getting closer to the right answer.
If the problem doesn’t matter to you, you quickly lose interest affecting your motivation. Your attention wanders; you disengage, and you learn only that the subject of the problem is boring—though if gaining an outcome is important (particularly in attaining an academic grade) you develop methods and learning strategies to attain the desired outcome rather than learning the subject matter.
Memories formed during a specific emotional state tend to be easily recalled during a similar emotional state later on. For example, during an argument, you easily recall similar previous arguments. Thus, simulations and role-playing activities enhance learning because they tie memories to the kinds of emotional contexts in which they will later be used.
The limbic system influences selection and classification of experiences that your brain stores in two forms of long-term memory
- procedural – unconsciously processed skills, such as walking and talking
- declarative – conscious recall of facts, such as names and locations
The thalamus is the brain’s initial relay center for incoming sensory information; it informs the rest of your brain about what’s happening outside your body. The thalamus has direct connections to the amygdala, which permits it to send a very rapid but factually limited report on a potential threat. This can trigger a quick, emotionally loaded (but perhaps also life-saving) behaviour before you fully understand what’s happening. It is, also, the mechanism that underlies many explosive emotional outbursts.
The hypothalamus monitors your internal regulatory systems, informing your brain what’s happening inside your body. When your brain has no solution to a threatening situation, the hypothalamus can activate a fight-flight stress response through its contacts with the pituitary gland and the endocrine gland system affecting the release of hormones.
The cerebral cortex, which makes up 85% of the brain’s mass, is a large sheet of neural tissue that is deeply folded around the limbic system. It is organised into a myriad of highly interconnected and outwardly focused neural networks that respond very rapidly (in milliseconds to seconds) to various demands in space and time. The system:
- receives categorises and interprets sensory information
- makes rational decisions
- activates behavioural responses
The frontal lobes play an important role in regulating your emotional states and judgments. The frontal lobe’s regulation of critical thinking and problem-solving permits it to override the execution of automatic behaviours, and of potentially destructive illegal or immoral behaviours sparked by emotional biases.
Guided by new ways of understanding learning, perhaps better learner-friendly education systems should be developed that have a deeper understanding and application of emotional thinking?
[The author has the rights to the image – purchased from iStockphoto and adapted]