The much-neglected role of emotion in effective learning

Article by Ken Thompson, last updated June 2021

Photo Credit: Bruce Mars

Neuroscience reveals the key role of emotion in learning

“It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotions”

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

We define Discovery Learning as experiential, social, team-based and memorable but what do we really mean by “memorable” and why is this aspect of learning so important?

To answer the first question - when we say memorable we really mean “Emotional” as this is what creates lasting memories. 

An excellent 2017 paper, available free online,  by Shelly J. Schmidt “What Does Emotion Have to Do with Learning? Everything!” (based on a review of the 2016 book “Emotions, Learning, and the Brain” by Immordino-Yang) answers the second question very convincingly.

Schmidt suggests that prior to the findings of affective social neuroscience research, “Emotions were [viewed] like toddlers in a china shop, interfering with the orderly rows of stemware [cognition] on the shelves” However, based on evidence from patients with brain damage, as well as from healthy people, the view has dramatically changed, “taken as a whole, [research studies] show that emotions are not just messy toddlers in a china shop, running around breaking and obscuring delicate cognitive glassware. Instead, [emotions] are more like the shelves underlying the glassware; without them cognition has less support”.

The author goes on to summarise 3 reasons why emotions are vital for "sticky learning":

1. We only think deeply about the things we care about

“evidence suggests that meaningful learning is actually about helping students to connect their isolated algorithmic skills to abstract, intrinsically emotional, subjective and meaningful experiences”

2. Emotions are not add-ons that are distinct from cognitive skills, but rather become a dimension of the cognitive skill itself

This insight brings both good and bad news. If the emotion connected to the cognitive skill is positive (for example, interest), then the skill will be enhanced (this is the good news); however, if the emotion connected to the cognitive skill is negative (for example, fear), then the skill will be encumbered (this is the bad news). 

3. Minimizing the emotional aspect of learning may be encouraging students to develop the sorts of knowledge that inherently do not transfer well to real-world situations

"Emotions are the shelves upon which the cognitive glassware is placed".

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Ken Thompson

Ken is a practitioner, author and speaker on Leadership, Collaborative Working, High Performing Teams, Change Management, Project Management and Business Acumen. His work has featured in major publications including The Guardian , Wired Magazine, The Huffington Post and The Henry Ford Magazine. Ken has also spoken at many international events including TEDx, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), Learn Tech (London) and NASA.

Ken is Founder of Business Simulations Ltd.

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