Emotions, Learning and the Brain

Where were you on September 11, 2001? Chances are very good that you have vivid memories of that day especially if you were in the United States. Why? Because we tend to remember emotional events. Although our memories of that day may not be completely accurate, it is unlikely that we will ever ‘forget’ where we were when we learned of the attacks because memory and emotion are inextricably linked.    

Many people think of teaching and learning as intellectual endeavors that engage the head more than the heart. However, in her book Emotions, Learning and the Brain, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, an affective neuroscientist and former teacher, argues that we only think deeply about things we care about and that it is impossible for students to think deeply about a topic unless they are emotionally engaged. Immordino-Yang relates the link between emotion, memory and learning to the fact that the brain mechanisms that regulate emotion evolved to aid survival. “Emotions such as anger, fear, happiness, and sadness are cognitive and physiological processes that involve both the body and the mind.”

She tells the story of a college-aged participant in a study who watches a video about a mother in China who finds a coin on the ground and uses it to buy warm cakes for her son who had been all day at school with nothing to eat. Although the son was very hungry, he offers his mother the last cake, which she in turn declines by lying that she had eaten already. The student is clearly moved by the story and describes the visceral reaction that he had as “a balloon or something just under my sternum”. As he reflects on it, he relates it to his own parents and the sacrifices that they made for him and how he does not thank them enough. (Note to self, find this video and show it to my kids.)

Immordino-Yang points out that the student only made the connection between the story and his own life because he was given adequate time to reflect. She believes that allowing time for constructive internal reflection is key to helping students make connections between material they learn in class and their own lives. This reflection time allows them to engage in cognitive perspective taking, i.e. seeing something from another’s point of view. It is also during reflective moments that students develop social awareness and the capacity for moral reasoning. One of the most common ways to build reflection into a class is through reflective writing activities such as logs and journals either in-class or out-of-class.  

Let’s Exchange EDvice!

Given that learning is an emotional and social experience, how do you help students emotionally engage with material that you teach?  


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