Rethinking Learning

Neuroscience research suggests emotion and learning are more deeply interconnected than we thought

For many decades, scientists have thought of cognition and emotion as two largely separate systems in the brain. Even as researchers began to find evidence of the interdependence of the two, this interaction was often seen in the light of emotions interfering with our higher level cognitive processes. As neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang describes it in Learning Landscapes, they have traditionally been treated like two players in a china shop: cognition the valuable glassware, emotions the toddler run amok, breaking the wares.

But recent findings in neuroscience have cast doubt on this traditional way of thinking. Or maybe, shattered it altogether.

“…the connection between emotion and cognition is being seen in a very different light”

Antonio Damasio and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

Neuroscientists, Learning Landscapes

Breakthrough Research on Emotions and Cognition

The roots of understanding this deep interconnection of cognition and emotion, like many breakthroughs in neuroscience, were found by studying patients with brain damage. The brain lesions these patients had suffered to a particular sector of the frontal lobe had not impacted their knowledge base or logical reasoning abilities. They understood what made a good business investment.  They understood and could describe the social rules and convention that should guide one’s actions. Yet these previously upstanding men and women began to make disadvantageous decisions in many different aspects of their lives. Why?

It was found that what they could not do was use past emotional knowledge to guide the reasoning process. Even though they knew logically that a specific business deal was risky or that a certain decision could endanger their relationship with someone close to them, they could not access the past emotional knowledge and use that to guide the reasoning process.

Immordino-Yang and Damasio summarized this finding in Learning Landscapes:

“By compromising the possibility of evoking emotions associated with certain past situations, decision options, and outcomes, the patients became unable to select the most appropriate response based on their past experience. Their logic and knowledge could be intact, but they failed to use past emotional knowledge to guide the reasoning process… ”

In other words, emotions play a fundamental role in rational thought. Without the guidance of emotional learning and social feedback, rational thought and decision making are of little use.

The China Shop Analogy

This causes us to rethink our assumptions about the roles of emotion and cognition in the china shop. While cognition is still the valuable glassware, emotions are hardly the dangerous child run amok. They are more like the shelves, supporting and stabilizing the wares.

Without emotions, the higher level cognitive processes cannot function properly. 

Emotions support and guide our higher level cognitive processes. What does that mean for learning?

Implications for Learning

These findings on the fundamental role emotions play in our higher level cognitive processes should cause us to rethink how we value – or devalue – emotions in learning. Treating the acquisition of rational knowledge as the end goal of learning, while treating emotions as obstacles to be overcome in the process, is overly simplistic and robs us of the real gift of learning: to drive positive change in our lives.

It would be like having a car – a complex, sophisticated machine – and not knowing how to drive it. Cognition is the car, and emotions are the knowledge of how to drive it. Only when we recognize the essential role of emotion in rational thought will we really be able to learn – or teach – in a meaningful way. 

If the purpose of learning is to drive positive change in our lives, emotions must play a central role.

“Yes, rational thought and logical reasoning do exist… but they cannot be recruited appropriately and usefully in the real world without emotion.”

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio

Neuroscientists, Learning Landscapes

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang on Emotions and Cognition

Watch this video of renowned neuroscientists Mary Helen Immordino-Yang discussing the importance emotions in learning.

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