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Emotion Affects Learning: How Do We Manage It?

Emotion serves as our evolutionary purpose, driving us to act in ways to increase our chances of survival and help us to grow and develop as a person. Every emotion we feel has its own values and significance whether we label it as positive or negative. Without joy, you probably wouldn’t know what is important to you. Without surprise, you probably wouldn’t figure out more information about what is going on with the unexpected event and create an action plan. Without fear, you would probably engage in some risky behaviour and putting yourself in danger. Without anger, you probably wouldn’t fight against your problem.

Numerous studies have shown that emotion plays a significant role in influencing our cognitive processes such as:

  • attention (Schupp et al., 2006)
  • learning and memory (Tyng et al., 2017)
  • reasoning (Jung et al., 2014)
  • problem-solving (Jordan & Troth, 2004)

Emotion captures our attention and enhances our perceptual processing, which helps select, interpret, and organise information. Emotion affects what we learned and what we retained as well as driving our learning actions and behaviours.

When you try to recall a certain event or any piece of information, you are more likely to remember what happened because you were emotionally heightened at that time – whether positively or negatively. To prove this, can you recall the outfit you wore on your first date? Can you recall a song or food that brings you back to your childhood memories? Well, I guess you can.

Now, try to recall the days when you were at school and think about a subject that you particularly like. What makes that subject enjoyable and memorable? Perhaps, you have a good teacher that can make the subject interesting. The way your teacher presents information in an emotional provocative way capture your attention immensely.

What did you feel? Joy? Excitement? Enthusiasm? Did you participate in the discussion? Did you put in more effort to understand deeper about the topic?

In contrast, think about the subject you dislike. What’s the first thing that comes into your mind? Boredom? Frustration? Dreadful? Did you zone out? Did you try to skip the class?

Right, we are more likely to enjoy and develop a love of learning when we have more positive experiences. Negative emotion is unpleasant and most of us would do almost anything to avoid it – which is why we zone out and try to skip classes. Simply because it stresses you out.

Before we go further, let’s agree that stress is not necessarily a bad thing. Stress can facilitate and/or both impair learning and memory, depending on the intensity and duration. For example, you might be feeling anxious and stressed about an upcoming presentation, but it can motivate you to seek a deeper understanding of a topic so that you could be at your best. However, if you’re working in a toxic environment, such long-term stress impairs your learning and is detrimental to your performance and health down the line.

As mentioned earlier, our emotion plays a part in our survival mechanism. When we are stressed, we activate one of the 3Fs responses – fight, flight, or freeze. If it is something manageable, we usually fight it. However, if it’s overwhelming and over a long time, we tend to run away or tune out. We disengage our feelings and shut down emotionally because it is just too hard to bear. The problem with shutting down emotionally is you stop learning.

Learning requires curiosity. When you are curious means, you care about something. You are emotionally attached, and you feel intrinsically motivated to take necessary actions to seek more information and/or to perform a task. Your brain is primed to take in all information around the topic. You will remember more interesting information. When our feelings are disconnected, we don’t care about anything. Why even bother to learn when nothing matters? Hence, we repeat the same mistakes over and over again despite the negative consequences – we learn nothing from them.

Be Emotionally Connected

To learn, we need to be emotionally connected – whether in our academics, career, or daily lives. Think about why do you need to learn these skills? What values do they bring? How are they going to serve your mission, goals, and values? These reasons make our learning meaningful and useful. It brings a whole different level of connectedness rather than simply liking a topic or having to attend long hours of training.

Of course, we prefer feeling positive emotions rather than negative ones. Very often, we have little or no control over when we are swept by emotion, nor what it will be. However, we have control over how long it will last. We are capable of having thoughts about our thoughts, feelings about our feelings. It is almost as if you are stepping back from your experience and being aware of what is happening rather than being immersed and lost in it or disengaged completely.

1. Acknowledge and name what you feel

The goal is not to suppress your emotions but rather acknowledging them and finding a balance. Ignoring your emotion and pretending you don’t feel anything doesn’t make the feelings go away. Stifling your emotions can be harmful to your health and that’s not good. It’s important to acknowledge and pay attention to what’s going on in you. For example, when you are feeling bad, ask yourself, “Am I feeling ashamed, sad, or hopeless?” Allow yourself to explore your feelings and name them but understand that you don’t need to act accordingly.

2. Challenge your thoughts/beliefs

What you think directly influences how you feel and behave. If think that you can’t, you’ll feel like you can’t. Then you act like you can’t which then reinforces your belief that you really can’t. Just because you failed a test, doesn’t mean you are a failure. Just because you didn’t get the promotion you wanted, doesn’t mean you are not capable. Just because you have a thought, doesn’t mean it is the truth. So, challenge the thoughts that trigger negative emotions. Ask yourself, “What is the evidence for this thought/belief? What is the evidence against this thought or belief? Then ask yourself again, “Does this belief serve me?” If no, abandon it.

3. Make yourself feel good

Another way to interrupt negative emotions is to engage in mood booster activities. Such activities may include but are not limited to go for a long walk, doing active exercise, watch a funny movie, meditating, read an uplifting book, take a hot bath, listen to music, get a massage and even simply changing your body posture! Your brain and body will release happy hormones. It’s hard to stay in a bad mood when you’re having a pleasant time.

So, take charge of your emotions and don’t let them hold you back from your learning and reaching your goals. Like any other skill, emotional regulation can be learned, developed, improved, and changed with maturity and experience. It’s not easy but it’s possible. Just keep learning!

References

Immordino-Yang, M. H. (2016). Emotions, learning, and the brain: Exploring the educational implications of affective neuroscience. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Jordan, P. J., & Troth, A. C. (2004). Managing emotions during team problem solving: Emotional intelligence and conflict resolution. Human performance17(2), 195-218.

Jung, N., Wranke, C., Hamburger, K., and Knauff, M. (2014). How emotions affect logical reasoning: evidence from experiments with mood-manipulated participants, spider phobics, and people with exam anxiety. Frontiers in Psychology, 5:570. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00570

Schupp, H. T., Flaisch, T., Stockburger, J., & Junghöfer, M. (2006). Emotion and attention: event-related brain potential studies. Progress in Brain Research156, 31-51. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01454

Tyng, C. M., Amin, H. U., Saad, M. N., & Malik, A. S. (2017). The influences of emotion on learning and memory. Frontiers in Psychology8, 1454. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01454

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