Why Emotions Are Integral to Learning: An Excerpt From Mary Helen Immordino-Yang's New Book

What role do emotions have in the classroom? Educator and developmental psychologist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang shares her knowledge about how emotions affect students' understanding of a subject — any subject — and the learning process.

The following is an excerpt from Mary Helen Immordino-Yang's forthcoming book, Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience, due out from W.W. Norton this fall.

Teachers intuitively know that neither their nor their students’ learning is steady and constant, the same day in and day out and moment to moment, consistent from topic to topic. Rather, we all have good and bad days; moments of excitement, engagement and inspiration and moments of disappointment, disengagement and frustration; afternoons just before vacation and mornings just after; some skills and topics that we find interesting and some that we don’t. These differences influence how children learn and how teachers teach; they even affect what students know at a given time. In short, learning is dynamic, social and context-dependent because emotions are, and emotions form a critical piece of how, what, when and why people think, remember and learn.

The fundamental role of emotions in learning first became apparent to me during my first professional position after college, as a junior high school science teacher in a highly diverse, urban public school near Boston. The community I lived and worked in had many first-generation Americans, 81 languages total spoken in our school of 1800, and many students living in underprivileged circumstances. Although I was teaching integrated science, a technical academic subject, I was intrigued that my students’ questions and explanations seemed connected to their friendships, home situations, aesthetic tastes and cultural values. I was fascinated but unprepared, for example, when the race relations among my seventh-graders changed (and improved) dramatically after I taught a unit on hominid evolution that I designed with my former undergraduate professor. The students’ new scientific understanding of natural selection for adaptive traits like dark or light skin seemed to powerfully influence their peer relationships and their own ethnic identities. Why had the students interpreted the science in such a personal, emotional way? And why, after the classroom turbulence had settled, did so many of my students suddenly seem to take a new interest in science? I brought these questions with me to graduate school, and through my research I still seek satisfying and complete answers to them.

Scientific understanding of the influence of emotions on thinking and learning has undergone a major transformation in recent years. In particular, a revolution in neuroscience over the past two decades has overturned early notions that emotions interfere with learning, revealing instead that emotion and cognition are supported by interdependent neural processes. It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion. And after all, this makes sense. The brain is highly metabolically expensive tissue, and evolution would not support wasting energy and oxygen thinking about things that don’t matter to us. Put succinctly, we only think about things we care about. No wonder my seventh-graders had taken that science lesson so personally and so seriously. They had found that science could help them make personally relevant meaning of the racial and ethnic diversity and identity issues they encountered in their daily lives.

This insight — that we only think deeply about things we care about — has important implications for education and pedagogy. It opens questions about how, when and why students learn meaningfully (or just regurgitate facts and deploy procedures and algorithms, or possibly don’t manage even those). It also raises issues about how technology, culture and social relationships shape learning, and how teachers can understand and leverage emotions more productively in the classroom. It suggests that for school-based learning to have a hope of motivating students, of producing deep understanding, or of transferring into real-world skills — all hallmarks of meaningful learning, and all essential to producing informed, skilled, ethical and reflective adults — we need to find ways to leverage the emotional aspects of learning in education.

To leverage emotions, it helps to understand what emotions are. Emotions, and the more biologically primitive drives that undergird them, like hunger and sex, are action programs that have evolved as extensions of survival mechanisms. Put simply, emotions have evolved to keep us alive. Human beings have basic emotions, like fear and disgust, to keep us off the edges of cliffs and to make us avoid spoiled food. We have social emotions like love to make us affiliate, procreate and care for our children. Thanks to our intelligent, plastic brain, we can also develop emotions that color and steer our intellectual and social endeavors, like curiosity to make us explore and discover, admiration to make us emulate the virtue of others, compassion, indignation, interest and “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

These complex intellectual and social emotions are the subjective behavioral and mental reactions we have to situations and concepts of all sorts — reactions that play out in the body (e.g., through a racing heart) and in the mind (through characteristic ways of thinking, like searching for an escape route during fear, moving to help another person during compassion, or narrowing our attentional focus when we find something interesting). The feeling of these emotions organizes our sociality and morality, making us emulate role models, help those in need or punish those who warrant it. It forms the basis for creativity and invention, and for the decisions we make for now and for the future, even in academic contexts. For example, the act of dedicating one’s professional life to teaching is only possible because of our ability to feel these emotions. So, emotions evolved and are present in all complex creatures because they are essential to manage life. In humans, efficient life-management means managing not just our physical survival but our social life and intellectual life. But where does the neurobiology come in? Among the most poignant and basic insights from affective neuroscience, the neuroscience of emotion, is that the emotions that regulate our sociocultural and intellectual lives appear to have co-opted the same neural systems that manage our survival in the basic biological sense. Just as poets and artists have suspected for millennia, we feel social relationships and appreciate intellectual achievements using the same brain systems that sense and regulate our guts and viscera, adjust our blood chemistry and hormones, and conjure our awareness and consciousness. No wonder our creations, reputations, cultural ideals and personal relationships, including those in educational contexts, have such amazing psychological power.

But emotions have another dimension that is critically relevant to education. Complex emotional feelings like interest, inspiration, indignation or compassion are active mental constructions — they pertain not to the real physical context (the immediate context that we can see) but to abstract inferences, interpretations and ideas. They pertain, in other words, to what we think we know about the world at the current time, interpreted in light of our past experiences and our imagined possible futures, and using our available skills. When I say that many emotions are “complex,” what I really mean is that they rely on subjective, cognitive interpretations of situations and their accompanying embodied reactions.

Even in academic subjects that are traditionally considered unemotional, like physics, engineering or math, deep understanding depends on making emotional connections between concepts. For example, one study using an fMRI scanner found that when mathematicians see equations that they judge to be “beautiful” and elegantly formulated instead of “ugly” and awkwardly formulated, they activate the same sensory, emotional brain region that activates during experiences of perceptual beauty, such as when admiring a painting (Zeki et al., 2014). In the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, we have found that this region also activates during experiences of moral beauty, such as are associated with feelings of admiration and compassion (Immordino-Yang, McColl, Damasio & Damasio, 2009). This and other evidence suggests that meaningful learning is actually about helping students to connect their isolated algorithmic skills to abstract, intrinsically emotional, subjective and meaningful experiences. Though supporting students in building these connections is a very hard job, it appears to be essential for the development of truly useful, transferable, intrinsically motivated learning.

In addition, emotions, like cognition, develop with maturity and experience. In this sense, emotions are skills — organized patterns of thoughts and behaviors that we actively construct in the moment and across our lifespans to adaptively accommodate to various kinds of circumstances, including academic demands. The emotions of a preschooler are not the same as those of a fifth-grader, a teenager, a young or an older adult. The emotions of a brand new teacher are not the same as those of a veteran teacher. And even two people in the same developmental stage could construct different reactions to the same situation, sometimes substantially so. Why?

The reasons follow from emotion’s survival-related roots, and tie to emotion’s centrality in learning: First, emotions involve automatic mental and bodily reactions to situations, and some people, cultural groups and age groups are more reactive, or differently reactive, than others. For example, some individuals jump when startled, while others remain much calmer. These tendencies can also be influenced by culture: for instance, in many Asian cultures individuals strive to suppress their outward emotional displays, while in many Latino and Mediterranean cultures, emotional expressiveness is valued. These differing ideals for emotion influence individuals’ emotional behavior, including expression, suppression and other aspects. In turn, our work suggests that by changing the magnitude of bodily reactions, cultural and individual differences in emotional expressiveness may affect what emotions “feel like” — how individuals know how they feel, or the subjective embodied quality of their feelings (Immordino-Yang, Yang & Damasio, 2014).

Second (and related), people learn through experience how to interpret situations, as well as how to make sense of their emotional reactions. Students’ and teachers’ emotion-laden interpretations and inferences, though often implicit or subconscious, form a central dimension of how they learn. The subjective inferences that individuals make, and their experiences of problem-solving within an academic domain, imbue their memories and knowledge with emotional relevance. In the case described above, it was the mathematicians’ subjective experience of thinking and solving problems within the mathematical domain that enabled them to appreciate certain equations as “beautiful.” Their emotional reactions were only possible given an advanced level of technical expertise.

As we can see, understanding the role of emotions in learning goes far beyond recognizing the emotion a student is having about a situation in order to design learning environments that strategically manipulate students’ reactions. For instance, giving candy to make children want to come to math class will not make students feel the joy of mathematical thinking. Instead, understanding emotions is also (and perhaps even more critically) about the meaning that students are making — that is, the ways in which students and teachers are experiencing or feeling their emotional reactions and how their feelings steer their thoughts and behavior, consciously or not. Emotions are not add-ons that are distinct from cognitive skills. Instead emotions, such as interest, anxiety, frustration, excitement or a sense of awe in beholding beauty, become a dimension of the skill itself. This is one reason why anxiety can be so debilitating to students’ performance, why interest can precipitate a life-time commitment to studying a topic, why kids have such trouble applying themselves when they don’t know why they’d ever use that skill outside of class, and why feeding kids candy will make them like coming to class but will not help them learn to appreciate mathematical thinking.