Emotions and Learning: A Critical Key

Emotions and learning are integral to our ability to reason, evaluate, and remember.

I think, therefore I am.
—René Descartes

The quote above, first published in 1637, has become one of the most famous and most influential philosophical statements ever made. For over three centuries, school children in the West have been taught that the mind is separate from—and superior to—the body.

They have also been taught that the highest-quality reasoning takes place in a rarefied atmosphere completely separate from emotion.

Scientists are discovering, however, that Descartes was wrong.

In Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain

Emotions and Learning

, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio details numerous studies he has conducted that prove emotions are actually required in order to make decisions. In fact, people in whom the emotional area of the brain has been destroyed (for example, as the result of a tumor), are incapable of making a decision. They cannot evaluate which choice is better because all options look the same to them.

After decades of such research, scientists are starting to realize that mind, body and emotions form an intricate whole that cannot be divided up into separate, discrete parts.

In Molecules Of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine

, neuroscientist Candace Pert says that emotions are not found in the brain alone, but throughout the body. In other words, we don't just think with our brains, we think with our bodies, too.

Emotions and Learning and Memory

Emotions and learning and memory are closely linked. In Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All in Your Head

, neurophysiologist Carla Hannaford writes:

Our mind/body system learns through experiencing life in context, in relationship to everything else, and it is our emotions, our feelings that mediate that context. In order to learn, think or create, learners must have an emotional commitment.

She ads that "memory is usually rich with bodily sensations of sight, sound, smell, taste, emotions and movements. The neural relatedness of these gives us our remembered pictures."

What This Means to You as a Lifelong Learner

Emotions matter! How you feel about your ability to learn matters. Whether or not you are interested in the subject matters. And whether you feel joy in learning or fear and stress matters. Positive emotions can open the door to learning for you. Negative emotions—especially overwhelming stress—can literally lock it shut.

The Next Step

To learn more about why it is so important to take measures to deal with the stress in your life—both for your health and your ability to learn—go to:

Stress and Learning

Lifelong Learning

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