Why Emotion cannot be separated from Learning

The place of emotion in teaching and learning has long been debated. Teachers struggle with the question of whether or not they should focus on anything else other than fulfilling the cognitive needs of learners. However, recent research in neurosciences, education, and psychology reveal that there is a strong positive link between emotion and the learning process. Keeping this in mind, Educators might want to reconsider using emotion as one of the tools to enhance and improve educational experiences of their learners.

The school, as we all know, is a place where the mind is trained. Since time immemorial, teachers have done everything in their power to help children enhance their thinking capacities. However, little did we know and acknowledge the fact that the mind does not function independently. The mind and its working are dependent on a variety of interrelated factors. The working of the mind is only as efficient as the condition and operational fitness of one’s body and his/her emotional experiences. Therefore, the old adage, “emotion is the enemy of reason” is no longer valid. This assertion is further substantiated by research in the areas of neurology, education, and psychology.

Evidences from Brain Research

Studies in brain processes (storing and retrieving information) reveal that there is a strong connection between reason and emotion. Scientists have discovered that the same areas of the brain that are involved in processing emotion are also involved in processing memory. The connection is so strong that reason, emotion, and bodily sensations and functions affect each other at neurological levels.

Any learning experience is accompanied by feelings. Thus, learning involves the mastery of knowledge in the form of facts, figures, and reflective thoughts (content or substance of learning). But it doesn’t stop there. Learning also involves the dynamic interplay between knowledge and the context within which it is acquired and internalized. In other words, learning is the process whereby both content and context interact to form meaningful understanding of one’s self and his/her surrounding or experiences. Both content and context become the measured weight of all our thoughts, biases, ideas, and arguments. In short, every time an individual learns, he/she is feeling at the same time.

So, when people say, “we shouldn’t let our emotion impede our decision-making,” they are actually disregarding the fact that emotion is an integral part of every mental act experienced by an individual, including decision-making. It is the law of nature to predispose humans to make decisions and engage in other higher order thinking in the presence of a variety of feelings. In fact, appropriate emotions enhances thinking a great deal (e.g. positive emotions speed up decision-making enormously).

Physiologically speaking, everything that enters through our sensory organs passes first through a kind of switchboard called the thalamus, located at the base of the brain. That information is then routed automatically to different sections of the brain. At first, the information goes through the brain’s emotion-arousal systems for evaluation, to determine whether the information is perceived as safe or dangerous. That evaluation involves a number of feedback loops originating in the long-term memory. If we perceive the incoming information as threatening, we automatically engage in a series of reactions (which sometimes remain unconscious) to help us process the information. In other words, our brains have to decide whether to keep or toss all incoming information. When unconscious emotional arousal reaches a certain point, it becomes a conscious feeling. This conscious emotional experience then affects (or provides a context for) other related cognitive processes.

In short, emotion activates attention (the primary and most vital component of any learning or information processing act), which then triggers the short-term and long-term memory, and eventually makes the overall learning process possible. In other words, learning doesn’t take place when there’s no emotional arousal. However, we should remember that not all emotional arousal result in learning unless otherwise chosen by an individual.

For example, if we see a coiled snake ready to strike, that information is processed through our thalamic pathways and sent to the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in the brain that has 12 to 15 distinct emotive regions. So, when information such as the sight of a coiled snake reaches the amygdala, the overriding message is Danger! Danger! Immediately, the amygdala speeds biochemical signals to other regions of the brain. Nerves sending a message of fear reach every part of the body. A person’s stomach tightens, heart races, blood pressure rises, feel and hands turn clammy, and mouth goes dry. A number of hormone-releasing glands are activated, the body goes into action, and the person runs away from the snake.

Apart from being responsible in initiating and activating cognitive processes, emotions are also responsible for behavioral responses of individuals. In fact, there is a direct connection between emotions and motion. This is the reason why we approach when in happiness, we attack when in anger, we escape when in fear, and we disengage when in sadness.

Establishing the Link

Since the relationship among emotion, cognition, and motion is inevitable and real, it is necessary for Educators to get learners to be emotionally involved in the learning process. When learners are emotionally ‘captivated’ in the initial stage of learning, the chances of them paying attention is significantly increased. Increased attention enables a learner to be highly engaged (mentally and physically) and gain maximum benefit from whatever is taught or discussed. The more emotionally engaged a learner is, the more likely he/she is to learn.

Further, having positive and favorable feelings toward a task (academic or non-academic) helps us feel that we did the task well. Similarly, when we experience negative and unfavorable feelings toward a task, we experience difficulty. The best learning takes place when a positive feeling toward a task enables us to use what we know, while motivating us to extend that knowledge and build on it (even to the extent of constructing new knowledge).

Picture 016.jpg

Implication for Teaching and Learning

All that is discussed above indicate that emotion can be used as a tool (just like any other tool used by Educators) to enhance and improve teaching and learning. This is specifically achieved by doing some of the following:

  1. Create a sense of surprise and mystery in teaching (especially in introducing a new concept).
  2. Use appropriate humor from time to time.
  3. Use a variety of techniques that foster emotional connections that make a direct bio-chemical link with memory; for example, presenting a concept by relating a personal story.
  4. Engage learners’ confidence; begin with what they already know because if they are in any way threatened or have a sense of helplessness, their brains will shut down.
  5. Help learners see how new information connects with what they already know.
  6. Make learners in-charge of their own learning; this will help learners to move from dealing with shallow concepts by mere practice and rehearsal to interconnecting concepts and thinking more critically and creatively (note: creativity is accessed only when an individual is not controlled).
  7. Learn with the learners. Allow them to teach and affect your own learning process.
  8. Identify and eliminate any factor that leads to a threatening or intimidating learning environment; this would imply that every aspect of the learning environment must be checked for; this includes seating arrangements, the position of the teacher while teaching, how the teacher deals with wrong answers, etc.
  9. Hold learning sessions in non-traditional settings; funnily, adults have a difficult time accepting that they still enjoy being and learning in environments where there are colorful pictures, bulletin boards with posters, etc.; move from a ‘sterile’ environment to a ‘richer’ one.
  10. Teach the brain by involving the entire body and all of its senses and multiple ways of processing.
  11. Speak with a personal voice; learners appreciate when knowledge is shared from the ‘heart’ as well as the ‘mind’.
  12. Provide situations where learners experience feelings of security, well-being, and self-confidence.
  13. Challenge learners without threats, intimidation, or pressure.


Should educators focus exclusively on teaching a subject matter or should they go beyond and incorporate knowledge about how the ‘brain learns’ in their instruction and classroom practices? The debate continues! But let us not forget that while we choose to do things in a certain way because we are used to it, some things remain unchanged. The fact that our ‘brains learn’ best and process information most efficiently in the presence of positive emotion is a neurologically-established, psychologically-felt, and educationally-crucial principle that cannot be disregarded.

Suggested References

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). (2000). The brain and early childhood. Alexandria, VA: Author. (IE 370.1523 ASC – Inservice Education/Videotapes/Guide).

Benesh, B., Arbuckle, M., Robbins, P., & D’Arcangelo, M. (1998). The brain and learning: New knowledge and understanding/Classroom applications/Changing schools to reflect new knowledge/What parents need to know. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Brandt, R.S. (1999). Educators need to know about the human brain. Phi Delta Kappan, 81, 235-238.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., Cocking, R.R., Donovan, M.S., Pellegrino, J.W., & National Research Council (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school and How people learn: Bridging research and practice. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Bruer, J.T. (1999). In search of…brain-based education. Phi Delta Kappan, 80, 648-654, 656-657.

Caine, R.N., & Caine, H. (1998). Building a bridge between the neurosciences and education: Cautions and possibilities. NASSP Bulletin, 82(598), 1-8.

Caine, R.N., & Caine, G. (1990). Understanding a brain-based approach to learning and teaching. Educational Leadership, 48(2), 66-70.

Caulfield, J., Kidd, S., & Kocher, T. (2000). Brain-based instruction in action. Educational Leadership, 58(3), 62-65.

Education Commission of the States. (1996). Bridging the gap between neuroscience and education. Denver, CO: Author.

Gabriel, A.E. (1999). Brain-based learning: The scent of the trail. Clearing House, 72, 288-290.

Greenleaf, R.K. (1999). It’s never too late! What neuroscience has to offer high schools? NASSP Bulletin, 83(608), 81-89.

Hannaford, C. (1995). Smart moves: Why learning is not all in the head. Atlanta, GA: Great Ocean Publishers.

Jensen, E. (1997). The brain-compatible approach to learning. Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight Training and Publishing.

Jensen, E. (2000). Moving with the brain in mind. Educational Leadership, 58(3), 34-37.

Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Languis, M.L. (1998). Using knowledge of the brain in educational practice. NASSP Bulletin, 82(598), 38-47.

Lindsey, G. (1998-1999). Brain research and implications for early childhood education. Research reviews. Childhood Education, 75, 97-100.

Lyon, G.R., & Rumsey, J.M. (Eds.). (1996). Neuroimaging: A window to the neurological foundations of learning and behavior in children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H Brookes.

Perry, B. (2000). How the brain learns best. Instructor, 110(4), 34-35.

Phipps, P.A. (1999). Is your program brain compatible? Child Care Information Exchange, 126, 53-57.

Pinkerton, K.D. (1994). Using brain-based learning techniques in high school. Teaching and Change, 2 44-60.

Slavkin, M. (2002). Brain science in the classroom. Principal Leadership, 2(8), 21-23.

Sousa, D.B. (1995). How the brain learns. Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight Training and Publishing, Inc.

Sprenger, M. (1999). Learning & memory: The brain in action. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Sylwester, R. (1994). How emotions affect learning. Educational Leadership, 52(2), 60-65.

Sylwester, R. (1997). The neurobiology of self-esteem and aggression. Educational Leadership, 54(2), 75-79.
Sylwester, R. (1985). Research on memory: Major discoveries, major educational challenges. Educational Leadership, 42(7), 69-75.

Tomlinson, C.A., & Kalbfleisch, M.L. (1998). Teach me, teach my brain: A call for differentiated classrooms. Educational Leadership, 56(3), 52-55.

Walsh, P. (2000). A hands-on approach to understanding the brain. Educational Leadership, 58(3), 76-78.

Wolfe, P. (1996). Mind, memory, and learning: Translating brain research into classroom practice: A staff developer’s guide to the brain. Napa, CA: Author.

Wolfe, P., & Brandt, R.S. (1998). What do we know from brain research? Educational Leadership, 56(3), 8-13.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *