Affective/Social Neuroscience and Education

Paul Grobstein's picture

This is a place for conversation about projects in the Grobstein lab during the summer of 2007. Others are welcome to look in, and to leave comments on these conversations.

Thoughts on "We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education" by Mary Helen Immordino and Antonio Damsio, Mind, Brain, and Education 1(1): 3-10 (2007)?
biophile's picture

Emotion and reason

Whenever I hear “emotions” and “learning” in the same sentence, I always think of long-term memory. I’ve heard it said that by involving one’s emotions in the learning process the information learned would bypass short-term memory and go straight into long-term memory. An example someone at a recent education talk posed was reading one’s favorite fantasy series versus studying for a final. When reading a fiction novel that you enjoy you usually follow the plot closely and can identify with the characters. You’re emotionally involved and thus you can recall the names and backgrounds of characters and the plot events off of the top of your head. When studying for a test you don’t want to take you’re not really engaged. You just want the test to be done and going over the material is a pain. You can spit back the information after cramming but you don’t dwell on the intricacies of the subject matter and you probably couldn’t recall everything a month after the test. This isn’t to say that a high school chemistry student doesn’t have to be moved to tears or overjoyed when memorizing electron orbitals for the first time; however, the student should find it somewhat interesting if we want him or her to remember the basic point after the course is over.

Even after hearing that, I didn’t make the big connection between cognition and emotions. As always, it’s mind-boggling to realize that an adult could sit down and make a list of social conventions and morals and then fail to take them into account when going about everyday life. We tend to think of cognitive processes as being carried out by one piece of us, an entity that encapsulates our entire personality when in reality different regions of the brain control different functions. Seeing how neuroscientists unravel our minds and figure out which part is responsible for which aspect of us is quite a strange experience. I don’t believe in denying one’s responsibility for one’s actions just because “my brain made me do it” but it does make me wonder just how much of what we do is beyond our control.

In any case, this does put an interesting spin on the traditional reason and emotion dichotomy. Even the most stoic person must be in touch with his or her emotions on some level if he or she is able to make decisions in accord with social standards. As the article stated, even the most intellectual and detached decision has some element of emotional thought to it. I’m glad that this article is doing a part to break apart the notion that to be a rational person one must separate emotions and reason. I think that in many cases our emotions often tell us things that our conscious minds fail to grasp, the most obvious example being cultural peculiarities that we usually only perceive on a subconscious level, i.e. how close one should stand to someone during a conversation or how to act at a certain social function.

This article seems to be expressing the basic problem of how to best teach students with a different vocabulary than is usually used but the message is clear. Instead of presenting cut and dry information to a classroom, the instructor should engage the students on a deeper level so that the students can put what they learn in a better context and be able to use that information in an real life situation should the need arise. The emphasis on enabling students to apply learned knowledge to real-world situations is a very important one, as a common complaint of unhappy students is that what they are learning has no bearing on the real world. This insight is one of the best made in the paper: ignoring the emotional aspect of learning is counterproductive because students will probably not be able to connect with the material and thus will not remember it when they do need it outside of the classroom. After all, what is the point in teaching if the students do not really benefit from the experience?

As an aside, I found a website in an unrelated search and found a short blog entry on this exact topic if anyone is interested: http://www.affectiveteaching.com/?p=151
Ashley Dawkins's picture

where's the education part?

I liked that fact that this article calls for a change in education and how we teach, gearing it more towards the students.  It states,” Any competent teacher recognizes that emotions and feeling affect students’ performance and learning, as does the state of the body, such as how well students have slept and eaten or whether they are feeling sick or well (3)”.  I agree that many aspects of a child are brought to the classroom and affect their education.  In education this is recognized and can be addressed with something called social capital.  Social capital basically deals with formation of relationships.  By understanding your student and where they are coming from, you can better serve them.

 

The article concludes stating that there is a need for further research regarding the educational implications of emotions and their role in education.  From the lack of information in this article addressing the educational aspect I think this would be a good idea considering the title of this article would lead you to believe there was more information available in this area. I think they could have done a better job of digging deeper in what little of an educational argument they had.  For example the article states, “The more educators come to understand the nature of the relationship between emotion and cognition, the better they may be able to leverage this relationship in the design of learning environments (9)”.  This is a lovely sentence, but what does it mean?  How can teachers use this as leverage? What would this look like?  They needed to go farther and talk about their education argument in depth.

 

The other parts of this article I am unfamiliar with and do not feel comfortable addressing; although, their research does seem interesting.  I would like to know how it links to education better.

Ashley Dawkins's picture

where's the education part?

I liked that fact that this article calls for a change in education and how we teach, gearing it more towards the students.  It states,” Any competent teacher recognizes that emotions and feeling affect students’ performance and learning, as does the state of the body, such as how well students have slept and eaten or whether they are feeling sick or well (3)”.  I agree that many aspects of a child are brought to the classroom and affect their education.  In education this is recognized and can be addressed with something called social capital.  Social capital basically deals with formation of relationships.  By understanding your student and where they are coming from, you can better serve them.

 

The article concludes stating that there is a need for further research regarding the educational implications of emotions and their role in education.  From the lack of information in this article addressing the educational aspect I think this would be a good idea considering the title of this article would lead you to believe there was more information available in this area. I think they could have done a better job of digging deeper in what little of an educational argument they had.  For example the article states, “The more educators come to understand the nature of the relationship between emotion and cognition, the better they may be able to leverage this relationship in the design of learning environments (9)”.  This is a lovely sentence, but what does it mean?  How can teachers use this as leverage? What would this look like?  They needed to go farther and talk about their education argument in depth.

 

The other parts of this article I am unfamiliar with and do not feel comfortable addressing; although, their research does seem interesting.  I would like to know how it links to education better.

Ian Morton's picture

Moving beyond rationality?

Demasio’s work in the field of neuroscience is truly captivating because his work challenges the way we understand the human condition.  I have grown up under the impression that emotion should be left out of decision making, that emotions get in the way of “rational thought.”  However, in my time at Haverford, I have come to question our faith in rationality.  I certainly believe that rational thought is useful for creating “stories” that allow us to easily make sense of our world, but my concern has been with how much faith we are putting into those stories.  Essentially, my biggest problem with today’s faith in rationality is how much trust we put into our minds.  (See Grobstein, Writing Descartes) I do not think we should continue to put so much faith into our minds/thought process; we should not accept “rational thought” as something certain, as the pathway to objective truth.

 

The very fact that we have been so sure that emotions should be ruled out of rationality is an example of how misleading our stories can be.  Demasio gives strong evidence in Descartes’ Error and in this paper suggesting that emotion is actually a crucial aspect of reasoning, challenging our previous “rational” belief that emotions only taint our thinking.  It appears that the truth is none of our thoughts can be this pure, emotionless process.  Consequently, we should cease to think of our thoughts as something pure and free from being influenced by our environment in ways that may not be beneficial.  This “rational thought” that we as a generation have become enamored with cannot exist.

 

I apologize, I do not think I am expressing myself clearly and I will try state my points more coherently, but that may not come until future writing.  I only wish to express my belief that rational thought can be misleading, and to rule out emotion, to rule out our humanity, seems foolish to me.  A politician can present a rational story for why we should invade another country, for why we need to start a war.  However, this rational story can mislead individuals into supporting a war that one, may not even be a “rational” solution to whatever problem, and two, goes against our emotional intuitions of empathy.  To focus on rational thoughts is to lose sight of a much larger picture.

 

To move on, Demasio is proposing to us that emotions are far more important to our thought process than we have ever given them credit.  The implications for this are diverse and Demasio tries to tie them to education.  I believe Demasio is pursuing an important line of thought in doing so, but I was disappointed with the conclusions of this paper.  As Demasio would likely agree, there is still much to be said and thought about along these lines, and I was disappointed because Demasio did not pursue these thoughts further in this paper.  It is clear that Demasio’s direction is sound, as learning, memory and decision making, processes crucial to education, seem to be invariably connected to emotion.  However, this paper is more of a call for further investigation rather than an actual discussion as to the implications of emotion in education.  I do not mean to sound so critical, as Demasio is taking an important step, I am only anxious to see what comes of it. 

 

Demasio writes, “The more educators come to understand the nature of the relationship between emotion and cognition, the better they may be able to leverage this relationship in the design of learning environments.”  I was disappointed because Demasio did not speak to how one could “leverage this relationship” in the classroom.  But perhaps it is better he didn’t, as this leaves the question open for us to consider ourselves.  So how can we take this knowledge of emotion’s role in cognition and restructure the institution of learning?

 

These are only a couple thoughts – I have much more thinking to do and am somewhat slow at piecing my thoughts together into a coherent proposal.  Bear with me.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Emotion and the Unconscious in Education

I'm a long time admirer and fan of the work in which the Damasio's and their colleagues have created a new understanding of how the human brain is organized to make use of both "rational" and "emotional" processing to support complex and adaptive behavior. And I very much share a sense that "affective and social neuroscience" is directly and importantly relevant to both "the science of learning" and "the practice of teaching". For all these reasons, I'm happy that the Immordino-Yang and Damasio paper is available, and hope it will receive the wide attention it deserves. The following thoughts are intended to facilitate that.

For me, a key to the relevant new understanding is that "emotions are not just messy toddlers in a china shop, running around breaking and obscuring delicate cognitive glassware. Instead, they are more like the shelves underlying the glassware; without them cognition has less support." Both "emotion" and "cognition" are, however, words likely to mean different things to different people, so let me try to restate this key idea to make it as clear and accessible as possible.

What the Damasio research program has importantly established is that adaptive every day human behavior is not solely the result of "thinking" in the sense of having conscious access to an appropriate set of rules and relevant set of observations. Both persist following some kinds of brain damage, and yet the patients' ability to function is clearly compromised, apparently because the kinds of intuitions and feelings that normally contribute to our behavioral decision making is no longer being used.

Another way to say this is that we normally behave not simply because of a set of conscious rules applied to circumstances we are conscious of but rather out of the interactions of that with a background set of intuitions and feelings, the product of an elaborate array of unconscious analyses the details of which are generally unknown to us but which frequently yield influences on our behavior as adaptive as our conscious thinking. Because of the adaptive and sophisticated character of this unconscious processing, well illustrated in Malcom Gladwell's Blink, it is sometimes referred to as the "cognitive unconscious". What we experience as emotion, and what Immordino-Yang and Damasio mean by "emotion" is, I'm pretty sure, the output of the cognitive unconscious.

"Cognition" then is not just conscious "thinking" but the interplay between that and the cognitive unconscious. And "emotion" doesn't mean, as people might think, that which is not "rational", but rather that which is expressive of sophisticated analyses done by the nervous system in terms of rules of which we are normally unaware.

The rules by which the cognitive unconscious operates are heavily influenced by our evolutionary history, and so, as Immordino-Yang and Damasio point out, relate largely (though not exclusively, see Variability in Brain Function and Behavior) to "homeostasis", to preservation and maintenance of the individual. But those rules are, rather than being fixed, modifiable in individuals during individual lifetimes. Indeed, Immordino-Yang and Damasio suggest that social experience does so, so that we normally acquire the ability to have feelings and intuitions relevant to social interactions early in life, and fail to acquire them with certain forms of brain damage (see Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science for a related, perhaps different perspective). The same damage compromises other sorts of adaptive behavior as well, closing a loop between social and other kinds of learning.

There is more than a little food for thought here. But how immediately relevant is it to classroom practice? Immordino-Yang are appropriately cautious (see Brain and Education: Thinking About New Directions), but I agree both brain research and the experiences of most teachers suggest that we need to pay more attention to the conclusion that "neither learning nor recall happen in a purely rational domain", that more attention needs to be paid to the activities of the cognitive unconscious (cf Parallel Changes in Thinking about Brain and Education, and Story Telling in Three Dimensions). I share as well a sense that we already know enough to stop trying to get students to "minimize the emotional aspects of their academic curriculum and function as much as possible in the rational domain". Doing so not only makes it less likely that they will learn in a way that doesn't transfer well to the real world but also neglects the importance of the development of social skills (cf Emergent Pedagogy).
Mawrtyr2008's picture

We Feel, Therefore We Learn

I see a lot of connections between this paper and some of the others we’ve read this summer, especially in “Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science” and “The Many Faces of Inductive Teaching and Learning”, and my ongoing inquiry into mental health. When a person, particularly a child, comes up against a criticism of a view of the world they’ve learned from an authoritative figure, that experience must be highly emotional. If people get emotional over personal criticism, it’s frightening to imagine (and almost daily the headlines of news.bbc.co.uk and nytimes.com are evidence) the emotions a person experiences when his or her personal metanarrative, or fundamental understanding of how the universe works/is/came to be is challenged. This observation might enhance our understanding of “resistance” as it’s a word used differently in both papers.

To me, the usefulness of this paper was that it fleshed out two types of learning we’ve touched on in our weekly discussions.
1. Emotionless Learning: People who absorb stories well enough to spit them back out, but fail to connect in a deeper way to the material. In this paper, I see this type of learning as represented by the brain-damaged patients. From what I understood, these adults, whether the damage was adult-onset or child-onset, did well enough on standardized tests and similar forms of assessment, though they failed to extend and apply that knowledge to other areas of their lives.
2. “Emotionfull” Learning: People who connect with “a loopy story telling perspective” and can relate material learned in the classroom to other areas of their lives. As I interpreted it, emotions are central to this connecting learned material across the board. Because students are emotionally motivated from a variety of different angles, they connect material learned in the classroom in a variety of different ways.

While I think the distinctions between these different learning styles is useful, I also think that the conclusion made in “Educational Implications: A Call For Further Research” is a bit of a stretch. It seemed to me that the authors were trying to draw parallels between the type of learning of the brain-damaged adults and the type of learning that would result were educators to “minimize the emotional aspects of [the students’] academic curriculum (9)”. Descriptions of the emotionless and “emotionfull” learning are useful in a discussion like this one, but I’m not convinced that it’s appropriate to draw parallels closely linking the brain-damaged adults and potential outcomes from non-brain-damaged students.

Additionally, though I thought the examination of learning in the brain-damaged adults was useful, specific examples, particularly in the descriptions of the brain-damaged adults, would have been helpful. I’m left wondering what knowledge the adults tested well on but were unable to connect to a larger picture in a sociocultural world. What does that look like? What type of knowledge were they referring to? Was it a math problem or a character analysis or something entirely different?

As a technical criticism, I found many of the terms and phrases in this article to be confusing. Examples include using the word “happily” in the context of evolution, and the phrase “complex packages of innate responses” to describe lower-order emotion and behavior. These are two separate confusions and I’ll comment on them separately. First of all, while I’m convinced that emotions have played an important role in evolution, I’m uneasy with equating happiness and evolutionary fitness. The authors suggested this relationship in the quote, “… our brains still bear evidence of their original purpose: to manage our bodies and minds in the service of living, and living happily, in the world with other people (4)”. As for the other phrase, I’ve no idea what “complex packages of innate responses (6)” actually means at all.

Despite my unease about the word “happiness”, I really liked the attitude of the researchers regarding emotions and evolution. In intro Biology classes, homeostasis is a topic that much time is spent on, but all the classic examples I can think of (endocrine system, excretory system, etc) don’t directly reference the mind. After reading this article, I had something of an “aha!” moment when I realized that of course emotions are a homeostatic system, and of course they must have played a huge role in differential reproductive success. One example that comes readily to mind is positive feedback mechanisms and negative feedback mechanisms in depression. It's refreshing to read so many of Damasio's publications that treat emotions as real things that affect and structure our lives. How long until other members of the scientific community join in the dialogue either stacking evidence for or against emotions instead of just ignoring them?