If I told you that the reason your child is failing in school is that they are not emotionally connected to the academic material, how would you feel? What would you think? You might give me a perplexed look and move on to another therapist who could provide more commonsense information about your child’s learning. Yet researchers who study neuroscience know that our emotions help us turn bits and pieces of our complex world into a cohesive whole in order to make meaningful sense out of the information.
For example, for many of us, it is quite easy to tap into our episodic memory when we are trying to recall a pleasurable vacation with people we love. These kinds of memories are often vivid and easy to recall because they were cemented by our emotions and the emotional meaning we ascribed to the experience.
Likewise, it wasn’t until I began to work as a psychotherapist and could see just how much my knowledge was benefiting urban youth that I began to truly cement the skills and information I was learning. No dry textbook, no graduate class, no internship, and no professor could help me truly connect to the information I was learning on relationships, neuroscience, behavior, and mental illness. It was only through my experience of working with various clients, observing their needs, and witnessing some of their stressors that I began to truly realize what I needed to learn as a professional.
In Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang explains how our emotions help us understand didactic instruction or pedagogy and help us cement the information we are taught. The book supports the hypothesis that emotion plays a vital role in helping children apply what they have learned in school to the real world.
While common sense is often essential to learning, emotion helps us connect what we learn through past experience to inform real-world decision-making. Immordino-Yang writes that previous studies on individuals who had pre-frontal lesions give us insight into the role of emotions in social behavior. These individuals exhibited multiple social deficits that were not present until they suffered brain lesions. (Here we must remember that the pre-frontal lobes are involved in impulse control and decision-making, among many other functions. Some researchers believe that lesions in the frontal cortex/lobes change emotional and social behavior due to an inability to utilize past experiences in decision-making.)
Individuals who had once expressed the ability to be socially astute were now unable to apply what they had learned in educational settings to the real world. “The traditional way to explain these patients’ symptoms had been that something had gone wrong with their logical abilities or their knowledge base,” Immordino-Yang writes, “such that they could no longer make decisions in a rational way. But, in fact, with further testing, it became apparent that these patients did not have a primarily problem with knowledge, knowledge access, or logical reasoning, as had previously been assumed.”
Instead, Immordino-Yang writes, “it gradually became clear that disturbances in the realm of emotion, which had been viewed as a secondary consequence of their brain damage, could provide a better account of their poor decision making. Those emotional aspects included a diminished resonance of emotional reactions generally, as well as a specific compromise of social emotions, such as compassion, embarrassment, or guilt.”
Immordino-Yang makes a good argument that emotion is the thing we need to help us not only engage in the task of learning but also to integrate past experiences and appropriately making future decisions. But although her book excels at carefully explaining the complex components of the brain and how neuroscience is seeking to understand the role of emotions in learning, parts of the book appear to be written from a hypothetical premise and not from empirical research. Immordino-Yang does admit this in some sections of the book, primarily in the first chapter.
That said, while reading this book as a child and adolescent therapist seeking a better understanding of learning and the brain, I felt motivated to revisit the topic while reading the book. I began to think back on the many questions parents would ask me about their intelligent child’s “unbelievable behaviors.”
Parents often fall into a trap: if their child earns straight As in class, they think, that child should also be able to follow simple rules at home or at school. But having the ability to logically reason does not necessarily mean that someone can control their impulses, behavior, or decision-making.
Although Immordino-Yang writes for an audience of researchers and practitioners, the book is worth reading for those who want to creatively engage adolescents.
Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience
W. W. Norton & Company, November 2015
Hardcover, 208 pages