Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience, by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

Luna Centifanti on the important role that emotions play in our ability to assimilate knowledge

February 11, 2016
Two women dancing side by side
Source: Corbis

Using a rudder as an analogy for the way emotion guides learning and memory, as neuroscientist and former teacher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang does here, reminds me of my first conscious learning (and teaching) experience – in the water. After my first lessons in the pool, I spent many hours teaching objects in our house to swim. Toothbrushes bobbed in the sink, and dolls spent the day on the couch practising the breaststroke.

As Immordino-Yang details, socio-emotional motivations may be so hugely important that the brain has back-up networks (albeit poorly suited ones) to support them in case the responsible part of the brain fails. The example she uses of two boys who underwent a hemispherectomy, the left hemisphere in one and the right in the other, points to this primacy of the socio-emotional relevance of learning – in these cases, prosody and other communication devices. Both boys arrived at understanding emotions, but by different mechanisms. One used categorical thinking supported by the remaining left hemisphere, while the other overextended the significance of an emotional rudder supported by the intact right hemisphere – ultimately facilitating fitting-in within social environments.

Drawing on these cases, as well as basic research in neuroscience, Immordino-Yang aims to explain the importance of emotions in teaching and learning. While this book’s focus is on childhood education, it will be of interest beyond the school classroom, as the motivations to learn as well as to teach that she explores are also relevant to higher education. To show how learning is not solely rational, or immune to the dictates of our emotions and personal motivation, Immordino-Yang draws on early (mid-20th century) studies of patients with prefrontal brain damage and examples of poetry written by her own daughter.

Her arguments are convincing: when taking dance classes, I realise that emotions play a large role in my mirroring of my teachers. I want to be able to dance socially and to have the thrill of mastery of a skill – and so my emotions choreograph my learning. Although we are learning by mirroring our teachers, it is emotion and motivation that dictate what we choose to mirror. Immordino-Yang illustrates this point with cases of the reward and punishment parts of the brain providing the “smoke” around the mirror; that is, one’s personal goals and motivation matter, and they are largely non-conscious. They are the unseen smoke that gives the mirror its shading.

Indeed, recent arguments about the superiority, for student learning, of attending in-person lectures over engaging only with online lecture materials may find support in the mechanisms described here. Students are motivated by many things: impressing the teacher, obtaining good grades, landing a job that requires a degree certificate. In order to be fully effective, Immordino-Yang argues, digital learning media must echo in-person learning in allowing students to empathise with teachers’ motivations, and encouraging them to see the learning material as being the result of the teacher’s goal-directed activity. Online learning material may have the content – the basic steps – needed to learn about, say, statistics, but it can fall short on elegant choreography.

We must be careful not to use brain evidence to support practices that we would endorse anyway, lest neuromyths prevail. Happily, Immordino-Yang does not overextend claims for its value, and the neuroscientific evidence she presents about the connection between emotions and learning is more than just smoke and mirrors.

Luna Centifanti is senior lecturer in developmental psychopathology, Durham University.


Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience
By Mary Helen Immordino-Yang
W. W. Norton, 208pp, £22.00
ISBN 9780393709810
Published 18 December 2015

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