Really learning: the role of emotions

Hello and welcome to this month’s neuro blog!

What did you think of my suggestion back in April to leverage language to influence how you feel? Did you tell yourself you ‘only’ felt your negative emotions – to hasten their passing? – and that you were your positive emotions – to encourage them to linger a bit?

This month, I am sticking to emotions and my focus is on how they can help us learn. I am curious by nature but I noticed I wasn’t always retaining new learning even when I had found it interesting. As a coach and facilitator, I am keen that my clients be able to not just have those great insights but to return to them and thus plan their behavioural change.

Would you agree that emotions enable memory? Long before I learnt about neuroscience, I believe I had empirically validated for myself that I remembered more vividly those events in my life with respect to which I had felt a strong emotion – irrespective of the nature of the emotion.

My neuroscience studies have taught me a lot about emotions – some of it confusing, all of it amazing! Let me share two elements here. Firstly, emotions work with attention (I didn’t promise not to mention attention again in this blog, did I?): would you agree that, when you feel a strong emotion during a particular situation, this helps focus your attention on that experience? Neuroscience has established that paying attention is a core component of our memory-making process (called ‘encoding’), which I won’t detail here but don’t hesitate to ask if interested. The point is that, the more attention was paid, the more comprehensively the event will be encoded. As such, being distracted will result in a fragmented memory, harder to recall later on.

Secondly, emotions also work with the amygdalae, those glands I described in my second post (read about what the brain is for). Describing the role of the amygdalae, I wrote then that “[t]hey are located in the limbic brain and, as such, our first interaction with any stimulus is an unconscious and emotional one“. I have reproduced just above the graph I used in that article but highlighting the amygdalae – to highlight how comparatively small they are, especially considering their pivotal role in how we experience our lives – in the moment and later!

If emotions are central to how we remember, how can we leverage them in our learning? Put another way, how can we frame our own learning experiences – as well as those of our coachees – so that they occur in an emotionally-charged context? And also: how do we ensure that learning is associated with positive emotions – a) because we’re neither masochistic learners nor sadistic teachers and b) because negative emotions actually cripple our cortical functions, restricting our capacity to produce our ‘best thinking’ (another complex process I shan’t be delving into).

Three lines of (food for) thought: feeling good, connecting and looking forward. ‘Feeling good’ is about the sense of enrichment that comes from having acquired new knowledge. I remember feeling proud of being able to get at least some of my neuroscience teachings! When coaching, I encourage clients to be proud of their insightful thinking. ‘Connecting’ is about the collective nature of a lot of a learning, especially in a corporate context: how about being happy to learn in a group? That aspect is less appealing to me but I notice in the workshops I facilitate how some participants appreciate the group discussion, the exchange of experiences, the sharing of stories. ‘Looking forward’ is when the prospect of learning is intriguing, enticing: I notice this about myself – the last example being when I picked up a copy of ‘Sapiens’ – but also with coachees – many of whom approach coaching as a journey of self-discovery and bring trepidation and excitement along! Eagerly anticipating learning will help the recipient encode and recall it.

How do you feel about learning? Do feel when learning? If you teach, which emotions do you elicit?

If you’d like to tell me about your behaviour and/or your brain, you will find me at In the meantime, relax and let your brain look after you!

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