Reading: Honor Emotions




The power of learning to learn goes beyond our thinking. It also extends to our emotions, and when it comes to the process of developing expertise, we need to manage how we feel. If metacognition—outlined in section three—is about planning and monitoring, we need to do the same for our emotions, and as people learn, they need to ask themselves: How did I feel? Will this task be frustrating? Scary?  

What’s easy to forget is that learning is a deeply emotional activity. Our feelings dramatically shape our ability to gain any sort of skill. People often associate this aspect of learning with children,and there’s no question that some 8th graders will do anything except admit that they need help in their algebra classes. They’re simply too embarrassed.

But emotions play a tremendous role in the learning of adults, too. Feelings often determine what we’re going to learn, and a new line of research in psychology shows that emotions actually serve as a type of bedrock for our knowledge and skills. Our thoughts are woven together with feelings, and in the end, there’s really no real difference between cognitive and non-cognitive approaches to learning.

Emotions play a tremendous role in the learning of adults...

Take the now-famous patient named Elliot, who walked into the office of Antonio Damasio in the late 1970s. At the time, Damasio was a professor of neuroscience at the University of Iowa, and Elliot had just had a large tumor removed from his brain. The growth had started just above Elliot’s nose, right behind his eyes, and eventually it grew to the size of a golf ball.

Before the surgery, Elliott had been an upstanding father and successful businessman. He was smart and funny and well-read, a role model in his community. After the surgery, he still had a very high IQ, and on tests, he scored in the superior range. He could still talk about politics and the news and even make jokes. But Elliot was emotionless. “He was cool, detached, unperturbed even by potentially embarrassing discussion of personal events,” Damasio writes in his book Descartes Error.

Damasio eventually uncovered a number of patients who showed similar types of brain damage as Elliot, and they all showed similar symptoms. The patients seemed to have lost all of their emotions. They appeared to be purely rational. There’s something about this idea that might appear attractive. Without emotions, it might seem like we can finally think clearly.

But it’s not, and patients like Elliot had a terrible time making decisions. Without their emotions, they became lost in rational thought. They lacked an ability to think, to reason their way through problems. There were often money problems, and Elliot lost a large sum of money to a swindler with a vague business scheme.

These patients simply couldn’t get a feel for the overall nature of an issue. Damasio once asked a patient with similar frontal lobe damage about the next time that he planned to visit the lab. Damasio suggested two dates to the patient, who began reviewing his calendar.

For the next 30 minutes, the patient outlined all the logic involved in deciding between the two dates. He had previous commitments and later commitments. He mentioned the weather and the time and other potential meetings. The patient talked about anything that might possibly shape his decision.

“It took enormous discipline to listen to all of this without pounding on the table and telling him to stop,” Damasio writes. “But we finally did tell him, quietly, that he should come on the second of the alternative dates. His response was equally calm and prompt. He simply said: ‘That’s fine.’ Back the appointment book went into his pocket, and then he was off.”

When it comes to learning—and thinking—it turns out that our emotions work as a first line of defense. They serve as a type of doorman, telling us if we should engage the skills of reason or not. This is what Elliot lacked: He didn’t have a way to signal that he should embrace reason. He didn’t know how—or when—to think. As Damasio argues, “Emotions bring the body into the loop of reason.”

There’s an even deeper connection between thought and feeling, though, and the source of the issue goes back again to our brain. Our nervous system is not like a car engine with discrete and independent parts. Rather, a brain is a sea of connections, a mass of interwoven parts, constantly reusing the same neural parts for different purposes.

Social pain, for instance, runs on the same brain circuit as physical pain. Emotional anguish ignites the same neural systems as corporal anguish. In many ways, there’s no neural network difference between the pain of feeling alone and the pain of slashing your finger, and in the end, the dopamine-fueled happiness that comes from solving a math problem is ultimately not that different than the dopamine-fueled happiness that comes with connecting with a friend.

Put differently, the head is part of the heart, the body is often no different than the brain. The lab studies that undergird this work are legendary—and frankly, more than a little weird. If someone is physically uncomfortable, for instance, they’ll view other people’s faces as angrier. Prompt someone to be forgiving, and the feeling of redemption will make them jump higher in a test of physical ability. My favorite? If people give a random object the middle finger, they have a lower opinion of that object, even if they have no experience with the object.

Psychologist Sian Beilock also recommends that people incorporate hand gestures to help remember a specific idea.

There are some fascinating applications of this idea. For example, the next time you’re faced with a geometry problem—or even an architectural drawing—research suggests that you should run your fingers over the drawing as a way to gain a deeper grasp of the issue embedded in the problem. According to researchers, the hand gestures promote learning by making the drawings easier to understand.

Psychologist Sian Beilock also recommends that people incorporate hand gestures to help remember a specific idea. So if you want to make sure to thank the host at the end of a speech, make sure to associate the words of gratitude with a specific movement like a nod during practice sessions. Then at the speech, give the nod, and the movement will spark the memory of the words.

For my own part, I’ll often use my hands to help me remember the codes for conference call numbers. Not long ago, for instance, I had to dial into a meeting line. The dial-in number had three fours in a row, and so I stuck out three fingers as a way to better remember the digits, basically offloading the memory to my hands, using my body as a form of intelligence. For a short moment, in other words, my body served as my mind.

There’s something bigger going on here, to be sure, and in many way, the issue is knowledge of ourselves. We have to understand our emotions, and Yale University professor Marc Brackett argues that people have far more resilience if they identify their feelings. Whether it’s a fierce argument with a friend--or just wanting an ice cream--Brackett recommends labels. So we should tell ourselves: My buddy is making me angry or I would really love that ice cream.

Once we know our emotions, we can take steps to manage them. After we tag a certain feeling, we can begin to think that feeling through. Often, this type of emotional coping requires a type of a pep talk to ourselves, offering ourselves support after a defeat or difficulty.

Recent studies show that it helps if we speak to ourselves with authority. If someone wants a marshmallow, they should tell themselves: You might like the one marshmallow right now but two marshmallows will be even better. Indeed, research shows that the second person “you” is more effective than using the first-person “I” in self-talk. The reason? The second person is more definitive, and so people are more likely to listen to the voice in their head.

To boost emotional management, to be more resilient, people should reframe difficult activities in a different light.

Community plays a role, too. Fordham University’s Joshua Brown argues that a lot of emotional resilience comes down to a sense of social connection, a feeling of group-ish togetherness. One of the reasons that resisting a marshmallow was so hard for the children in the seminal Walter Mischel study of self-control, for instance, was that the kids were alone in a room without any friends, without anyone to offer support.   

For his part, Mischel argues for the shifting of thoughts. To boost emotional management, to be more resilient, people should reframe difficult activities in a different light. If someone is trying to lose weight, for instance, then a rich dessert should be seen as “poison” rather than a “treat,” according to Mischel, because it makes the dessert seem far less tempting.

Similarly, Mischel advocates for “if-then” plans. So instead of thinking maybe I’ll study later, people should think: If I study now, then I can go out later. Clear rules make it simpler for people to manage their emotions because there’s less emotion to manage. Instead of feeling or even thinking, people are relying on habit, and that takes less emotional energy. As Mischel argues, the goal is “taking the effort out of effortful control.”

The key point is that learning requires calm. In order for us to gain understanding, there needs to be mental tranquility. I got a very concrete sense of this idea when I met up with neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, who has done some important work on the emotional nature of learning. A professor at the University of Southern California, Immordino-Yang was in Washington for an event, and she asked me if I could pick her up from the airport for our interview.

It was a Thursday evening, and as we drove away from the terminal, Immordino-Yang’s suitcase stashed in my trunk, I began to ask questions. But while Immordino-Yang provided nuanced explanations, I found myself struggling to understand. Nervous about the traffic and the driving and the directions, my mind could not really engage with her remarks.

I merged onto the highway, half-listening to her talk, recognizing words but not grappling with any sort of richer meaning. Immordino-Yang explained that “the brain’s default mode is not just a kind of resting state. It’s an active consolidation mechanism.”

Students need to have time and opportunities and skill, and encouragement to be able to go inside and kind of internally reflect...

I wondered about the best way to reach Immordino-Yang’s hotel, navigating streets and stoplights while Immordino-Yang continued. “Students need to have time and opportunities and skill, and encouragement to be able to go inside and kind of internally reflect,” she said. “Dynamic learning is a process of moving between thoughtful reflection and a kind of simulation in your head.”

Immordino-Yang argued that people often don’t take enough time to engage in reflection. Maybe the person is driving a car—or checking their email—but they’re not fully engaged. They’re distracted, and so they don’t have the feeling of emotional composure, of mental quiet, that supports richer forms of understanding. People, she argued, need to engage in “productive mind wandering.”

Research journals have brimmed with similar conclusions in recent years, and studies have shown that spending time outdoors can help people think through problems. If someone plays with some plastic bricks for a while, they do better on creativity tests. Daydreaming has also been shown to boost cognition. These sorts of reflective activities matter a lot for metacognition, too. We’re much better at thinking about thinking when we’ve had some quiet moments, and it turns out that just a short break can improve our metacognition skills.

Practically speaking, people should be considering their emotional state as they learn. They need to ensure that they feel serene and focused, ready and centered. According to Immordino-Yang, feelings of equanimity run in lockstep with richer forms of learning. Without some sort of cognitive peace, there is no cognitive understanding.

Some organizations have taken up the banner for increased contemplation. Technology is the target in some areas. A few universities have banned cell phones in the classroom, while France has gone so far as to limit Wi-Fi usage in class. Other organizations have just established quiet rooms in Baltimore, a marketing start-up named Groove created a library with a “no-talking” rule. Or take Google. While the company is famous open floor plan, the tech firm encourages employees to book a private office if they need to really focus.

After my talk with Immordino-Yang, I also experienced the benefits of this sort of relaxed contemplation. Driving home alone after dropping the scientist off at her hotel, my mind began to drift. I began to think about her argument and how it might fit with everything else that knew. As the car purred along the streets, as I steered my Honda towards my house, I felt relaxed—and I was finally able to grapple with what she meant, that people need to “internally reflect in order to learn.”

In other words, I finally could manage how I learned—and felt.

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