Emotions And Learning: Part I

I’ve never done a formal survey, but I’m going to guess that the majority of online courses don’t have a strong emotional impact on their audience. This is true even though it’s been known for some time that appealing to the emotions is one of the keys to motivating people, attracting their attention and facilitating memory.

I have to admit, I don’t always think hard enough about the emotional dimension of my audience either. But I sense that if we were better able to recognize and speak to a learner’s emotions, it would help us escape the rigid design mindset that often prevails in our community. This is the first in a three-part series about this topic.

Emotion and Cognition

The idea that emotion and cognition are opposing phenomena comes from a long philosophical and scientific tradition. It was thought that if emotions were connected to feelings and bodily sensations then they must be quite separate from cognition, which was associated with logic and the mind.

Now sophisticated imaging tools like the fMRI have demonstrated the error in this thinking. We now know that emotion and cognition are dynamically intertwined and interdependent in terms of both neurology and psychology. Emotion and cognition not only interact, but their integration is necessary for adaptive learning.

The Amygdala and All That

The amygdala is believed to play a key role in emotions

You can’t really discuss emotions without a nod to the amygdala. This is an almond shaped brain structure packed with neurons located as shown in this graphic (in red). Each half of the brain has one of these 1-inch long structures—not too far from the ear—thought to be part of the limbic system, which regulates emotion.

The amygdala is considered to be the primary component involved in emotional memory. Of interest to learning design, is that activation of the amygdala correlates with greater retention of information. In other words, increased emotional arousal following a learning event influences the strength of the memory for the event.

This makes sense in terms of survival. It’s important to remember the fearful and rewarding events in order to protect and enhance your life.

Emotions Are Our Alert System

Cognitive scientists define emotions as powerful, usually short-lived experiences that are a reaction to a specific stimulus. As part of the human evolutionary legacy, emotions arise from a rapid appraisal of an object or event’s significance in order to prepare us for action—similar to an alert system.

Emotions not only increase our general awareness and help us adapt to changes in an unpredictable environment, but they also facilitate social communication and interaction. That’s because we read the emotions of others through their facial expressions, bodily postures, gestures and tone of voice.

Related to this is the concept of feelings, which are the subjective experience of emotions. Whereas emotions are thought to be linked to survival, feelings are not. Emotions can be measured in terms of brain imaging, skin temperature, heart rate and blood pressure. Feelings are currently difficult to measure.

Rapid Decision-making

In terms of making decisions, emotions are thought to bypass the cognitive processes involved in decision-making. While decision-making through cognitive processes involves evaluating and analyzing the costs and benefits of an action, emotional decision-making relies on “rule-of-thumb” concepts and approximations. Emotions allow us to make rapid evaluations and exert less mental effort when making decisions. That’s why advertisers prefer to appeal to the emotions.

As designers, developers, educators and online facilitators, we can take advantage of a person’s emotional capacity to enhance learning. Read about it in Emotions and Learning: Part II.

Do you try to speak to the emotional dimension of your audience? Tell us how.

Related Articles:
Emotions and Learning: Part II
10 Ways To Design For Emotions (Part III)

Books You May Like:

Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things
The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life

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  1. Mary Bertun says

    Great article. The best e-learning efforts speak to the emotional dimension and have a single message or call to action.

  2. laff 67 says

    After reading the article Emotions and Learning parts 1, 2 and 3 from http://theelearningcoach.com/learning, authors main point is online learning is void of emotion. The article explains learning requires and emotional element with the student. Today studying the brain with new technology shows a relationship with learning and emotion. In an MRI of the brain, the amygdale which controls emotions is red. Learning is retained a longer rates when emotion is involved.
    I learn best in an emotional state whether it is a positive or negative. I say both emotions because of the motivation. The author stated in part three, “the frustration of moderate failure can increase motivation for success.” Right now, I am in this state of mind. My motivation is intrinsic, completing new goals satisfying and becoming more tech savvy is rewarding in this ever fast moving pace. Before taking this course, fear of new technology prevented me from learning RSS feeds, blogs, and Google reader. Today, I am not out of the novice stage but have a better understanding navigating the web and even posting to other blogs.

  3. raymond short says

    I am doing my Masters in Learning Technologies
    at the National College of Ireland.

    I want to see if an elearning stress prevention programme will reduce stress levels and increase employee engagement.

    google stress prevention clinic elearning.

    If you want to participate in the study
    email me at raymondshort324@yahoo.co.uk

  4. raymond short says

    Emotion is very important. Sometimes our emotional response is below the conscious radar system. So the brain will only store information or learning, which the emotional system likes.
    Just like a good or bad taste in your mouth. The brain will not build strong neural connection to what the emotional system decides. Freud was write when he said that the unconscious is like the larger part of an iceberg.


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