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Once More, With Feeling: Emotion and Meaning in Learning

Think about some of your most powerful, vivid memories. What do they all have in common?

Chances are, the things you remember best involve more than facts and figures. Our strongest memories tend to be associated with powerful emotions and deep meaning—the birth of a child, a meaningful personal victory, the moment you learned you lost a loved one. Whether the feelings evoked are positive or negative, emotional and meaningful moments usually become deeply etched in our memories.

What roles do emotion and meaning play in memory? And how can we tap into the processes involved in emotion and meaning to improve learning? Let's take a closer look at how emotion, meaning, and memory are intertwined, and what that means for teaching and learning.

Perception, Attention, and Memory

Emotion and cognition are inseparably entwined; they are both part of how the brain processes and responds to input from the world around us. Emotion tells us what to pay attention to, whether it's good or bad, and how important it is to remember. Meaning tells us how it fits into the things we already know and why it matters.

Our senses take in countless data points from our environment every minute; paying attention to and remembering everything equally would be overwhelming. Instead, our brains filter out anything that is deemed to be unimportant and focus only on things that provoke emotions or have significant meaning.

Together, emotion and meaning act as filters that direct our attention and impact our perceptions of the world around us. Emotion is the brain's way of telling us "hey, pay attention…this is important!" We are primed to respond to things that evoke strong emotional responses such as fear ("Look out! A lion!"), excitement ("Hey, is that a honeycomb?"), and love ("This is my child."). Our brains also respond to things that have meaningful connections to what we already know, or that are likely to be important for our survival, happiness, or success.

In addition to telling us what to pay attention to, emotion and meaning also have a role in helping the brain encode new memories. Emotions are primarily processed in the amygdala, which is also responsible for modulating memory consolidation. The prefrontal cortex is where we attach meaning to a perception and fit new ideas into existing schemas. Both systems are connected to the hippocampus, where long-term memories are formed.

Effective learning taps into both parts of this system: the "bottom up" emotional reaction in the amygdala and the "top down" meaning-maker in the prefrontal cortex. Memories that have both strong emotional content and significant meaning are encoded more effectively for long-term retention and recall.

Meaning is also related to critical thinking. Critical and creative thinking is how we make meaning from new information and figure out how it fits into our existing knowledge base. Rigorous thinking—including questioning, analyzing, and problem solving—turns us from passive observers into active meaning makers. As information becomes more meaningful, it also becomes more memorable.

The Power of Positive Emotions

Emotion impacts learning in another powerful way. We are hard-wired to approach things that induce positive emotions and avoid things that induce negative emotions. Thus, the way a student feels about learning has a significant effect on how well she is able to learn.

When we are experiencing negative emotions, the amygdala is in "threat mode." That means our emotional and mental energy is directed towards the perceived threat and how we can get away from it. This leaves fewer cognitive reserves to process other kinds of information. Our brains are designed to narrow our focus when we are under threat until the danger has passed.

That's why children who come to school hungry, stressed, or fearful have a hard time concentrating on schoolwork. It is hard to learn new things when our amygdalas are in threat mode.

For many students, school itself, and the learning assignments we ask them to tackle, are the source of the threat. When students struggle with learning, learning tasks become threats to their sense of self-esteem and wellbeing. Students who think of themselves as "bad at school" or incapable of learning often start reacting to this threat with avoidance behaviors such as failing to complete assignments or acting out to draw attention away from their learning difficulties. This becomes a vicious cycle, as the negative feelings they have developed around school make learning even more difficult.

In contrast, students who have positive associations with school and learning are more likely to be successful. When we are relaxed and confident, learning comes more easily. Positive emotions help the brain process and encode information more effectively for better retention, recall, and comprehension. At the same time, when students associate learning tasks with success, they are motivated to pay attention and engage more deeply with the material and the task.

Building Confidence and Critical Thinking in the Classroom

One of the most important things we can do to enhance learning is to set up a learning environment where all students feel safe and successful. Part of this is creating a classroom culture that is supportive, safe, and positive. The other half of the equation is ensuring that all students are set up for success in their learning tasks and are able to create meaning.

Thinking Maps helps students of all backgrounds and ability levels maximize their learning potential. No matter what level they are starting from, all students are able to create a Map that reflects their thinking process and abilities. Students with limited English proficiency or who are emerging writers can create image-based Maps that still allow them to explore complex ideas. As their proficiency with language and thinking grows, their Maps will become more complex and word-based. The Maps allow students with different ability levels to be successful as they engage with grade-level content, communicate their ideas to peers, and analyze complex content.

Thinking Maps also helps build the foundational cognitive skills that are the basis for all learning. The Maps are simple enough that even young children can understand how to create and apply them. At the same time, they enable analysis and expression of complex ideas at the high school level and beyond. The Maps activate cognitive processes that are necessary for making meaning. As students become more proficient in using the Maps, they develop automaticity in utilizing higher-order cognitive skills such as comparing, categorizing, sequencing, and analyzing cause-and-effect or part-to-whole relationships. This frees up brain processing power for rigorous thinking and problem solving and enables students to build meaning and connect new ideas to existing frameworks.

Developing these core cognitive skills, and providing a template for thinking that allows all students to feel successful, is a powerful way to build positive associations with learning along with crucial critical thinking skills. The Maps empower students to clarify their thinking, show what they know, and share their ideas with teachers and peers. As their confidence in their learning ability grows, students can focus on making meaning from new content. In this way, success builds the foundation for more success.

Download Our White Paper for More!

Want to know more about brain-based learning? Download our white paper: The Building Blocks of Brain-Based Learning—The Research Base for Thinking Maps. You'll learn:

  • How the brain processes, filters, stores, and retrieves information
  • The six building blocks of brain-based learning
  • How Thinking Maps taps into the way we are already wired to learn

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