Published: 26 August 2020
Our emotions prepare our body to act in particular ways, so how do they affect our thinking and learning? John Castledine, Head of Learning Development and Design at NIHR, takes a look in his latest blog as part of the NIHR's Rethinking your Continuing Professional Development series.
When we are happy we have a ‘clear mind’ but when we are upset we can’t ‘think straight’.
Most people would agree that it is hard to learn or remember something when we are anxious, angry or depressed. Emotions can disrupt thinking and learning.
However this perspective might be ‘putting the cart before the horse’. An alternative view is that we only think deeply about the things we care about. Hence, emotional events are remembered more clearly, accurately and for longer periods of time than are neutral events. Cognition (the mental process of acquiring knowledge and understanding) is underpinned by emotion.
Our emotions prepare our body both physically and psychologically to act in particular ways. Jaak Panksepp proposed that there are seven primary emotional states, namely: seeking, rage, fear, lust, care, grief and play, that represent the basic foundations for living and learning. So-called negative emotions such as fear or rage, help us survive through prompting a fight-or-flight response.
Positive emotions such as play don’t seem as useful since they don’t have any immediate survival value. Dig deeper and we find that positive emotions encourage novel, varied, and exploratory thoughts and actions. And this contributes to the survival of our species in other ways.
Barbara Fredrickson’s ‘Broaden-and-build’ theory of positive emotions describes how curiosity about a landscape can become valuable navigational knowledge; pleasant interactions with a stranger could become a supportive friendship; and aimless physical play could build physical excellence. Over time, the skills and resources built by this broadened behavior enhance our abilities.
Fortunately most of us don’t face a Darwinian struggle for survival on a day-to-day basis. Hence a more relevant conclusion may be that the happier we are, the more flexible and creative we are in the way that we work.
In the book ‘Emotions, Learning, and the Brain’, by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, she observes that ‘When educators fail to appreciate the importance of students’ emotions, they fail to appreciate a critical force in students’ learning. One could argue, in fact, that they fail to appreciate the very reason that students learn at all’.
In taking ownership of our own CPD (Continuing Professional Development) we are both the educator and the student. So, how can we take heed of this advice? In rethinking our CPD I’d encourage you to focus upon the power of curiosity (seeking); the positive potential that can emerge from frustration (rage); and even reframing learning as fun (play).
For example, when we have a poor understanding of a subject matter, we can feel confused and frustrated. Underpinning our mood are two of the primary emotional states: seeking and rage. If we choose to amplify the drive to seek resolution of the conflicting, contradictory data AND we can suppress our irritation, then our emotions will spur us on to acquire clarification. Curiosity also has a further benefit. Studies have shown that memory for incidental material presented during curious states was also enhanced.
Our curiosity levels are at their highest when we are uncertain about whether our understanding is right or wrong. In other words; perceptions of our knowledge, rather than objective measures drives curiosity. This is why self-test diagnostics can be very helpful (even if they feel very unscientific for those of us working in Health Research).
Let’s consider the publication ‘Habits of an improver’ issued by The Health Foundation in 2015. This identified five dimensions: Influencing; Resilience; Creativity; Systems thinking; and Learning. Before reading the paper please take a couple of minutes to rate yourself against each of the dimensions. Rate yourself between 1 (this is a clear development need for you) and 4 (this is a relative strength). How easy was this? Now, rather than focusing on the lowest scores you may be better starting to explore the dimension where you are uncertain whether this is a strength or development need.
According to the proverb curiosity may be very dangerous for cats, but such emotions can certainly help our CPD!
Curious to know more? Here is an interesting TEDx talk on ‘This is Your Brain on Curiosity’ from Matthias Gruber.
John Castledine, Head of Learning Development and Design, NIHR