Emotions & Education: Enhancing Learning in the Classroom

“Students learn as much for a teacher as they do from a teacher.”
—Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University

A man in a black trench coat strolls up to the opened classroom doorway, glances in, turns and continues walking. All eyes shift immediately and fixate on the potential intruder. Body orientation addresses the target until he is comfortably out of our sight, and we hear sighs of relief. Then, students refocus on the teacher and their concentration on learning resumes. But does student learning restart with no thought to the interruption? According to Dutch psychologist Nico Frijda, the answer is no. When the relevance-signaling systems in the brain are activated, our emotions initiate a quick situational appraisal to answer the emotionally-centered questions. What was that? Friend or foe? Danger or opportunity? The series of secondary questions in this emotional equation entertains our best options for next steps: What should I do? Was that something I should approach, or avoid? Will it satisfy a goal, drive or a need of mine? Whether we wish to accept this reality, we exist in an almost perpetual state of emotional arousal and decision-making based on feelings.

When we think, remember, imagine and mentally rehearse interpersonal encounters, emotions dominate the contents and determine the directions that our thoughts will take. At any given moment, what we pay attention to and what we choose to ignore are driven by emotions. Memory gives us a personal past that is only made possible as a consequence of what we paid attention to while we were in the present, which was governed not by the events themselves but by how those events were linked to our emotional states at the time.

Imagine an “emotional number line,” with zero at its center, +10 to the farthest point right and -10 to the farthest point left. Our strongest memories are formed at either extreme of the emotional continuum. The representative neural pathways there are flooded with glutamate — the most common neurotransmitter — signaling the brain to encode the event with a We’d better remember this! marker. The closer we approach zero on the continuum, though, the more emotionally indifferent we become, relegating that experience to the mental trash heap (“trivia”), where it is promptly forgotten.

In schools, we often are confronted with the mutually exclusive binary choice of being either intellectual or emotional, but seldom is their interdependence acknowledged. All memories are not creating equal; students learn what they care about and are most interested in personally relevant matters. The most difficult things to remember are those that have no personal-emotional importance to us. Those with a deep emotional connection have greater longevity, are easiest to retrieve from long-term memory and enjoy the greatest degree of durability; nothing short of acute regional brain damage will dislodge them from permanent memory.

Learning commonly refers to immediate changes to the brain that come by way of experience, but all learning begins with emotions and relies on the same dynamic interplay between emotions and cognition.


Human emotions are complex and highly developed, but simultaneously primitive and somewhat unrefined, influenced by both primary and secondary needs. Emotions can serve as powerful motivators, learning catalysts and healthy memory boosters, just as easily as they can be disruptive forces in our lives. most mental health disorders are grounded in problems with emotions or attention, and frequently both.

Since emotions are subjective experiences, educators and the scientific community in the past have tended to dismiss them because they cannot be measured, controlled or calibrated. Fortunately, neuroscientists and educators are turning to one another to answer the same questions concerning the impact of emotions on learning.

When we evaluate elements in our surroundings, we engage the emotions, which provoke an instantaneous bodily (visceral) response to each element, taking note of those features deemed of greatest emotional importance. Following our cognitive-emotional assessment, we might smile, become fearful or angry. We might tenderly approach a person or an object almost instantaneously. Residing in between each of the basic emotions, we find a great number of other human emotions. Our feelings might best be viewed along the following seven continua of emotional ranges:

  1. Love—Indifference—Hate
  2. Ecstasy—Sadness—Remorse
  3. Excitement—Serenity—Boredom
  4. Trust—Apprehension—Terror
  5. Pride —Acceptance—Shame
  6. Pleasure—Relief—Pain
  7. Admiration—Disapproval—Loathing

Humans are endowed with a long list of emotions, each with a short list of associated conditions under which the emotion is expressed. The human face has 44 muscles which can produce over 10,000 different facial expressions, many of which are universal and easily deciphered, revealing our underlying emotions and intentions. Some emotional experiences involve the entire body (laughter, sobbing, excitement, etc.), while others are more subtle (acceptance, hope, optimism, admiration, etc.), where the internal feeling remains largely concealed. Over the course of evolution, we have developed distinct emotions for different occasions as being the most appropriate responses, as opposed to automatic reactions witnessed in animals with a less-developed cortex and a relatively small catalog of emotional responses, regardless of the environmental trigger.

Psychologist Paul Ekman, one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, discovered that each human emotion comes with an almost universally identifiable facial expression, regardless of culture, ethnicity or experience. More interestingly, Ekman and Dr. Maureen O’Sullivan uncovered the phenomenon of human microexpressions, which reveal our true underlying emotions and are only detectable with the assistance of a high-speed camera. Sequenced images capture facial reactions that are sliced into fractions of a second, exposing the microseconds of sneers, snarls, smiles, etc., which occur so quickly and whose duration is so brief that they cannot be detected by the naked eye in real time but become photographically clear upon review. Facial cues can subconsciously activate the orbitofrontal cortex in such a manner that we have “a bad feeling about Mary,” but we’re not certain as to precisely why.

When we are cold, we shiver. Yet shivering would be an unsuitable behavioral reaction to experiencing a heat wave, where we should perspire instead, which is a specific response to a specific environmental change that our bodies detect.

Strangely, the human body-brain system has evolved over the millennia without expanding our response repertoire to make distinctions between a physical threat, an intellectual threat, a psychological threat, a social threat or an emotional threat (a challenge to our precious egos). While each psychological condition may differ, our physiological defenses are nearly identical, due to a mysteriously limited biological repertoire for an “advanced” organism.

With our first glance at the trench-coated stranger passing our classroom door, our limbic system
— interconnected anatomical structures nearly encircling the brain stem — orchestrates a “startle response,” led by the amygdala. This can occur so spontaneously that the body is responding (sweating and/or running) before the brain is consciously aware of the threatening stimulus — occasionally generating an irrational false alarm, under the “better safe than sorry” principle. Cortical processing in the more sophisticated regions of the brain has to play catch-up in its appraisal of the precise type of threat, the degree of threat and our history with that type of threat, based on incoming information now being evaluated by the slower-processing cerebral cortex.

There are multiple attention-getting elements in the environment, all simultaneously competing for the limited amount of attentional resources in the brain. Like a motorist permitted to drive in the fast lane of a freeway, fear is a high-priority customer and the highest-ranking traveler on the neural superhighway, with unrivaled authority to sprint past reason and other more thoughtful responses at any time. Human survival did not allow our ancestors the luxury of weighing each environmental variable cautiously prior to taking action. Eons later, in contemporary humans, our first reaction is still to freeze and (assuming that time permits) scrutinize the situation, during which time we can plan our next move, which may be to flee or, if we absolutely must, to fight. Physiological changes to our body rise to promote peak performance levels, preparing us for the fastest getaway or the best defense we can muster. When these systems work collectively and effectively to ward off danger, we call that an “adaptive response.”

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