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All Learning Is Emotional


Thu Oct 16 2014

All Learning Is Emotional

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

― Benjamin Franklin


In the area of adult learning, Ben Franklin turns out to be quite prescient. If you think that emotions have no place in training or should be relegated to “soft” skills, you’ll need to update your thinking, based on the latest brain science and Ben’s instincts as a consummate educator.

Let’s take a look at how the relationship between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex requires a re-evaluation of the role of emotions in the learning process.

Meet the limbic system—your emotional brain

Neuroscientists have known for years that the human brain (as well those of other primates) is really multiple structures that have grown together through the process evolution. The oldest part of the brain is called the limbic system. This collection of structures in the brain is sometimes called our “survival center,” because it controls autonomic functions, such as breathing, as well as the “fight or flight” response, which helps us react quickly when we are faced with a dangerous situation.

This same area of the brain is responsible for our emotional responses to the world. There was a time when the limbic system and the cerebral cortex were considered to be almost opposing sides of a debate, with the cerebral cortex representing rational thought and logic, while the limbic system represented irrational, raw emotion.


Television’s Big Bang Theory recently featured this point of view as a boxing match. However, the reality is far more complex. In fact, we now know that these two parts of our brains work in tandem in the learning process.

Emotions are critical to learning

We’ve long known that emotions experienced during a learning event can intensify our memories and make them easier to access than non-emotional memories. For example, you may remember the face of the pretty girl who sat behind you in freshman algebra much better than you remember how to solve quadratic equations. The dark side of this linkage is demonstrated by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can trap a victim in an endless loop of reliving a horrifying experience.

The link between emotions and learning goes even deeper, as research now indicates that an emotional response is actually critical to rationality. Our emotions play a key role in recognizing patterns, which is how the brain learns.

The brain also links different ideas and concepts based on how we feel about them, so without an emotional “tag,” we will not be able to retrieve the information or apply it to new situations. In fact, Dr. Antonio Damasio has demonstrated that without emotions, no learning can take place. This means that, even if you haven’t designed your training to elicit an emotional response, if it is effective, it is doing just that.


This begs the question: Why not make the linkage between emotions more intentional, so we can heighten the effect?

Putting emotions into learning

Here are a few ideas for putting emotions into learning that you may want to try in your next training or education event.

Ask yourself what emotional response you are targeting for your learners. How do you want them to feel as they implement the new skill you are covering? Structuring the learning event to trigger this target emotion will ensure that it is coded in the Cerebral Cortex for future use.

Remind learners of emotional events related to your subject matter. If you are teaching customer service skills, your message will be much stronger if you remind learners how they feel about poor vs. excellent service, rather than just reviewing best practices.

Deliver your message in a story. Our brains are highly empathetic to the experience of others. In fact, when we are watching events play out, our brains respond exactly as though we are experiencing the event ourselves. Instead of telling sales people how to handle objections, for example, tell them a story about a sales person who goes through the process with a customer. Be sure to highlight the salesperson’s emotional response as she first fears that she will lose the sale all the way through to her elation when she closes the deal.

Introduce failure into your learning design. By putting learners in a situation where they may fail, you will be encouraging their emotional response to a challenge, motivating them to make an effort to learn and conquer the challenge. That feeling of accomplishment is much more powerful when it follows an initial failure.

Show learners how to be aware of emotions in the learning process. Try stopping your training delivery every so often and ask learners to what they are feeling. This practice will help them make those strong links between learning and emotion.

Surprise your learners. Our brains are hard-wired to be curious, so you creating an element of surprise will engage, delight and challenge your learners.

Talk to a teacher. While many of us in adult education need to be reminded of the emotional requirement in learning, you’ll find many great ideas in the Kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12) teaching community, when educators are more comfortable with consciously targeting an emotional response in support of the learning experience. If you want to get a better handle on how to leverage the power of emotions in your work as adult educator, seek out a great teacher and implement their best practices in your work.

How are you feeling right now?

Emotions are not distractions to learning; they are its key enablers. If I’ve been successful in stimulating critical thought in your brain, you should be feeling at least one emotion right now. Can you describe that feeling?

I’m also experiencing emotions as I write this post. And all of us are learning. I can almost feel the new pathways between neurons being formed in my brain. How about you?

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