How Emotions and Feelings Shape Learning

Body, thought, and emotion are intimately blended through complex nerve networks, and function in concert to shape our awareness. Emotions interpret, arrange, direct, and summarize information received through the five senses. They color our perception of the world and we often unconsciously react to them. They are primary and universal survival tools that permit us to experience joy, surprise, sadness, fear, disgust, or threat. Since emotions are linked to survival, they receive neurological message priority. This article will provide insight into just how our feelings and emotions impact the quality of our learning.

Are emotions and feelings the same thing? The difference is that feelings are not linked to survival. Furthermore, they are context-specific responses shaped by the environment, culture, and society. Emotions can be measured through variations in blood pressure, heart rate variability, brain-imaging techniques, and electro-dermal response. Feelings are difficult to measure. Some examples of feelings are frustration, anticipation, jealousy, cynicism, worry, and optimism. In the present context, I have reason for being particular about this distinction, though most people lump these together for convenience.

Traumatic events and enduring stress can take a toll on a person's physical and psychological health. The memory and accompanying negative emotions of a stressful incident or condition, at any point in life, can lay dormant for years. When triggered by some later stressful event, they can evoke negative beliefs, desires, fantasies, compulsions, obsessions, addictions, or dissociation. This toxic brew can inhibit learning and memory, and generally fracture human wholeness. Unless the person feels emotionally secure, it is almost impossible for the "thinking" parts of the brain (neo-cortex and frontal lobes) to function effectively.

All living things are created with built-in defense mechanisms. The human version is a fight-or-flight reaction to perceived threats. Stressors, whether sudden and unexpected or consistent and ongoing, trigger this natural effect. Most people are unaware of the common causes and the long-term effects of stress.

Stress is cumulative, and the effects of substantial stress are dissipated only after a period of twelve to eighteen months. Low-level consistent stress keeps the body in a constant fight-or-flight stance. This means that the mind-body is not able to operate at maximum performance. In order to maintain this steady defense mode, energy is diverted away from both the immune system and the brain. Stress and constant fear, at any age, create a chemical imbalance, which can confuse the brain's normal circuits.

A person's physical and emotional well-being is closely linked to the ability to effectively act, think, and learn. Long-term exposure to threat, conflict, or humiliation will damage self-esteem and may result in a condition known as learned helplessness. This chronic defensive posture is characterized by a vortex of negative emotions, self-limiting beliefs, apathy, anxiety, fear, mistrust, immature coping behaviors, and a diminished interest and ability to process information. This state is context-specific and can be triggered over and over by contact with a certain teacher, peer, subject, building, or memory.

An unusual physiological effect occurs during emotionally-stressful conditions. As a reflex response to a threat, the eyes move peripherally so that they can monitor a greater field of vision. This makes it virtually impossible for the eyes to track across a page of writing. Enduring stress will strengthen the muscles of the outer eye, making central focus and tracking a permanent problem. A condition of traumatized children is called "wall-eye" where both eyes are locked in a sustained distrustful peripheral focus. This condition can be overcome through whole-brain integration exercises.

There are many theories on emotions. According to Leslie Cameron-Bandler, author of Emotional Hostage: Rescuing Your Emotional Life, it is possible to experience 421 emotions, from rage to peace of mind. Emotion is literally energy in motion. Emotions and external behavior influence one another. Behavior, whether desirable or not, is often a manifestation of our emotions. And since the mind-body is one system, the reverse is true; emotion affects physiology.

Emotions influence perception and learning. In her book, Molecules of Emotions, Dr. Candace Pert wrote: "The brain filters our perceptions to create our 'reality'. The decisions about what we perceive, remember, and learn are regulated by emotion; the interaction of peptides and receptors in the brain. At the same time, emotions are a response to this filtered reality, memories, and learning." Certain positive emotions and feelings act as catalysts to learning. Curiosity, appreciation, and calmness enable receptivity and inhibit resistance. High self-esteem and self-confidence boost the learning process. Our innate personality types can indicate how we are apt to deal with the range of situations that life offers, and in which environments we are most comfortable.

Bestselling author and international speaker, Brian E. Walsh retired from a 30-year management career to return to formal study. Within four years he achieved his Ph.D. His book is available at http://www.UnleashingBrilliance.com

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