Anyone who’s ever felt passionate about an issue, had a teacher who made a subject more interesting, or experienced flow understands the link between learning and emotion. It turns out there’s a neurological reason for this. Researchers are now discovering that emotion and cognition are mutually and irrevocably intertwined.
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, an expert in the neuroscience of education, explains it like this: “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion.” Even more compelling, she and her research team have found that kids who tackle complex issues and make meaningful, personal connections to what they are learning actually grow their brains — “in particular, key brain networks associated with executive control, reflective thinking, emotion, and memory became more strongly connected to each other over time.”
The more students were given the opportunity to think deeply about “big issues and personal lessons,” the more their brains grew. But this relationship goes both ways — while the brain is activated by emotional connections, it is deactivated by the learning that students typically encounter in traditional classrooms.
Knowing this, we not only have an interest in providing learning experiences that provoke emotional cognitive connections for our kids — we have an obligation to do so.
If emotions are integral to how we think and learn, we should be doing everything we can to ensure that the education we provide encourages this connection. Kids need the opportunity to pursue their passions, develop meaningful working relationships with others, and engage in finding solutions to real-world problems. They need the opportunity to feel. It’s what’s necessary for them to become the capable, compassionate changemakers of the future that we need them to be.
Learn more about the connection between emotion and brain development from neuroscientist, psychologist, and professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang.