How Emotions and Feelings Shape Learning

Body, thought, and emotion are intimately blended through complex nerve networks, and function together 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 react unconsciously to them. They are primary and universal survival tools that enable and allow us to experience joy, surprise, sadness, fear, disgust, or threat. Since emotions are linked to survival, they receive neurological message priority. This article will give insight into just how our feelings and emotions impact the quality of our learning.

Are emotions and feelings the same thing? NO, they are not. Emotions are linked to survival, and feelings are not. Furthermore, feelings 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 many years. When triggered by some later stressful event, they can evoke negative beliefs, desires, fantasies, compulsions, obsessions, addictions, or dissociations. 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 of stress and its long-term effects. Stress is cumulative, and the effects of even moderate 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 efficiency. 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.

Emotion is literally energy in motion. Behavior, whether desirable or not, is often a manifestation of our emotions. And since the mind-body is one system, emotion also affects physiology.

by Brian Walsh.

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