Your emotions play a key role in learning and memory. Know how to manipulate your emotions and enhance your retainment of information.
The hairs on your neck stand straight up. You back becomes erect and your gaze instantly finds the source of the noise. Ms. Johnson, sick of the class’ lack of focus, decided to slam her book shut, instantly getting the attention of everyone in the room.
“I’m sick of the interruptions! If you don’t want to listen then I can hand out a pop-quiz,” she mutters. The mere sound of her voice sends chills of fear down the backs of her students. Having a strong desire to not take a test, they keep their gaze on her, a signal that they are now paying attention.
Teachers have used emotion as a tactic to draw attention for a very long time.
It seems as though the strategy works. The students forget what is happening around them and pay attention. Are they better off though? Is the emotional state they are in have that much of an impact upon their education?
When we concern ourselves with a project, we have a distinct estimation of the outcome of that plan. We have a “blueprint” of the end. We have certain hypotheses and expectations associated with the project.
When an event occurs which somehow shows one of those expectations to be wrong, we enter a state of uneasiness. We become frustrated. We get emotional.
How are emotions tied to outcomes?
Emotions are largely responsible for our cares and interests in our daily experience. According to The Handbook of Emotion and Memory: Research and Theory (1), emotions are the result of a system of goal and interest oriented actions. They promote priorities and values which we are extremely interested in. Achievement of these concerns results in positive emotions, while failing results in frustration and negative emotions.
Emotions, then, are indicators of our general success in getting to a certain outcome.
Arousal Leads To Thinking
Remember the last time you were wrong about something? When someone informed you that you were misinformed?
What happened? You most likely became angry, a little defensive. You salvaged what you had of your dignity and went straight to Google and started educating yourself. You probably became a little obsessed for awhile.
You may not have cared about the issue much until that moment, that moment that you felt humiliated. Now you can’t stop looking for an answer. The problem became emotional for you. Before it was merely a conversational piece, but now it is about not looking like a fool in front of your peers.
When your concern is not met, when your expectation does not happen, the frustration that occurs engages the autonomic nervous system, activating the release of hormones, which lead to a state of enhanced arousal (1).
As a result, you become more focused, more energetic. Also, your mind mulls over the problem over and over again. You have been stirred from your rest, and yearn to be able to relax again. Solving the problem will allow you to get back to that state.
This state of arousal leads to an enhanced state of focus. Because you are constantly turning over thoughts about the problem in your head, you are more likely to pay attention to the incoming stimuli associated with that problem. You connect the stimuli to other past experiences, allowing you to more easily remember the event.
It is commonplace that what we encode and remember from an event depends on our attention–whether we attended to it at all, how much, and to which aspects. The more attention paid to some aspect of an event, the more securely it is encoded into memory; this is achieved by relating it to other concepts, themes, and events in our memory. One of the major determinants is the interestingness of the event or some aspect of the information. (1)
The attribute of interestingness is extremely important. The thing we are studying must connect to our concerns. If we are not concerned with the topic, then it is not interesting in the least.
While the encoding of the emotional event is greater than a neutral event, the events before and after are more badly encoded than if they were neutral.
According to the Handbook (1), studies performed by Christianson and Loftus presented a compilation of slides to certain spectators. While half were given a succession of pictures depicting a usual, every day story, the other half was shown a story of extreme emotional content.
Those shown the slides with emotional content were more likely to remember what was going on in those slides at a later date than the one’s shown the neutral slides. However, they were worse at remembering the slides both before and after the emotional ones.
What this shows is that our attention is so directly focused on the emotion, that we lose the ability to pay attention to what else is going on. Our thoughts become obsessed about the thing we see at being the most interesting.
- Be aware of gaps in your thinking. When we come across a problem situation involving something we are concerned with, we are more likely to mull things over in an attempt to get at the truth. Seek out your own gaps in your thinking and attempt to solve those gaps. They will be something you care about.
- Connect yourself emotionally to a topic. The right state of arousal will result in better encoding of information into memory. Find something out about the topic that you find interesting or care about. Connect it to some event in your life in which it could have helped you steer clear of a troublesome situation.
- Focus on the right emotion. While emotions help you learn to a great degree, they can also distract you greatly from other things which may be relevant as well. You may re-read a passage while in a different mood. Have a conversation when you are feeling better. You will most likely see things that you missed before because you had been distracted by your emotion.
Learning how your emotions are connected to your ability to learn will allow you to use them to learn tough and deep topics. Handle them as a tool for knowledge, as a way of expressing passion about what you seek to learn.
The Handbook of emotion and memory: research and theory
By Sven-Åke Christianson