Tip #526: The Best Learning States

“Man is the only creature whose emotions are entangled with his memory.” Marjorie Holmes

No, we’re not talking about geographical states. That would be an entirely different political and emotion-laden discussion.

Instead, we are talking about the emotional states of your learners.

We know that emotional states impact learning and behavior. Now brain research explains how this happens. Let’s look at the hormones that affect the brain in such a way as to create these emotional states.

The three most commonly studied hormones that transmit messages to the brain (neurotransmitters) are dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. Dopamine is related to experiences of pleasure and the reward-learning process. In other words, when you do something good, you’re rewarded with dopamine and gain a pleasurable, happy feeling. This teaches your brain to want to do it again and again. Dopamine helps to create a positive learning state.

Serotoninis a neurotransmitter associated with memory and learning. Researchers believe it plays a part in the regeneration of brain cells, which has been linked to easing depression. An imbalance in serotonin levels results in an increase in anger, anxiety, depression and panic.

Norepinephrine helps moderate your mood by controlling stress and anxiety. Adrenaline is the “fight or flight” hormone. Their primary role is arousal. When stressed, you become more aware, awake, focused and generally more responsive.

Both are largely responsible for the immediate reactions we feel when stressed. Because it increases your heart rate, adrenaline also gives you a surge of energy and focuses your attention (both necessary when faced with a dangerous situation). A certain amount of norepinephrine and adrenaline can help to create a positive learning state.

Cortisol is a corticosteroid hormone that is released during stressful situations. If you are in highly stressful situations, then a large amount of cortisol remains in your brain. This can adversely affect memory creation.

When learners are in the negative states of stress, anxiety, anger, panic or depression, they tend to go into a survival mode and are much less likely to learn.

Brains can learn under extreme conditions. However, complex learning requires background knowledge, working memory, processing skills, long-term retrieval and risk-taking. All of these require positive learning states.

I attended a four-day workshop with Eric Jensen, titled: “Teaching With the Brain in Mind.” (Most of this article is drawn from what I learned during that workshop).

According to Eric, the all-time best learning states include:

Anticipation                          Intrigue

Curiosity                                Confidence

Suspicion                              Skepticism

Challenge                              Inquisitiveness

Suspense                              Expectancy

Perplexity                              Puzzlement

These are all unfinished or “hungry” states, motivating learners to work hard to complete or satisfy them. This helps to explain, in part, why adult learners love learning activities that involve problem solving, “what if?” hypotheses, analyses and/or competition. It also explains why cliffhangers are so captivating.

Emotional events get preferential encoding in the brain. There is a strong correlation between how vivid a memory is and how emotional the original event was. A good way to increase the probability of learning and retention is to use “emotional punctuation.” During or right after learning, evoke an emotion so the brain “locks in” a memory of the event. Just make it a pleasant emotion, because pleasant emotions are usually remembered better than unpleasant emotions.

So, now we know why it is important to create and maintain a positive and comfortable learning environment and use engaging learning activities. These actions  help to keep your learners’ levels of dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and adrenaline well balanced to achieve the best learning states.

May your learning be sweet (but not too sweet!)


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