Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

Dec 16 Fond Memories

If you are Christian like me, you will have many fond and vivid memories of holiday celebrations whether it is a family tradition of religious cerebration, decorating the tree, visiting relatives on Christmas Eve or Day, or the menu of Christmas meals. You will always recall your all time favorite Santa gift, or an unexpected family Christmas event such as Dad falling into the Christmas tree while decorating it. These memories seem like they just happened, easily told to one-and-all, and are recalled with little effort and in great accuracy and detail.

Don’t you wish students remembered information given in the classroom with as much clarity and accuracy? Actually, this is possible with an increased understanding of how three areas of the brain operate: the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, the hippocampus, the Grand Central Station of memory, and the brain’s reward center.

Psychologists have long known that emotionally intense events produce vivid memories and emotional arousal provides an advantage for the long-term storage of important details of an experience. Emotions occur in response to events, keep our brains focused on critical information, and motivate us to develop behaviors to gain what we desire and avoid what we fear.

The area of the brain associated with emotional learning and memory is the amygdala. The amygdala is the brain’s intensity button, panic button, anger button, and the flight-or-flight button. It allows us to feel and form memories of pleasure, rage, or fear.

The amygdala sets a person’s emotional tone by focusing attention on emotional events in the world, and then stores highly charged emotional memories, both positive and negative. It creates and supervises not only the formation of emotional experiences but also maintains the memory of emotional experiences. Moreover, brain-imaging studies have shown that the greater amygdala activation during an event, the greater the learning/encoding, and the likelihood for memory recall.

If the amygdala is emotion, then the hippocampus is memory. The amygdala and the hippocampus are not only functionality related but also anatomically located in close proximity. Structurally, both regions are near the center of the brain, approximately between the ears, with the amygdala in front of the hippocampus.

The hippocampus is deeply involved in memory formation and the conversion of short-term memories into longer-term memories. It is in constant communication with the amygdala. Strong emotions that are emitted by the amygdala improve the encoding process in the hippocampus nerve cells, thereby making it easier for retrieval of an experience. Naturally, this is valuable because it allows events to be more easily remembered given that they were “emotionally stimulating.”

The third piece of the Christmas memory puzzle is the brain’s reward system that greatly affects and influences the amydala. The reward system’s natural function is to provide a reward for pleasurable feelings associated with life sustaining functions (e.g., eating, mating) and to encourage repetition of that function. The reward circuit is controlled by neurotransmitters, chemical substances that function in the nervous system. When activated, the circuit triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that induces a pleasurable feeling, and unsurprisingly, the amygdala is exceptionally responsive to dopamine. Additionally, dopamine is directly involved in the cognitive skills of attention, concentration, prediction, and in controlling motor skills such as balance and movement.

Activities that produce dopamine are many: humor, music, being read to, feeling self-appreciation, acts of kindness, interacting well with family and peers, expressions of gratitude, choice, optimism, positive peer interaction, movement, and natural light.

Noteworthy, drugs of abuse stimulate the same response as dopamine, and in many cases to a greater degree. For instance, cocaine, after being released, blocks the dopamine receptors in the reward circuit, and due to the blockage, dopamine has nowhere to go and remains in the nervous system prolonging the sense of pleasure.

Although Plato disparaged emotions as irrational and untrustworthy, “the wild horses of the soul,” is there a place for emotion in the classroom?

All thoughts have emotional components and emotions color our meanings, thoughts, and learning. We feel before we think. In fact, we had emotions before we had language. We are constantly driven by emotion. “This subject is so boring, when is this period over.” “I don’t like this teacher.” “What the sense of trying hard in math this year, I have always sucked at it.” “Oh, it’s hot in here, I can’t concentrate.” All of this is emotional processing.

Marc Brackett, Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and Professor in the Child Study Center at Yale University, writes in his book Emotional Literacy in the Classroom, that “teachers with high emotional literacy…experience more positive emotions in the classroom, receive more support from co-workers, employ more effective coping strategies during stressful encounters, and report less burnout and greater job satisfaction.

Edward Hallowell, child and adult psychiatrist and a former member of the faculty of the Harvard Medical School posits, “Emotion is the on-off switch of learning. We don’t talk about it enough as a pedagogical tool. Fear and shame shut it off; hope, enthusiasm, and safety turn it on.” He adds that “Cognition and emotion are two sides of the same coin, they shape our learning experience.”

“Emotions allows us to use our knowledge in ways that will be culturally appropriate and useful both in school and outside school. Emotions are not add-ons that interfere with cognition. Instead, they are functional elements of why thinking and learning happen. Emotions involve the self and the body… and therefore so should schools,” argues Antonio Damasio, David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Philosophy at the University of Southern California and an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute.

“They may forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel” and “Brains are like hearts; they go where they are appreciated” two often-used education quotes to illustrate the effect of emotion in the classroom.

To elucidate these quotes, think back to all of the memories you have as a student; what is one of your favorites ones? Is it something a teacher or administrator said or did that boasted your motivation and self-dignity?

Of all of the memories you have as a student, what is one of your worst ones? Is it something that a teacher or school administrator said or did that lessened your motivation and self-dignity?

Recall the most remarkable teacher you ever had. Now picture the teacher’s face. Now recall how he or she made you feel.

So just as your amydala, after being stimulated by the reward system, affected the formation of memories in the hippocampus of school from long ago, the same mechanics and workings of the brain are responsible for all those happy holiday memories that have stayed with you for countless years, and in some cases decades, afterwards.

Finally, following a truly memorable and tumultuous presidential election and a generally eventful year, I wish all a restful, memorable, and pleasant holiday, and strive to create a 2017 filled with happiness, hope, and peace.


“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.