About the Author
Sarah Rose Cavanagh is an associate professor of psychology at Assumption College, where she also serves as associate director of grants and research in the Center for Teaching Excellence. She contemplates the connections between emotions and quality of life in her writing, teaching, and research, blogs on affective neuroscience for Psychology Today, and has appeared on The Martha Stewart Show.
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The Spark of Learning
Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion
By Sarah Rose Cavanagh
West Virginia University PressCopyright © 2016 West Virginia University Press
All rights reserved.
THE SCIENCE (AND NEUROSCIENCE) OF YOUR EMOTIONS
At some point tonight you are likely to wrap up your day's cares, put on some form of loose-fitting clothing, and lay yourself down on a horizontal surface in order to vividly hallucinate for several hours. Most of these dreams will fade from your consciousness without ever making it into your memory stores, and you'll wake into the bright light of morning and carry on with your life unaffected. More rarely, you will instead awaken abruptly in the dark, terrified: heart pounding, dry-mouthed, and gasping. You wake because one of your dreams effectively convinces you that your very survival is at risk. Nightmares are fictions created by our sleeping brains that evoke an intense emotional response, and when you have one you experience the all-encompassing effects a state of terror can have on your body, mind, and motivation.
What Are Emotions?
Emotions such as fear are complex, multifaceted phenomena that combine experiential elements ("feelings"), physiological reactions (palms sweating, heart racing, brain activation patterns changing), and social and expressive components (facial expressions, body language). This is commonly called the trifecta of emotion — feelings, physiology, and expression. Many philosophers (e.g., Nussbaum, 2003) and psychologists (e.g., Gross, 2015) also point to the critical role of values in emotional experience. We experience something as emotional because something has changed in our internal or external milieu that either promises something of value (praise, social engagement, goal attainment, or good fortune, all leading to varieties of pleasure) or threatens something we value (goal frustration leading to anger, loss leading to grief, physical jeopardy leading to fear). We might thus do well to add appraisals of value to our trifecta of emotion.
What purpose do emotions serve? Most emotion researchers point to their critical role in our evolutionary success. Imagine you are on a picnic in the woods, and a rather large, scaly green snake slithers over your foot. If you lacked the capacity to experience emotions, you might stop and assess the situation in a painfully slow and laborious manner: What is this object? Is it friend or foe? Is it poisonous? By the time you finish this slow reasoning process, you might be twitching in the throes of death from the snake's venomous bite.
Most of us do not have this trouble. The moment we feel the distinctive dry slither we spring up, flailing our limbs about (behavior), our faces contort and we shout our alarm (expression), and our heart races, pumping blood to our muscles in preparation for flight (physiology). Somewhere in there — there is a lot of disagreement about at what stage and by which processes this occurs — we become aware that we are afraid (feelings). Our fast — and largely unconscious — emotional response has just saved us from a potentially life-threatening situation.
Many emotion researchers believe evolutionary pressures for survival and reproduction are the reason our basic emotional systems developed. We can create similar scenarios to that of the encounter with the snake for many of the most basic or prototypical emotions (anger, sadness, fear, surprise, disgust, and joy), whereby the emotion either moves us farther from life-threatening dangers like our snake or toward rewarding situations that might hold life-sustaining (the high-calorie Danish pastry you just ordered at Starbucks) or reproductive (the pretty woman in line next to you who just shot you a telltale eye flash) value.
People who study emotion belong to the field of research called affective science. Some of the most vigorous debates in this field surround the extent to which these emotions can be thought of as discrete entities. Some scientists align themselves with a view of emotions as distinct prepackaged programs, like apps on one's computer ("A snake! Double-click onFEAR!"). Others argue that emotional experiences are instead complex, interrelated systems of body, brain, and mind that generally predispose us to approach rewarding and avoid punishing situations but that are exquisitely sensitive to modulators such as situational context and relevant past experiences. Many others see the value of both of these perspectives, depending on the emotion, the situation, and which aspect of the trifecta they are studying.
Beyond what an emotion actually is, philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists also disagree on the extent to which emotions can or can't be differentiated from emotion-like phenomena such as moods, appetites, and drives. Let's consider moods first. Many scientists distinguish between emotions and moods by defining emotions as momentary, short-lived phenomena that have a direct object and a direct goal, whereas they define moods as longer lasting, sometimes on the order of hours or even days. Defined as such, moods also aren't as tied to specific internal or external stimuli. If you're in the grip of anger (an emotion), you likely know exactly what it is that you are angry about: it is in the forefront of your mind, central to what you are currently thinking about. Your anger is also likely transient, rising and dissipating rather quickly. But if you're grumpy (that is, in a mood), you might not know exactly why. You can hazard some guesses — perhaps a combination of your overdue tax return, a low level of caffeine, and the fact that a love interest hasn't responded to your text — but the precise causes are often unknown. A mood can also fade in and out of your awareness as you move from task to task, sometimes fading back, sometimes coming to the forefront.
These general distinctions between emotions and moods notwithstanding, there are many examples that blur the lines between them. For instance, a big fight with your significant other or rumors of imminent layoffs can affect your feelings for days. The time scale and strength of your feelings might match the definition of a mood, but the clear tie to an environmental stimulus matches the definition of an emotion. The dividing line between emotions and moods is thus not always such a bright one.
Drives and other motivational states also have much in common with emotion: they involve goals, invoke approach or avoidance behavior, impact neurochemistry and hormonal responses, and have evolutionary significance. In her book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (2003), philosopher Martha Nussbaum describes the following as characteristics of emotions proper, but we could also easily map these characteristics onto drives such as the sex drive:
their urgency and their heat; their overwhelming force; their connection with important attachments, in terms of which a person defines her life; the person's sense of passivity before them; their apparently adversarial relation to "rationality" in the sense of cool calculation or cost-benefit analysis. (p. 22)
To further understand what is and is not an emotion, we can turn to the work of Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychologist and director of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory at Northeastern University. Barrett has made a career of upending traditional theories of emotion; she is a passionate adherent to the camp that argues that the various emotions we feel are not like apps on our smartphones. She disagrees that specific emotions have readily identifiable and distinct underlying patterns of brain activation, bodily reactions, and behavior. Rather, she argues that emotions arise when we feel changes in our body, then look to a situation to explain why we might be feeling a certain way, and use past experiences and cultural ideas to label the present experience in terms of specific, discrete emotions. Barrett criticizes the tendency of early neuroscientific studies of emotion to ascribe specific patterns of brain activation (those brightly colored "blobs" you sometimes see splashed on images of the brain in the media) to specific emotion, labeling this blob the "anger area" or that blob the "happiness area." She notes,
If emotion blob-ology is wrong, how does your brain make emotions? It constructs instances of happiness, sadness and the rest via several general-purpose systems that work together. These systems span your entire brain. One system relates to your general feeling of your body. Another represents your knowledge from your past experiences. These and other systems — which are not exclusive to emotion — converge to make an instance of emotion when you need one. So happiness and fear are not brain blobs — they are whole-brain constructions. (Barrett and Barrett, 2015)
While Barrett has focused more on understanding how distinct emotions (anger, fear, or guilt) may or may not differ strongly from one another in how they're constructed, we can easily extend her model to understanding how emotions, moods, drives, and other affective states may or may not differ strongly from one another in how they're constructed. If the various emotions are the result of underlying systems of body and brain that can be assembled in different combinations and amounts, like ingredients in a recipe, so too we could imagine emotions and moods sharing underlying systems (ingredients) but differing in intensity, time scale, and/or degree of relationship to external events. Both deep hunger and boredom with the work you're doing may motivate the same behavior of approaching the cookie jar, and joy at discovering a new pregnancy and drinking a tall glass of water after a run in the hot sun may both involve activation of reward-related dopaminergic pathways in the brain. The sadness you feel when you first hear of a personal loss is probably not an entirely different category of experience from the sadness that will plague you for the days and weeks afterward.
If these lines are all so blurry, why draw them at all? To perform science, we need to clearly define the variables we're interested in studying, and this leads to a certain amount of necessary phenomena splicing. We need to carefully sort and describe experiences if we want any hope of discerning patterns and relationships among them. At times, this careful sorting can become a sort of gospel, and we forget how interrelated and messy the processes we're studying really are — which is part of Barrett's call to arms to reexamine how we think about emotion.
In this book on how affective science (broadly construed) informs the practice of teaching, we'll consider all of these affectively tinged experiences as relevant to our concerns: emotions, moods, drives, and motivational forces. For reasons of ease and readability I will sometimes refer to these phenomena under the umbrella terms emotion and affect, but please know that I acknowledge the challenges and complexities to defining these phenomena throughout.
With that all said, before we dive into how affective processes engender better learning, we first have to understand a little better how they manage to have such profound effects on our experience. To understand that, we first have to take a little tour through Woody Allen's "second-favorite organ."
All of human experience occurs in the nervous system. Every sensation, every thought, every feeling relates to changes in the patterns of activation of your brain cells (like the flow of a river at a given moment), influenced by the physical machinery by which these cells communicate (like the river bed), which is itself formed in large part by the repeated activation of your brain cells (like how the river bed is formed by the flow of the water over a long period of time). Thus, all of reality as you understand it is filtered first through the communication among cells of your nervous system, and what you choose to do and think from one moment to the next is in turn changing the structure and function of these same cells. This is truly a dizzying and humbling thought, and it means that essentially all learning of the type we're concerned with in the college classroom takes place by changing the circuitry of students' brains.
Your nervous system is largely made up of tiny cells called neurons that communicate with each other using chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) released into the small gap between one neuron and an adjacent neuron as a result of a brief electrical impulse within the neuron. These chemical messengers drift across the gap and bind (like a key fitting a lock) to specialized receptors on the membrane of the subsequent neurons; they either encourage or discourage that neuron from firing its own electrical potential and releasing its own chemical messengers.
Let's take a really simple example: a dog's nose brushes your palm lightly. How is this experience encoded by the nervous system? First, touch receptors on the skin of your palm are stimulated, carrying the message of the stimulation from your skin to neurons dedicated to sensation. This electrical activation is then transmitted along sensory pathways through to your spinal cord and up to your brain. From there, the activation spreads to a strip of dedicated tissue in the outermost bark-like part of your brain, the cerebral cortex, and this allows for the conscious perception of the touch, for it to be "felt."
Sights, sounds, and smells work similarly. Our representation of the world is the result of sensory energy (wavelengths of light, sound waves, mechanical energy, etc.) impinging on our sense organs (eyes, ears, and skin), and this activation spreading to the correct area of the cerebral cortex, at which point the sensation is consciously perceived (for instance, a soft damp touch on your palm). But even this simple event requires much more processing. What is the context in which this touch is happening? Were you expecting it, or startled by it? Is this your own dog, or a strange dog? How do you feel about dogs in general? Does the touch evoke pleasure, or fear? How do you react? Do you flip your hand to scratch the dog's ear and contract the muscles in your face to form a smile? Do you instead pull your hand back suddenly and contort your face into a fearful expression? Each of these possible variations of experience and resulting behavior involve contributions of different brain regions influencing various parts of this process.
Obviously, if we wanted to cover how the brain processes all of experience, we'd be here for quite a bit longer than half a chapter. We will discuss particular brain regions and their relevance to the classroom as we encounter them along the way, but let's discuss some basic principles here. One is that much of the processing of our experience is carried out by neural activity within the cortex, that thick outer cap of our brain. The cortex is made up of two hemispheres, right and left, and four functionally defined lobes. We also have many brain regions that govern various sorts of emotional and hormonal reactions deep within the brain — sometimes called subcortical structures because they lie beneath the cortex.
A lot of communication occurs among these subcortical structures, which tend to be involved in motivational and emotional processing, and the cortex, which is more involved in the conscious processing of events and also in control of behavior. When a coworker insults you during a meeting and you intentionally take a deep breath and don't retort (or punch the coworker in his or her passive-aggressive face), it is because you consciously heard the insult and processed its meaning (a cortical function, largely carried out by regions of your temporal lobes). This resulted in a warm flush of anger (due in part to the activation of certain subcortical areas, which resulted in a downstream surge of adrenaline and elevated heart rate in your body), which was then muted by your knowledge of the social norms regarding proper behavior in a conference meeting (thanks to the contribution of your frontal lobes).
The party line used to be that the subcortical structures governed emotional processing and the cortex governed cognitive processing, and each did so somewhat independently. This traditional account is breaking down as our understanding of how the brain functions continues to increase, leading Julian Kiverstein and Mark Miller to the conclusion that
any separation of emotional and cognitive processes in the brain doesn't hold up in reality. The brain areas that neuroimaging studies identify as being active when people perform tasks that engage emotional and cognitive processes turn out to be in constant and continuous interaction. (2015, p. 10)
Or, as Nussbaum states, "Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature's reasoning itself" (2003, p. 3). These quotes nicely introduce one of the central points I'll be making in this book: you can give a nice boost to cognition by tapping into emotion using your classroom techniques because emotion is already present in all of experience, perhaps even particularly so in cognition.
As educators we care most deeply about learning, or the long-term changes in our students' understanding of the world, their knowledge base, and their skills and abilities. After completing a class, do they have a broader, more global perspective on this shared human enterprise of ours? Do they understand how to create testable hypotheses and collect and analyze data to evaluate them? Can they now write an elegant argument or balance a budget? Looking at the breadth of changes we're interested in, we might expect that the structures and circuits of the brain involved in achieving and then retaining these very different types of skills and knowledge are extremely varied. Indeed, while we have learned a great deal about these and even more specific topics (e.g., not just how the brain "does" language but also how it learns to meaningfully parse syllables in a spoken word), the question of exactly how social experiences such as interactions in the classroom result in long-term changes in brain and behavior is unlikely to be answered any time soon.
Excerpted from The Spark of Learning by Sarah Rose Cavanagh. Copyright © 2016 West Virginia University Press. Excerpted by permission of West Virginia University Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Once More, with Feeling 1
Part I Foundations of Affective Science
1 The Science (and Neuroscience) of Your Emotions 15
2 The Wellspring: Emotions Enhance Learning 32
Part II Affective Science in Action
3 Be the Spark: Crafting Your First (and Lasting) Impression 61
4 Burning to Master: Mobilizing Student Efforts 111
5 Fueling the Fire: Prolonging Student Persistence 144
6 Best-Laid Plans: When Emotions Challenge or Backfire 181