We Feel, Therefore We Learn

Emotions drive learning. That is one of the most exciting findings from Immordino-Yang’s years of work in affective neuroscience with great implications for teaching and learning. Emotions are an essential piece in the learning process, so how can we foster them in the classroom? What can we do, as educators, to engage students in meaningful ways? In my earlier posts How emotions affect learning part 1 and part 2, I discussed how the emotions students experience in the classroom can affect their disposition to learn. Today, I present 3 key research findings from Immordino-Yang’s latest book (one of my summer readings!) Emotions, Learning and the Brain, and suggest 3 ways to apply these findings in your classroom.

  1. We only think deeply about things we care about. According to Immordino-Yang, it is neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts or make meaningful decisions without emotion. The brain does not waste energy thinking about things that don’t matter to us. This is the reason why learners can pay attention and stay focused when the subjects or topics discussed are personally relevant to them.
  1. Emotions guide cognitive learning and decision-making. Emotions were historically considered interferences to the learning process, so students were often asked to leave their emotions at the door and just “focus on academic work”. Research in affective neuroscience has revealed that emotions are not add-ons, distinct from cognitive skills. Instead, emotions are the rudder that steers thinking. Even in academic subjects traditionally considered unemotional, such us physics or engineering, deep understanding depends on making emotional connections between concepts.
  1. Emotional processes help learners apply knowledge in real situations. Without emotions, students may have certain knowledge, but they likely won’t be able to use it effectively when the situation requires. Emotions help learners to recognize and call up relevant knowledge. Emotions are responsible for the application of what students learn in school to novel and real situations.

Are your neurons all fired up by now? There is great potential in using what we now know about the role of emotions in learning to improve teaching and learning. As discussed in an earlier post, being explicit about the social and emotional skills that students need in order to master certain content increases students’ effectiveness with the task at hand and builds their self-awareness. Based on Immordino-Yang’s work, you can also design educational experiences that encourage emotional connections with the material being learned. Here’s how.


  • Give students choices. When students are involved in making decisions about a) their research topic, b) ways to complete a task or c) showing mastery of a standard, they will likely be more emotionally invested in and attached to the learning outcomes. This is not news for educators, right? Teachers know that choice, when provided in a structured manner, can motivate students and instill a sense of ownership over the learning process.
  • Help students relate the materials discussed in class to their life and personal interests. Remember that we discussed how the brain doesn’t pay attention to things for which we don’t care? When students engage with academic material in a meaningful way, they will be able to pay more attention and focus for longer periods of time. An easy way to get to know your students is to have them complete a personal inventory. Discover the topics that are important to them and connect them to the materials discussed in the classroom! These emotional connections will help students apply the content you teach in real life situations. It’s a win-win!
  • Create opportunities to solve open-ended problems. Immordino-Yang argues that highly prescriptive activities are emotionally impoverished. That is to say, they don’t allow students to establish the emotional connections that we know are important for cognitive learning and decision-making. Instead, classroom activities should allow students’ emotions to appear (comfortable or uncomfortable), along with opportunities for students to make mistakes and learn from them. Project-based learning, group work or even classroom discussions about current events can be effective in letting students wrestle with problems that don’t have a right/wrong solution.


Emotions are critical to steering thinking and decision-making. It is neurobiologically impossible to engage complex thoughts or make meaningful choices without emotion. As an educator, you can help students make the emotional connections necessary to drive learning by providing choice, connecting the topics to their lives and interests, and creating opportunities to solve open-ended problems. Give it a try and let me know how it goes!

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