Scientists are always uncovering new ways into how people learn best, and some of the most recent neuroscience research has shown connections between basic survival functions, social and emotional reactions to the world, and creative impulses.

Students’ social and emotional reactions to learning are imperative to feeling motivated to learn and to their ability to creatively solve problems, according to Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, who wrote Musings on the Neurobiological and Evolutionary Origins of Creativity via a Developmental Analysis of One Child’s Poetry [PDF]. Her research tries to understand why emotions are so important to learning by examining what happens to brain functions.

“Neuroimaging experiments show us that we use the very same neural systems to feel our bodies as to feel our relationships, our moral judgments, and our creative inspiration,” said Immordino-Yang, a professor at USC’s Rossier School of Education and an expert on the neuroscience of learning and creativity. Her whose work focuses on how neuroscience can help teachers understand the ways students learn best, and to that end, she’s created a free online curriculum for teachers.

The neuromechanisms responsible for feeling and managing the body’s physical survival and consciousness have been co-opted to also manage social survival. “Survival in the savanna depends on a brain that is wired to make sense of the environment, and to play out the things it notices through patterns of bodily and mental reactions,” Immordino-Yang writes. “This same brain, the same logic, helps us make sense of and survive in the social world of today.” To make something relevant to a learner, it should inspire an emotional reaction in the person, triggering these survivalist parts of the brain that indicate something is important.

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“The way that we make meaning out of situations, and the way that we feel and evaluate things, is plated on the same neural platforms as do the basic job of managing our viscera,” Immordino Yang said. When a topic strikes a chord with a student it feels meaningful because the part of his brain firing is the same part that keeps him conscious and alive. It’s also the part of the brain responsible for novel, creative or new ideas.

“Creativity is representing some kind of relevant problem in a new way and making people understand it, and feel about it, and have some insight into something that matters,” Immordino-Yang said. She argues that creative moments are motivated by caring deeply about a subject. Furthermore, humans make meaning by relating new information to feelings, memories and other personal information to give it context.

To undertake that complicated process of internalizing information Immordino-Yang has found that it’s necessary to shut out external inputs and focus intensely on what’s going on internally. Asking students to constantly pay attention or allowing them to be distracted by games, phones, and other stimuli may deprive them of the important inward-looking time crucial to deeper learning.

“The way in which people learn information, the way in which they make it their own, assimilate it, are dependent heavily on a neural system that is fundamentally incompatible with external information and distraction,” Immordino-Yang said. Long term learning happens when the brain calls up old memories and incorporates the new knowledge into a personalized understanding of the world. And that’s often a creative process. It takes creativity to synthesize new information within the context of old experiences and to reshape difficult concepts into something understandable. Immordino-Yang argues that the essence of that process requires the thinker to disengage from the world around them.

[RELATED: How to Fuel Students’ Learning Through Their Interests]

That doesn’t necessarily mean that daydreaming is the key to developing innovative ideas. There are times when insight strikes while the mind wanders, but Immordino-Yang says that in those cases the information is already present. When it comes to learning something new, the inward focus is often real work.

“Help kids know how to make meaning and sense of what they are learning so they can see who they are,” Immordino-Yang said. “Creativity is just an extension of that.” She gave the example of her young daughter who wrote a song about loving her young brother, but the imagery in the song incorporated space, planets, and the galaxy. She had just learned about those concepts, but in order to really understand their significance, she needed to express them within the totally understood and emotional space of family love. Allowing kids the space for the interplay between the emotional and cognitive spaces will benefit the long-term learner.

How Emotional Connections Can Trigger Creativity and Learning 15 March,2013Katrina Schwartz

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  • geri caruso

    “Asking students to constantly pay attention or allowing them to be distracted by games, phones, and other stimuli may deprive them of the important inward-looking time crucial to deeper learning.” Apparently it is possible to make sense of the modern world…. Thank you Ms. Immordino-Yang.

  • so let me get this right, people can better learn, retain & make use of something, if it means something to them? wow. thanks for this…

    • Lisa

      Point would be – how often do we care about that in schools? Yes we know it – yes it is obvious – but what will it take for educational institutions to actually change the way that ‘learning’ happens? When did you last ask a kid if they cared about a topic? Or is it irrelevant because a beige syllabus is the prescribed learning?
      Neuroscience research is confirming what defines ‘good practice’ and likewise confirming why some things will not work. It may be obvious to some but it might persuade some others with scientific proof that some pedagogical practices are powerful when others are obsolete.

  • Charlie

    “She [Immordino-Yang] argues that creative moments are motivated by caring
    deeply about a subject…”

    Yes, of course motivation is HUGE in learning AND in overcoming depression, brain injuries, and many other developmental life challenges….And yet you’d be surprised; in my 25 years of providing direct service to persons with serious mental disabilties I have found that many so-called ‘professionals’ seem to either ignore this or to be able to judge only their OWN motivations…and not what might motivate others. Thus you end up with therapists recommending suduko, crossword puzzles, or bingo rather than guided-group autobiography, intergenerational learning, or other much more meaningful approaches to rehab and social engagement. Even attempts at learning a foreign language will be thwarted if the person is only doing it simply because it is “on the program,” or their therapist told them to…

  • dfgdg

    We have to have a good emotional connection with our work to be creative.

  • holyrust

    so glad someone spent huge amounts of money to officially “discover” what every emotionally present, creative person has known for millenia.

    • TeacherTeachBecauseTheyCan

      Sounds like what great teachers go through, too. Humans are stubborn when it comes to wisdom.

  • teegee

    holyrust and David Fragale – Why the snarky comments? Do they hide a cogent disagreement or are you just pointing out that in your superiority you can dismiss all ideas,thought, opinion, research with one incredibly witty bon mot?

    • yetanothergeekguy

      Neither witty, nor a bon mot. Just sarcastic flippancy. The kind that fails to recognize there is a difference between knowing what to do, empirically figuring out HOW to do it, and scientifically understanding WHY it works. It is only then that you can project what else will and won’t work and, as this researcher is doing, reach out to practitioners and help them improve their teaching for the benefits of the students and society.

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  • misty croft

    I once was in rehab… I had a therapeutic assignment to draw what I wanted my life to be… I drew humpty dumpty… me before drugs.. he sat on a wall.. me getting high and the wall represented all my problems I smothered w drugs. had a great fall.. lifes problems checking in and going to jail and rehab..all the kings horses and all the kings mean could not put him back together again…the staff at rehab and relating w the other addicts could not make me better they could only give me direction . I would have to apply myself and pick up my own pieces and put myself back together.. Then I drew him back together and said, I wanted my life to stay in recovery and all the material things would come if I stayed clean., UNDERSTAND

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  • Just dug this up today – cool article.

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  • For more on the theory relating emotions to learning, see “Cognition, Affect, and Learning.”

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  • Barry Kort

    The unexpected making of an emotional connection can produce a chance collaboration. No surprise there.

    But oddly enough, so can the unexpected breaking of an unsustainable emotional connection. The discovery of a previously unrecognized or unappreciated difference (whether it be reconcilable or not) is the stuff of liminal social drama.

    Liminal social drama tends to be inchoate and unarticulated. But like all phenomena, it begs to be captured by the evidence of the senses and shaped into a coherent story, account, insight, or model.

    The arts are fueled by chance instances of liminal social drama. Dramaturgy is the art of capturing an unanticipated instance of liminal social drama and transforming it into a re-enactment or reification through the medium of the arts.

    Well crafted dramas — especially tragedies — evoke emotional catharsis.

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Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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