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Educating from the Bottom Up: The Brain is not Over There in a Bucket

By Bill Madigan, AVID Staff Developer

Since feeling is first

- e. e. Cummings

Dr. Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang is one of the most inspiring neuroscientists in education today, and she has a new take on Descartes’ maxim.  Mary-Helen says, “We feel therefore we learn.”  She is studying the role emotion and feeling play in learning and inspiration.  She spoke with me recently at a Learning and the Brain conference in San Francisco where she shared our need to engage “our students from the bottom up.”  We need to start with the essential human condition of our students first before we get to academic brilliance.  She went on to say that learning is not separate from who we are as human beings: our identities, life histories, cultures and idiosyncratic personal qualities.  What she means by the bottom up is teaching needs to start where the students are: their skills, motivation and emotional/feeling states.

To many in education this isn’t new.  Although a lot more effort goes into the “stuff” we do in class, knowing and connecting to the whole child does get some play time.  Now, we know, however, that feelings and emotion are more important than even the most “touchy-feely” or “feel good” educators imagined.

Educators, from policy makers to the classroom, have been confused by a worldview that weakens and damages learning.  Mary-Helen calls this worldview ‘the brain in a bucket.”  Our confusion comes from our view that we have a brain that does rational-cognitive stuff and a body that has feelings, which confuse the mind.  As the father of affective neuroscience (the study of the role of emotion in the mind) Dr. Richard Davidson has said: 

“There was a time, particularly, when cognitive psychology first came on the scene in the academic and psychological world and the computer was our metaphor for the mind, that emotions were nothing more that disruptors of the cold cognitive calculus which was the real stuff of your mind . . . we now know these assumptions are just completely wrong.”

The problem arises from the belief that our brain is “in a bucket” - somehow separate from our feelings or identity.  Incidentally, it is a rare moment when you hear a researcher of Richard Davidson’s pedigree declare something as categorically wrong.  Dr. Davidson is right, but we have been more than wrong, we have been confused. 

Research has shown that effective critical thinking is weakened and even made dangerous by a lack of emotional or feeling involvement.  People who, by injury or disease, have damaged feeling centers of the brain, make poor judgments in everything from interpersonal relationships to finances. What Mary-Helen, Richard Davidson and a growing number of researchers have found is that thoughts and cognition are NOT separate from feeling, rather they are essential elements in the act of effective thinking.  At the Annenberg Learner website, Mary-Helen and her colleagues share the “Unity of Emotion, Thinking and Learning.”

They have shown how the power of emotions and feelings are woven in with thinking – so much so that it has become clear that thinking actually is a blend of feeling and cognition.  In a one study of mathematical problem solving within a game, they discovered the integrated nature of thought and feeling.

An examination of the player's performance reveals that the process of learning how to play the game involves both emotional and cognitive processing and begins with the development of (generally) non-conscious emotional "intuitions" that eventually become conscious rules that she can describe in words or formulas.

By the way intuition or “gut feeling,” which we experience with regards to challenging or ambiguous decisions, is actually a result of a part of our brain called the insula, which regulates and helps us sense stomachaches and other forms of intestinal distress.  Mary-Helen explains that the insula not only deals with basic physical conditions it is also “co-opted” for thinking and problem solving. 

Indeed, in her research into “admiration of acts of virtue” or inspiration, she has discovered that the highest levels of human motivation and inspiration have neurological grounding in the most primitive part of our brain: the midbrain and medulla.  The very portions of our brain that regulate blood pressure, heart rate and keep us breathing while we sleep are “co-opted” when we feel inspired to do great acts of virtue.  When we listen to a great TED talk, we not only think, we feel, too.  Our most primitive brain urges the higher brain to great acts.  This is what from the bottom up means.




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Reader Comments (1)

Billy, great article. I have been hooked on "We feel therefore we learn" since you introduced the concept to me at an AVID training. I am going to try and go to the San Francisco conference in February.

August 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRose Toaetolu

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