We’ve long known that there is a relationship between emotions and learning. And while we have previously had little definitive evidence of this relationship, we have theories that confirm what we suspect from experience. There is the Affective Filter Hypothesis from Krashenwhich postulates that affective factors such as motivation, confidence, and anxiety can influence second language acquisition. Krashen goes so far as to say that if the filter is high, meaning that confidence or motivation is low and anxiety is high, input may not even reach the part of the brain that acquires language. Long before Krashen, Vygotsky posited that social interaction was the key to unlocking second language learning potential. And so in our classes, we attempt to make students comfortable, build confidence, and provide opportunities for interaction because it makes sense on an intuitive level. However, this connection between emotions and learning has much greater significance.
In March, I had the privilege of attending the annual conference of TESOL International Association in Chicago. The final plenary speaker, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, shared neurological research that shows emotions trigger the same part of the brain as learning and also survival. She showed images of brain scans in which parts of the brain lit up when someone was emotionally moved. Then she showed the same parts of the brain being activated when new ideas were formed, and learning occurred. And, finally, she showed that this is also the part of the brain that, when a person is in a coma, determines whether the person will live or die. This connection leads to some interesting implications for our teaching. Here are a few that Immordino-Yang explained:
- Students do the hardest work in the context of important relationships.
- Learners need to discover new ideas within a supportive environment so they can attach discovered concepts to previous experiences and create new learning experiences.
- Meaningful learning always involves emotion.
While all of that supports theories that we already believed to be true and confirms the validity of some teaching practices, the most fascinating piece of her talk was yet to come. Immordino-Yang went on to explain this neurological research also suggests that the reason humans are so dedicated to our beliefs and relationships is that we put ideas, emotions, and survival in the same category. Our brain processes those items in the same place, with the same importance. This reason, she said, is perhaps why humans are the only species willing to die for our ideas, die for relationships.
It was at this point that I was reminded of our Master Teacher and the fact that it was Good Friday. This biological link between ideas, emotions, and survival was not accidental. Our Master Teacher very intentionally created us this way. And it was on that Good Friday many, many years ago that the Son used His own perfectly created mind to decide that relationship with us was more important than His own survival. Our Master Teacher created us to love each other enough to surrender our natural instinct to survive for relationships.
And so the implications of this research go much deeper than limiting classroom anxiety or utilizing interaction to yield maximum language production. We were created to learn with the same mind with which we love and with which we choose to sacrifice for one another. What greater love exists than that? I am so thankful for the Son’s ultimate demonstration of love and surrender, a perfect picture of what we were created to do.
Krashen, Stephen David. Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon Press Inc., 1982.
Vygotsky, Lev. Thought and Language. Boston, MA: MIT Press, 1962.