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Getting into a State about Learning

22nd February 2016 | Stella Collins

Learn Better by Changing Your State of Mind

Neuroscience for Learning and Development (9780749474614)How much effect do you think your state of mind has on how well you learn? Your emotions and state of mind are key factors in how you learn and you can change them to help yourself learn better.

Your emotions are felt and generated by your limbic system buried deep inside your brain and you have little control over how and when they’re generated but you do have good control over how you manage your emotions, which is governed by your prefrontal cortex. After all, you can suddenly feel really angry about something but it doesn’t necessarily mean you will hit the person next to you.

One of the reasons that emotions are so strongly linked to learning is due to the limbic system which is made up of emotion processing areas like the ‘amygdala’ and important memory systems; particularly the hippocampus. Without a hippocampus you would have no memories - you’d barely be you and you certainly couldn’t learn anything new. It makes sense for strongly emotional events to be memorable because you either want to avoid them next time or to repeat them; so when you’re learning you easily remember information that provokes your emotions even if you don’t always want to. Information that doesn’t rouse our emotions isn’t tagged in the same way and is harder to recall.

As well as quite fleeting emotions like anger, joy and fear we also have longer lasting emotional states that are like the background to our emotions. Some of these ‘states of mind’ are more useful to learning than others.

If you’re feeling alert – possibly even slightly concerned – you probaby have activity in your amygdala as well as other attentional circuits that is telling you to pay attention to this situation and learn its features so that you can do something about it and move away from this uncomfortable feeling. This heightened level of attention helps you find answers to the problem – and what’s that if not learning?

Curiosity of course killed the cat but it’s also an addictive state to be in. When we’re curious we release a neurotransmitter called dopamine which is part of our motivation and reward brain chemistry – certainly we ‘like’ the effects of dopamine and it is one of the factors in addiction. So we tend to enjoy a sense of curiosity and it becomes rewarding in itself. What makes you curious?

You may not think of dreaming or sleeping as the hard work part of learning but they are both crucial states that ensure the learning you did in the day gets sorted into the appropriate places in your brain so that you can recall it later on. When you dream you actually practise motor skills inside your head. Your brain suppresses the motor activity that would make you look as if you are playing an air guitar whilst sleep but your brain is doing all the other work for you of developing the connections that you need to learn play your guitar - whilst you happily snore the night away. When you stop dreaming and go into deep sleep your brain continues with the learning process by sorting memories for you and distributing them to the relevant parts of your brain. Without a good nights sleep your memory and learning are significantly degraded, so you’ve no excuse not to take advantage of that early night.

What other emotional states do you find help you to learn?

About the author: Stella Collins has a BSc in psychology, an MSc in Human Communication and is a Fellow of ITOL. She's worked in learning and development as a manager and as a trainer for 15 years and consistently uses the 'brain friendly' approach to design and deliver result based training and learning programmes with a creative twist. Author of Neuroscience for Learning and Develompent, she is currently running a webinar series ‘The Neuroscience of Learning – Your Changing Brain’ - based on her book. You can register to attend by visiting her company' website.

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