What is the role of emotion in the learning process?

What song did you dance to at your wedding? What song did you hear when you got into the car this morning? For most, recalling the information to the first question is much easier than doing the same for the second question. Why is this so? According to a number of experimental studies, this phenomenon is a result of emotions enhancing memory and recall (Bernsten & Thomsen, 2005).

There is an extensive line of evidence supporting the theory that emotions strengthen and shape memory. More recently, research has shown that emotions experienced during information processing lead to more vivid memories, with the intensity of the memory generally dependent on the strength of the emotion (Rubin et al., 2005). However, in the world of learning and memory, all emotions are not created equal. Additional studies have demonstrated that individuals experiencing negative emotions tend to focus on specific details of events, whereas people experiencing positive emotions perceive and recall situations more broadly (Levine & Bluck, 2004). While this disparity in type of encoding leads to a difference in the number of items recalled (with people experience positive emotions recalling more items), there is no difference in the accuracy of the memories recalled.

What does this mean for you and your learning experience? In general, memory helps people use their experiences to inform future actions. Emotions act as a highlighter for memories, illuminating important information from previous events, leading to greater transfer and easier applicability of skills.

Bernsten, D., & Thomsen, D. K. (2005). Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 134 (2),
Levine, L., & Bluck, S. (2004). Cognition and Emotion, 18 (4), 559-574.

Rubin, (2005). Memory and Cognition, 32 (1), 1118-1132.

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