There is no doubt that emotions play an important role whenever we learn. Everyone has the experience of emotional episodes or facts being more memorable than non-emotional ones. But why is this so? What exactly is the role of emotions in learning? How do emotional processes relate to learning and memory? Neuroscience has provided a tool to probe this question.
This question has been addressed by a research group for functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at the Transfer Center in Ulm. In a first study, the researchers wanted to find out whether memory for neutral material differs depending on the emotional state in which it is encoded, and whether different brain regions are involved in that process . In order to do this, they examined the brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during the encoding of neutral words learned in a positive, neutral or negative emotional state. First, subjects were presented with a picture that evoked either positive, negative, or neutral emotions. Then subjects were shown a neutral word and had to decide whether it denoted something concrete or abstract by pressing one of two buttons. This decision process ensured that subjects actually paid attention to the words and processed their meaning.
This series of presentations was repeated many times while subjects lay in the magnetic resonance tomograph. Afterwards, they were asked to recall the words and to write them down. The results were stunning: the emotional context in which the encoding of the words took place had a clear influence on memory performance. Words that were encoded during a positive emotional state were remembered the most successfully. Furthermore, they were also able to show that activity in different brain regions predicted whether or not a word was remembered, and which region was activated depended on the emotional circumstances under which the words were learned. Successful encoding of words under a positive emotional context caused activity in the in the parahippocampus, whereas successful encoding of words in a negative emotional context showed amygdala activation and successful storage of words under a neutral context activated the frontal cortex. These results show for the first time that neutral material is stored in different parts of the brain, depending on the emotional state during which it is learned. Thus, these results clearly show how closely emotions and cognition – or feeling and thinking – are linked: it is impossible to study one without the other.
The results also show that learning is most successful when a person feels good, and why this is so. When a person feels good, what s/he learns ends up in the hippocampus, which is exactly where newly learned material is stored temporarily. In the long run, this material will end up in the cortex, the brain’s main long term memory storage device.
Of course one might argue that learning is also successful under negative conditions through use of the amygdala. While this may not work as well as learning under positive conditions – as the researchers in Ulm found out – it certainly does work. If this finding is transferred to education, a teacher might argue: I am going to optimise my students’ performance by letting them learn their French vocabulary in a pleasant atmosphere and their Latin vocabulary under threat of punishment. In this way their vocabulary will be nicely tucked away in different pigeonholes, avoiding confusion and benefiting from the added capacity of both memory systems (the hippocampus and the amygdala). But before this teacher begins his/her lessons of fun and terror, s/he should first think about the consequences: the function of the amygdala is to cause anxiety whenever a person encounters something that is stored there as a memory. This means that when students remember something using their amygdala, anxiety will be retrieved as well and will manifest itself through an anxious mental and physical state. Thus when facts are memorised whilst a person is in an anxious state of mind, remembering those facts will also cause anxiety. This will block students’ creativity: while they might be able to recall rote facts, they won’t be able to use them for creative solutions.
Transferred to education, these results not only show that learning works best in a pleasant atmosphere, but also why learning should only occur in a pleasant atmosphere. Therefore, teachers should make sure that the emotional atmosphere during learning process is a good one in order to allow for the most effective learning and the most creative problem solving .
With this background in mind, the Transfer Center’s fMRI research group is embarking on new challenges and it plans to investigate the impact of emotions on associative learning. In an upcoming fMRI study, faces with emotional expressions, i.e. happy, neutral or fearful faces, will be presented to subjects, with each face being presented together with a term for a profession, such as baker or teacher. Afterwards, the same faces will be presented, again along with two terms for professions, but this time the faces will all have neutral expressions. The subjects will then have to decide which of the two professions proposed goes with which of the presented faces. In this way, the fMRI group will be able to see which brain regions are involved in establishing emotional associations and how the establishment of such associations is taking place. Since emotional facial expressions are one of the most important social signals in a learning situation, this study is of high practical relevance.
Another fMRI study is also planned and this will be highly relevant for understanding problem solving in daily life or in examination situations. This study will investigate the influence of emotions on different kinds of remembering, i.e. on free recall and on recognition. In the study already presented , the researcher found that positive emotions improve only active free recall, but not passive recognition. Based on this, the planned study will investigate the neurobiological correlates of this effect.
 Erk S., Kiefer M., Grothe J., Wunderlich A.P., Spitzer M., Walter H. (2003) “Emotional context modulates subsequent memory effect”, Neuroimage, February, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 439-47
 Spitzer M. (2002) Lernen. Gehirnforschung und die Schule des Lebens, Spektrum Akademischer Verlag