Learning as an emotional process?

I also read Descartes’ Error, by the neuroscientists Antonio Damasio. Damasio had noticed an unusual latter of symptoms in patients who had suffered brain damage to a specific part of the brain—the ventromedial (i.e., bottom-middle) prefrontal cortex (abbreviated vmPFC; it’s the region just behind and above the bridge of the nose). Their emotionality dropped nearly to zero. They could look at the most joyous or gruesome photographs and feel nothing. They retained full knowledge of what was right and wrong, and they showed no deficits in IQ. They even scored well on Kohlberg’s tests of moral reasoning. Yet when it came to making decisions in their personal lives and at work, they made foolish decisions or no decisions at all. They alienated their families and their employers, and their lives fell apart.

Damasio’s interpretation was that gut feelings and bodily reactions were necessary to think rationally, and that one job of the vmPFC was to integrate those gut feelings into a person’s conscious deliberations… The head can’t even do head stuff without the heart… When the master (passions) drops dead, the servant (reasoning) has neither the ability nor the desire to keep the estate running.

(p. 34 of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt )

I believe that one of the things that experts and scholars should actively try to avoid is being narrow-minded. Mark Twain has appropriately put it; “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Just because we are familiar with the subjects and tools and we are also required to go deep, rather than wide, in our own fields, we often forget that we are sometimes confined by the boundary of our own making. Reading The Righteous Mind, which talks about morality being based on emotion, I stepped back and started to wonder whether I mistook the cognitive part of learning for its entirety. Isn’t learning also an emotional process? Current learning assessment tools and rubrics are designed to measure how much students learned; educators rarely focus on how much students enjoy learning. Self-assessment questionnaires are mostly about students’ confidence on the lecture contents and/or cognitive abilities, not about their feeling. Maybe we educators should ponder how to integrate emotional boost into learning.

Here I am quoting again. “The head can’t even do head stuff without the heart.”



I’m learning in my class too!

teacher-407360_1920When people talk about the effects of active learning, it’s all about students; students are motivated to learn, their ownership increases, they retain knowledge longer, etc. One thing I noticed is that in the active learning classroom, instructors also learn and intellectually grow just as students do.

When the instructor steps aside a little bit to leave a room for students so that they could follow their interests and synthesize information on their own, the instructor acquires new information relevant to the course subject from students’ work. Moreover, while observing how students develop their interest and improve information fluency, the instructor could reassess his/her teaching philosophy and grows as an educator.

After all, active learning is happening to EVERYONE in the classroom. 

Learning by pruning

“The elimination of synaptic connections, which results in the constant refinement of neural circuits, like the soldering and resoldering of wires on a circuit board, is not a feature unique to the visual system. Throughout the brain—particularly in the parts involved in cognition, memory, and learning—synapse pruning continues into our first three decades, which suggests that it may be responsible, in part, for the starburst of adaptive learning that characterizes the first decades of human life. We are hardwired not to be hardwired, and this anatomical plasticity may be the key to the plasticity of our minds… [Author’s friend Hans speaking] ‘The secret of learning is the systematic elimination of excess.'” (From “Runs in the Family” by Siddhartha Mukherjee published in The New Yorker, 3/28/16)

Learning is about organizing the information, not about acquiring it. Learning is about creating and strengthening new connections, not about being able to reel off what you just saw or heard.

Last night, a friend of mine texted me and asked how I would define curiosity. I called her and our conversation expanded to relevant topics such as creativity and nature vs. nurture. We both agreed that curiosity is necessary, but not sufficient, for achieving mastery; you need something else. Curiosity prods us to peer into new areas and absorb the information, just like neurons sprouting and growing semi-haphazardly. It is perseverance, concentration and deep thinking that deliberately prune away excess so that we can have laser sharp focus on the question that deserves our precious time.


What teaching is

“Teaching is the art of conveying the delight that comes from an act of the spirit, without ever giving anyone the notion that the delight comes easy.”

(Source: Norman F. Maclean, “This Quarter I am Taking McKeon”: A Few Remarks on the Art of Teaching, U. Chi. Mag., Jan./Feb. 1974)

Although I am 100% committed to teaching, I have been doubting myself that I won’t be able to teach that long. I feel more comfortable with asking questions than answering questions. I am hesitant to say “I know it!” It is my curiosity, not my confidence in my knowledge, that motivates me to learn and teach.

The quote above, which was cited in the article titled “Becoming Lawyers,” defines what teaching is without using words like learning, transmitting knowledge, or instruction. If “an act of the spirit” in the quote is deep thinking and teaching is about inviting students to join my journey to be a better thinker, I guess teaching can be my life-long vocation. I see a glimpse of hope that maybe I am on the right track to be a teacher.

Cook the information

” Learning is not merely about accumulating facts. It is internalizing the relationships between pieces of information… The expert doesn’t think more about a subject, she thinks less. She doesn’t have to compute the effects of a range of possibilities. Because she has domain expertise, she anticipates how things will fit together  (89).

Creativity consists of blending two discordant knowledge networks (92).”

(From The Social Animal by David Brooks)


photo 1Despite frenetic days crammed with lab activities, I secure some hours during my weekends and try to devote this time to thinking and writing about what I’ve read and heard during the weekdays. Starting with one piece of information, I add my thoughts and my own interpretation, relate them to my daily life, and bring in other information from different sources that look irrelevant at the first glance. During this process, discrete thoughts come together and mold into something new.

The fact that I know something doesn’t make me smart. It’s whether I understand how it connects to other entities that matters. Each ingredient sitting on a kitchen table wouldn’t do much. It’s the act of mixing things and adding some forms of energy to change their states that creates a dish. Everyone can buy the best ingredients, but only few understand the relationship between ingredients and know what to mix and how to cook.

Cook the information/facts. Then, you can call it knowledge.photo 2

p.s. The quotes above left me a question; how can a teacher help students apprehend and practice the true learning process described in the quotes?