Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2017/ Emotions and Learning

Emotions and Learning

Recently I was talking with somebody, and the subject of learning came up. I felt that strong emotions make learning easier, and the other party disagreed.

I now feel we were both correct. Learning can be made much more or much less effective if one is feeling strong emotion, but it depends on the type of learning.

My conception of psychology and learning is heavily influenced by Daniel Kahneman's ideas around System 1 and System 2 thinking.

System 1 thinking is the system that allows us to know things without conscious effort: recognising things, muscle memory, gut feelings, and so on. It is fast to process but takes shortcuts.

System 2 thinking feels like work. It requires conscious effort. Programming, problem solving, and planning all make use of System 2 thinking.

From what I can tell, emotions make system 1 learning more intense. Many of the life lessons that have stuck with me the strongest have involved strong, often negative emotions. I remember instances of being cruel to people, and the shame I feel for those actions serves as a reminder that I need to be less of a controlling jerk. I remember my experiment in fasting primarily as a sensory experience: being hungry, feeling good that I held out without eating. I feel anxious around certain insects because I remember being frightened/disgusted/ashamed when I had dealt with them in the past. Many of my anxieties and traumas are linked to the strong emotions I felt when learning some tough lesson.

In contrast, when I am programming or writing or planning or working something out, I need to focus. Ideally, I want to get into a state of flow, which I do not associate with strong emotions. Afterwards I might feel accomplishment or frustration, but while I am working I am focused on the work. Strong emotions like fear distract me from the work and make my thinking less effective. Even positive emotions like anticipation or joy can knock me off my task and lead to daydreaming. (But sometimes they don't. Sometimes I have lots of fun when writing or problem solving, and I stay on task.)

Maybe the exception to this is anger? I know I have focused deeply when angrily working out an idea or trying to build up arguments criticizing people. I do not know how good the thinking is during these times, though. Certainly I do a bad job of being even-handed when I am mad.

I guess there is something about motivation that is a factor. I am more motivated when I am angry. When I am calm I often would rather nap or walk than work, I do not know how this fits into the theory.

Now I am thinking that emotion might be important in both types of learning. But certainly the kinds of emotion that are most helpful in different situations seem different.