I feel, therefore I learn

As a scientist, I love hard evidence. I love to actually see the ‘this, therefore maybe that’ process in action, as a scan or a measurement or a double-blind experiment for instance. In fact one of the first obstacles I had to overcome in studying an Arts Masters (teaching) after having completed a Science Bachelor was bringing the ‘I’ back into academic work as I had so honed my craft in omitting its presence (I now have grown to really appreciate it!).

This is why I was so excited to be introduced to the work of scientists Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler, in the important link between neuroscience and learning. The quality of one’s environment, resources and relationships have been shown through extensive research to correlate with the functioning of neural networks which support intelligence, mental health, and emotional regulation (Immordino-Yang et. al. 2018, p. 11). The work by Immordino-Yang, Darling-Hammond and Krone is based in constructivist theory, bringing together concepts of Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ (1943), Vygotsky’s ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (1978) and Bronfenbrenner’s ‘Ecological Systems Theory’ (below), supported by modern neuroscience and psychology (Immordino-Yang and Gotlieb 2017).

Bronfenbrenner’s ‘Ecological Systems Theory’. Source: https://psychology.wikia.org/wiki/Bioecological_model

In order for learning to take place, they argue, the psychological pre-conditions of adequate sleep, nutrition, physical activity and access to green spaces, emotional well-being, and cultural well-being (Immordino-Yang et. al. 2018, pp. 11-12) must be met.

Students also have to perceive themselves as capable of learning and succeeding, supported through social relationships and the provision of productive and culturally relevant tasks. It is in this requirement that we see the connection between emotion and learning.

Even in academic subjects which stubbornly persist in the realm of logical reasoning and facts such as physics, mathematics, and chemistry, we cannot expect students to achieve deep learning without at least an initial emotional connection with the content (Immordino-Yang and Damasio 2007, p. 9).

Our ‘nature is organised by nurture’

Immordino-Yang and Gotlieb 2017
Neuro-image showing, from a neural perspective, how emotionally relevant meaning-making involves many regions of the brain including the brain stem (basic survival processes), the left- and right- insulae (emotional ‘gut’ responses) and regions of the default-mode network (beliefs, values and memories) (Immordino-Yang and Gotileb 2017, p. 353).

Anyone who regularly exercises knows this and Tim Minchin Captures it perfectly in his ‘occasional address’ to the University Of Western Australia graduates in 2013.

You think, therefore you are… but also: you jog, therefore you sleep well, therefore you’re not overwhelmed by existential angst. You can’t be Kant, and you don’t want to be. Play a sport, do yoga, pump iron, run… whatever… but take care of your body. You’re going to need it. Most of you mob are going to live to nearly a hundred, and even the poorest of you will achieve a level of wealth that most humans throughout history could not have dreamed of. And this long, luxurious life ahead of you is going to make you depressed! But don’t despair! There is an inverse correlation between depression and exercise. Do it. Run, my beautiful intellectuals, run. And don’t smoke. Natch.

A highly relevant excerpt from an ‘Occasional Address’ to the University of Western Australia Graduates by Tim Minchin in 2013.


Immordino-Yang, M and Damasio, A 2007, ‘We Feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience education’, Mind, Brain and Education, Blackwell Publishing, Accessed: 29/5/2020, <https://eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&sid=0e648f99-82bc-4fea-ada3-384a0e9d9b84%40sessionmgr101&gt;

Immordino-Yang, M and Gotlieb, R 2017, ‘Embodied brains, social minds, cultural meaning: Integrating neuroscientific and educational research on social-affective development’, American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 54, no. 15, accessed: 30/5/2020, <https://journals-sagepub-com.ezproxy-f.deakin.edu.au/doi/pdf/10.3102/0002831216669780&gt;

Immordino-Yang, M, Darling-Hammond, L and Krone, C 2018, ‘The brain basis for integrated social, emotional and academic achievement’, The Aspen Institute, Accessed: 29/5/2020, <https://assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/2018/09/Aspen_research_FINAL_web.pdf&gt;

Maslow, A 1943, ‘A theory of human motivation’, Psychological Review, vol. 50, pp. 370-396.

Vygotsky, L 1978, ‘Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes’, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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