emotion

Kathy Sierra of "Creating passionate users" has an interesting article, "Angry/negative people can be bad for your brain."

Basically, it's that emotions are contagious, or you become like who you associate with. Of course, folklore wisdom already has this concept, as in "birds of a feather flock together." Our ESL/EFL students pick up the accent of their instructors, albeit influenced by their own language. However, folklore, as she notes, also has notions that are wrong, or at least suspect in their application:

And there's this one we hear most often, especially in reference to comment moderation--"if you can't say whatever the hell you want to express your anger, you can't be authentic and honest." While that may be true, here's what the psychologists say:

"Psychologists now say that this is a dangerous myth. Some people use this theory as a license to hurt others. Research has found that "letting it rip" with anger actually escalates anger and aggression and does nothing to help you (or the person you're angry with) resolve the situation.

It's best to find out what it is that triggers your anger, and then to develop strategies to keep those triggers from tipping you over the edge."

In the case of folklore on being happy, Kathy brings in research supporting it, research on mirror neurons and emotional contagion. The importance of protecting one's happiness cannot be underestimated:

So, when Robert [Scoble] says he wants to spend time hanging around "happy people" and keeping his distance from "deeply unhappy" people, he's keeping his brain from making--over the long term--negative structural and chemical changes. Regarding the effect of mirror neurons and emotional contagion on personal performance, neurologist Richard Restak offers this advice:

"If you want to accomplish something that demands determination and endurance, try to surround yourself with people possessing these qualities. And try to limit the time you spend with people given to pessimism and expressions of futility. Unfortunately, negative emotions exert a more powerful effect in social situations than positive ones, thanks to the phenomena of emotional contagion."

This sounds harsh, and it is, but it's his recommendation based on the facts as the neuroscientists interpret them today. This is not new age self-help--it's simply the way brains work.

Kathy also touches on the fact that happiness is good for one's health, which I had read about. One study, for instance, showed that positive emotions were "associated with greater resistance to developing a common cold" What I didn't know was that it improved one's reasoning. She writes:

Happines is associated most heavily with the left (i.e. logical) side of the brain, while anger is associated with the right (emotional, non-logical) side of the brain. From a Society for Neuroscience article on Bliss and the Brain:

"Furthermore, studies suggest that certain people's ability to see life through rose-colored glasses links to a heightened left-sided brain function. A scrutiny of brain activity indicates that individuals with natural positive dispositions have trumped up activity in the left prefrontal cortex compared with their more negative counterparts. "

In other words, happy people are better able to think logically.

A key work here is "suggest," meaning that it's not ironclad. Other factors are likely involved. The two studies I keep quoting clearly show that inflexibility in one's position shuts off thinking. Is it possible to be happily inflexible?

Perhaps, this is rather simplistic, but I'm wondering if happiness in general can lead to being better able to learn. That is, Is being better able to think logically related to, or does it lead to, being better able to learn? Lots of questions. No answers right now.

The blog Creating Passionate Users is written by a trio who are

all passionate about the brain and metacognition, most especially--how the brain works and how to exploit it for better learning and memory. Oh yeah, and how to recognize when someone else (including one of us) is applying brain-based techniques to get you to do something.

I enjoy reading their insights on learning, but I wonder about the emphasis on "passion." What does it mean to be a passionate learner? How would being passionate differ from being obsessive? How many people are truly passionate, or obsessive, about anything?

According to Dictionary.com, passion is defined as "A powerful emotion, such as love, joy, hatred, or anger" and obsession is defined as "A compulsive, often unreasonable idea or emotion." I'm not quite sure where "a powerful emotion" ends and "an unreasonable emotion" begins. Perhaps it's a matter of societal approval as it is for the difference between a hard worker and a workaholic.

I wonder about this distinction because I enjoy learning and a variety of activities, but I find it difficult to consider myself passionate about learning or these other pastimes. Of course, I could be a little strange, but I like to think that more people are like me than unlike me.

We might compare passion and enjoyment to attraction and attachment in Helen Fisher's, an anthropologist at Rutgers, research on love. In her work, attraction, or romantic love, is caused by high levels of dopamine and norephinephrine. It's a euphoric chemical high that cannot be maintained, but eventually wears off. In contrast, attachment, stimulated by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, is associated with feelings of comfort, peace, and stability, and unlike attraction can last longer than a year, even a lifetime. Extrapolating, if we consider an educational goal to be life-long learners, we need to move away from passion and toward an enjoyment of learning.

One theoretical construct that can be of use in this move is flow. Flow, a theory developed by Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly, a professor of psychology formerly at the University of Chicago, refers to an experience of total involvement and deep concentration. Most people experience flow at one time or another, and some frequently. I can remember being so absorbed in a game of chess or that I was oblivious to my surroundings for an hour. The conditions of flow are clear goals, immediate and unambiguous feedback, and matching one's skills to the challenge, none of which relate to emotion.

Flow is a type of intrinsic motivation, a doing of the activity for the sake of the activity rather than extrinsic pressures. Csikszentmihalyi notes that both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is needed for people to want to learn, but that intrinsic motivation should be educators' focus "to make children aware of how much fun learning can be."

I imagine the phrase "creating passionate learners" is more hyperbole than anything else, but perhaps we should simply consider motivating students to have "fun" learning.

LiveScience reports on a study, "Both Democrats and Republicans Adept at Ignoring Facts." A study found that, whether Democrat or Republican, those who have strong beliefs do not listen to facts that contradict their position.

The study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making.

Also,

The brain imaging revealed a consistent pattern. Both Republicans and Democrats consistently denied obvious contradictions for their own candidate but detected contradictions in the opposing candidate.

"The result is that partisan beliefs are calcified, and the person can learn very little from new data," Westen said.

These findings are likely true not only of politics but of any emotionally charged subject or simply of any subject that one takes for granted. These findings also explain why it is so difficult for students in composition courses to tackle topics, such as abortion or religion, if they hold strong opinions about them. I wonder how students (or anyone) can be led to use reason in emotionally charged topics. Should we just avoid such topics? Or find ways to de-emotionalize them and re-reasonize them?