Emotional Memory

 How do emotions affect memory?

This pathway over the tall grasses might lead us over a swampy area. Yes. I can see the water. Does it bother you to be walking out over water, over a swamp?  Even from here we can see a long distance. From the lookout tower we could see even farther. This wooden walkway doesn’t look too strong, does it. You might feel nervous. You might worry about falling over the edge. The walkway might collapse. How do you feel about climbing into the lookout tower? Would you rather stay below? Do high places make you feel nervous or is it that the stairs don’t look safe?

A boardwalk leads to a small lookout tower in the midst of tall grasses.On the other hand, you might think this is a beautiful place. You might be eager to climb up into the tower where you will see long distances in every direction.

You might find it exciting. It’s a new experience, unlike anything you’ve  ever seen before. Perhaps  experience is exhilaration or awe. You might feel “free as a bird.”

Just as your emotions affect how you experience this picture, our emotions affect how we learn and remember.

In his book, Superteaching, Eric Jensen lists four ways emotion can affect learning.

“1. It builds long-term memory. The more intensely that you engage the emotions, the longer you’ll recall what you have learned. In fact, what you remember most from your childhood are your lowest lows and your highest highs.

2. Functionality. It meets the needs, partially, of those learners who are kinesthetic, internal-feeling type learners. …

3. Love. It helps instill a love of learning. The only way {you} will develop a real deep love and passion for a topic is to access emotions within the process of learning about it. …

4. Fun! It’s much more fun to learn when emotions are being engaged. It gets the blood flowing and makes it memorable.”      —  p. 179

Were you aware, as I described the pathway over the swamp, that I made an effort to engage your emotions? Will you now remember the picture more clearly than if I had simply described the picture?

Showing a relationship between the picture and the topic on this page should help you remember both better. When you think of the picture, you’ll remember thinking about emotions and that should remind you that emotions strengthen memories.

We remember events longer when they are Joyful or Traumatic.

People who have witnessed a terrible accident or a murder will remember this for the rest of their lives. John Medina, in his book, Brain Rules, describes how, when he was a child, he watched a plane crash.

“It was actually falling from the sky, locked in a dead man’s spiral. It hit the ground maybe 500 feet from where I stood and I felt both the shock wave and the heat of the explosion.”   p. 131.

Medina hurried home to tell his parents. He called his friends. He talked to investigators. He talked about it in school.  ” Research shows that thinking or talking about an event immediately after it has occurred enhances memory for that event…” p. 131.  The combination of an extremely emotional event and talking about it, sharing the experience with others, makes the memory extremely powerful.

We all remember times of great excitement or great joys. Married couples enjoy describing how they met. As you listen to their stories, you feel their emotion. Parents describe how they felt, expecting the birth of a child. They remember their first look at the baby. “She was so tiny. I was afraid to pick her up. What if I dropped her?”  They proudly share stories of the baby’s first steps, their first words, and other amazing accomplishments.

You certainly remember your trip to college. Did your mother cry? Did your parents hang around or leave quickly? How did you feel when they were gone? Homesick? Sort of lonely and numb? Scared? Did you feel like crying? Or were you excited, eager to run up and down the hall meeting other students? What were your first impressions of your roommate?

The one thing I know is that you will remember that day because you experienced strong emotions.

What does this have to do with learning?

“All right,” you say. “Everyone knows that we remember awful things and wonderful things. But what does that have to do with learning? Reading my English book, or doing math problems is not an emotional experience. It’s just plain boring.”

Sad but true. If our educations were completely self-designed, if we didn’t have classes to go to and dull textbooks to read, education could be exciting.

Someone might say, “I’ve always liked dinosaurs. I’ve liked them since I was five. I’m going to spend the next month or two learning everything I can about dinosaurs. I’ll visit museums and study their bones. I’ll go to a dig and help find more bones. I’ll talk to professors who’ve spent a lifetime studying dinosaurs.”  Obviously they would be excited about what they were leaning.

Another person might have dreamed for years of becoming a singer. On the day they signed up for singing lessons, they would feel many emotions.

Self-directed learning is far more exciting than the usual college curriculum. The problem is that most students, left on their own, wouldn’t choose to learn something. They wouldn’t have the interest, the determination, the motivation to learn this way.

Two stories of highly motivated, self-directed students.

I was one of those self-directed students.. Somehow, I managed to grow up excited about learning, not learning the boring  stuff in class, but learning about things that were interesting to me.

When I was in elementary school, I fell in love with a large book called “The World of Plant Life.” I saved my allowance and money I earned doing extra chores to earn the $20 to buy my own copy.

In high school I checked out a book from the library called “A Handbook of Psychiatry.” I’m not sure why. But that summer, while on a camping trip with my family, I read that book from cover to cover.

Sure, I took the required classes in college. In some classes I found areas that seemed really exciting. I rarely worried about making A’s. My goal was to learn as much as I could about the things I found most interesting. In many classes, I was able to use my areas of interest for a term paper.

I actually took a graduate class my freshman year of college. It was a psychology class that related body shape to personality. It was taught by the visiting professor who had done the research and written the book. When I tried to sign up for the class, the people at registration looked at me like I was out of my mind and said “No. Of course not. You’re only a freshman. Why don’t you take an introductory psychology class?” They didn’t seem to care that I had already read the professor’s book. I asked if I could audit the class. “No,” I was told. “The class is full.”  Could I do it if the professor said i was all right?  “No. There are not enough chairs in the classroom. It’s a seminar, you know.”

I don’t give up easily.  I talked to the professor. He said he’d be happy to have me in the class but I would need to be a full participant. Excellent. I was fully confident that I could learn anything these grad students could learn. The professor assigned each student a chapter. We had to do additional research, summarize the information from both the research and the chapter and make a presentation to the class. I was thrilled. My presentation was as good or better than those of the other students.

In which class did I learn the most? Freshman English or this graduate class for which I received no credit?

Mandelbrot Fractal by Markus GannOne of my favorite stories about our son was something he did in his freshman year of college.

But, first, a little history. Tony was interested in fractals in high school. He had a fractal birthday party and told his friends they had to come dressed as fractals. “What’s a fractal?” they all asked. “Look it up,” Tony said. (The picture on the left is of a Mandelbrot fractal, one of the best know fractals.) Most arrived in tie-dyed shirts. They watched fractal videos as they partied.

A couple years later, while judging a state science fair, I met a student whose project was on fractals. I didn’t recognize him but he knew me. “I got interested in fractals,” he said, “when I went to Tony’s fractal party.”

Fast-forward to Tony’s freshman year of college. He overheard a few students complaining about these crazy snowflake fractals their professor kept talking about. Tony heard the word fractal and asked who the teacher was. The next day he appeared at the professor’s office and introduced himself. “Hello. I’m Tony Fishel. I heard that you know a lot about fractals. I’d like to have you teach me everything you know.”

My husband and I had a good laugh when we heard this story. For a professor to teach everything he knows about any subject to a single student, to a student who was not in his class, was funny. We assumed that the professor might recommend a book. But this wonderful professor invited Tony to have a seat. They spent an hour discussing fractals. The professor then invited Tony to visit him again after he had taken calculus. By the time Tony finished calculus, he was attending a different college, one with a stronger support system for students who are dyslexic.

What do you think Tony remembered longer, his basic college math class, or that hour discussing fractals with the professor?

How can you use emotion to build stronger memories? (and enjoy learning more)

Enough reminiscing. Most of you who are reading this page are not likely to do anything similar. But perhaps you can take a couple steps in that direction, steps toward learning something because you are fascinated or excited about it, or at least because you think it is extremely important.

1. Ask Questions. If you have read the Reading pages on SQ3R , you will know how important questions are. Before you begin reading a book or a chapter, write down what you already know on the subject. The survey, QUESTION, read, recite and review. Read the verbal strategy on Questions.

When you list your questions, you are discovering aspects of a subject that you are interested in. The more you learn, the better the questions you will ask.  And, as you ask better questions, you grow more and more interested. As you listen to lectures, you will be alert to any answers to your questions. As you read your textbook, you will also be looking for answers. When you find one, it’s exciting. You will remember these answers more easily that information that didn’t relate to a question.

2. Do Research. Be alert for interesting topics in your professors’ lectures. Search through your textbook, as you read, for mentions of topics that sound interesting. Choose a few of these and, when you have a little spare time, see what you can find online or in the library. As you research these areas, you may also discover that you have a growing interest in the rest of your class. If you will need to write a research paper, you will have a couple of good ideas.

3. Explore your Emotions. Think about the picture of the pathway over the swamp, the flimsy-looking walkway. You could have glanced quickly at the picture and felt nothing. Maybe it looked pretty. But, as I led you to explore your emotions, you probably experienced something, maybe awe or delight, maybe fear or nervousness, maybe mixed emotions.

The same can be true with your lectures, with your reading if you allow your emotions to open up.  You might try to write a large exclamation point or an asterisk at ideas that sound interesting or exciting. Maybe draw a sad face when the information makes you feel sad or worried. Write a giant question mark when you have questions or don’t understand. (Go back over those areas later to understand it better.)

4. If you find something interesting or puzzling, talk about it. Share your discoveries with a classmate or friend. If your puzzled, you might find someone who an explain. If other students are also puzzled, talk to your professor. They always appreciate a good questions. If they know that other students didn’t understand it either, the professor may discuss it further in the next lecture.

5. Search for Main Ideas. Finding the main ideas is a challenge. Creating a clear outline or a beautiful, detailed concept map A man is climbing up a cliff in the mountains.will give you a feeling of accomplishment. You may need to make several efforts before you get something you are satisfied with. Then hang it on your bulletin board where you can see it and think about what a good job you did.

Mountain climbers often don’t make it to the peak on their first try, but they don’t give up. They ask how they could be better prepared and they try again and again until they reach their goal.

I’m certain that this rock climber couldn’t have gotten this far on his first try. He wouldn’t have gotten this far on his tenth or twentieth try. But he likes a to challenge himself. He is determined to make it to the top. He worked with experienced climbers and learned new methods. He will eventually succeed.

Think of your classes as mountains waiting to be climbed. Some are gentle hills. You can climb them with the skills you have already. They will help you build your skills and your confidence for more difficult climbs.

If you run into one mountain that seems impossible, like climbing this cliff, find someone who climbed it before and get their insights. Learn their methods. Continue developing your skills. Look for different ways to reach the top. If you are determined, if you work hard, if you keep trying, you really can get to the top.

Just as you can become a skilled rock climber, you can learn the skills you need to become an expert learner. You can learn more about topics that challenge you. You can take pride in your skills.

You might enjoy these other Pathways of Memory

Practical Memory                          Rote Memory                     Mnemonics (memory tricks)

Visual Memory                              Auditory Memory                             Kinesthetic Memory

Relational Memory                      Storytelling in Memory

Multiple Pathways                       Scheduled Reviews             research: Processing Memory

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