How emotions enable learning?

Emotions are essential for us to make sense of our environment and the information thrown at us. People we associate with influence on how we process information and whether we even take it on board at all. A research study from the Aspen Institute goes into greater depth on how certain basics need to be met for our brain to learn and develop over time. They studied brain science and how various conditions need to be in place for effective learning to take place from early childhood to adulthood.

I would highly recommend you read it if you are involved in learning related gamification or anything to do with learning in general. It is written in understandable layman’s terms, so you don’t need to be a brain scientist to follow. It raises some great points, I will highlight the ones I took away from the report.

Learning is like tending to plants

One of the fun analogies in the study is how they see learning and brain development as similar to plants growing in different environments. The underlying brain science states that the brain doesn’t necessarily grow bigger and stronger nor creates more connections over time but rather that it learns to organise the connections if has made based on its environment, emotions, social situation, experiences and the type of problems encountered and solutions experienced. All of that mixed together is what creates the makeup and skills of a person.

So to go back to their plant analogy, a plant that finds itself in a well-nurtured and pruned garden will grow and adapt differently to a plant left to its own devices in wild nature, even where the soil type and climate still influence how it grows. In a similar fashion people from different backgrounds with different resources will learn and develop differently. Their individual situation also plays an influential role. I personally quite like how this analogy really makes the case for much more tailored approaches to learning but also for the environments that are ideal for the person as well as learning.

It’s not up to genes

Here is another interesting fact which many social tales will claim that some just have better genes than others and therefore make them smarter or not as the case may be. Well, the study quotes “The human genome project”, where it was discovered that humans actually have less specifically human defining genes than for example some plants. It means that most of our adaptive, creative nature aka the very essence of what makes us human is a learned behaviour which comes from our social and emotional environment, in other words, our family, friends, community, school and culture.

In the plant analogy, our genes are effectively the seeds a gardener may sow, meaning that all children have the necessary means to grow, learn and develop. The only exception made was children with specific genetic brain defects. However, it is the climate, the nurturing or not that makes it develop one way or another or not at all. Providing ideal learning opportunities in the environment and stimulation to explore them is what sets people apart in learning abilities over time and achievement of potential over time.

The study gives examples of how social experience such as baby hysterically crying and the situation in pre-teens, play an active role in the development of children. The brain changes over time and is influenced by social experiences, health, environment especially at times when it is most active typically times of transition such prenatal to early childhood, adolescence, parenthood and old age. Health and well being play a role in the holistic development not only of our body but also our brain.

Different life stages require different support to enable learning

The development of the brain and the development of thinking run in parallel and each supports the other. Through the study, they highlighted that different life stages correlated with different stages of development and also required specific supports for a person to thrive and optimally cope.


Babies are like a blank canvas, their brains require extensive human interactions to develop. They come with instictive neural reflexes for sleep and food, body temperature regulation and the need to interact with their environment and people around them.

Most important for development:

  • Stable routines (food, sleep, etc)
  • Cultural routines (songs, games)
  • Stable relationships (emotionally healthy)
  • Nutrition
  • Physical care
  • Lots of exposure to language
  • Comfort and safety
  • Communication and interactions to stimulate language development and sense-making

Early childhood:

In this period the brain develops its sensory and motor abilities together with language, spatial and visual awareness. It comes at the same time as toddlers starting to make goal-directed moves. Sensory and motor regions are becoming more efficient and interconnected.

Most important for development:

  • encouraging posture and movement for physical development
  • social interactions to learn about sharing, talking, listening
  • active play, active participation in daily rituals
  • stories, games, drawing
  • songs, dance, music
  • support and encouragement

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