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ABSTRACT— Recent advances in neuroscience are highlighting connections between emotion, social functioning, and decision making that have the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the role of affect in education. In particular, the neurobiological evidence suggests that the aspects of cognition that we recruit most heavily in schools, namely learning, attention, memory, decision making, and social functioning, are both profoundly affected by and subsumed within the processes of emotion; we call these aspects emotional thought. Moreover, the evidence from brain-damaged patients suggests the hypothesis that emotion-related processes are required for skills and knowledge to be transferred from the structured school environment to real-world decision making because they provide an emotional rudder to guide judgment and action. Taken together, the evidence we present sketches an account of the neurobiological underpinnings of morality, creativity, and culture, all topics of critical importance to education. Our hope is that a better understanding of the neurobiological relationships between these constructs will provide a new basis for innovation in the design of learning environments.
Volume 1—Number 1 © 2007 the Authors
Journal Compilation © 2007 International Mind, Brain, and Education Society and Blackwell Publishing, Inc. 3
ABSTRACT — Recent advances in neuroscience are highlight-
ing connections between emotion, social functioning, and
decision making that have the potential to revolutionize our
understanding of the role of affect in education. In particular,
the neurobiological evidence suggests that the aspects of
cognition that we recruit most heavily in schools, namely
learning, attention, memory, decision making, and social func-
tioning, are both profoundly affected by and subsumed within
the processes of emotion; we call these aspects emotional thought .
Moreover, the evidence from brain-damaged patients suggests
the hypothesis that emotion-related processes are required for
skills and knowledge to be transferred from the structured
school environment to real-world decision making because
they provide an emotional rudder to guide judgment and action.
Taken together, the evidence we present sketches an account
of the neurobiological underpinnings of morality, creativity,
and culture, all topics of critical importance to education. Our
hope is that a better understanding of the neurobiological
relationships between these constructs will provide a new
basis for innovation in the design of learning environments .
Recent advances in the neuroscience of emotions are high-
lighting connections between cognitive and emotional func-
tions that have the potential to revolutionize our understanding
of learning in the context of schools. In particular, connec-
tions between decision making, social functioning, and moral
reasoning hold new promise for breakthroughs in understand-
ing the role of emotion in decision making, the relationship
between learning and emotion, how culture shapes learning,
and ultimately the development of morality and human ethics.
These are all topics of eminent importance to educators as
they work to prepare skilled, informed, and ethical students
who can navigate the world s social, moral, and cognitive chal-
lenges as citizens. In this article, we sketch a biological and
evolutionary account of the relationship between emotion
and rational thought, with the purpose of highlighting new
connections between emotional, cognitive, and social func-
tioning, and presenting a framework that we hope will inspire
further work on the critical role of emotion in education.
Modern biology reveals humans to be fundamentally emo-
tional and social creatures. And yet those of us in the fi eld of
education often fail to consider that the high-level cognitive
skills taught in schools, including reasoning, decision mak-
ing, and processes related to language, reading, and math-
ematics, do not function as rational, disembodied systems,
somehow infl uenced by but detached from emotion and the
body. Instead, these crowning evolutionary achievements are
grounded in a long history of emotional functions, themselves
deeply grounded in humble homeostatic beginnings. Any com-
petent teacher recognizes that emotions and feelings affect stu-
dents performance and learning, as does the state of the body,
such as how well students have slept and eaten or whether
they are feeling sick or well. We contend, however, that the
relationship between learning, emotion and body state runs
much deeper than many educators realize and is interwoven
with the notion of learning itself. It is not that emotions rule
our cognition, nor that rational thought does not exist. It is,
rather, that the original purpose for which our brains evolved
1Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California
2Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California
Address correspondence to Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, 3641 Watt
Way Suite B17, Los Angeles, CA 90089-2520; e-mail: mhimmordino-yang @ .
We Feel, Therefore We Learn:
The Relevance of Affective
and Social Neuroscience to
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang 1 and Antonio Damasio2
Volume 1—Number 1
Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education
was to manage our physiology, to optimize our survival, and
to allow us to fl ourish. When one considers that this purpose
inherently involves monitoring and altering the state of the
body and mind in increasingly complex ways, one can appreci-
ate that emotions, which play out in the body and mind, are
profoundly intertwined with thought. And after all, this should
not be surprising. Complex brains could not have evolved sep-
arately from the organisms they were meant to regulate.
But there is another layer to the problem of surviving and
ourishing, which probably evolved as a specialized aspect of
the relationship between emotion and learning. As brains and
the minds they support became more complex, the problem
became not only dealing with one s own self but managing
social interactions and relationships. The evolution of human
societies has produced an amazingly complex social and cul-
tural context, and fl ourishing within this context means that
only our most trivial, routine decisions and actions, and perhaps
not even these, occur outside of our socially and culturally con-
structed reality. Why does a high school student solve a math
problem, for example? The reasons range from the intrinsic
reward of having found the solution, to getting a good grade,
to avoiding punishment, to helping tutor a friend, to getting
into a good college, to pleasing his/her parents or the teacher.
All of these reasons have a powerful emotional component and
relate both to pleasurable sensations and to survival within
our culture. Although the notion of surviving and fl ourishing
is interpreted in a cultural and social framework at this late
stage in evolution, our brains still bear evidence of their origi-
nal purpose: to manage our bodies and minds in the service of
living, and living happily, in the world with other people.
This realization has several important implications for
research at the nexus of education and neuroscience. It points
to new directions for understanding the interface of biology,
learning, and culture, a critical topic in education that has
proven diffi cult to investigate systematically ( Davis, 2003;
Rueda, 2006; Rueda, August, & Goldenberg, 2006 ). It prom-
ises to shed light on the elusive link between body and mind,
for it describes how the health and sickness of the brain and
body can infl uence each other. And importantly, it under-
scores our fundamentally social nature, making clear that the
very neurobiological systems that support our social interac-
tions and relationships are recruited for the often covert and
private decision making that underlies much of our thought.
In brief, learning, in the complex sense in which it happens
in schools or the real world, is not a rational or disembodied
process; neither is it a lonely one.
To understand why this is so, we begin with some history,
and a problem. Well into the 1980s, the study of brain systems
underlying behavior and cognition was heavily dominated by
a top-down approach in which the processes of learning, lan-
guage, and reasoning were understood as high-order systems
that imposed themselves upon an obedient body. It is not that
emotions were completely ignored or that they were not
viewed by some as having a brain basis. Rather, their critical
role in governing behavior, and in particular rational thought,
was overlooked ( Damasio, 1994 ). Emotions were like a tod-
dler in a china shop, interfering with the orderly rows of
stemware on the shelves.
And then an interesting problem emerged. In a research
atmosphere in which cognition ruled supreme, it became
apparent that the irrational behavior of neurological patients
who had sustained lesions to a particular sector of the fron-
tal lobe could not be adequately accounted for by invoking
cognitive mechanisms alone. After sustaining damage to the
ventromedial prefrontal cortex, these patients social behav-
ior was compromised, making them oblivious to the conse-
quences of their actions, insensitive to others emotions, and
unable to learn from their mistakes. In some instances, these
patients violated social convention and even ethical rules,
failing to show embarrassment when it was due and failing
to provide appropriate sympathetic support to those who
expected it and had received it in the past.
These patients ability to make advantageous decisions
became compromised in ways that it had not been before. In
fact, there was a complete separation between the period that
anteceded the onset of the lesion, when these patients had
been upstanding, reliable, and foresightful citizens, and the
period thereafter, when they would make decisions that were
often disadvantageous to themselves and their families. They
would not perform adequately in their jobs, in spite of hav-
ing the required skills; they would make poor business deals
in spite of knowing the risks involved; they would lose their
savings and choose the wrong partners in all sorts of rela-
tionships. Why would patients suffering from compromised
social conduct also make poor decisions about apparently
rational matters, such as business investments?
The traditional way to explain these patients symptoms
had been that something had gone wrong with their logical
abilities or their knowledge base, such that they could no
longer make decisions in a rational way. But, in fact, with fur-
ther testing, it became apparent that these patients did not
have a primary problem with knowledge, knowledge access,
or logical reasoning, as had previously been assumed. To the
contrary, they could explain cogently the conventional social
and logical rules that ought to guide one s behavior and future
planning. They had no loss of knowledge or lowering of IQ
in the traditional sense. Instead, it gradually became clear
that disturbances in the realm of emotion, which had been
viewed as a secondary consequence of their brain damage,
could provide a better account of their poor decision making.
Those emotional aspects included a diminished resonance of
Volume 1—Number 1 5
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio
emotional reactions generally as well as a specifi c compromise
of social emotions, such as compassion, embarrassment, and
guilt. By compromising the possibility of evoking emotions
associated with certain past situations, decision options,
and outcomes, the patients became unable to select the most
appropriate response based on their past experience. Their
logic and knowledge could be intact, but they failed to use
past emotional knowledge to guide the reasoning process.
Furthermore, they could no longer learn from the emotional
repercussions of their decisions or respond emotionally to the
reactions of their social partners. Their reasoning was fl awed
because the emotions and social considerations that under-
lie good reasoning were compromised (Damasio, Grabowski,
Frank, Galaburda, & Damasio, 1994; Damasio, Tranel, &
Damasio, 1990, 1991 ).
In retrospect, these patients provided a fi rst glimpse into
the fundamental role of emotion in reasoning and decision
making. Missing a brain region that is now understood as
needed to trigger a cascade of neurological and somatic
events that together comprise a social emotion, such as
embarrassment, compassion, envy, or admiration, their social
behavior suffered. This is signifi cant in itself, but even more
intriguing was the realization that, without the ability to
adequately access the guiding intuitions that accrue through
emotional learning and social feedback, decision making
and rational thought became compromised, as did learning
from their mistakes and successes. While these patients can
reason logically and ethically about standard cognitive and
social problems in a laboratory setting ( Saver & Damasio,
1991 ), out in the real world and in real time, they cannot use
emotional information to decide between alternative courses
of action. They can no longer adequately consider previous
rewards and punishments or successes and failures, nor do
they notice others praise or disapproval. These patients have
lost their ability to analyze events for their emotional con-
sequences and to tag memories of these events accordingly.
Their emotions are dissociated from their rational thought,
resulting in compromised reason, decision making, and
What does this mean for our argument about relevance
to education? In addition to these patients, further evidence
from psychophysiological and other studies of brain-damaged
and normal people has allowed us to propose specifi c neural
mechanisms underlying the role and operation of emotional
signaling in normal and abnormal decision making ( Bechara,
2005; Bechara & Damasio, 1997; Damasio, 1996 ). While the
details of these neural mechanisms and evidence are beyond
the scope of this article, taken as a whole, they show that
emotions are not just messy toddlers in a china shop, running
around breaking and obscuring delicate cognitive glassware.
Instead, they are more like the shelves underlying the glass-
ware; without them cognition has less support.
To recap, the prefrontal patients we have described have
social defi cits. We have argued that these are fundamentally
problems of emotion and therefore manifest as well in the
realm of decision making. The relationship between these
symptoms is very informative, in that it suggests that hidden
emotional processes underlie our apparently rational real-
world decision making and learning. Furthermore, this rela-
tionship underscores the importance of the ability to perceive
and incorporate social feedback in learning.
While the relevance of these insights to educational con-
texts has not yet been empirically tested, they lead us to
formulate two important hypotheses. First, because these
ndings underscore the critical role of emotion in bringing
previously acquired knowledge to inform real-world decision
making in social contexts, they suggest the intriguing possi-
bility that emotional processes are required for the skills and
knowledge acquired in school to transfer to novel situations
and to real life. That is, emotion may play a vital role in help-
ing children decide when and how to apply what they have
learned in school to the rest of their lives. Second, the close
ties between these patients decision making, emotion, and
social functioning may provide a new take on the relation-
ship between biology and culture. Specifi cally, it may be via
an emotional route that the social infl uences of culture come
to shape learning, thought, and behavior.
While more work on the educational and cultural implica-
tions of these fi ndings is warranted, interestingly, and sadly,
some further insights into the biological connections between
learning, emotion, and social functioning, especially as they
relate to our hypothesis about culture, can be gleaned from
another group of patients that has been discovered over the
past few years. In this group, patients sustained comparable
prefrontal damage in early childhood, rather than as adults. As
they developed, these children were cognitively normal in the
traditional IQ sense, able to use logical reasoning and factual
knowledge to solve the kinds of academic problems expected
of students. However, while smart in the everyday sense of
the word, these children slowly revealed themselves as having
varying degrees of psychopathic and antisocial tendencies.
They were insensitive to punishment and reward and did not
seek approval or social acceptance as typical children do. As
adults, they were unable to competently manage their lives,
wasting time and squandering resources and engaging in
dangerous, antisocial, and aggressive behaviors. By outward
appearances, these patients behaved in most ways similarly
to the patients described above, who sustained prefrontal
damage as adults ( Anderson, Bechara, Damasio, Tranel, &
Damasio, 1999 ; Damasio, 2005) .
Additional investigation of adult patients with childhood
onset of brain damage, though, revealed an intriguing dif-
ference between childhood and adult-onset prefrontal brain
damage. While both groups can reason about traditional cog-
nitive problems in the structure of the laboratory setting and
Volume 1—Number 1
Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education
both have normal IQs in the traditional sense, unlike patients
with adult-onset prefrontal damage, childhood-onset patients
appear never to have learned the rules that govern social and
moral behavior. While adult-onset patients know right from
wrong in the lab but are unable to use this information to
guide their behavior, childhood-onset patients have appar-
ently not learned right from wrong or the proper rules of
social conduct. They do not know the social and ethical rules
that they are breaking.
What is happening with these patients and how is it rel-
evant to the argument at hand? Unlike the often remarkable
compensation for linguistic and other capacities after early
childhood brain damage, so far the system for social conduct
and ethical behavior does not show this kind of compensation.
It is not that access in an abstract sense to the rules of social
conduct requires intact frontal cortices, as the adult-onset
patients show, and it is not that a social or moral conduct
center in the brain has been irreparably damaged, as this sce-
nario would not explain changes in general decision making.
Instead, the situation is both simpler and more grave. These
early-onset prefrontal patients may be suffering from the loss
of what we might term the emotional rudder . Without the abil-
ity to manipulate situations and to mark those situations as
positive or negative from an affective point of view, these
children fail to learn normal social behavior. In turn, they
lose the commensurate decision-making abilities described
earlier. Insensitive to others responses to their actions, these
children fail to respond to educators and others attempts to
teach them normal behavior.
But there is another intriguing piece to be learned from
these children regarding the relationship between cognition
and emotion and the role of the emotional rudder in learn-
ing. As in the adult-onset patients, it is still possible for these
patients to have an operating cognitive system that allows
them to be smart on certain measures and in certain contexts,
solving standard cognitive tasks in a laboratory or structured
educational setting without diffi culty. In these contexts,
their lack of knowledge is confi ned to the social and moral
And yet, once outside of the structured school setting, their
social defi cits manifest as a much broader problem. They have
the nonsocial knowledge they need, but without the guiding
effects of the emotional rudder, they cannot use this informa-
tion to guide their everyday living, even in nonsocial contexts.
What these patients confi rm is that the very neurobiological
systems that support emotional functioning in social interac-
tions also support decision making generally. Without ade-
quate access to social and cultural knowledge, these children
cannot use their knowledge effi caciously. As Vygotsky pos-
ited more than three quarters of a century ago, social and cul-
tural functioning actually does underlie much of our non social
decision making and reasoning. Or, more precisely, social
behavior turns out to be a special case of decision making and
morality to be a special case of social behavior (see Damasio,
2005 , for a more complete treatment of this argument). The
neurological systems that support decision making generally
are the same systems that support social and moral behav-
ior. Without adequate access to emotional, social, and moral
feedback, in effect the important elements of culture, learning
cannot inform real-world functioning as effectively.
In the perspective of the insights described earlier, and of
much research in neurobiology and general biology in the two
intervening decades, the connection between emotion and
cognition is being seen in a very different light. To outline the
current position, we shall present a simple scenario. Think of
an ant crawling along a sidewalk, carrying a piece of food back
to its nest. The ant scurries into a sidewalk crack to avoid
being stepped on, then continues industriously on its way.
What motivates this ant to preserve its own life? How did it
decide, albeit nonconsciously and automatically, to carry the
piece of food and to turn toward its nest? Clearly, the deci-
sions to hide to avoid being crushed, to carry the food, and to
continue in the direction of the nest are primitive instances of
cognition, composed of complex packages of innate responses
that enable the ant to react advantageously to particular
classes of situations. But what is essential to understand is
that these and myriads of other primitive examples of cogni-
tion, even in the lowly ant, act together in the service of an
emotional goal: to maintain and promote homeostasis and
thus fi tness. In short, the ant behaves the way it does because
those behaviors promote its survival and effi ciency. (Humans,
as conscious beings, perceive that effi ciency as well-being and
pleasure.) Every action the ant takes is inherently biased
toward helping the ant, or its group, do well.
Taking an evolutionary perspective, even the simplest
unicellular organism has within the nucleus of its cell a mas-
ter controller that permits that living organism to maintain
itself for a certain span of life and to seek during that period
the conditions that will allow it to thrive. Emotions and
the mechanisms that constitute them as behaviors, which
humans experience as resulting in punishment or reward,
pain or pleasure, are, in essence, nature s answer to one cen-
tral problem, that of surviving and fl ourishing in an ambiva-
lent world. Put simply, the brain has evolved under numerous
pressures and oppressions precisely to cope with the problem
of reading the body s condition and responding accordingly
and begins doing so via the machinery of emotion. This coping
shows up in simple ways in simple organisms and in remark-
ably rich ways as brains get more complex. In the brains of
Volume 1—Number 1 7
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio
higher animals and people, the richness is such that they can
perceive the world through sensory processing and control
their behavior in a way that includes what is traditionally
called the mind. Out of the basic need to survive and fl ourish
derives a way of dealing with thoughts, with ideas, and even-
tually with making plans, using imagination, and creating. At
their core, all of these complex and artful human behaviors,
the sorts of behaviors fostered in education, are carried out in
the service of managing life within a culture and, as such, use
emotional strategies ( Damasio, 1999 ).
Emotion, then, is a basic form of decision making, a reper-
toire of know-how and actions that allows people to respond
appropriately in different situations. The more advanced
cognition becomes, the more high-level reasoning supports
the customization of these responses, both in thought and
in action. With evolution and development, the specifi ca-
tions of conditions to which people respond, and the modes
of response at their disposal, become increasingly nuanced.
The more people develop and educate themselves, the more
they refi ne their behavioral and cognitive options. In fact,
one could argue that the chief purpose of education is to
cultivate children s building of repertoires of cognitive and
behavioral strategies and options, helping them to recognize
the complexity of situations and to respond in increasingly
exible, sophisticated, and creative ways. In our view, out of
these processes of recognizing and responding, the very proc-
esses that form the interface between cognition and emotion,
emerge the origins of creativity the artistic, scientifi c, and
technological innovations that are unique to our species.
Further, out of these same kinds of processing emerges a spe-
cial kind of human innovation: the social creativity that we
call morality and ethical thought.
As the childhood-onset prefrontal patients show, moral-
ity and ethical decision making are special cases of social and
emotional functioning. While the beginnings of altruism,
compassion, and other notions of social equity exist in sim-
pler forms in the nonhuman primates ( Damasio, 2003; Hauser,
2006 ), human cognitive and emotional abilities far outpace
those of the other animals. Our collective accomplishments
range from the elevating and awe inspiring to the evil and gro-
tesque. Human ethics and morality are direct evidence that
we are able to move beyond the opportunistic ambivalence
of nature; indeed, the hallmark of ethical action is the inhibi-
tion of immediately advantageous or profi table solutions in
the favor of what is good or right within our cultural frame
of reference. In this way, ethical decision making represents
a pinnacle cognitive and emotional achievement of humans.
At its best, ethical decision making weaves together emotion,
high reasoning, creativity, and social functioning, all in a cul-
tural context ( Gardner, Csikszentmihaly, & Damon, 2001 ).
Returning to the example of the ant, our purpose in includ-
ing this example was not to suggest that human emotions
are equivalent to those of the ant or that human behavior
can be reduced to simple, nonspecifi c packages that unfold
purely nonconsciously in response to particular situations.
Although some aspects of human behavior and emotion could
be characterized in this way, such reductionism would be
grossly misplaced, especially in an essay about connections to
education. Instead, we aimed to illustrate that most, if not all,
human decisions, behaviors, thoughts, and creations, no mat-
ter how far removed from survival in the homeostatic sense,
bear the shadow of their emotive start.
In addition, as the prefrontal patients show, the processes of
recognizing and responding to complex situations, which we
suggest hold the origins of creativity, are fundamentally emo-
tional and social. As such, they are shaped by and evaluated
within a cultural context and, as we described in the previous
section, are based upon emotional processing. No matter how
complex and esoteric they become, our repertoire of behavio-
ral and cognitive options continues to exist in the service of
emotional goals. Neurobiologically and evolutionarily speak-
ing, creativity is a means to survive and fl ourish in a social and
cultural context, a statement that appears to apply from the
relatively banal circumstances of daily living to the complex
arena of ethical thought and behavior. In beginning to eluci-
date the neurobiological interdependencies between high rea-
soning, ethics, and creativity, all of which are fundamentally
tied to emotion and critically relevant to education, we hope
to provide a new vantage point from which to investigate the
development and nurturance of these processes in schools.
In general, cognition and emotion are regarded as two inter-
related aspects of human functioning. However, while it is
perfectly reasonable and in fact necessary to distinguish
between these two aspects in studying learning and develop-
ment ( Fischer & Bidell, 1998 ), the overly stringent preserva-
tion of this dichotomy may actually obscure the fact that
emotions comprise cognitive as well as sensory processes.
Furthermore, the aspects of cognition that are recruited most
heavily in education, including learning, attention, memory,
decision making, motivation, and social functioning, are both
profoundly affected by emotion and in fact subsumed within
the processes of emotion. Emotions entail the perception of
an emotionally competent trigger, a situation either real or
imagined that has the power to induce an emotion, as well as
a chain of physiological events that will enable changes in
both the body and mind ( Damasio, 1994 ). These changes in
the mind, involving focusing of attention, calling up of rele-
vant memories, and learning the associations between events
and their outcomes, among other things, are the processes
with which education is most concerned. Yes, rational
thought and logical reasoning do exist, although hardly ever
Volume 1—Number 1
Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education
truly devoid of emotion, but they cannot be recruited appro-
priately and usefully in the real world without emotion.
Emotions help to direct our reasoning into the sector of
knowledge that is relevant to the current situation or
In Figure 1 , we provide a graphical depiction of the neu-
rological relationship between cognition and emotion. In the
diagram, we have used the term emotional thought to refer to
the large overlap between cognition and emotion. Emotional
thought encompasses processes of learning, memory, and
decision making, in both social and nonsocial contexts. It is
within the domain of emotional thought that creativity plays
out, through increasingly nuanced recognition of complex
dilemmas and situations and through the invention of corre-
spondingly fl exible and innovative responses. Both the recog-
nition and response aspects of creativity can be informed by
rational thought and high reason. In our model, recognition
and response processes are much like the concepts of assimi-
lation and accommodation proposed by Piaget (1952, 1954) .
However, Piaget focused almost exclusively on cognition and
the development of logic, and although he recognized a role
for emotion in child development ( Piaget, 1981 ), he did not
fully appreciate the fundamentally emotional nature of the
processes he described.
In the diagram, high reason and rational thought also
contribute to high-level social and moral emotions to form
the specialized branch of decision making that is ethics.
Motivated reasoning works in a similar manner and refers
to the process by which emotional thoughts gain additional
signifi cance through the application of rational evidence and
knowledge. In the other direction, rational evidence can be
imposed upon certain kinds of emotional thought to produce
the sort of automatic moral decision making that underlies
intuitive notions of good and evil ( Greene, Nystrom, Engell,
Darley, & Cohen, 2004; Greene, Sommerville, Nystrom,
Darley, & Cohen, 2001; Haidt, 2001 ). For example, in evalu-
ating the morality of incest, experimental evidence suggests
that people decide quickly at the subconscious and intuitive
level and later impose ad hoc rational evidence on their deci-
sion (Haidt, 2001). Conversely, complex moral dilemmas such
as whether to send a nation to war are (one hopes) informed
by an abundance of rational evidence.
On the left side of the diagram, the bodily aspects of emo-
tion are represented as a loop from emotional thought to the
body and back. Here, emotional thoughts, either conscious or
nonconscious, can alter the state of the body in characteris-
tic ways, such as by tensing or relaxing the skeletal muscles
or by changing the heart rate. In turn, the bodily sensations
of these changes, either actual or simulated, contribute
either consciously or nonconsciously to feelings, which can
then infl uence thought. (Simulated body sensation refers
to the fact that sometimes imagining bodily changes is suf-
cient; actually tensing the fi sts, for example, is not neces-
sary.) This is the route by which rational deliberations over,
say, a nation s wartime decisions can produce high-level
social emotions such as indignation, as well as the bodily
Ad hoc imposition of rational
evidence on a decision formulated
within “emotional thought.”
Much of our moral decision-
making happens via this route.
High Reason/
Rational thought
Processes related
to the body
Emotional thought
Body sensations, actual or
simulated, contribute to
feelings, which can in turn
influence thought.
Thoughts can trigger emotions,
which play out in the mind and on
the body.
Rational thought can inform
emotional thought. This is the
pathway of high-level social and
moral emotions, ethics, and of
motivated reasoning. Creativity
can also be informed by high
The platform for learning,
memory, decision-making, and
creativity, both in social and non-
social contexts.
Fig. 1. The evolutionary shadow cast by emotion over cognition infl uences the modern mind. In the diagram, the solid ellipse represents emotion; the dashed
ellipse represents cognition. The extensive overlap between the two ellipses represents the domain of emotional thought. Emotional thought can be conscious
or nonconscious and is the means by which bodily sensations come into our conscious awareness. High reason is a small section of the diagram and requires
Volume 1—Number 1 9
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio
manifestations of these emotions, such as tensed fi sts,
increased heart rate, or loss of appetite. The feeling of these
bodily sensations, either consciously or not, can then bias
cognitive processes such as attention and memory toward, in
this case, aggression. The end result may be an unprovoked
argument with one s friend over a topic totally unrelated to
the war, the creation of a bleak and angry abstract painting,
or a generally tense mood.
In addition to the evidence discussed above, support for
these relationships between the body, emotion, and cognition
comes mainly from neurobiological and psychophysiological
research, in which the induction of emotion, either directly
by a stimulus in the environment or indirectly via thoughts
or memories, causes mental changes as well as physiological
effects on the body. In turn, feelings of emotion rely on the
somatosensory systems of the brain. That is, the brain areas
associated with interoception (the sensing of body states) are
particularly active as people feel emotions such as happiness,
fear, anger, or sadness ( Damasio et al., 2000 ).
To conclude, in presenting this model, our goal is not to
devalue established notions of cognition and emotion but to
provide a biologically based account of this relationship and
to begin to specify the nature of the overlap between cogni-
tion and emotion in a way that highlights processes relevant
to education. These processes include learning, memory,
decision making, and creativity, as well as high reason and
rational thinking. They also include the infl uence of the mind
on the body and of the body on the mind.
In teaching children, the focus is often on the logical reason-
ing skills and factual knowledge that are the most direct indi-
cators of educational success. But there are two problems
with this approach. First, neither learning nor recall happen
in a purely rational domain, divorced from emotion, even
though some of our knowledge will eventually distill into a
moderately rational, unemotional form. Second, in teaching
students to minimize the emotional aspects of their academic
curriculum and function as much as possible in the rational
domain, educators may be encouraging students to develop
the sorts of knowledge that inherently do not transfer well to
real-world situations. As both the early- and late-acquired
prefrontal damage patients show, knowledge and reasoning
divorced from emotional implications and learning lack
meaning and motivation and are of little use in the real world.
Simply having the knowledge does not imply that a student
will be able to use it advantageously outside of school.
As recent advances in the neurobiology of emotions reveal,
in the real world, cognition functions in the service of life-
regulating goals, implemented by emotional machinery.
Moreover, people s thoughts and feelings are evaluated within
a sociocultural context and serve to help them survive and
ourish in a social, rather than simply opportunistic, world.
While the idea that learning happens in a cultural context
is far from new ( Tomasello, Carpenter, Call, Behne, & Moll,
2005 ), we hope that these new insights from neurobiology,
which shed light on the nested relationships between emo-
tion, cognition, decision making, and social functioning, will
provide a jumping-off point for new thinking on the role of
emotion in education. As educators have long known, it is
simply not enough for students to master knowledge and
logical reasoning skills in the traditional academic sense.
They must be able to choose among and recruit these skills
and knowledge usefully outside of the structured context of
a school or laboratory. Because these choices are grounded in
emotion and emotional thought, the physiology of emotion
and its consequent process of feeling have enormous reper-
cussions for the way we learn and for the way we consolidate
and access knowledge. The more educators come to under-
stand the nature of the relationship between emotion and
cognition, the better they may be able to leverage this rela-
tionship in the design of learning environments.
In conclusion, new neurobiological evidence regarding the
fundamental role of emotion in cognition holds the potential
for important innovations in the science of learning and the
practice of teaching. As researchers struggle with new direc-
tions and techniques for learning about these connections,
a biological framework may help to constrain possibilities
and generate new hypotheses and research directions. Just
as neuroscience is coming to inform other education-related
topics and problems ( Goswami, 2006 ), the study of emotions,
creativity, and culture is ripe for interdisciplinary collabora-
tions among neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators.
After all, we humans cannot divorce ourselves from our
biology, nor can we ignore the high-level sociocultural and
cognitive forces that make us special within the animal king-
dom. When we educators fail to appreciate the importance
of students emotions, we fail to appreciate a critical force in
students learning. One could argue, in fact, that we fail to
appreciate the very reason that students learn at all.
Acknowledgments This work was supported by a grant from
the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University
of Southern California and by a grant from the Mathers
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The long-term consequences of early prefrontal cortex lesions occurring before 16 months were investigated in two adults. As is the case when such damage occurs in adulthood, the two early-onset patients had severely impaired social behavior despite normal basic cognitive abilities, and showed insensitivity to future consequences of decisions, defective autonomic responses to punishment contingencies and failure to respond to behavioral interventions. Unlike adult-onset patients, however, the two patients had defective social and moral reasoning, suggesting that the acquisition of complex social conventions and moral rules had been impaired. Thus early-onset prefrontal damage resulted in a syndrome resembling psychopathy.
Developmental and child psychology remains a vital area in modern psychology. This comprehensive set covers a broad spectrum of developmenal issues, from the psychology of the infant, the family, abilities and disabilities, children's art, imagination, play, speech, mental development, perception, intelligence, mental health and education. In looking at areas which continue to be very important today, these volumes provide a fascinating look at how approaches and attitudes to children have changed over the years. The set includes nine volumes by key development psychologist Jean Piaget, as well as titles by Charlotte Buhler and Susan Isaacs.