Sara, a team leader, is coaching her team member Sharon, for the new project. Sara tries to make each session engaging and practical, but Sharon seems distracted and fidgety. When asked, Sharon admits that she is unable to concentrate as her thoughts drift to her father who is unwell. Since then, Sara has let Sharon use the first 10 minutes of each session to share what she feels, particularly about her father and his treatment. The approach has worked – Sharon is now more focused and attentive during the coaching sessions.

Sharon demonstrates what research has confirmed: that emotions and cognition are deeply linked. In fact, ‘emotions and cognition are supported by interdependent neural processes’. The human brain processes information and builds memory through the activities of its hippocampus. Next to the hippocampus is the amygdala, the region responsible for regulating emotion. The neural networks of these two regions are closely connected, which explains why emotions affect the way we learn and retain information.

Proof of these neuroscience lessons are found in the classroom. In a study exploring the interplay of happiness, motivation, and success, researchers found that happiness supports learning and is positively correlated with motivation and academic achievement. Researchers also suggest that by nurturing positive relationships between teachers and students, which improves students’ sense of happiness, schools can help students perform better.

How can we apply these findings to improve learning at the workplace? Here are some ways to integrate emotion with cognition:

  • Acknowledge how people feel. If happiness supports learning, then anxiety makes it harder for us to learn. When teaching, instructing or conducting a knowledge-sharing session, ask people to share how they are feeling. In case someone shows anxiety, stress, or worry, ask what makes them experience the negative emotion. When people can identify and express their emotions, it helps them calm down, improving their chances of learning.
  • Take an empathy-based approach. Education consultant Ernest Mendes observes that when teachers have an empathic mindset, students respond more positively, teacher-student relationships improve, and disciplinary issues reduce. By observing, listening, and responding to learners with empathy you acknowledge what they feel and build a positive relationship with them. This improves their sense of well-being – an enabler of learning.
  • Use positive emotions to nurture skills. In the book Emotions, Learning, and the Brain, author Mary Helen Immordino-Yang suggests that emotions become a dimension of a cognitive skill. If a positive emotion is associated with a skill, then the skill gets enhanced, while a negative emotion associated with a skill hampers its development. When the learning experience sparks off positive emotions such as curiosity, confidence, and excitement, the content or skill is learnt better.

Learning programs are often designed as a cognitive exercise – they focus on the subject or content to be taught. By acknowledging that emotions play a critical role in this process and making the learning experience emotionally relevant, organizations can build more learner-friendly programs, and improve their training and development outcomes.

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