The Brain Sciences have made dramatic progress in the last two decades. Knowledge emerging from new research has provided neuroscientists with a wealth of new information about the organization of the brain and the complex brain processes that underlie intelligent behaviour. It is now possible, with the aid of new imaging techniques, to study the working brain. Admittedly, we are nowhere near a full understanding or explication of how neural processes 'generate' mind and consciousness. Yet what we know seems to require us to drastically revise many of our common assumptions about personal, social and cultural life.

I would like to present some of these insights and suggest the implications that these might have for education. My perspective is not that of an expert in neuroscience. I have no such expertise. Nor am I presenting detailed results from educational research. My view is that of an interested and curious educator, a practitioner in the field, as it were, who wishes to use this new understanding as a springboard for new ideas and explorations. This point of view is also that of an educational ethos, that of the Krishnamurti Schools, for instance, that holds that education has to address the whole human being, whether teacher or student, and is sceptical of the narrow vision of learning that is dominant today.

I would like to suggest, tentatively, that many of the new insights from neuroscience support this educational vision. They highlight the variability and diversity of human development, the fact that we share much more with other animals than we care to admit, that our cognitive abilities while phenomenal are fallible and depend very much on our capacity for emotion and feeling, and finally that there is no single area in the brain that uniquely defines the individual. Our sense of personhood is a composite, a 'fiction' rendered on the fly by complex brain processes that many even believe are beyond the ability of science to explain.

I would like to introduce my view of the possibilities of this line of thinking by 20 presenting some of the implications of the new understanding of emotions, feelings and their role in learning.

Emotions and the Brain

Psychology and neuroscience neglected emotions through most of the twentieth century. They were considered too difficult to study scientifically and were left to poets, writers and artists to explore. Emotions were often viewed with suspicion, as distractions that impair the operation of thinking and reasoning. This view is no longer tenable. Emotions are not an accident of evolution. There is nothing uniquely human about them either. And it is clear now that cognition and emotion are inextricably linked.

What are emotions, really ? Surprisingly, it has been difficult to provide an unambiguous definition. There is some agreement that some emotions are 'primary' (anger, fear, sadness and so on) and seem to transcend culture and some are social emotions (shame, guilt, jealousy) that contain shades of many primary emotions. Another bone of contention is the relationship between emotions and feeling. Many writers consider the two to be synonymous. Others think that feelings and emotions, while closely related, are processes that have different evolutionary history and function. In this perspective, feelings, the awareness of emotional states, are built on the foundation of emotions. Emotions and feelings, in this view, contribute to the building of the perception of 'self', a feeling entity.

I do not intend to describe this debate in any detail. For our purposes, it is sufficient to realise that emotions and feelings (which we experience directly, anyway!) are complex neuro-physiological processes that have at least the following salient features and characteristics:

  1. Emotions are responses, triggered by the brain and primarily centred on the body, to significant internal and external events. To use a common example: walking along a dark path at night, you encounter an object on the ground. A snake? Before you know it, you have leapt back or frozen in mid-stride, heart pounding, with a muffled cry, perhaps. Many other body changes accompany this response of fear: changes in blood pressure, skin conductance and so on. All this requires no planning and thinking. That comes later.
  2. Emotions are highly adaptive and valuable guides for survival. They are not a luxury or inconvenience. On the contrary, emotions and feelings render in glorious 'multi-dimensional colour' what would otherwise be a flat and grey personal world. This, as we shall discover, comes at a price.
  3. In human beings the basic biological machinery of emotions has been fine tuned to produce social emotions that have helped the development of a complex and rich social and cultural life and experience.
  4. Emotional body states contribute to feelings: the processes by which we become aware and conscious of the changes in the body that emotional responses have brought about.
  5. Emotions have a close link to reasoning abilities. This might surprise many. It turns out that cognition is not an independent capacity, in splendid isolation from emotion and feeling. Sherlock Holmes, alas, is a neurobiological impossibility. Impaired emotions undermine cognition and decision-making. It is no surprise that mental disorders are very often disorders of emotion and mood.
  6. Much of our social experience is an interplay between emotional selves. Our sense of fact, right and wrong, of 'truth' and falsehood, are not based, as one might wish, exclusively on our ability for dispassionate judgment, but inevitably on our 'emotional biographies', and the 'truth' that feelings provide from moment to moment.
  7. Processes that generate emotions and feelings in the brain are also, in all probability, involved in the generation of consciousness and a sense of identity.
  8. Emotional experiences and emotional memories are powerful conditioning forces that have a large role to play in defining 'personality'.

Emotions in Relationship and Learning

From what has been said so far, it should be obvious that emotional processes contribute strongly to the tenor of everyday experience. We are social beings and particularly in the present milieux, many of our trials, tribulations, the dangers we face and the sorrows we experience are of social origin. Rarely do we face a predator in the wild, or have to hunt for food anymore. This suggests to me that an understanding of our emotional heritage is potentially a powerful tool for greater self-understanding and empathy.

In the context of education, I would like to begin with a few questions, and would then like to suggest a few hypotheses that seem to me to be justified in the light of the insights from cognitive neuroscience.

  1. What is the significance of emotions for learning?
  2. How do current educational practices use (or abuse) emotions and feelings? Are these practices justified?
  3. What are the characteristics (both structure and process related) of a healthy educational environment? To what extent can such an environment contribute to well-being?
  4. What is the nature of adult relationships in such an environment? How can the educator sustain the momentum of learning in her life?

A Few Observations

Based on the experience of the group of educators that I am part of, and observations of the education system, I believe that the following statements are largely justified:

Learning has an irreducible emotional dimension.

While learning new skills, say in science or mathematics, does involve, primarily, cognitive processes, the emotional dimension in the learning process needs emphasis. The student's emotional responses do influence her orientation to the topic, degree of involvement with the learning situation and even the level of alertness and attention that the student may display. Effective teachers have always understood this intuitively. We all remember the science teacher who brought excitement and adventure to the classroom in our school. And perhaps my attitude to mathematics has been shaped, to some extent at least, by the fear that the teacher evoked.

If we now begin to look at learning not just as the acquisition of skills and knowledge but as a complex process of development of life skills, social capacities and ways of seeing, the hypothesis looks even more credible. This is not to deny that there are innate and genetic influences that exert a powerful force over learning. Yet, the contribution that emotional factors make to learning has been often neglected.

The present education system makes disproportionate use of one emotion: FEAR.

Our education system implicitly and often crudely assumes that fear and anxiety are part of the price our children need to pay to be educated. Several common practices in schools seem to provoke anxiety in students. Foremost among these is the insidious role that examinations and comparative methods of assessment play. The assumption that fear can be a source of motivation in the long run is very questionable. Secondly, the fear and anxiety that seep into the learning situation through comparative grading and competition seem to me to contribute very little to true learning. Furthermore, the teacher in the classroom is still an object of fear and authority in far too many schools.

The insensitivity and resistance to change in our school systems to these obvious ills is an indicator of how little we understand the process of learning. Learning is potentially a source of joy, wonder and well-being for the teacher and the student. It seems to me that a relentless campaign of advocacy is needed to persuade educators, parents and the state to acknowledge the change in approach needed. An added problem is the tendency to define 'success' in narrow ways. Capacities and interests are variable and gloriously diverse. A deeper understanding of students' capacities will take account of varied emotional temperaments, innate dispositions and interests and diverse economic and cultural contexts. In herding all learners into a 'one size fits all' framework, we condemn generations of students to anxiety and a sense of failure.

We need new words and new deeds.

Is it possible to sensitise teachers, parents and students to the need to make learning situations emotionally wholesome? Firstly, schools need to pay particular attention to the social relationships in the classroom. It seems to me that children who encounter positive and supportive emotional environments at home and school are more likely to grow up to be sensitive adult citizens. A child who lives in an atmosphere of violence and emotional turbulence, as far too many do, may take these to be 'normal'.

Teaching has gradually been reduced to more or less mechanical training. The assumption that computers can replace teachers is an example of the way in which learning has been trivialized. This view obviously ignores the rich possibilities that a nurturing, cooperative learning situation has, and its positive emotional and cultural benefits. We need to 're-frame' the debate in a way that emphasizes the role of education as a holistic process that nurtures sensitive and responsible human beings, not mere economic agents.

At CFL we try to engage students and parents in a sustained dialogue over many years. These dialogues serve to open many of these ideas to discussion and challenge. The years in school can be a period of intense emotional pressures for the student. Peer interaction is a very significant force in students' lives. But it is often far from benign. So is the emotional turbulence that the child experiences in relation to many life events. Puberty and sexual maturation come immediately to mind. Sexuality is a realm of intense anxiety and curiosity for the young. We need a 'mode of talking' that acknowledges the young person's experience in a non-judgmental way and opens it up with empathy and rigour. Far too often teachers, having forgotten their own childhood, tend to condemn or to 'explain away'. The discovery of such a 'mode of talking' seems to me to be a matter of utmost importance.

Emotional processes underwrite many of the concepts and moral certainties that we acquire throughout life. The strong hold of nationalism and religious dogma is an interesting example. Examples of the ease with which destructive emotions are deployed to protect these beliefs are innumerable. Once such concepts and perceptions are acquired, any revision may provoke anxiety. We would rather persist with destructive emotional patterns than take the 'risk' of subjecting them to scrutiny. Schools, I believe, are at the frontline in the attempts that need to be made to help the young learn the art of introspection that might liberate us from the tyranny of such conditioning.

Teachers must be learners too.

Schools in general are far too rigidly structured. We seem loath to change the factory-like school organization that provides teachers (and students) with very 24 little room for exploration and initiative. Syllabuses are inflexible and created by 'experts'. Such a system does not encourage creative partnerships among teachers. And school is very rarely a place of learning for the educator.

Krishnamurti insisted that the educator is most in need of education. A teacher who is not exploring the nature of freedom, an inward freedom that releases the individual from bondage, is unlikely to be able to nurture creativity in the student.

Can schools be places of dialogue and exploration for teachers? It seems to me, from the experience at CFL, that such an environment is emotionally very demanding. Anger, jealousy and anxiety are common currency in relationship. It was unnerving for me to discover that feelings inevitably moulded my perceptions and decisions, often rigidly. Emotions and feelings are the cement that hold our perceptions together. Unfortunately, they often intimate a dubious 'truth' which must be subjected to unrelenting questioning and scepticism. Most of us find this scepticism difficult in the face of feelings that support our certainties, through the flesh, as it were. Working relationships that are broken by hurt and conflict are all too common a consequence. I believe that a group that invests energy in a process of cooperative dialogue has a greater chance of discovering creative responses to this challenge.


I have argued that a nuanced understanding of feelings, emotions and the nature of brain development and processes that mediate these can be useful. Let me emphasize that we do not have to be brain specialists to be good learners and educators. But too many of the current beliefs and practices that schools adhere to are based on erroneous or outdated understanding of our biology. Correcting these cannot fail to be beneficial. I have also argued that many recent developments in neurobiology suggest the need for new ways of talking about the issues raised here. Many of the sharp divisions that everyday speech insists on, between mind and body, thinking and feeling are no longer sustainable. Educators must contribute to the development of that new language.

N. Venu has degrees in Engineering and Management. After a few years in the corporate business sector, he joined The Valley School, Bangalore and later helped start Centre For Learning. At CFL, he divides his time between teaching the Social Sciences and administrative responsibilities.