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We Feel, Therefore We Learn

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In the first section, I would like to introduce "We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education" by M.H. Immordino-Yang and A. Damasio published in Mind, Brain, and Education, Vol.1, No.1, pp.3-10. The authors are Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California and Dr. Antonio Damasio, from Portugal, Professor of Neuroscience, and Director, Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California.

In contrast to the term "brain science" which is commonly used in Japan, the title of the article refers to "neuroscience," the term that is generally used in North America and Europe. As indicated by the subfields of affective neuroscience and social neuroscience, neuroscience appears to be a broader field of science than brain science. This accounts for the fact that neuroscience can be modified by "affective" or "social." Neuroscience also seems have a more functional orientation than brain science. The title, "We Feel, Therefore We Learn" echoes Descartes' famous dictum "cogito ergo sum".

In understanding the brain, we tend to think of brain function in a top-down manner, mainly in terms of knowledge and rationality, and often neglect the importance of the emotions. From the perspective of the evolution of the brain, however, the fact that the emotions evolved before knowledge and rationality underscores their significance. Because this article also takes a view that emphasizes the evolution of the brain, I will first briefly state my own views on this.

The brain is thought to have first evolved in vertebrates, most certainly in fish, reptiles, and other aquatic animals. The early brain, called the "survival brain," was only equipped with programs for the physical functions that maintain survival. With the evolution of primitive mammals closely resembling something like the ancestors of the platypus and koala, the older survival brain came to be covered by the cortex and its programs of instinct and emotions which support life and bodily movement. We can call this the Instinct-Emotional Brain. With the evolution of higher mammals such as dogs and horses, this brain was then covered by the neocortex and its programs of higher brain function to enable animals to live not only with members of the same species, but also different species and to adapt to the environment.

This explains the development of the Intelligent-Rational Brain, the prototype of the human brain today, and its regulation of the programs of the mind and body that had already evolved. This human brain is marked by prominent development of the frontal cortex, making it the most highly evolved Intelligent-Rational Brain. It is this brain that is considered to have supported the rise of culture and civilization. The perspective of evolution clearly indicates the important role of the emotions, but much remains unknown about how their relation to other brain functions at the cellular, physiological and biochemical level.

Moreover, it is well known that children's cognitive function plays a primary role in education. Cognitive function includes mental capabilities such as learning, attention, memory, judgment and decision making as well as social functioning. A number of research studies have shown that these capabilities are profoundly related to emotion.

The authors apply the notions of "emotional thought" and "emotional rudder." Emotional thought is the platform for learning, memory, decision making, creativity, etc., both in social and non-social contexts, which are aspects of cognition that are subsumed within the processes of emotion. Emotional rudder refers to the idea that emotions are profoundly involved in the processes that guide judgment and decision making. In the process of enhancing skills or the cognitive process of transferring knowledge learned at school to real-life environments, an emotional rudder is developed within emotional thought.

Emotion includes brain functions for the processes involving the body in addition to emotional thought. Cognition includes rational thought, logical high reason, ethics, creativity and other brain functioning in addition to emotional thought.

These ideas are based on scientific evidence of studies of brain-damaged patients. After sustaining damage to the prefrontal cortex (ventromedial) area of the brain which characterizes human beings, these patients indicated a number of symptoms: compromised social behavior, inability to remember past actions, insensitivity to the feelings of others, inability to learn from their mistakes, and furthermore, inability to make decisions that would be advantageous to themselves. In addition, they also showed gradual disturbances in emotion.

As this article points out, detailed research on the findings of these studies will, no doubt, be forthcoming. In my view, the programs of the emotions and the programs of intellect-rationality are profoundly interrelated in the prefrontal cortex. In the future, I think we will learn just how each of these various programs is linked to another and how these linkages function on a neuronal level.

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