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The Neuroscience Case for Emotional and Social Intelligence Learning and EQ Enhancement

Research in neuroscience has proven that the brain has “plasticity,” meaning it can grow new synapses through repetition. Research has also identified that different areas of the brain control various functions.

As a crucial example, severe negative emotional reactions are located and stimulated in an evolutionary-older part of the brain around the reactive amygdala, while patience, elevated comprehension, empathy and understanding are functions of areas of the brain that evolved later in human development.

Emotions strongly influence physical reactions as well, literally changing body chemistry according to whether the emotions are positive or negative. Stress, for example, has a profound impact on the body’s (and brain’s) biochemistry. Even a moment of stress triggers hormone secretions that we experience as unpleasant if not painful. 

Responses include the familiar-to-everyone increased heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tension, and sinking feelings in the stomach. You know personally how hard it is for you to focus or take in information if you are in an anxiety or anger state.

Neuroscience further demonstrates that the higher cognitive part of the brain shuts down under stress – literally goes dark on brain scans while the reactive part of the brain linked to negative emotions lights up.

Consider then what happens to a child under stress from peers, or from a feeling of general “unsafety” in life or school, or from feelings of inadequacy. The child broods with  – if not acts out – feelings he or she does not know how to manage, during which the reactive part of the brain has taken over from the learning part.

Researchers have now shown that as children experience emotional and social intelligence learning, the plasticity of the brain builds new neural networks that create the ability to manage negative reactions and allow the child to operate dominantly from the learning and cognitive part of the brain – and also from their intuition or higher knowing and wisdom. 

Put another way, what educators call social-emotional learning first creates awareness of emotions and then the tools to express and deal with all emotions in a positive rather than harmful way.

Further training creates new neural pathways that allow the child to deal in a healthy way with conflict rather than react to it, and to know and be able to choose wiser actions, make good decisions, relate well with others, be resilient when challenged, and set and meet healthy goals.

In short, once EQ training builds a new neural bridge, the brain integrates experience in a manner that we have come to define as “emotional intelligence.”

Humans with such training, whether kids or adults, manage their reactions better than they did before – and better than most people – and tend to experience better outcomes, healthier relationships and more positive behaviors. 

These realities amplify the importance of creating a caring learning environment that is emotionally supportive and expressive, as well as intellectually stimulating.

* * *

Positive emotions are as influential as negative ones and are an invaluable element of the human experience. Research has shown that teaching methods and school cultures that generate good feelings, also generate better academic results and overall higher-performing and more creative and mentally healthy (also physically healthy) students and adults. 

Cognitive neuroscientists Mary Ellen Imordino-Yang and Matthias Faeth contributed to an 18-author anthology, Mind, Brain and Education. In a chapter titled “The Role of Emotion and Skilled Intuition in Learning,“ the authors describe how positive emotions provide a force that “stabilizes the direction of a learner’s decisions over time.“

When emotion is relevant to the task at hand, they point out, it is at its optimal use.

Most schools in America and the world currently tend to put emotions aside or suppress them during classroom cognitive learning. The authors argue that without emotion, learning is impaired.

“Rather than working to move beyond emotion, the most efficient and effective learning incorporates emotion into cognitive knowledge being built,” they write. Effective learners build “useful and relevant intuitions that guide their thinking and decision making.”

“For effective cognition to manifest itself in the classroom, emotions need to be a part of the learning experience all along” 

The Role of “Mirror Neurons” in Early Childhood Learning and SEL

Babies (and children) learn through observation, imitation and repetition. This is a non-stop process in child brains and explains why a baby’s brain is the fastest growing part of its body. 

Mirror neurons are what neuroscientists say trigger and absorb mimic learning in a baby’s formative years.

The baby observes something and this creates an inner response to what they see. The baby then mirrors the behavior, thereby creating and programming a new neuron.

Adults draw on these neurons as well, crying when we see a sad movie or feeling triggered to yawn when we see someone yawn.

The implications of this are tremendous for teaching and modeling emotional and social intelligence learning as early as possible. 

Because development of mirror neurons are an essential part of controlling a baby’s immediate and later actions, as well as its abstract thinking and memory, the earlier a child experiences training in emotional awareness and management, and in relationship skills, the better they will manage life challenges. Also, the more they will achieve, and the closer they will come to having a happy life.

In this country pre-schools are ahead of the curve in adopting social-emotional learning, though by no means all have. Parents and K-12 schools are behind the curve. Clearly, it’s time to catch up. (Go to Programs to learn about programs available to parents.)

A. Benedetto, Ph.D

Sources:
Sousa, Davis, editor, Mind Brain and Education; Implications for the classroom. Solution Tree Press, Bloomingdale, Indiana, 2010.
Tarver, Paula. Reflections on Mirror Neurons. http://www.childdevelopmentclub.org. June 15, 2013
Wolfe, Patricia, Brain Matters; Translating Research into Classroom Practice. Alexandria, VA., 2001

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