Our brain does not work in a linear fashion, but we act like it does. And that’s detrimental and slows down learning. Let me explain.
I was sitting at Starbucks recently and there was this mother and son at the next table. The son was trying to finish his tuition homework before going home.
Son: “I dunno how to do… I very tired..”
Mother: “Quick do. Later you must show your tuition teacher.”
Son: (starts sighing and running his hand through his hair in exasperation)
Mother: “Do your work properly if not cannot pass exams then you know”
Son: “But i cannot think… I still have alot I dunno how to do… I feel very tired…”
Mother: “You put aside how you feel first. Finish your homework already then later it will feel ok.”
We hear that frequently don’t we? We either tell that to ourselves or others – “Put your emotions aside first. Solve this problem logically then we address the emotions”. First of all, we very often forget to address the stress and emotions after the tasks are done because there is no longer a need to. Secondly, according to neuroscience, we physiologically cannot do that.
We have 3 main functions of the brain when it comes to learning. The logical (neocortex), the emotional (limbic system) and the primal instincts (reptilian brain in charge of fight/flight responses). We act like these 3 functions are 3 different switches that we can switch on and off at will. But in fact, it doesn’t. Our logical, emotional and primal minds work together, all the time.
The bad news around it, is that everytime we attempt to switch our emotions off by numbing or avoiding it, we will indirectly numb the capacity of our logical brain too.
The great news about this is, when we learn to address the needs of our negative emotions (e.g. feeling overwhelmed) and turn them into positive ones (e.g. feeling understood and believed in), it will automatically increase the logical mind’s capacity to learn, understand and retain information. However, it is important to note that this transformation of negativity to positivity cannot be done through sheer will or positive thinking. This transformation cannot be one that is cognitive or thought of, but rather, one that is experienced.
How do we experience?
Acknowledge whilst feeling it.
Emotions that are not serving the progress of tasks, need to be firstly recognised – “My mind is drawing a blank for my assignment now and I am feeling very stressed and scared that I won’t be able to finish it in time.” Don’t do this logically, acknowledge the emotions whilst it’s still present in you. If you are feeling numb and saying “I feel so stressed and afraid”, you’re not acknowledging what’s real in the current moment, you are only acknowledging what has passed.
Address it on the deepest level you can get to
“I am stressed that I can’t finish it on time” is usually an example of what I call the emotions of the surface. Emotions of the surface are usually triggered by certain emotions of the deep, a deeper concern left unaddressed. For example, “stressed over not finishing it on time” could stem from a “afraid of looking like a failure”.
Express it with the intention for the situation (not just you alone) to progress.
Then find a way to express it. Cry if you need to, tell a close friend about it, write it on Facebook, speak to God about it. It is not just about getting it off your chest, expressing your current emotions is the natural follow-up of feeling it. Suppressing the expression of emotions is like feeling a tummyache without ever going to the toilet to let it go. WARNING: This above mentioned expression is only applicable if the emotions revolve around you alone. E.g. you feeling stressed about being late or not being able to get breakfast. Should your emotion involve others (e.g. your group mate is late in handing up his portion of the assignment and you are feeling frustrated about it) it is always important to change how you express, in a way that will serve you and the person/s involved – for example “I am feeling frustration and stress because we do not have much time left to edit our assignments without your portion of it. Is there any struggles that you are facing such that it is causing the delay? Can I support you in any way because I know how it may feel when there are certain unexpected obstacles that get in the way”. It is common sense that expressing your emotions with no values anchoring it will only cause destruction. Emotional Intelligence is not “I am aware of how I am feeling, and emotional mastery is about being true to my emotions period. So piss off group mate, you are a lousy piss of crap to work with”. That’s stupidity. Use your heart and head to discern, there is innate wisdom and common sense inside us all.
Recommit and recreate
At this stage, you should feel a change in emotions from the original state you were in. Question to ask yourself now would be “How do I want this situation to feel like now?”. Note, the question is not “how do I want to feel like?”. The initial question keeps your eyes outside of you, it puts you in a role of a creator, an owner of the situation. The latter puts you in a role of a recipient – which could often lead us to a space of being victimised thus feeling helpless. If I want my situation to feel fun, exciting, creative, then I would be at a clean slate to start implementing things that could bring forth those emotions. I could watch a movie first to get inspired, fix Lego to get creative etc.
What’s stopping us from doing all these?
Addressing emotions (especialy the negative ones) are not the easiest due to certain beliefs we have around them, for example, expressing sadness equates to one being weak. These beliefs stop us from 1. Acknowledging that emotions are valuable, 2. Fully experiencing those emotions and, 3. Addressing the root causes of those emotions.
Paradoxically, paying attention to your emotions helps activate the parts of your brain that are also required for the smooth flow of creativity and reasoning. So the next time you feel like you’re having a mental block, take the time to address that emotion of stress/boredom/fear and whatever not. And when you come back to the task, get ready for a more inspired flow.