Emotions Direct Attention
In 1995 Daniel Goleman released his blockbuster, self-help book Emotional Intelligence. This book was soon one of the top sellers across the globe, and the concept of emotional intelligence became the focus of leadership and management courses. At this time I was principal of a school for students with severe levels of Conduct Disorder and Oppositional Defiance Disorders, and I was subjected to workshops promoting the importance of emotional intelligence while I witnessed the destructive impact emotions had on these students. I had always thought there should be a companion book Emotional Stupidity.
Emotions are a primitive form of self-talk; that is our feelings give us feedback of our state of wellbeing. How we feel drives our decision-making and whether or not these decisions are constructive or destructive. This bias depends on the conditions a child experienced while the area of the brain that controls emotions is developed. In education the inclusion of emotions has until relatively recently been excluded from studies related to learning with the focus being on the cognitive processes of memory, attention, perception, and the like. These are the fields of interest in the areas of cognitive neuroscience.
Jaak Panksepp produced another significant book in the field of neuroscience around the same time called Affective Neuroscience – The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. Panksepp understood that affective (feelings) are supported by the parts of the brain that are developed in early childhood, and when formed they become almost automatic responses to prescribed stimulus. This approach contrasted with the existing beliefs that the brain examines the current situation and makes a rational decision. This mistake of dismissing of the emotional component of decision-making is best seen in classic economics where early theories were underpinned by the idea that people are rational.
Today there are still some leaders in education who hold to the initial theory of cognitive reasoning and feel that changing behaviour only involves teaching the rationale behind the behaviour that should be chosen in a particular situation. The popularity of the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy approach, in schools, can be explained by how it outlines logical steps in making decisions about how to behave. Schools are awash with such programs however they are ineffective especially for those students with severe behaviour.
LeDoux, in 1996 demonstrated the impact the emotional content of any situation impacts on the decision-making process. The illustration below explains just how the system operates. In life all knowledge about our environment, internal and external is harvested by our receptors, the five senses and this information is relayed to the thalamus. The thalamus sends this directly to the amygdala, which assesses it for potential danger. If the amygdala senses immediate threat it will instigate a general adaptive response to put us in a state of flight, fight or freeze. The decision will be taken out of our hands.
If the amygdala is not concerned with the potential threat, the thalamus sends the information through to the hippocampus and eventually the frontal lobes for cognitive contemplation. It is when we are not ‘alarmed’ we can follow the steps taught through cognitive behaviour therapy.
On a continuum between these extremes, we can be provided with information about the environment where these conditions led to something going wrong. This positioning on the continuum will decide the level of the anxiety.
Anxiety happens even for well-adjusted individuals, but it is extreme for those who have suffered damage to the amygdala, the hippocampus of the limbic system and the frontal lobes. This damage is most likely occurring in early childhood development (for a description of the brain damage that occurs when a child grows up in an abusive, neglectful environment see Newsletter of the 6th November 2017) when the amygdala becomes ‘over-active’, the hippocampus and frontal lobes significantly reduce in size. It is easy to see that kids with a history of abuse and neglect are at an even more considerable disadvantage trying to control their behaviour.
This vulnerability of students who have suffered early childhood trauma from abuse/neglect reinforces the necessity of a safe, predictable environment and a trusting relationship with the teacher and class if they are paying attention to the lesson and access their cognitive processes.