Friday, November 6, 2015

Stress and Learning

Studies of electrical and metabolic activity in the brain have revealed an interesting cascade as signals pass from the brain’s tactile sensing areas to the areas that regulate wakefulness, emotional response and memory. Bursts of activity in the somatosensory cortex are followed milliseconds later by bursts of electrical activity in the hippocampus, amygdala, and then the other parts of the limbic system. These findings, from one of the most exciting areas of learning research, suggest communication between the parts of the brain when information is being processed and stored, can influence the learning process.

When you feel threatened, your amygdala becomes activated, with associated feelings of helplessness and anxiety. At the same time, new sensory information isn't being passed through to your memory. Stephen Krashen calls this your affective filter. It’s the emotional state when people aren't responsive to learning and storing new information.

When people feel alienated from their environment and anxious about their lack of understanding passage of information through the neural pathways from the amygdala to higher cognitive centers of the brain, is apparently reduced. The prefrontal cortex, where information is processed, associated, stored for later retrieval and executive functioning, is essentially off-line.

One implication of this is that your comfort level has a significant impact on information transmission and storage in your brain. The factors which affect your comfort level include your perceived self-confidence, sense of trust, and positive feelings for others. This is partly why being in a supportive work or school environment directly contributes to a state of mind which is conducive to successful learning, remembering, and higher-order thinking.

The highest-level executive thinking, making connections, those"aha" moments of insight and creative innovation are most likely to occur in an atmosphere of what Alfie Kohn calls exuberant discovery, where students of all ages embrace each day with curiosity and optimism.

In the context of Design Thinking the idea of approaching problems with the mind of a novice; open and curious, is the direct parallel. This is part of the reason DT has such a playful component to brainstorming and rapid prototyping. Reducing stress thru playfulness helps keep the pathway to the most creative part of your brain open.

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