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Q: How does emotion help me solve problems?
The relationship between emotion and thinking is captured nicely in the unified idea of emotional thinking, a process that can be conscious or nonconscious and that is often both at the same time—as it was the night Dan was asked for a quarter. Emotion guides cognitive learning, as is demonstrated in the Iowa Gambling Task, described below by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Matthias Faeth in "Building Smart Students: A Neuroscience Perspective on the Role of Emotion and Skilled Intuition in Learning:"
A participant in a study sits at a table with four decks of cards before her. Her task is to choose cards from these decks. With each card she draws, she has the chance to win some amount of money. Unbeknownst to her, certain decks contain cards with larger wins than other decks, but these same decks also result in occasional enormous losses that make them a bad choice in the long run. The participant must learn to play this game by deducing the "cognitive" rules for calculating and weighing the relative long-term outcomes of the different decks. An examination of the player's performance reveals that the process of learning how to play the game involves both emotional and cognitive processing and begins with the development of (generally) non-conscious emotional "intuitions" that eventually become conscious rules that she can describe in words or formulas. The development and feeling of these intuitions are critical for successful, usable knowledge to be constructed.
As she begins the game, she at first randomly selects cards from one deck or another, noting wins and losses as they come. But soon, before she is even consciously aware that the decks are stacked, she begins to show an anticipatory emotional response in the moment before choosing a card from a high-risk deck: her palms begin to sweat in microscopic amounts, measured as "galvanic skin response." Unconsciously, she is accumulating emotional information about the relative riskiness of some decks. As she proceeds, this emotional information steers her toward the 'safe' decks and away from those with high gains but the possibility (top)
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of large losses. After playing for a while longer, she accumulates enough information about the decks that she is able to describe the rule governing which decks to play and which to avoid, at which point we would say that she has "learned."
The Iowa Gambling Task and other experiments have taught neuroscientists about the importance of emotion in the learning process, an importance that probably applies not just here but to math learning, social learning, and learning in various other arenas in which people must accumulate information from their experiences and use this information to act advantageously in future situations. Emotion guides the learning of our participant much as a rudder guides a ship. Though this guidance may not be visible, it provides a force that stabilizes the direction of a learner's decisions and behaviors over time, helping the learner to recognize and call up relevant knowledge—for example, knowledge about which deck to pick from or which math formula to apply.
Students struggling with a math problem—or writing, social, or other problem in which they are engaged—draw upon memories of past experiences with similar math problems, searching for strategies that might apply to this new problem. Is it like a distance-rate problem? Can I express it in a quadratic equation? As we approach a solution, we experience a series of small emotional "jolts" of recognition that lead us to feel we are on the right path; we are getting warmer.
Essentially, we feel our way to solutions to problems that matter to us, and that are emotionally relevant to us because we experience them as essential to our physical or social well-being. How do I learn organic chemistry so that I can become a doctor? How do I handle all this homework so that I can maintain a GPA that will make my parents happy? How do I find a new metaphor around which to build this poem to express my feelings and share my experiences with others? If the problem doesn't matter to us, we quickly lose interest. Our attention wanders; we disengage, and we learn only that organic chemistry is boring—though if the grade matters, we will most likely learn strategies for getting the grade without meaningfully learning chemistry.