Ch. 12: How Raw Emotions Interfere with Learning

In his bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence, New York Times science reporter Daniel Goleman tells how the pioneering Russian neuropsychologist A. R. Luria first suggested in the 1930s that the prefrontal cortex was a key brain center for self-control and restraining emotional impulses.

Luria found that patients with damage to this area “were impulsive and prone to flare-ups of fear and anger.”

A study of two dozen men and women convicted of heat-of-passion murders “found that they had a much lower than usual level of activity in these same sections of the prefrontal cortex.”[1]

In 2002, scientists at Duke University used brain scans to verify that raw emotions interfere with concentration, and that mental focus and raw emotions exist in a mutually exclusive relationship. That is, not only does emotion distort our ability to focus, but deliberately focusing attention is an effective way to calm and “neutralize” emotions. As the Duke news release put it, “Surprisingly, an increase in one type of function is accompanied by a noticeable decrease in the other.”

This is interesting news for educators, and for students preparing to take tests, since it confirms the age-old maxim that deliberately focusing attention tends to calm the pre-test jitters, while uncontrolled emotions are dangerous because they can interfere with concentration and good decision-making. At Living Wisdom School, the students are taught simple meditation techniques that help them focus their energy and attention in the prefrontal cortex while studying, preparing for tests, and dealing with turbulent emotions.

“We’ve known for a long time that some people are more easily distracted and that emotions can play a big part in this,” said Kevin S. LaBarr, assistant professor at Duke’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and an author of the study described above.

“Our study shows that two streams of processing take place in the brain, with attentional tasks and emotions moving in parallel before finally coming together.” The two streams are integrated in a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate, located between the right and left halves of the brain’s frontal portion, which is involved in a wide range of thought processes and emotional responses.[2]

It’s easy to test this finding, by holding our attention with relaxation in the area of the anterior cingulate, just behind the point between the eyebrows, a practice that tends to soothe any troubling emotions we may be feeling, by helping us feel more calm, positive, focused, and in control of our emotions.

Researchers now suspect that calm feeling (as distinct from raw emotions) and reason work hand in hand. Contrary to a longstanding prejudice of our western culture, which assumes that reason is the superior faculty, the researchers are finding that reason is deeply compromised unless it is balanced by the feelings of the heart.

Neurologist Dr. Antonio Damasio studied patients with damage to the connection between their brain’s prefrontal cortex and amygdala—the two most important centers of reason and emotion in the brain. He found that when these patients lost their ability to feel, they made terrible decisions in their business and personal lives, and became incapable of making the simplest decisions, such as when to make an appointment, even though their reasoning powers were intact.

“Dr. Damasio believes their decisions are so bad because they have lost access to their emotional learning…. Cut off from emotional memory in the amygdala, whatever the neocortex mulls over no longer triggers the emotional reactions that have been associated with it in the past—everything takes on a gray neutrality….

“Evidence like this leads Dr. Damasio to the counter-intuitive position that feelings are typically indispensable for rational decisions; they point us in the proper direction, where dry logic can then be of best use.[3]

Clearly, there are risks in trying to make decisions based on feeling alone. Our decisions may be subtly compromised by our personal desires and raw emotions—our hearts may not be sufficiently calm and detached to be trusted.

Our feelings are more reliable when we check them against our reason, common sense, and experience. Are our heart’s feelings truly calm and dispassionate, or are we just telling ourselves what we want to hear? Cool, clear reason can help us decide. Our sense of the right decision will be more often correct when we hold ourselves in a state of “reasonable feeling.” It may help to imagine that our awareness is centered in an axis of energy between the forehead and the heart.

At Living Wisdom School, the students learn to consult their calm feelings while listening to the voice of calm reason. Learning to access and use these human tools gives them an advantage when it comes to mastering the academic curriculum.

Researchers at the Institute of HeartMath have found that it’s surprisingly easy to prove that intuition exists, and that its accuracy increases when we deliberately calm and harmonize our feelings.

LWS eighth graders Vivek and Sofia receive tutoring
in high school geometry and trigonometry.

In a study of intuitive ability, the subjects were shown images of soothing subjects, interspersed randomly with emotionally disturbing images. Monitoring the subjects’ EEG (brain waves), ECG (electrocardiogram), and heart rate variability showed that they reacted emotionally to the images five to seven seconds before an image appeared. Confirming the folk wisdom that women are more intuitive than men, female subjects reacted with greater accuracy and sensitivity.[4]

Surely the message for students and educators is clear: expansive thoughts, actions, and feelings have been scientifically shown to boost brain efficiency and happiness.

At Google, at Harvard, in ancient Indian ashrams, and in the classrooms at Living Wisdom School, happiness and success go hand in hand.

[1]Emotional Intelligence. (New York: Bantam Books, 1995) 314.

[2] Duke University press release, August 19, 2002.

[3] Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books, 1997) 27–28.

[4] “The Sixth Sense—More and More, Science Supports It,” Gabriella Boehmer, Institute of HeartMath; the study referenced is: “Electrophysiological Evidence of Intuition: Part 1. The Surprising Role of the Heart,” McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., Bradley, R. T., Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Feb 2004, Vol. 10, No. 1: 133–43; “Electrophysiological Evidence of Intuition: Part 2. A System-Wide Process?” McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., Bradley, R. T., Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Apr 2004, Vol. 10, No. 2: 325–36.

Ch. 11: Happiness, Success, and the Social Brain

The teachers at Living Wisdom School invest tremendous time and attention to help the students learn how to get along.

The goal is to create an environment that will be conducive to learning, where the children can feel safe asking questions, and experience the joy of supporting each other.

Some parents question this approach, feeling that every moment of the child’s time at school should be devoted to the academic curriculum.

Yet this view may be misguided, as UCLA neuroscience professor Matthew Lieberman explains in his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. It seems that children learn more efficiently when they are encouraged to connect socially in the classroom, tutoring each other and problem-solving together.

“Being socially connected is our brain’s lifelong passion,” Lieberman says. “It’s been baked into our operating system for tens of millions of years.”

“Someday, we will look back and wonder how we ever had lives, work and schools that weren’t guided by the principles of the social brain.”

Lieberman believes middle school education could be dramatically improved by tapping the brain’s social potential. He notes that U.S. students’ interest in school tends to wane when they reach seventh and eighth grades, an age when humans become extremely social, and when most schools fail to encourage and nurture this tendency.

“Our school system says to turn off that social brain,” he said. “We typically don’t teach history by asking what Napoleon was thinking; we teach about territorial boundaries and make it as non-social as possible. Too often we take away what makes information learnable and memorable and emphasize chronology while leaving out the motivations.

“Eighth graders’ brains want to understand the social world and the minds of other people. We can tap into what middle school students are biologically predisposed to learn, and we can do this to improve instruction in history and English, and even math and science.”

Young actors during a dress rehearsal of The Life of Abraham Lincoln.

In the Palo Alto Living Wisdom School, the annual all-school Theater Magic presentation engages the children in the lives of great figures from history: not merely the outward facts of wars, treaties, and shifting national borders, but their stature as human beings¾their thoughts and aspirations, their hard-fought personal battles, and their powerful message for our own lives and times.

Research suggests that students are more likely to remember information when they take it in socially. Lieberman believes that schools could apply this principle by having older students tutor younger ones, as happens routinely in the classrooms at Living Wisdom School.

“If you have an eighth grader teach a sixth grader, the eighth grader’s motivation is social: to help this other student and not embarrass himself,” Lieberman said. “Getting everyone to be both teacher and learner would create enthusiasm for learning.”

Sixth grader Pooja and eighth grader Nakai solve a math problem together.

Social reveals how Lieberman and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show that neural mechanisms make us profoundly social beings.

“We’re wired to see things and think, ‘How can I use this to help other people that I know?’” Lieberman said. “I can have the most brilliant idea for an invention, but if I can’t convey that to other people in a way that they’ll help me build it and market it to other people, it’s just an idea in my head. If we’re not socially connected, even great ideas wither.”

(This discussion was adapted from a UCLA news release about Prof. Lieberman’s work, written by Stuart Wolpert and posted on October 10, 2013.)

Ch. 9: Happiness, Success, and the Science of Positive Feelings

Modern science is confirming what the Indian sages discovered long ago.

Scientists at the Institute of HeartMath™ Research Center (IHM) in Boulder Creek, California are studying the effects of positive feelings such as love, compassion, and kindness on our bodies and brains. Their research supports the notion that it’s important for children’s academic success that they learn to “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”[1]

Here are some of the Institute of HeartMath findings:

  • Positive emotional states exert a whole-body synchronizing effect by bringing brain waves, heart rhythms, breathing, and blood-pressure oscillations into a unified, harmonious rhythm. During positive feelings, “bodily systems function with a high degree of synchronization, efficiency and harmony.”
  • Deliberately focusing attention in the heart while cultivating feelings of love, compassion, etc., leads to clearer thinking, calmer emotions, and improved physical performance and health, as well as increased frequency of subjective reports of spiritual experiences.
  • Positive, expansive feelings such as love, appreciation, and compassion promote relaxation and synchronization of the nervous system. They quiet the “arousal” (sympathetic) branch of the nervous system and activate the “relaxation” (parasympathetic) side. The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is responsible for speeding up heart rate and preparing the body for action, while the parasympathetic branch governs the “relaxation response,” slowing heart rate and calming body, emotions, and brain.
  • Positive feelings quiet the mind, generate a sense of “self-security, peace and love,” and increase the frequency of reported feelings of “connectedness to God.”
    • Additionally, the researchers found that negative emotions such as anger, fear, and hatred make the heartbeat change speeds erratically—the heart literally speeds up and slows down chaotically from one beat to the next, like the random, jerky motion of a car that’s running out of gas. (See figure.)
  • Positive emotions such as love, compassion, and appreciation, on the other hand, make the heart beat with a harmonious, regular rhythm. During negative emotions, the heart’s irregular speed changes appear as jagged, disordered spikes, and its power output is relatively low. Simple relaxation produces a more regular rhythm. But deliberately cultivating positive emotions makes the heart beat in a steady, consistent, harmonious rhythm, reflected in the regular, sine-wave-like pattern in the figure (“Appreciation”). During positive emotions, the heart’s power output jumps by over 500% above the levels attained during negative emotions and simple relaxation. (In the figure, note the Power Spectral Density [PSD] scale in “Appreciation.”)

The Institute of HeartMath findings have begun to find practical applications in professional sports. Here is an excerpt from an article on the website of the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA):

When we’re stressed or upset, it’s physically impossible to think clearly or perform at our best. This is because a disordered heart rhythm pattern sends a signal to the brain that inhibits the cortex, the higher thinking and reasoning part of the brain. On the other hand, when we are feeling confident, secure, and appreciative, our heart rhythms become smooth and even…. Smooth heart rhythm patterns send a signal to the brain that synchronizes and facilitates cortical function, speeding up our reaction times and making it easier to think clearly, perceive a bigger picture, and make better decisions.[2]

The heart and brain communicate continually through the nervous system. Thus the heart’s powerful positive or negative, harmonizing or disruptive messages are carried instantly to the brain, where they enhance or interfere with our ability to remain cool and to concentrate. (The heart is the body’s most powerful oscillator, sending out electrical signals roughly 60 times as strong as those emitted by the brain.)

To summarize: positive, harmonious feelings enhance mental focus, calmness, health, performance, intuition, and the frequency of spiritual feelings. They increase relaxation, alpha-wave output in the brain (associated with a calm, meditative state), and synchronize heart-rhythm patterns, respiratory rhythms, and blood pressure oscillations.

When the Institute of HeartMath scientists taught simple methods for harmonizing the heart’s feelings to school children in the Washington, DC area, the children’s test scores immediately rose.

In the Living Wisdom Schools, the teachers lead the students in practicing heart-harmonizing methods every day. In the classroom and on the playground, the teachers pay extremely close attention to the quality of the children’s interactions with each other, and their mood. The teachers are trained to nurture a harmonious, safe, expansive environment that is optimized for learning.

[1] The basic Institute of HeartMath research is described in The HeartMath Solution by Doc Childre and Howard Martin (HarperSanFrancisco 1999), as well as in research papers on the organization’s website, www.heartmath.org.

[2] “Second That Emotion,” by Deborah Rozman, Ph.D., Pia Nilsson, and Lynn Marriott, downloaded from www.pga.com in 2004. Gold Digest readers voted Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott to the magazine’s list of the top 50 US golf coaches.

Ch. 6: Happiness and Success at Google

Does the happiness principle work outside of school? Does it work in the adult world of career—in the daily grind?

When Sergey Brin and Larry Page founded Google in 1998, they established a policy of hiring only the most brilliant applicants in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Fifteen years later, Google decided that it might be a good idea to evaluate the results of this policy.

A Washington Post article, “The surprising thing Google learned about its employees—and what it means for today’s students” (December 27, 2017), summarized what Google learned from Project Oxygen, the detailed examination of its hiring practices.

Project Oxygen completely overturned the company’s assumptions about the qualities that best predict success in a high-tech business environment. Most notably, among the eight standout qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise was dead last.

The top qualities that augured success at Google were “soft” skills. The researchers found that the most successful Google employees:

  1. Are good coaches
  2. Empower the team and do not micromanage
  3. Express interest in and concern for the other team members’ success and personal well-being
  4. Are productive and results-oriented
  5. Are good communicators—they listen and share information
  6. Help others with their career development
  7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
  8. Have key technical skills that help them advise the team

A follow-up study by Google, of the qualities of its most productive research teams (Project Aristotle, 2016), confirmed these results. In the Post article, Cathy N. Davidson, a professor in the graduate school at CUNY, described the findings:

“Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.”

Davidson cited a survey of 260 companies conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The study, which included industry giants Chevron and IBM, found that recruiters ranked communication skills among the top three qualities companies look for in job applicants. “They prize both an ability to communicate with one’s workers and an aptitude for conveying the company’s product and mission outside the organization.”

What conclusions can we draw from these studies, about the best way to help our children be successful and happy?

A common feature of the qualities that set the top Google employees apart is that they are “expansive.” That is, they foster a work environment where the employees are free to expand their awareness to include the needs of others.

The qualities that the researchers identified as furthering success at Google and other top companies are qualities that the teachers at Living Wisdom School expend tremendous energy to cultivate in the classroom, considering them essential for creating a safe, nurturing, joyful learning environment for the children.

Oddly enough, the Google findings reflect the results of a vastly older body of studies conducted in the forest ashrams of ancient India.

Ch. 5: Happiness and Success at Harvard

During Shawn Achor’s time as a graduate student in psychology at Harvard, he was an academic proctor, a role that required him to have hundreds of conversations with Harvard freshmen over cups of Starbucks coffee.

Achor soon began to notice a trait that set the most successful students apart. It was an insight that, in time, would completely overturn all of his previous assumptions about success.

He realized that the Harvard freshmen who were most likely to excel were not those who buried themselves in the library stacks, grimly determined to grind out good grades. The most successful students were the happiest and most socially engaged. They interacted with their peers, formed study groups, continually asked questions, and approached their academic studies in a spirit of joyous adventure. They were connected, engaged, and were skilled communicators.

Achor is the author of an influential book, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work.

Achor ended up teaching the most popular course at Harvard, on the principles of positive psychology. Today, he applies his findings about the links between happiness and success to help corporate executives advance their careers and transform their companies’ cultures.

Achor realized that when it comes to success and happiness, our traditional assumptions are backwards.

Most people assume that they will be happy after they have achieved material success. But Achor found that the opposite is true—that people who are happy from the get-go are more likely to be successful in their careers.

These findings confirm a discovery by neuroscientists that people with high levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex of their brains—the brain area where happy attitudes, positive expectations, will power, and the ability to form and persevere in achieving long-term goals are localized—are more successful in their lives than those with weaker prefrontal cortex activation.

Neurophysiologist Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., director of the Lab for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, is one of the world’s foremost experts on the prefrontal cortex. When he studied the brain patterns of college students, Davidson found that those with higher levels of prefrontal cortex activation were uniformly better at setting and achieving goals, and had fewer problems with drugs and alcohol, compared to students with lower prefrontal activity.

To put it differently, our brains are wired so that happiness and success go together. The qualities that are essential for success—will power, planning, and perseverance—are localized in the same brain area where upbeat, happy attitudes reside. The very structure of our brains tells us that happiness and success are inseparable.

Achor would confirm that the happiness principle is valid not only for Harvard students but for successful people in many fields.

The traditional expectation that happiness is a reward that we can expect to enjoy after we’ve achieved success, defined as a good job, a beautiful house, an impressive income, and a shiny car, was simply wrong. The most successful people are those who are happy from the outset—thus the title of Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage.

If you were to ask school administrators to name the most important factor for school success, many would probably say: “Good study habits.” But a mounting body of evidence suggests that this is only one part of the school success equation, albeit an important one.

The Living Wisdom Schools have shown that the best determinants of school success more closely reflect Shawn Achor’s findings: a happy learning environment, permeated by a spirit of joyful exploration, where each child can be challenged at his or her own pace.

Ch. 3: Happiness and Success at Stanford and MIT

How well do children educated in today’s schools perform when they enter the nation’s most prestigious universities? How well do test scores and the state-mandated, standardized curriculum predict college success?

Merilee Jones, MIT’s director of admissions, says, “We’re raising a generation of kids trained to please adults…. That’s the big difference with this generation. They’re being judged and graded and analyzed and assessed at every turn. It’s too much pressure for them.”

The faculty tell Jones that many of their students today aren’t as much fun to teach. They no longer come to MIT with the wildly creative ideas and research projects that were formerly more common. The faculty report that the current generation of students “want to do everything right, they want to know exactly what’s on the test. They’re so afraid of failing or stepping out of line that they’re not really good students.”

The child who is taught that his self-worth is attached to an external test result or grade risks becoming emotionally dependent on outward affirmation, and over-focused on test results as a measure of his/her self-worth. That child risks becoming fixated on grades to the detriment of other important, well-rounded factors that contribute to success and happiness in school and life—including an enthusiasm for pursuing wildly creative ideas that may not fall strictly within the boundaries of the curriculum.

Because educators have begun to recognize this, a 4.4 GPA may no longer guarantee admission to a top-flight university. A source in the Stanford admissions office confided that the university now prefers to accept applicants with a 3.9 or 4.0 GPA who are well-rounded as people, having realized that the test-taking superstars too often are deficient in human qualities that more accurately foretell success in school and life.

From an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Perfect scores alone don’t make grade for admission to college of choice” (May 16, 2013):

“A Stanford admissions official said the university considers college board scores, grades, the difficulty of courses, extracurricular activities and achievement outside of school. But it’s the personal essay that differentiates one top student from the next, she said. Princeton asks applicants to ‘tell us your story. Show us what’s special about you.’….

“Stanford had a school record 38,828 applications this year and will admit 1,700 freshmen, including legacy applicants and scholarship athletes. Minneapolis attorney Fred Bruno, a Stanford alumnus and local recruiter for the school, said Stanford could completely fill its freshman class with valedictorians.

“‘When I meet with an applicant, I look for interaction, for presence,’ Bruno said. ‘We assume they have huge credentials. I don’t even ask them about grades. We’re looking at the human side of these kids.’”

Parental praise for grades and test scores may motivate the child, as is of course perfectly natural. But if it becomes an obsessive source of affirmation for the child, it risks sacrificing the development of self-confidence, independence, initiative, and a sure inner sense of his or her goals and purpose in life.

Schools today are training children to be afraid to make mistakes. And as Sir Ken Robinson pointed out in his TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” far from enhancing their creative initiative, it may only guarantee that they will never come up with an original idea.

“Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong. I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original…. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this. We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

Robinson’s ideas reflect the thinking of Seymour Papert, a South African-born American mathematician, computer scientist, and educator who spent most of his career teaching and researching at MIT. In his famous book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Papert proposed that a key benefit of teaching kids to program computers is that it teaches them a “bug-fixing approach to life”—they learn that mistakes are an unavoidable and perfectly natural part of the creative process, and should be welcomed gratefully and joyfully as milestones on the path to discovering solutions.

Robinson points out that colleges today are inundated with applications from kids with outstanding grades, and that businesses can now take their pick of applicants with high college GPAs and advanced degrees. Jobs that formerly required a bachelor’s now demand an MS/MA, and jobs that once demanded a master’s now require a Ph.D.

The key differentiators for admission to an elite university today, and for employment at a prestigious company have shifted; they now include such “soft” factors as proven communication skills, high energy, “presence,” and an ability to cooperate and work harmoniously with others.

Young elementary children dance during a Theater Magic performance at Living Wisdom School.

What the teachers at Living Wisdom School do to motivate the children in their academic studies reaches deep into their hearts and encourages the development of these qualities. The Education for Life methods are highly effective at eliciting the child’s natural enthusiasm for learning. The results are evidenced by the children’s test scores, their grades in high school and college, their admission to elite schools, and their careers.

The LWS teachers are trained and strongly encouraged to take the time to become intimately familiar with each child, to gain a deep and full awareness of the child’s natural inclinations and enthusiasms, so that they can understand the internal motivations that the child brings to the classroom.

The teachers build upon these motivators to tailor the child’s education individually. If the child is artistic, the arts may provide a portal through which the teacher can introduce the standard curriculum in math, history, English, and science. If the child is good with his hands but relatively uninterested in academics, the teachers will use the child’s strengths to motivate him/her to learn—perhaps by showing them the indispensable applications of math, science, history, and English to the kind of work the child is inclined to pursue.

The same will be true for the child who is inspired by business, science, the arts, math, or a trade—the LWS teachers will help the child understand that all of these fields are intimately related; that a person cannot be a first-class mathematician without a strong ability to communicate his or her ideas, and without knowing something of the history of mathematics and its applications to other fields such as the sciences. The child may someday find fulfillment in using his or her math skills to help scientists find solutions to deeply meaningful problems.

Perhaps most important for children during the Feeling Years is to teach them that the highest success in every field, as a stunning new study of Google’s top employees revealed (see next chapter), comes to those who can cooperate, who can understand the needs of others and support them, and who relish the joy of working together to accomplish expansive goals.

The Feeling Years are the cradle of success in school and life. Without proper training at this age, the child may lack the refined heart qualities that provide the drive, enthusiasm, moral sense and wisdom to set goals and invest great energy and perseverance in achieving them.

Expansive feelings are the dynamo that drives all noble human achievement. A child who has not had his or her feelings properly encouraged and positively channeled and refined will be less well prepared for the stages of Will Power (age 12‑18) and the Intellect (18-24).

Once the Feeling Years have passed, it may be too late to remediate a deficiency of these valuable feeling-related qualities. At age 12, the child will begin to be more strongly motivated to develop his or her will power, in preparation for independent adult life.

Middle school teacher Gary McSweeney congratulates R.J. at the end-of-year Qualities Ceremony at Living Wisdom School.

Children who have a sure sense of themselves, with positive feelings about their strengths and clear, positive images of what they most deeply desire to accomplish, will be able to enter the Will years of middle school and high school more confidently equipped to succeed than children whose brains have been stuffed with quickly forgotten facts, to the detriment of the feelings of the heart that give life its motive power as well as its meaning and value.