Does working with children’s feelings improve their academic performance?
Research supports a core tenet of Living Wisdom School – that “children who learn to love, love learning.”
Scientists at the Institute of HeartMath (IHM) in Boulder Creek, California are studying the effects of positive feelings such as love, compassion, and kindness on our bodies and brains. Their findings suggest that mental performance improves in the presence of positive feelings.
Here are some of the IHM findings:
- 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.
- 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.”
- Negative emotions such as anger, fear, and hatred make the heart change speeds erratically. The heartbeat literally speeds up and slows down chaotically between beats, like the random, jerky motion of a car that’s running out of gas. In the figure below, the charts on the left show graphs of heart rate variability during positive, negative, and neutral emotions. The figures on the right show the heart’s electrical power output (PSD: power spectral density). Note that the heart’s power output is approximately 380 percent higher during feelings of appreciation than during simple relaxation.
- 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 focus and remain cool. (The heart is the body’s most powerful oscillator, emitting electrical signals roughly 60 times stronger than those generated by the brain.)
To summarize: positive, harmonious feelings enhance mental focus, calmness, health, performance, 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.
Whether our goal is peak performance in the classroom, in sports, or at work, it’s clear that cultivating positive feelings facilitates success.
Feeling and Reason: Opposites No Longer
Additional evidence suggests that feeling and reason work together, and that one without the other isn’t trustworthy.
Roughly 70 years ago, researchers first became aware that the prefrontal cortex of the brain is the area where important human qualities are localized, such as concentration positive attitudes, optimism, and the ability to form goals and persevere in attaining them.
The prefrontal cortex is also the “control center” where raw emotions are restrained and modulated. In a number of spiritual paths, the primary meditative practices include holding attention gently in the prefrontal cortex, at the point between the eyebrows, a technique these traditions claim has a harmonizing effect on the emotions, and calms and focuses the mind.
In his bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence, New York Times science reporter Daniel Goleman writes:
R. Luria, the brilliant Russian neuropsychologist, proposed as long ago as the 1930s that the prefrontal cortex was key for self-control and constraining emotional outbursts; patients who had damage to this area, he noted, were impulsive and prone to flare-ups of fear and anger. And a study of two dozen men and women who had been convicted of impulsive, heat-of-passion murders found, using PET scans for brain imaging, that they had a much lower than usual level of activity in these same sections of the prefrontal cortex. (Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 1995. p. 314)
Richard J. Davidson, PhD, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, found that university students who had higher levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex had better grades, a better ability to create and attain goals, and less trouble with depression, drugs, and alcohol.
In 2002, scientists at Duke University used brain scans to verify that raw emotions interfere with concentration. A surprising finding was that mental focus and unrefined emotions exist in a mutually exclusive relationship. That is, not only does raw emotion distort our ability to focus, but deliberately focusing attention is an effective way to calm and “neutralize” disruptive emotions. As the Duke news release stated, “Surprisingly, an increase in one type of function is accompanied by a noticeable decrease in the other.” Athletes know that an effective way to calm the “pre-event jitters” is to focus deliberately on the details of preparation: tying shoelaces, mentally reviewing the race plan, etc.
“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 [above-mentioned] study. “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, which is located between the right and left halves of the brain’s frontal portion and is involved in a wide range of thought processes and emotional responses.1
People who meditate find that holding attention persistently but with relaxation in the area of the anterior cingulate (at the point between the eyebrows) more or less automatically soothes any troubling emotions they might be feeling, and helps them become more calm, positive, and concentrated.
Raw, reactive emotions have a very different mental and physiological impact than calm, positive feelings. At Living Wisdom School, the children are encouraged to be honest about their feelings, but they are also taught ways to transmute negative feelings into positive ones.
For example, one technique involves deliberately focusing attention as a way to calm upset emotions, which can lead to painful disharmony and poor academic performance. As an aid to concentration, the children learn a simple meditation technique borrowed from yoga, which involves holding attention gently in the prefrontal cortex, as a way to help the mind become relaxed and one-pointed – an asset for children who want to be happy and do well in school.
Reason is Crippled Without Feeling
As noted above, researchers now know that feeling and reason work hand in hand. Contrary to a longstanding prejudice of western culture, which assumes that reason is the superior faculty, researchers have found that reason is deeply compromised unless it is balanced by the feelings of the heart.
Consider…the role of emotions in even the most “rational” decision-making. In work with far-reaching implications for understanding mental life, Dr. Antonio Damasio, a neurologist at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, has made careful studies of just what is impaired in patients with damage to the prefrontal/amygdala circuit [the link between the two most important reasoning and emotional centers in the brain]. Their decision making is terribly flawed – and yet they show no deterioration at all in IQ or any cognitive ability. Despite their intact intelligence, they make disastrous choices in business and their personal lives, and can even obsess endlessly over a decision so simple as when to make an appointment. 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.2
Positive Feelings and Classroom Success
How closely do positive feelings correlate with academic performance? Public school students who were taught HeartMath methods for harmonizing the heart’s feelings experienced uniform improvement in their academic performance. (These studies are summarized on the HeartMath website [www.heartmath.org], in an article by Rollin McCraty, PhD, The Scientific Role of the Heart in Learning and Performance.At the conclusion of a study of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in Miami, Florida, the researchers reported:
Results showed that students who learned and practiced the [heart-harmonizing methods] exhibited significant improvements in nearly all areas of psychosocial functioning assessed, including stress and anger management, self-reliance, risky behavior, work management and focus, and relationships with teachers, family and peers …. Further, a follow-up analysis indicated that many of these improvements were sustained over the following six months.4
In summary, the Heartmath research suggests that teaching students how to cultivate positive feelings increases their nervous system harmony, thereby improving emotional stability, cognitive functioning, and academic performance.
In a New York Times op-ed article, columnist David Brooks remarks:
It’s crazy to have educational policies that, in effect, chop up children’s brains into the rational cortex, which the government ministers to in schools, and the emotional limbic system, which the government ignores. In nature there is no neat division. Emotional engagement is the essence of information processing and learning.5
The results of these studies come as no surprise to the teachers at Living Wisdom School, where students have learned techniques for harmonizing the heart for more than 30 years. Asked whether the emphasis on developing children’s feelings detracts from their academic performance, school director Helen Purcell points to the results: the students score consistently above average on standardized tests of academic achievement.
“Some parents say, ‘I’m going to let my child attend this magical school, and after three years I’ll pull him out and put him in a real school,’” Helen says. “But I tell them, ‘The children who’ve gone all the way through Living Wisdom School have done very well – not just in public high schools but in highly rated college prep schools. And they thrive not only academically, but personally as well.’”
1 Duke University press release, August 19, 2002
2 Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 1997. pp. 27-28.
4 McCraty R, Atkinson M, Tomasino D, Goelitz J, Mayrovitz HN. The impact of an emotional self-management skills course on psychosocial functioning and autonomic recovery to stress in middle school children. Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science 1999;34(4):246-268.