Cognition and Emotion: A complicated relationship

Emotion is certainly one of the most neglected influencers in teaching and learning, despite its impact on many learning related processes. While we may discuss at length the role of anxiety, other facets of emotion remain all but absent from the conversation. When emotion is discussed, its role is invariably linked to mental health and wellbeing and the indirect impact these factors have on learning. The wider conversation around emotions, therefore, becomes attached to a conversation about the existence or otherwise of a mental health crisis among the young rather than the direct relationship between emotions and academic achievement.

There is also a peculiar view within education that emotions somehow belong on the progressive side of the traditional-progressive dichotomy. On the one hand this notion might hold water, in that we often view emotional responses as linked to wellbeing and other non-cognitive factors, yet much of the research into emotions and learning is driven by cognitive science. Cognitive science is generally considered to be on the traditional side of the debate, yet emotions are an important factor in cognitive processes. In this respect, neither side can claim exclusive rights to either. 

Emotions have an important role to play in processes such as attention, memory and decision making, but they are also linked to other factors like motivation. In an interview for TES, John Dunlosky, a cognitive psychologist at Kent State University in the United States, suggested that factors like emotions and motivation ‘have to play a part in learning’. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California put the case for  emotion in learning a little more forcefully, insisting that ‘any competent teacher recognises that emotions and feelings affect students’ performance and learning,’  adding, ‘Educators often fail to consider that the high levels of cognitive skills taught in schools (including reasoning and decision making, language, reading and mathematics) do not function as rational disembodied systems, influenced but detached from emotion and the body’ (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007).

Traditionally, emotion and cognition have been treated as separate processes, even more detrimentally perhaps, emotions have been viewed only as a distraction, an extraneous variable with the power to disrupt even the most carefully controlled experiment. Immordino-Yang and Damasio liken this view of emotions to a toddler in a china shop, interfering with the orderly rows of stemware on the shelves. Many researchers, therefore, have tended to control for emotions rather than accept their role in learning and achievement.

So, emotions are often viewed as off-limits for serious psychological scientists. Interestingly, however, this was also once the case with thoughts in general, certainly during the years when behaviourism represented the dominant paradigm in psychology. The history of psychology is the history of shifts, from the introspection of the earliest experimental psychology laboratories of the late nineteenth century, through the Freudian years and on to behaviourist and cognitive approaches. Behaviourism cast introspection aside, insisting that only that which could be objectively observed was worthy of scientific investigation. This meant that both cognition and emotion were ignored. This view began to change, however, and by the 1950s criticism of the behaviourist approach was increasing. Rather than being mere stimulus-response machines, the newly emerging cognitive psychology saw humans as information processors, a view fuelled by the advancement of the micro-processor. Mind and brain became analogous to a computer with input, output, and storage devices but with little room for slippery complex phenomena like emotions. Indeed, so successful has cognitive psychology become that it’s difficult to discuss factors such as memory without resorting to computer terminology.

The so-called computer metaphor persists in cognitive science today, albeit not without criticism. Psychologist Robert Epstein argues that the brain is nothing like a computer; it does not contain information, not even simple things like memories, the brain doesn’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them, there is no storing or transferring or retrieval taking place in the human brain, there is no hard drive where information is kept; these are things related to computers, they have little to do with living organisms.

The problem with metaphors

These limitations have been known for some time, indeed, Ulric Neisser, widely considered to be the founder of the cognitive approach, was highly sceptical about the computer metaphor’s ability to explain specific aspects of human behaviour, including emotions. Unlike people, ‘artificially intelligent programs tend to be simple minded, un-distractable and unemotional,’ he wrote in his seminal 1967 book, Cognitive Psychology. Neisser also insisted that the body provides important additional sensory experiences, implying that cognition is not confined to the brain. 

More recently, neuroscientists have found that multiple areas of the brain are involved in the simplest and most mundane memory tasks, and when we add strong emotions to the mix, millions of neurones became more active (Palombo et al., 2016). For example, when people recall past events, neural activity increases in the amygdala, medial temporal lobe, anterior and posterior midline and the visual cortex. These areas are involved in several functions, from emotional activation to literally seeing the experience in our mind’s eye. The amygdala, for example, plays a major role in memory, decision-making and emotional response. Cognition and emotion are, therefore, working together.

If my brain worked like a computer, then my memory of an item I see every day should be accurate, right? I would often ask A level psychology students to draw a pound coin from memory. The pictures they created rarely contained the detail that we would see on a real coin; the gist was there, yet even though they had seen a pound coin innumerable times, their memory of it was incredibly poor. If, on the other hand, we were to snap a picture of a pound coin on a phone, store it on a computer hard drive as an appropriate file type and then retrieve the image, it would be identical in every way to the actual coin. Rather than being files to be accessed, memories are representations and to see them in our mind’s eye requires us to re-live the experience, often with a wealth of emotional baggage attached.

Adopting this critical view of the computer analogy doesn’t negate cognitive psychology, indeed it remains one of the most stable of the psychological approaches (along with personality psychology) and has survived the replication crisis virtually unscathed. We are, however, some way off being able to successfully map cognitive models onto neurological structures and neuroscience is yet to make any significant contribution to the education debate. Neuroscience can tell us something about how our cognitive and emotional architecture interacts, but this still doesn’t create a very useful picture of how this interaction impacts actual learning.

All models are wrong, but…

Cognitive psychology, on the other hand, has produced several highly influential models that are shaping our understanding of how we can enhance learning and make teaching more effective (such as Cognitive Load Theory and more general models of working memory). These models will adapt in response to continuing research, and some may be discarded. Or, as the statistician George Box noted, ‘All models are wrong, but some are useful’ (Box, 1979)- once they outlive their usefulness, they’ll be replaced with something else and future models will undoubtedly incorporate emotions.

Emphasising the role of emotion, therefore, in no way diminishes the usefulness of cognitive science, yet, despite the seeming lack of interest in emotions beyond their annoying experiment disrupting tendencies, there still exists significant research that has investigated the relationship between cognitive processes (such as memory) and emotional states. The vast majority of such research has focussed on the role of fear and anxiety, for example, Berggren discovered that trait anxiety places greater pressure on cognitive load, thus reducing the ability to focus on the task in hand (Berggren, Richards, Taylor, & Derakshan, 2013). Ojha found that negative emotions increase cognitive load of individuals with lower levels of intelligence but have no impact on those of average intelligence (Ojha, Ervas, & Gola, 2017). This may also explain why trait anxious individual score lower on IQ tests than their less anxious peers (for example, Furnham, Chamorro-Premuzic, & McDougall, 2002). Indeed, incorporating emotion-laden stimuli (both positive and negative) with to-be-remembered information has been found to enhance recall, while inducing low moods can inhibit it (see Smith, 2018 for a more comprehensive discussion). Other research studies into emotion have investigated the relationship between boredom and curiosity (Mann & Cadman, 2014) and the role of benign envy on motivation (Lange & Crusius, 2015). However, despite this impressive research base, education continues to treat emotion as having little relationship to cognition.

To be fair to teachers and researchers, many of the problems with emotions arise because it’s not always clear exactly what emotions are or how they can be studied, As Dunlosky points out ‘until we understand it, we cannot control for it.’ Despite this, we subjectively know when we are experiencing an emotion and often the behaviour that arises can be seen by others. If we are smiling or laughing, chances are that we are happy, while if our mouth is turned down or we are crying, we’re probably sad. The problem is that many people laugh when they are nervous and cry when they are happy, so we don’t all react in a uniform way to the same emotion. But this doesn’t exactly tell us what emotions are.

Antonio Damasio proposes a neurological definition of emotion as ‘complex programs of acting triggered by the presence of certain neural systems’ (Damasio, 2011) while psychologists view them as three interrelated constructs: affective tendencies, core affect and emotional experience. The most relevant of these three constructs is perhaps core affect (certainly in regard to learning), the way we feel at any particular time. Core affect is also generally quite straightforward to measure through self-completion questionnaires, where individuals are asked to rate a feeling in terms of valence (a continuum raging from pleasant to unpleasant) and arousal, or our bodily activation (such as heart rate) ranging from low to high. So, if a student were asked to rate their levels of anxiety just before an exam, they might rate valence as unpleasant but arousal as high. What we think of positive emotions, therefore, will have positive valence, while negative emotions will be closer to the unpleasant end of the scale.

What are emotions anyway?

Another problem is that we don’t really know how many emotions there are. Anger, sadness, and happiness might be obvious, but what about curiosity, interest or boredom? As far as research is concerned, there is no real consensus. Furthermore, emotions are also, to some extent, dependent upon the language with which we use to name them. For example, sometimes we might feel happy, yet that happiness is tinged with melancholy. We might say we are ambivalent, but that still doesn’t really describe how we feel. The Chinese language has at its disposal bēi xî jiāo jí, meaning intermingled feelings of sadness and joy, a much better description than ambivalent. However, there does appear to be general agreement among many researchers that there are either six or eight pure emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise (and perhaps joy and anticipation) with all other emotions being elements of these. American psychologist Robert Plutchik (Plutchik, 2001) proposes that basic emotions can be blended, much in the same we can blend colours, to produce many more.

But are emotions strictly good or bad (or positive and negative)? Is anxiety, for example, always a bad thing? Anxiety and fear certainly serve a useful evolutionary purpose; it’s unlikely our distant ancestors would have lasted very long if they weren’t afraid of that rapidly approaching sabre-toothed tiger. Anxiety increases arousal, preparing our body for fight or flight, a vital survival instinct. But the fight or flight response is designed to be short-lived and once the danger has passed our body returns to its default position. If the anxiety is prolonged (such in the case of chronic long-term anxiety) we remain in an overly-alert state, which in turn negatively impacts a number of bodily systems including cognition and the immune system. So, some anxiety is good, at least when our life depends on it. Another positive is that arousal produced via the stress response can help us to concentrate and remain focussed, but only to a point – once we get too anxious our ability to function suffers. This is commonly known as Yerkes-Dodson law, first proposed by Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908. It’s, therefore, a good thing that students get a little nervous just before an exam.

Activating and Deactivating Emotions

The same is true for all emotions, that is, they are neither intrinsically positive nor negative. Psychologist Reinhard Pekrun uses the terms activating and deactivating emotions rather than positive and negative. Emotions serve a purpose, but only if they occur under the right circumstances (Pekrun, 2006). Boredom, for example, might lead us to shift our attention away from the task in hand, but it might also result in increased creativity or motivate us to find something else to do. Similarly, curiosity can supercharge the desire to learn, but we all know what it did to that poor cat.

Emotions, therefore, can help or hinder learning, but they also have wider consequences. The neurobiological system that supports emotional function also supports decision-making generally, so our emotions can potentially lead to the making of poor choices. We can, therefore, think of emotions as a basic form of decision making, allowing us to react appropriately to different situations. As cognition advances, so do higher forms of reasoning that support the ability to customise responses, both in how people think and how they behave. If we think of learning as a means by which people can build repertoires of cognitive and behavioural strategies and options, recognising the interplay between cognition and emotion allows teachers and instructors to help them recognise the complexities of situations and to respond appropriately and flexibly.

Emotions are an important part of the cognitive process (and, therefore, learning). Rather than being the toddler in the china shop, Immordino-Yang and Damasio insist we should see emotions as the shelves underlying the glassware because, without them, cognition has less support. Only when we place emotions on an equal footing with cognition will it become apparent that both are working together to support learning or hold us back.


Berggren, N., Richards, A., Taylor, J., & Derakshan, N. (2013). Affective attention under cognitive load: reduced emotional biases but emergent anxiety-related costs to inhibitory control. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7(May), 1–7.

Box, G. E. P. (1979). Robustness in the Strategy of Scientific Model Building. In Robustness in Statistics 201–236. Elsevier.

Damasio, A. (2011). Neural basis of emotions. Scholarpedia, 6(3), 1804.

Furnham, A., Chamorro-Premuzic, T., & McDougall, F. (2002). Personality, cognitive ability, and beliefs about intelligence as predictors of academic performance. Learning and Individual Differences, 14, 49–66.

Immordino-yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We Feel , Therefore We Learn : The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education, 1(1), 3–10.

Lange, J., & Crusius, J. (2015). Dispositional Envy Revisited. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(2), 284–294.

Mann, S., & Cadman, R. (2014). Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative? Creativity Research Journal, 26(2), 165–173.

Neisser, U. (1967). Cognitive psychology. New York, London: Psychology Press.

Ojha, A., Ervas, F., & Gola, E. (2017). An eye movement analysis of high and low intelligent individuals, (October).

Palombo, D. J., McKinnon, M. C., McIntosh, A. R., Anderson, A. K., Todd, R. M., & Levine, B. (2016). The Neural Correlates of Memory for a Life-Threatening Event. Clinical Psychological Science, 4(2), 312–319.

Pekrun, R. (2006). The Control-Value Theory of Achievement Emotions: Assumptions, Corollaries, and Implications for Educational Research and Practice. Educational Psychology Review, 18(4), 315–341.

Plutchik, R. (2001). The Nature of Emotions: Human emotions have deep evolutionary roots, a fact that may explain their complexity and provide tools for clinical practice. American Scientist, 89(4), 344–350.

Smith, M (2018) The Emotional Learner: Understanding emotions, learners and achievement. Routledge

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