Monday, May 04, 2009

Feeling, Learning, and the Brain: Why Lefties and Dyslexics Need Emotions to Learn and Remember

We've heard it so many times..."He can only do well in a class if he likes the teacher," or "The material has to mean something to her, before she can learn it...", but the link between feeling and personal relevance, and learning and memory has never been clearer for some of these students with this latest study from Johns Hopkins:

When performing an auditory word memory task, lefties (mixed dominance / left-handedness are more in dyslexics, individuals with spatial talent...), activated their emotions (amygdala) and personal relevance (left hippocampus) areas when remembering. This pattern is likely why we see such a personal (i.e. not impersonal or rote memory) preference among dyslexic students in our clinic.

It explains why some students really struggle to learn in classes where they feel their teacher doesn't like them, or why others may become paralyzed with the studying process when they have never been told (or can't understand) how the information presented relates to them. It's not just an unnecessary add-on; it may be essential.

Brain-based studies such also have direct implications for teaching. Not every student is alike, and emotions and personal connectedness may absolute requirements if teachers want to help all their students to learn.

Effect of handedness on fMRI activation in the medial temporal lobe during an auditory verbal memory task
Personal Relevance and Temporal Specificity - Left hippocampus
Eide Neurolearning Blog:The Benefits of Mixed-Dominance...Lefties, Dyslexics, and Gaming
Dyslexic, Left-Handed, and College Drop-Out Entrepreneurs


  1. My son is a lefty, and his academic performance does not seem to be related to how well he likes the teacher (until he gets to the point of outright rebellion and refusal to participate).

    He can separate (to some extent) how well he likes a person from how well they teach. I asked him to list how much he was learning in each of his classes and how much he liked the teachers. His assessment of how much he was learning matched pretty well with my assessment, but the correlation with how much he liked the teachers was not nearly as high as I expected. He liked the teacher he was learning the most from, but disliked the teacher for the second highest learning rate. He felt he was learning very little from his favorite teacher.

    Now, he's not having trouble in any of his classes, so maybe the difficulty level needs to ratcheted up several notches before the phenomenon is visible, but I suspect the generalization is simply too sweeping.

  2. Like all of these studies, they are comparing average differences between groups - they cannot predict for any single person.

    It does provide physiological evidence for what many report -that feelings do matter in terms of learning and retention. Not for everyone, but for some people.

    All of these studies should not be taken as absolute predictors for any particular person - on the whole the field of fMRI research has added significantly to our understanding of different learning patterns and efficiencies.

  3. I'd be more impressed by the brain imaging studies if they really were comparing groups, but the sample sizes are usually so small that they are just comparing individuals. The generalizations from the tiny samples to large groups disturbs me as a scientist.

    The value of the MRI scans in establishing that there are some real phenomena to study is valuable, but the sample sizes are at least an order of magnitude too small and maybe a factor of 100 too small for the conclusions I see made from them.

  4. We understand where you're coming from. You make a good point.

    There are biases with large vs. small samples too of course... like exclusion criteria for the study, thresholds for measuring signficance, etc.

    Clinicians and teachers often have to balance the conclusions of large population studies and the child that happens to be right in front of us.