Osotu - On Emotions

This post is part of a series. Feel free to check the other posts: On Competences & Skills

I just attended the second session of the training course for teachers on Osotu. This time, we discussed the role of emotions in the learning process

This time, it was hard to find parallelisms between general team leadership and teaching. The reason is not that adults have less trouble managing emotions than kids; far from that. Do you think a 7yo may struggle with impulse control or a 12yo with peer pressure? Imagine the amount of emotional baggage that a recently divorced 42yo with two kids brings to the office or how feelings can conflict with the daily work of a 33yo intern who is still living with their parents and feels stuck in place.

No, the absence of emotions is not the reason. The reason is that even if we all bring emotions to the workplace daily, we have been consistently trained to hide them at all costs at the risk of being deemed unprofessional. There are reasonable arguments for trying to create a siloed life with a clear division between home and work (although, as a decades-long self-employed person, I could argue about most of them :) but the reality is that suppressing the feelings (or even worse repressing them if you get to that point) does not help you in any way to perform better and in many cases you see coworkers struggling to cope in silence with them while trying to maintain the business-as-usual appearance. A nasty dissonance is created as “let’s just skip work for a few days” is not an option for most people.       

Anyway. To begin with, we were asked to create a list of emotions. The most common ones were quick to mind: sadness, happiness, fear, surprise… but then after just a few seconds, we started to find things that felt like something “different”: melancholy, resentment, ambition, etc. What were those exactly? Are feelings and emotions the same thing? If not, what exactly is the difference? 

To develop a sense of what is going on, we were introduced to the work of Roberto Aguado, a psychologist and teacher who has dedicated his life to exploring this field, starting from first principles and the physiological roots of what we feel.

He has created some handy tables for what is described as Universal Basic Emotions, probably leveraging the work Paul Ekman did in the 70s. These emotions and their physical manifestations have been historically shared across cultures, ethnic groups, and ages and are familiar and understood by all humans, sometimes even some non-human mammals.    

So, for example, this is the table for the Rage emotion:

Emotional Spectrum (from lesser to greater intensity) Activated Biochemistry (action platform: ATTACK) Activated Neurological Structures (emotion) Physiological Response Body and Facial Communication
resentment, frustration,
Norepinephrine and dopamine (high glutamate level).

The higher the presence of the neurotransmitters, the closer it is to violence.
Substantia nigra and ventral tegmental area, striatum, amygdalae, hypothalamus, pre-periductal grey region Blood rushes to the head.
Blood in muscle periphery.
Increased sympathetic tone.
Muscle tension.
Mandible tension.
Agitated thoracic respiration.
Thinned lips.
Raised upper eyelids.
Lowered eyebrows.
Guttural voice tone.
Agitated breathing.
Sensation of heat.

Here are a few great insights into this approach:

  • We can point at specific neurotransmitters and link them to each of the basic emotions, bridging the gap between what is physically going on in our bodies, what is physiologically expressed on the outside and our cognitive interpretation of those changes. So no new-age bullshit on “vibes” and “energies” :).

  • Emotions are always found on a spectrum. So, starting from the basic emotion of rage, we can go up (to, for instance, wrath) and down (to, for example, annoyance), depending on the intensity of the underlying biochemistry.   

After checking these basic emotions, the one I instantly connected with my professional world was Curiosity. We developers are intensely curious beasts. We love to find a problem, take it apart in a million tiny pieces, see precisely how they are connected and find an abstract and general solution to solve it. However, after thinking about it a bit more, I found another one that is very often present in software development: guilt. It manifests in many different ways, but two came instantly to my mind because of its frequency between developers:

  • The embarrassment and self-shaming that sometimes occur when developers realize they have deployed an important bug to production. Man, there is no worse feeling. 

  • The infamous Impostor Syndrome where self-doubt of intellect, skills, or accomplishments cripples and distorts our ability to objectively evaluate ourselves. This syndrome is connected too to another basic emotion: fear.   

It’s always hard to deal with those situations. The best way I’ve found is to do it in advance: create a no-shaming culture where the errors —although harmful— are moved from the personal domain to the team domain and repurposed as learning opportunities to prevent future mistakes. But it’s easier said than done.

The connection between basic emotions is also mapped in Aguado’s work, clearly showing how two apparently unrelated emotions may often have very close associated neurotransmitters and have a similar biochemical signature. Following this roadmap, we can more easily start to navigate and understand how complex things that defy rational analysis work (e.g. racism -> fear <> rage <> disgust):

We can then start to describe what set of emotions creates a better learning context. Here, Aguado presents two helpful acronyms in Spanish:

  • CASA (Curiosity, Admiration, Security and Happiness). Emotions we should foster and cultivate. Feeling secure makes it easier to ask questions because you don’t feel vulnerable; curiosity almost inevitably leads to learning, etc.  

  • TRAM (Sadness, Rage, Disgust, Fear) are emotions that should be managed because they make learning much more difficult. It is tough to develop logical thinking, let alone learning, if we are enraged. Sadness can easily distract us from the task at hand.

There are, of course, obvious advantages to putting emotions front and centre in the education system: 

  • If the emotional scaffold is right, the learning becomes more significant. Often, we are confronted with the fact that many of the things we learned in school provided no ground for the development of new interests and capabilities (e.g. I may remember there IS something called the Golgi apparatus in the cells, but I’d be at a loss about how it’s interconnected with other parts or its general interaction with cell’s functions), it is purely rote learning.

  • Emotional skills and competencies CAN be developed and are a KEY component of many (all?) jobs. Ask a consultant which is the main friction point when trying to redesign a process that has been going on for years in a company or, even worse, try to redirect the company’s culture. All roads lead to Emotions.

But there is also a fundamental, often taken-for-granted goal: to be happy. Simply as that. No amount of learning can fill the void in an unfulfilled, unhappy life. One could easily argue that, without learning, there is simply no possibility for a happy life because intellectual activity and the search for knowledge ARE themselves the Aristotelian definition of a good life. 

Although this part of the emotions analysis took a big portion of the session’s time, we still had time to watch a great short video by philosopher Victoria Camps that talks precisely about this idea of learning as happiness:

I kept nodding at every sentence, especially enjoying the reference to the Stoics, who have been an interest of mine for a very long time. There are just so many things we can’t control and a big -but surprisingly hard- part of having a good life is to learn (see? :) to identify them. I’ve learned a lot about stoic philosophy, its practices and ideas, but still to this day, nothing that I’ve read crystallizes its spirit as clearly as the Serenity prayer, a tool used and popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous on how to confront life:

God, give me grace to accept with Serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

I’m looking forward to the next session focusing on the neuroscience basics all teachers need to understand to serve their students better. So exciting!