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Unconscious Emotions, Conscious Feelings, and Curricular Challenges

by Robert Sylwester

Although it may irritate the teacher, one of the most intelligent questions a student can ask is "Why do we have to do this?" Students (and the rest of us, for all that) are loathe to expend cognitive energy unnecessarily, so assessing the importance of a task is a key initial step in cognition.

We live in a complex space/time world replete with dangers and opportunities related to our survival and reproduction. Two internal systems recognize and respond to such challenges:

our skull-centered brain, composed of hundreds of billions of highly interconnected neurons and glial support cells, integrates and responds to the information from our sensory system, and

our diffused immune system, composed of an infinite number of (often free-floating) cells spread throughout our body, responds to the several pounds of invisible microbes and pollutants that inhabit our body.

So our very interconnected brain responds to the larger visible external challenges, and our very diffused immune system responds to the tiny invisible internal challenges. Scientists now realize that the two systems are highly interconnected. A successful response to many of life's challenges requires the two systems to collaborate, and illness can occur if they don't.

This article will focus on our brain's activation systems, on its unconscious and conscious ability to recognize important dangers and opportunities. Such recognition is admittedly a small part of a very complex cognitive system, but it's critical to successful teaching and learning -- as teachers soon discover if they don't implicitly or explicitly answer the question the student above raised. Further, recent developments, such as the publication of Antonion Damasio's acclaimed book, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (1999), are providing educators with an expanded view of our recognition system and this poses important educational challenges.


Since our immediate environment is rich in dangers and opportunities that range widely in importance, our brain needs something akin to a thermostat to determine when a specific challenge reaches the threshold of being sufficiently important to activate the several systems that focus attention and develop appropriate responses. Emotion, centered principally in a small set of sub cortical brain systems, is our biological thermostat, and so it's central to cognition (and educational practice). Although emotion is embedded in our language as a somewhat vague concept, recent scientific developments are clarifying the terminology, and changing some previously held beliefs about its biology and function.

Emotion is an innate, powerful, and principally unconscious process. It has to alert us when we're asleep or attending to other things, but not bother us with problems and processes that don't require conscious attention. For example, emotion alerts us to an opportunity for food, but it doesn't continually report on the digestive process that follows eating unless the food turns out to be indigestible. Further, we don't consciously choose to be emotionally aroused, and such arousal often interferes with what we're currently doing. In effect, our emotions tell us to stop doing what we're currently doing, and to attend this more important challenge.

That dominance is possible because far more neural fibers project from our brain's emotional centers up into the logical/rational areas than the reverse. A sudden emotional stimulus can thus easily and immediately stop classroom activity -- and it's then neurologically difficult to get students so rationally shut off their emotional arousal and resume what they were doing. Effective teachers, realizing that the disruptive emotional arousal will continue until the problem is resolved, simply take the time to resolve it before resuming what they were previously doing.

A click of the thermostat announces a furnace's imminent response to a sudden drop in room temperature. Our mostly unconscious body language similarly reports our current emotional state. It's obviously useful for a social species to have a means of heralding the thrust of an imminent emotion-driven behavior -- and so it makes a lot of sense for teachers to become adept at reading and adapting to their students' body language.

Emotion tends to respond most vigorously to high contrast information, and to merely monitor or ignore steady states and subtle changes. This is generally biologically sensible. Stay the course rather than expend cognitive energy on things that aren't currently problematic and fluctuating. Emotion can thus trick us into not recognizing the subtle body language of a gradually encroaching problem until it suddenly becomes menacing.

The recent spate of school killings came as a surprise to many educators and classmates who had worked daily with the perpetrators, and hadn't suspected a thing. We're similarly surprised when an unnoticed former student turns out to be very successful. Recall our immune system -- tuned to tiny dangers and opportunities that are invisible to our brain (which focuses on the visible things). Do schools need a similar dual monitoring system that can recognize both the manifest and masked dangers and opportunities that crowd the corridors? Schools had such a system -- counselors and others whose principal assignment was to move about the school (like immune cells prowling our body) on the lookout for potential problems. In a reckless search for economy at any cost, many schools dismissed them, or burdened them with assignments that precluded their ability to do what they were trained to do. A tiny unnoticed virus can soon immobilize an entire body. That's why we have both a brain and an immune system. Institutions that ignore the little (but emerging) problems do it at their peril.

Emotional arousal doesn't define or solve the challenge, but rather it activates attentional and problem solving processes that develop the response (our immune system, similarly separates the tasks of recognizing and responding to our body's microscopic invaders). We thus don't emotionally respond to a challenge, but rather, our emotions alert us to its existence -- a subtle but important distinction. So although our emotions play a necessary initial role in the shaping and eventual solution of a problem (and may continue to arouse us throughout our response, because it's generally important to maintain interest in the challenge), they're not a problem-solving system.

Consider an emotionally arousing classroom game (such as a spelling relay) that has no relationship to the skill being taught. The game artificially hypes student emotion in an activity that probably wouldn't of itself arouse enough interest to enhance learning. So even artificial emotion can activate attention, which activates the cognitive systems that memorize the spelling of words. Ideally, though, a teacher's emotional trigger to an activity should be related to the nature of the activity, since this will provide a more easily remembered emotional context for the future use of the learned material.

Although emotions don't solve our problems, they can bias the direction of the response. Temperament is a seemingly innate element of our emotional system that unconsciously predisposes emotional arousal towards danger or opportunity. A person's temperament typically centers somewhere along a continuum between bold/uninhibited and anxious/inhibited (Kagan, 1994), with boldness being processed principally in the left hemisphere, and anxiousness in the right hemisphere (Siegel, 1999). When emotionally aroused, the bold thus tend to be initially curious about a potential opportunity, and the anxious wary about a potential danger. Temperament is thus a useful trait, since it enhances a quick and confident move towards a response. Because we frequently follow our temperamental bias, we tend to become quite competent with it over time. Think of handedness, which similarly develops exceptional competence with the favored hand.

Either temperamental bias can be useful, so students should be encouraged to develop whatever nature has given them. But just as it's advisable to divide an investment portfolio between conservative (danger) and risky (opportunity) investments, so students should be given opportunities to experience salutation that would move them away from their temperamental predisposition, and allow them to practice their back-up system. Projects that effectively team bold/optimistic students with anxious/pessimistic students can create a cooperative forum in which the best elements of both approaches can be synthesized into an effective solution. Indeed, people with different temperaments often marry and create a successful family team if mutual respect defines the relationship.

Emotions (like temperament) are neither positive nor negative in themselves. They all evolved to alert us to specific kinds of problems, so all are developmentally important. Just as theorists have proposed several different ways of categorizing intelligence, so scientists differ somewhat in their classification of emotions. Damasio (1999) lists surprise, happiness, fear, anger, disgust, and sadness, as our primary emotions; and embarrassment, jealousy, and guilt among our secondary (or social) emotions. Note that most alert us to a negative situation. We've tended to consider classroom emotional responses in negative misbehavior terms -- but since all brain systems (including emotion) must be developed, educators should now design appropriate developmental environments for emotions tuned to negative situations. We'll return to this issue later.


Damasio (1999) suggests that feelings emerge in our brain when we become conscious of our unconscious emotional arousal to a potential danger/opportunity. As indicated above, emotions can often be publicly observed, but our feelings remain a private mental experience of the emotion. Feelings, which lead us to conscious thought and exploration of the current challenge, are thus useful, since they allow us to go beyond innate programmed behaviors, to rationally design solutions to a variety of contemporary challenges that evolutionary development didn't cover.

Feelings allow us to step into the arcane world of consciousness, the mysterious mental process that abandons us when we go to sleep, and magically reappears when we awaken. Consciousness identifies the first-person-singular self that philosophers, psychologist, and theologians have long tried to define. Not only do I know something, but I know that I know it. So who is the "I" who is doing all this knowing (and feeling)? Damasio draws on decades of neuroscience research and the recent advances in brain imagine technology to suggest how conscious processes could have emerged in our brain out of the unconscious systems that regulate emotion. Since school activities focus principally on conscious learning and behavior, an understanding of the biology of consciousness will be essential to the development of credible theories of teaching and learning.

Protoself In Damsio's theory, the biology of consciousness begins with a neuronal arrangement that maps every part of an organism's body into one of various interconnected brain areas. This mapping is necessary in all animals because brain and body must constantly communicate in order to maintain a continuously revised sense of what's happening throughout the organism.

A collection of automated brain systems that Damasio calls the protoself use this continuous flow of information to manage various life processes, such as circulation and respiration. The protoself maintains the stability it needs across its lifetime by operating body systems within genetically established relatively narrow regulatory ranges.

Core Consciousness: The Present But we're conscious of more than our own self. Our protoself is imprisoned within the geography of its body, but sensory/motor and related brain systems also allow a conscious organism to explore the world. A stable body thus confronts a constantly shifting and expanding external environment.

So not only does a brain contain a map of its body, but a conscious brain must also have a mechanism for mapping and connecting to the external world. Damasio believes that consciousness emerges when the mapped relationship between organism and an external object (which may be another organism) has risen to the level of a feeling of what's currently happening.

Core consciousness (which we share with many animals) is thus the consciousness of the here-and-now -- a nonverbal imaged running account of the objects an organism confronts in a series of successive instants as it moves through and interacts with its immediate environment. Think of being both actor and spectator in a movie within our brain (a film being a sequence of still pictures that give the illusion of movement as they quickly pulsate through our brain).

Many catch-phrases in our culture speak to the important of recognizing and respecting the her-and-now in the quickly moving stream of consciousness that defines much of life. Stop the world, I want to get off. Slow down and smell the daisies. Seize the moment. Core consciousness is primal in that it continuously focuses the organism on the immediate which

Extended Consciousness: The Past and Future. We may live in the present, but we have lived in the past and we will probably live in the future. Damasio suggests that organisms must have a large cortex in order to consciously move beyond the here-and-now -- to profit from past experiences and to avoid potential problems. The cortex must be sufficiently large to contain a vast and powerful autobiographical memory that can quickly identify the largest possible range of information relevant to a novel challenge. Humans, and the great apes to a lesser extent, have such a cortex.

Intelligence emerges out of this ability to embellish and temporally extend core consciousness. It allows our brain to manipulate recalled information in the mental design and analysis of potential responses. The practical applications of conscious intelligence include imagination, creativity and conscience -- which led to language, art, science, technology, and a variety of cultural and political systems (such as the shared government of a democratic society).

In laying out many of the specifics of the neurobiology of consciousness, Damasio has established a credible framework that other theorist and researchers will further explore. Indeed, as I write this, Gerald Edelman, who won the Nobel Prize for his immune system discoveries, and neuroscientist Giulio Tononi have just published their Darwinian exploration of consciousness (2000). Expect other books by renowned scientists to follow, consciousness being the Holy Grail of the neurosciences. This short functional synthesis of Damsio's book couldn't hope to communicate the richness of his theory, and the depth of his supporting scientific evidence. Read the book and be amazed.

We thus begin a new century with optimism -- knowing that a major educationally significant biological mystery is moving decidedly towards solution. Einstein's theories established the 1900's as the century of physics. Biology should dominate at least the early part of this century -- and educators are basically biologists. We can revolutionize educational policy and practice, but only if we inform ourselves of the explosive educationally important cognitive neuroscience developments that are occurring now, on our watch.


This discussion has focused principally on our emerging understanding of our critically important recognition and arousal systems -- from unconscious emotion to conscious feelings. What do such biological developments have to say to those who seek practical educational applications from such theory and research? Three related issues seem promising -- and especially for imaginative young educators in search of a career research agenda that's focused on the search for appropriate educational applications in this area:

The Arts. I have argued that the arts play and important role in the development and maintenance of our motor system, which processes the concluding stage of most cognitive sequences (Sylwester, 1998). What role might the arts play in the initiatory stages of cognition (recognition, arousal)? Unconscious emotions and conscious feelings alert us to biologically important dangers and opportunities. We're a social species, so it would be advantageous for a society to have similar alerting systems for culturally important dangers and opportunities that many people might otherwise not recognize. An important segment of the arts, mass media, and cultural organizations play such a social arousal role. This suggests that the not-necessarily-nice-and-pretty arts are an integral part of the social equivalent of our very important emotion/attention system. If so, it's folly to reduce school programs that help students to understand the often critical role of social arousal systems, such as the arts. It also suggests that if the arts are important to the development and maintenance of the systems that initiate and conclude cognitive activity, they're probably also important to the robustness of the systems that process the several intervening stages. The arts, like consciousness, have been an enigmatic element of human life -- and like consciousness, they now appear to be researchable in ways not possible during the past century.

Play. Extended consciousness requires a large cortex, and this creates a birth canal problem (that all mothers understand). Humans are consequently born with a very immature brain (13 its adult size) which develops over a long sheltered childhood. Most animals are born with a substantially developed brain, and so they're on their own shortly after birth. Their survival is thus dependent on a large number of innate (rather than learned) brain systems that respond automatically to the dangers/opportunities their species typically confronts.

Sheltered from the need to protect and support themselves, juvenile humans are free to use play to consciously explore the dynamics of and alternate solutions to pretend problems that they devise -- typically childhood versions of various adult problems they will later confront. But how does a brain unconsciously generate the requisite emotional arousal without the presence of real danger or opportunity? Good games do that at a pretend level that extended consciousness permits, and so much informal childhood motor, language, and social learning develops easily and without much adult instruction through play/games/contests that can spark emotional arousal (which then activates our attention, problem solving, and behavioral response systems).

Further, we continue to use play and games throughout life to maintain the robustness of our emotional arousal system. Cognitive systems that aren't continuously used weaken through a use-it-or-lose-it principle, and the reality is that our primary emotions (surprise, happiness, fear, anger, disgust, and sadness) typically aren't frequently activated in a consciously controlled real life. But a game, such as basketball, will frequently and unpredictability (and perhaps artificially) activate all emotions of players and spectators over its course, and that accounts for much of the appeal of the game.

Play and games are thus joyfully important emotion/attention machines that can enhance the quality of a sheltered child's extended learning. It's only in school that we refer to learning as work. In an era obsessed with assessment and standards, educators must rediscover the power that play has to activate and enhance learning. Teachers have always used learning games, but emerging electronic technologies are creating amazing new instructional possibilities that are replete with both danger and opportunity. For example, the Fast ForWord program successfully uses variable speed video game technology to eliminate specific auditory attentional deficits that negatively affect language development in young children. Play poses truly exciting challenges for imaginative educational theorists and researchers.

Classroom Management. The ability to recognize inappropriate social behavior is a key developmental skill. Misbehavior is to a classroom what pain is to a body -- a useful status report that something isn't working as it should. Damasio suggests that pain isn't an emotion, but rather a local tissue dysfunction that may or may not activate an emotion. Teachers and students similarly respond to or ignore a variety of behaviors during a school day.

We've tended to view classroom management as an institutionally directed means to a compliant efficient teaching/learning environment. The assumption is that the students are the problem, and yet there's often as much institutional as student misbehavior in a classroom. So why do the educators get to make all the misbehavior and management decisions? Is it possible to think of classroom management as a key collaborative element of the social curriculum? It would certainly be a revolutionary challenge, but I believe that our emerging understanding of cognition and consciousness suggests that imaginative teachers can and should attempt it (Sylwester 2000).

Most curricular information comes from beyond the classroom. Conversely, classroom management must recognize and respond to internal social dynamics and tensions, and so it provides students with marvelous opportunities to consciously confront and solve real social problems in an institutional environment that differs from the informality of their home and neighborhood.

We're a conscious, social species, and we're 200+ years into the creation of a democratic society that depends on the mastery of social skills and collaborative behavior. And yet, by defining classroom management as something teachers do to students, we've ignored the best available laboratory for helping students to consciously and collaboratively develop social and democratic skills. Many adult social problems have classroom parallels. When the perspective shifts from behavior management to curricular laboratory, misbehavior shifts from being only a negative danger to also being a positive opportunity for teacher and students to recognize and collaboratively solve real current classroom problems. How much current misbehavior emerges from student anger at having no voice in what occurs in a classroom?

One obvious problem is that the social behavior of immature students isn't exemplary. But neither is anything else when they begin the learning process. We realize that crawling leads to toddling leads to walking leads to running, and so allow the process to develop naturally (and not by posting rules and giving lectures on how to do it). Conversely, schools unrealistically expect exemplary institutional behavior from day one. Outside of school, children learn social skills through the emotionally stimulating pretend problem that play engenders, and they gradually and informally resolve the problems that emerge. The classroom-as-laboratory would enhance that informal process by explicitly and experientially developing the requisite social skills.

A social skills curriculum grounded in collaborative classroom management would develop behavior recognition, data-gathering, analysis, and negotiation skills. Conceptually, the social management of a classroom involves the same elements as those involved in the biological management of one's body: decisions on energy expenditure, space, time, movement, the biologically possible and culturally appropriate range of behavior. It's nothing really complicated, and nothing that students should not explore and master. But, it's a scary paradigm shift in an era obsessed with school efficiency and assessment -- and possessed of an irrational belief that if we tightly control the behavior of K-12 students for 12,000 hours, the result will be the sudden mastery at 18 of the social skills a democratic society requires of its adult citizen.

John Dewey began the 20th century with a philosophic plea that schools get serious about becoming laboratories for the development of the democratic skills our society requires (1916). He was ignored. Another century has now passed, and we know much more about development, cognition, and consciousness than Dewey could have imagined. What we now know suggests strongly that Dewey was also biologically correct. So will we wait another 100 years?


Damasio, A. (1999) The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan.

Edelman, G. and G. Tononi (2000) A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination. New York: Basic Books.

Kagan, J. (1994) Galen's Prophesy: Temperament in Human Nature. New York: Basic Books.

Siegel, D. (1999) The Developing Mind: Towards a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience. New York: Guilford.

Sylwester, R. (2000) A Biological Brain in a Cultural Classroom: Applying Biological Research to Classroom Management. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Sywlester, R. (1998, November) Art for Brain's Sake. Educational Leadership, 56 (3) 31-35.

About the Author

Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon. You can reach him at

January 2001

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