The Science Behind WSL

Emotion determines attention, which then drives memory and learning.

Cognitive neuroscience is one of several overlapping sciences which focuses on the biology, physiology, and functioning of the brain and mind. It is the study of the psychological, computational, and neuroscientific bases of cognition: perceiving, thinking, remembering, and learning.

The quantity and quality of data about the brain and mind has exploded in the last two decades. Technology-driven brain imaging techniques have revealed detailed information about the chemical composition of brain cells and neurotransmitters, electrical transmission of information and magnetic fields within the brain, and the distribution of blood through the brain. Conclusions are changed and refined as further studies emerge.

Perhaps the most intriguing finding to date is the central role played by the limbic system—we call here, "the emotional mind". Emotion determines where our attention goes, which then drives memory and learning. This finding is intriguing because it counters a cultural tendency to elevate rational thought

For centuries, we have assumed that we are thinking beings who happen to feel. The evidence now supports a different view: we are feeling beings who think.

Our emotions determine what we pay attention to, what we remember, and what we learn.

Those involved in "whole brain" learning have long observed that emotions play a critical role in learning. Now, science is providing validation.

At least since Plato (375 BC), many Western thinkers have viewed emotions as impediments to rational thinking, as signs of immaturity or weakness, best set aside by upright, virtuous (and especially male) citizens. With this bad press, until recently, emotions have thus been afforded low priority for study..."
— Dr. Bundy Mackintosh, Open University, UK. 2003 Reith Lectures.

What Role Do Human Emotions Play?

Most scientists have a hard time with the subject of emotions. Till the last decade of the 20th century, emotion played only a neglected role in scientific discussions and research. Even when discussed, emotion was hidden under the heading "Cognition." In the past, human emotions have been seen as something inferior (Descartes, 1996 [sic]), have been reduced to physical processes (James, 1884), or have been played off against cognition (Lazarus, 1994).

Scientists find it very difficult to describe what emotions are, even when defining basic and secondary emotions (Ekman, 1992). However, newer technology, such as positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have helped brain scientists to understand the role of those parts of the human brain that are responsible for emotional aspects.

We are not the rational creatures that we would like to be — we are always and, above all, emotional beings.

The emotional system in our brain (limbic system with amygdala) seems to play the central role for survival of the individual. This system provides a type of assessment and early warning system that enables a person to react very quickly and effectively if there is some danger (Roth, 1977). Even before we are aware of something, the limbic system has evaluated the situation emotionally and has ’decided’ whether the situation is positive (good for survival) or negative (life-threatening) (Ledoux, 2001, p. 76). This system has the following characteristics: it works pre-cognitively and unconsciously, it assesses any situation before it becomes conscious of it (if it ever becomes conscious of it), and the triggered reactions happen automatically.

With these tasks, the limbic system is anatomical and functionally combined with the neo-cortex of the brain, which is part of the cognitive system (Niewenhuys et al., 1991; Aggleton, 1992 & 1993). This connection means that we cannot maintain the separation of emotion and cognition. Evidently, we cannot assess things in a ’neutral’ way, but instead we define and assess situations unconsciously whether we define them to be either positive or negative. In the same way, our emotional-response system also appear to (unconsciously) assess interfaces as we are confronted with them—before we use them, and before we have intensive experience with them.

We are not the rational creatures that we would like to be—we are always and, above all, emotional beings. By this, we are defining the term "emotional" to mean more than just the concrete feelings of fear, sorrow, joy, etc., but to include a fundamental, non-rational assessment.

As the German psychiatrist and brain scientist Manfred Spitzer writes: "What activates humans are not facts and data, but feelings, stories, and, above all, other humans." (Spitzer, 2002, p. 160)

Excerpted with permission from "Emotional and Meta Communicational Aspects of Human-Computer Interaction." Emphases added. Dr. Frank Thissen, University of Kahlsruhe, Germany.

The Triune Brain

In 1978, Dr. Paul MacLean proposed a model of the human brain. Focusing on the functions of the brain, as opposed to its physical components, he suggested we have a three-layer brain that has evolved over time to process survival, emotional and rational functions: the reptilian brain, the limbic brain and the cortical brain.

According to Dr. Antonio Damasio, although current research suggests that the triune brain model may be an oversimplification, it is still useful, because it is easily understood. This theory holds insights for those involved in learning and education.


Triune Brain Component


Evolutionary Purpose


Corresponds to physical components

Reptilian Brain

Reptilian Brain

Reptilian (Primitive, archipallium)

Survival Instinct

Self-preservation, aggression, breathing, sleep cycles, digestion, blood pressure, heart rate.

The four basic drives—feeding, fleeing, fighting, and sex—are based in the reptilian brain. It is the site of instinctive as opposed to learned behavior.

Brain stem: medulla oblongata, pons and midbrain

Limbic Brain

Limbic Brain

Limbic (Mamallian, intermediate, paleopallium)

Emotional Mind

Primary site of the emotions.

Identifies agreeable and disagreeable, playfulness, regulator of emotions, determines attention, primary role in identifying significance of sensory data and selection of long-term memories.


Cortical Brain

Cortical Brain

Cortical (Superior, neopallium)

Rational Mind

Conscious thought: reasoning, language, rational and critical thinking, abstraction.

Cerebral cortex:
right hemisphere, left hemisphere frontal lobe, prefrontal cortex, parietal lobe, occipital lobe, temporal lobe.




Whole-System LearningEngaging head, heart and hands.