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Hidden Thoughts How Negative Emotions Can Shut Down Language and Learning

  • Written by Erica Peterson, Dartmoor School
Violence. Failure. War. These words trigger unpleasant thoughts — so unpleasant, in fact, that our subconscious minds don’t want us to think about them too deeply, researchers at Bangor University have found. Their pioneering study, originally intended to shed light on the inner workings of the bilingual brain, stumbled across surprising evidence that our subconscious minds block access to language in order to mitigate the impact of negative emotion.

It was a complex experiment. Psychologists Yan Jing Wu and Guillaume Theirry gave a group of English-speaking Chinese students multiple sets of English words pairs and asked them to determine whether or not the words were related in meaning. But this wasn’t a test of reading comprehension. Instead, the researchers secretly engineered English word pairs for the test that, when translated into Chinese, would yield counterparts with similar sounds. Words that sound similar but have different meanings take a longer time to process than words that both sound different and mean different things; so while the English word pairs could be processed relatively quickly, their Chinese counterparts would take a longer time.  Meanwhile, researchers measured participants’ brain activity and correlated that data with participants’ response times.  Through measuring response times to word pairs, researchers confirmed that Chinese students were typically accessing the Chinese counterparts to the English words they were shown as a part of the language processing necessary for the task.

But not always. In word pairs where the first word indicated a negative concept, Chinese students maintained consistently quick response times, regardless of sound similarities in the Chinese translations of the word pairs. Though participants were unaware of any difference in their thought processes, their test responses clearly indicated that the Chinese counterparts to the word pairs were not included in the language processing task when the words were negative. In other words, participants’ brains were blocked from accessing negative ideas in their native language. Why? Because negative concepts are felt more deeply when they are embodied by words from one’s native language. By blocking participants’ brains from accessing their native speech, this spontaneous censorship created a mental buffer between negative ideas and participants’ feelings.

The study brings up a wealth of other questions about the role of subconscious processes in learning and language. After, if simply looking at a bad word is enough to trigger subconscious language suppression, then how might real-life experiences affect language function, memory, attention, and a host of other cognitive processes required for learning?  What else might our brains shut down to shield us from negative experiences? This study adds to the growing pile of evidence that learning and emotion are deeply intertwined, whether learners themselves are aware of it or not. The bottom line for parents and educators?  Learning involves our students’ hearts as well as their minds, and we are thus charged with caring for both.

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