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This is Part 2 of a three-part blog. Part 1 explores the Hebraic understanding of the heart to reclaim a vision for the transformational and life-giving education that occurs when educators acknowledge students’ whole selves—intellect and emotions included. Part 2 uses neuroscience to further explore the nature and role of emotions in learning, and Part 3 offers suggestions concerning how educators might positively engage emotions in the classroom by targeting 4 key relationships.

For those skeptical of a Hebrew word study as the basis of an educational understanding of learning science, we turn to contemporary research in the hard sciences to bolster our claims. Immordino-Yang and Damasio summarize, “Neurobiological evidence suggests that the aspects of cognition that we recruit most heavily in schools, namely learning, attention, memory, decision making, and social functioning, are both profoundly affected by and subsumed within the processes of emotion.”  In other words, humans learn best when they learn in ways congruent with their natural hardwiring; that is when intellect and emotion work together (be that divinely appointed or otherwise).

That said, it is important to acknowledge that humans experience a wide variety of emotions ranging in both intensity and orientation. Humans experience positive, negative, and perhaps even neutral emotions (e.g., boredom or apathy). Additionally, emotions are part of bearing the image of God, who himself perfectly bears a full range of emotions like love (Jn 3:16; Jer 31:3), jealousy (Exodus 20:5; Josh 24:19), joy (Zeph 3:17; Jer 32:41), grief (Gen 6:6; Ps 78:40), and compassion (Ps 135:14; Deut 32:36).

So then, which emotions matter most?

Neuroscience confirms the important role of various emotions, especially positive emotions, for learning. Li et al.summarize, “Positive emotions, such as happiness, pride, and hope, are the basic components of learning motivation (Pekrun, Goetz, Titz, & Perry, 2002a) and are closely related to students’ academic performance and can affect their subsequent learning behavior (Goetz, Frenzel, Hall, & Pekrun, 2008). Only when students’ emotions are positive can their ability to self-regulate be effectively translated into factors promoting academic achievement (Villavicencio & Bernardo, 2013a).”1 Similarly, Zull emphasizes, “Emotion and thought are physically entangled . . . . learning should feel good, and the student should become aware of those feelings.”2 We must cultivate and encourage such awareness in our classrooms via actions and interactions that celebrate and encourage growth—no matter how small.

Though we can’t negate the role of negative emotions3 like frustration or discomfort—both of which are inherent in the processes of cognitive change we call learning—educators know students are increasingly facing overwhelming anxiety in the classroom. Cognitively speaking, negative biases due to past experiences are typically stronger than positive biases, and our students arrive at our campuses primed to attach negative emotions to otherwise neutral learning activities. And this is true even though we are quite literally wired to find pleasure in learning. Inducing and satisfying curiosity lights up the brain regions associated with reward processing and memory,4 and “learning under the right conditions, with the right balance of familiar and new information to process, appears to release endorphins to the brain’s pleasure receptors.”5 Thus, we must ask ourselves if our pedagogy is properly aligned with how God designed our brains to work. Do we intentionally employ the positive emotions necessary for students to productively engage in our classes, including overcoming the negative emotions that often accompany learning (i.e., building self-efficacy).

Though affective scientists are split on whether love is an emotion or something more complex, most agree that love is a particularly compelling affect-connected force that powerfully shapes positive motivation and approach behavior. Fear, on the other hand, similarly and powerfully shapes negative motivation and avoidant behavior. Both cases are borne out of our neurobiological survival instincts! Interestingly, most of the literature on positive emotion in higher education does not reference love at all, though love and fear’s power to drive behavior is otherwise well-documented. Thus, we return to Scripture again to clarify the overlap between neuroscience and theology.

When Scripture references human emotions, all are not equal. Love and fear receive comparably unique emphases. For instance, in terms of positive emotions, love is consistently emphasized as paramount: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13: 13, NIV). Likewise, fear (and anxiety) seem to be the negative emotion(s) most consistently commanded against (Isa 41:10; Phil 4:6; 2 Tim 1:7; Deut 31:6; Matt 6:34). Finally, pursuit of positive emotions—especially love—seems to be the remedy to the perils of negative emotions—namely, fear: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 14:18-19, NIV). Said theologically, love represents the height of positive emotion in the Christian story. Not only does it motivate us as educators, but it provides a means by which we might consider overcoming the negative emotions—especially fear—that are so prevailing in our students’ educational experiences. Therefore, Christian educators must ask: Do we intentionally employ positive emotions in our classrooms? Even more importantly, is our pedagogy loving?


  1. Lu Li, Andrew Douglas Isherwood Gow, and Jiaxian Zhou, “The Role of Positive Emotions in Education: A Neuroscience Perspective,” Mind, Brain, and Education 14, no. 3 (2020): 220.
  2. James E. Zull, “The Art of Changing the Brain,” Educational Leadership 62, no. 1 (2004): 70.
  3. After all, even God sometimes utilizes negative emotions like grief or despair to prompt very positive transformation and growth in his people (e.g., every instance of genuine repentance).
  4. Kang, Min Jeong, Ming Hsu, Ian M. Krajbich, George Loewenstein, Samuel M. McClure, Joseph Tao-yi Wang, and Colin F. Camerer, “The Wick in the Candle of Learning: Epistemic Curiosity Activates Reward Circuitry and Enhances Memory,” Psychological Science20, no. 8 (2009): 963–973.
  5. Susan Hrach, Minding Bodies: How Physical Space, Sensation, and Movement Affect Learning, (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2021): 16.

Jessica Martin

Baylor University
Jessica Martin is currently earning her Ph.D. in Higher Education Studies & Leadership at Baylor University. She holds an M.A. in Higher Education & Student Affairs along with a B.S. in Medicinal & Biological Chemistry (and a minor in Theology).

Scott Gaier

Scott Gaier is the Director of Academic Enrichment and also Professor of Higher Education at Taylor University, Upland, IN.