6 Ways of Using Positive Emotions to Optimize Learning

people happy at work


Soft skills and emotional IQ have become buzzwords in the corporate environment. 

Associate Professor Mandy O’Neill from George Mason University School of Business reports1 that studies have shown that a culture of positive emotions and healthy relationships in the workplace improves performance in:

  • Engagement
  • Teamwork
  •  Workplace satisfaction
  • Customer service
  • Innovation
  • Health and safety
  • Decision making
  • Attitudes
  • Corporate strategy
  • An organization’s financial performance

When it comes to training, neuroscience shows that positive emotions are also vital “ingredients” for learning.

Brain imaging studies report that when teachers use strategies to reduce stress and build a positive emotional environment when educating, students gain emotional resilience and learn more efficiently. This tutelage style achieves higher levels of cognition.2

In adult learning, emotions can also either hinder or promote learning.3

If people are anxious, uncomfortable, or fearful, they do not learn.4

Neuro-agility is a term coined by a South African neuroscientist, Dr Andre Vermeulen. It refers to the process of optimizing all the brain-based elements that impact the ease, speed and flexibility with which people learn, think and process information.5

When individuals, teams or organizations are neuro-agile, they have the flexibility to learn new skills, attitudes and behaviors fast. They can also unlearn old behavior patterns quickly. So what improves neuro-agility?

According to Dr Vermeulen:

“The ease and speed of learning, thinking and processing information is primarily influenced by the electrochemical functioning of the brain. To ensure we produce the right fuel for us to be neuro-agile, we need to produce continuous positive thoughts, growth mind-sets and constructive emotions. 

Continuous good feelings produce good fuel for the brain and body. When these neurotransmitters become the dominating fuel that run our brain and body, the ideal neurophysiological environment is created to optimize the ease and speed of electrochemical transmission for thinking, learning, innovation, problem solving, decision making and creativity.”6

In plain English, this means that we need the good chemicals, created by positive emotions for learning to happen at its best.

Research using neuroimaging studies and measurement of brain chemical transmitters shows that learners' comfort level can influence information transmission and storage in the brain.

When students are engaged and motivated and feel minimal stress, information flows freely through the affective filter in the amygdala and they achieve higher levels of cognition, make connections, and experience ‘aha’ moments.”8

But the converse is also true. When learners are stressed information is blocked from entering the brain's areas of higher cognitive memory consolidation and storage. There is also clinical evidence that stress, boredom, confusion, low motivation, and anxiety and any combination of these emotions can interfere with learning. 9

Neurologist, Dr Judy Willis reports that numerous studies confirm that learning is optimal when it is enjoyable and relevant to learners’ lives, interests and experiences.  Students retain what they learn when they experience a strong positive emotion.10

When learning is enjoyable the brain releases dopamine. This is a neurotransmitter that stimulates the memory centers and promotes the release of acetylcholine. This increases focused attention.11

Dopamine enables learners not only to see rewards but to take action to move toward them. It’s what keeps individuals ‘addicted’ to pleasurable activities. In teaching, we’d call it 'focused' and ‘engaged’!

Instructional designers and trainers can use this science to enhance neuro-agility. You can create instructing environments where stress is minimal. You can use pleasure and positive emotions to maximize learning.

Here’s how:

1. Make Training Relevant

You need to ensure that trainees understand why they are learning a skill or about a topic and how it relates to their work. Secondly, you need to ensure that you are only presenting information that is new and necessary for them to learn. Don’t bore them with content that they already know. Be extremely selective.

2. Use Humor to Enhance Learning

Research shows that humor has an energizing effect.12 The brain processes humorous information into our memory system faster than non-humorous information. Humorous content holds learners’ attention more intensely, promotes memory retention and counteracts mental exhaustion or intensity created by serious subject-matter. Use appropriate humor intermittently for a positive effect.

3. Allow Frequent Breaks

Any pleasurable activity used to give learners a break, gives the neurotransmitters of the brain a chance to ‘cool down’ and re-energize. This reduces stress and promotes a positive response in learners. This can be an actual break, or just a change in activity that lightens the cognitive load.

4. Give Positive Feedback

Give positive reinforcement and positive feedback frequently. Reward the reward centers of the brain to enhance the learning processes. Get the dopamine flowing!

5. Allow Critical Thinking and Self-discovery

When learners are challenged to figure things out for themselves, dopamine is released and memory retention increases. They are more able to learn from their mistakes, more motivated to persevere and to try again. When presented with choices, learner motivation increases, and stress diminishes. Learning challenges must be neither too challenging as to cause stress, nor too easy so that they are boring.

6. Use Simulations and Scenario-Based eLearning For Emotionally Safe Training

Simulation eLearning and scenario-based learning opportunities are ideal for self-discovery as learners can experience the consequences of various choices and learn from them in a safe environment. Simulators are not only physically safe, but emotionally safe.

  • Fear of failure, embarrassment or shame is reduced and so stress is diminished. 
  • Mistakes and learning from them is acceptable and even required!
  • Learners can receive instant feedback and positive reinforcement.
  • Learning can be self-paced to prevent overloading neurotransmitters.

If you also include humor, rewards and you offer relevant content that promotes positive emotions, your learners will improve their neuro-agility and learning will be optimal. 

See how easy it is to convert your existing content into engaging, interactive training using SimTutor's authoring tool or contact us to find a SimTutor solution for your organization.


  1. Prof Mandy, O’Neill, Do You Have An Emotional Culture Strategy? Podcast, https://www.michellemcquaid.com/podcast/emotional-culture-strategy-podcast-mandy-oneill/
  2. Judy Willis, The Neuroscience of Joyful Learning, Engaging the Whole Child (online only) Summer 2007 | Volume 64, http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/summer07/vol64/num09/abstract.aspx#The_Neuroscience_of_Joyful_Education
  3. Dirkx, J. (2001). The power of feelings: Emotion, imagination, and the construction of meaning in adult learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 89, 63-72.
  4.  Perry, B. D. (2006). Fear and learning: Trauma related factors in adult learning. New 113 Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 110, 21-27
  5. Dr Andre Vermeulen, Neuro-Link, https://neurolink.company/cms/neuro-link-blog/infographic-neuro-agility/
  6. Dr Andre Vermeulen, A Neuroscience Perspective On Processing Information, Learning & Thinking With Ease & Speed, 29 March 2019 https://neurolink.company/cms/neuro-link-blog/a-neuroscience-perspective-on-processing-information-learning-thinking-with-ease-speed/#
  7. Thanos, P. K., Katana, J. M., Ashby, C. R., Michaelides, M., Gardner, E. L., Heidbreder, C. A., et al. (1999). The selective dopamine D3 receptor antagonist SB-277011-A attenuates ethanol consumption in ethanol preferring (P) and non-preferring (NP) rats. Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior, 81(1), 190–197.
  8. Kohn, A. (2004). Feel-bad education. Education Week, 24(3), 44–45
  9. Christianson, S.A. (1992). Emotional stress and eyewitness memory: A critical review. Psychological Bulletin, 112(2), 284–309
  10. Willis, j. The Neuroscience of Joyful Learning, Engaging the Whole Child (online only) Summer 2007 | Volume 64
  11. Ibid
  12. Cheng, D & Wang, L. 2015, 'Examining the energizing effects of humor: The influence of humor on persistence behavior', Journal of Business and Psychology vol. 30, no. 4, pp. 759-772.


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