The role of emotion in memory and learning.

Within Outdoor Experiential Learning we are in the ‘business’ of emotion. It is critical that people have emotional experiences, there would be no ‘stretch zone’ if they didn’t, emotion promotes memory and the recollection of events and their potential meaning.

Emotions and feelings an important distinction;

Very broadly put emotion is the resultant arousal based on ‘unconscious’ processing of stimulus information, e.g. spiders, snakes, angry faces, Christmas adverts in August, etc. Whereas feelings can be described as the conscious ‘felt’ results of emotional arousal, i.e. how we might describe the sensations of an emotional response to something, i.e. happy, sad, frightened, angry, disgusted, excited, etc.

We’re emotional beings

The brain is wired to be efficient, it doesn’t seem to really want to change things it already knows about doing, for example; spiders (stimulus) – are horrible (organism) – jump up on the sofa (response),  most of which we do unconsciously (spiders = jump).


Emotions or being emotional seems to get a bad press broadly speaking; being out of control, ruled by emotion, people that ‘wear their heart on their sleeves’, bleeding hearts and artist, etc. ‘We’ are encouraged to manage our emotions, to achieve a kind of equilibria, to observe events and not be affected by them. However, there is a lot to get emotional about, the arts rely on us being emotional beings, marketers thrive on how we respond emotionally to their adverts, and we connect with each other first and foremost at an emotional level, where else do you get that ‘gut feeling’ from?

Emotions help us to remember events, sometimes extremely vividly, this physiological and psychological process aids us in cataloguing objects and situations as desirable or to be avoided. Classically, ‘flight or fight’ is indicative of what emotions are and how they might drive our behaviour, however what is scary or exciting for one person could be very different for another, therefore the way we learn to ‘catalogue’ our experiences individually appears to be of critical importance, particularly in the earlier years of our lives.

The important bit – our stories about ourselves

It is seems necessary to think things through (reflect if you will) if we want to learn and modify our perceptions and behaviours. We are emotional beings and this powerful, very old, mechanism is a fundamental driver in our psychological lives, maximum effort is required if we want things to change.

It is an evolutionary adaptation to attempt to predict what is about to happen.  Sensory experiences and corresponding emotions are part of our biological mechanism. We also have associated feelings and remember these experiences as ‘valuable’. We encode this information for future use and recall, often vividly, and therefore influences how we construct our mental autobiographies of ourselves, i.e. who we think we are and what we think we can or can’t, should or shouldn’t do.

So how does this fit in our outdoor learning world

In the field of Outdoor Experiential Learning ‘we’ propound that getting outside your comfort zone and having challenging and well supported experiences, is good for us.

It is really ok for people to be scared, cry, shout ‘no way!’, etc, this is their experience, it belongs to them and maybe we shouldn’t attempt to dampen it down or rationalize it for them. Perhaps it’s less about knowing what emotions we have for different situations and events and more about creating environments where people can experience emotions and feelings freely and fully.  Places where they can explore, discuss, define and/or redefine the stories people hold about themselves.  This is particularly the case when faced with difficult/stretching activities and events, however this takes effort…and time.


Experiential learning is a ‘felt’ phenomenon in that it is an ultimately subjective and individualized experience, emotions appear to play a significant role in colouring these experiences and in turn manifest in the stories we tell ourselves, i.e. what we learn about the world and our place within it. What, as learning and development professionals, are the skills and abilities that we need in providing opportunities for others to be openly emotional? To ‘let it all hang out’ in a safe and well supported environment, to embrace and integrate emotion and feeling into our thinking about how things are, not to disassociate from emotions or treat them as interference or unconstructive, but to see all emotion as a fundamental element to learning.

Disney’s Inside Out:

Blog written by Sean Snow; Development Trainer at Lindley Educational Trust.

Find me on LinkedIn; Sean Snow MBPSs