How Your State of Mind Affects Your Learning

5 March 2021 By Ted Morley
The ability of a crewmember to learn new skills is critical, not only to perform their current job, but also to develop the skills necessary for their next...

Capt. Ted Morley was raised aboard a schooner and has made a career working on board vessels ranging from superyachts to super tankers. During his tenure at sea, he worked his way up from seaman to master. He currently holds a USCG Master’s License, Unlimited Tonnage as well as several foreign certificates. Capt. Morley actively participates in maritime advisory committees in the U.S. as well as overseas and is involved in regulatory policy review in the U.S.. 

The ability of a crewmember to learn new skills is critical, not only to perform their current job, but also to develop the skills necessary for their next...

Learning is defined as a permanent change in behavior, knowledge, or ability — to learn, you must remember, process, and retrieve the new information. Some of the most common concerns we hear involve fear over not being able to learn a subject to obtain certification. There has been extensive research done on the synchronization of brain activity and emotions to show the real effects your state of mind has on ability to learn. 

Students who are stressed out or have an emotional response are triggering the amygdala portion of their brain, which is responsible for anxiety and fear. It’s what triggers the “fight or flight” response during danger. The problem with triggering the amygdala is that when it becomes overstimulated, it activates the release of epinephrine and cortisol, so-called stress hormones. This state can physically prevent new information from being processed or stored successfully in the brain. This is especially true in pedantic and tedious studies that don’t engage the student or seem relatable to them. 

When we like something, we tend to learn it faster and easier. It is a medical fact that when someone feels safe, comfortable, and interested, their stress hormones are low and the “feel good” hormones are higher. Self-confidence and trust help create this environment. Learning is a conscious act but can be critically affected by the subconscious, especially in areas of language and mathematics. 

Now, the use of stressors to create “emotional learning” also has value, as it can help reinforce or connect a specific response with a specific threat. That’s also why “real world” training in firefighting, damage control, medical, and security are so important. But only after the core information has been learned in a safe environment. 

Why do we care? Well, our industry is increasingly complex and faced with increasingly complex regulations. And it will likely only get more complicated as new systems, vessel designs, environmental concerns, and regulatory matters come online. 

For those trainers, be aware that not all your students will learn at the same pace or with the same interest. It is our job to convey the information in a manner that will inspire an enthusiastic response about the subject. Help create an atmosphere of joyful discovery and learning — an environment that allows those feel-good hormones like dopamine to flow — and the information will easily pass through the amygdala filters and become part of our memory. 

So, don’t let your amygdala hijack your learning experience! Relax and enjoy the learning process — the information will be easier to process and faster to master.  

This column originally ran in the June 2020 issue of Dockwalk.


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