How do emotions affect the way we learn

  • June 4, 2020
How do emotions affect the way we learn

Emily Towner's research focused on the role emotions play in how we learn, particularly in adolescence.

I want to know how we might be able to intervene in adolescence to mitigate the effects of early stress.

Emily Towner

Emily Towner left home at 16 to move to New York. Working as a model, she travelled the world and used her free time to pursue her studies, becoming fascinated by psychology and how our emotions affect how we learn.

Emily herself has always loved learning, but felt she was discouraged from fulfilling her intellectual curiosity at school. Her PhD, to be conducted under the supervision of Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, will explore the mechanisms by which adolescents learn from their environment and how early life stress affects the development of these mechanisms.

She says: “People used to think that the brain is fully developed in adolescents, but we now know that it continues to develop and that this is a sensitive period for emotional and learning mechanisms. It’s a time when you are most likely to be diagnosed with mental health issues and you are learning everything from your environment. I want to know how we might be able to intervene in adolescence to mitigate the effects of early stress.”

From Georgie to New York

Emily was born in New York, but moved to a small town in Georgia where she lived until she was 16. She loved school from day one, but felt that where she lived being academic was not encouraged. As she already knew how to read before starting school, her parents wanted her to skip a year, but they were told that this wasn’t possible. At middle school, despite her love for learning, she was encouraged to take easier classes and when she started high school she was pushed towards biology rather than physical science because that meant taking advanced physics. “It felt as if you were being a rebel if you liked academic things,” she says.

Emily was encouraged to apply to a local university, but she didn’t know what she wanted to do. One thing she was clear about was that she wanted to leave Georgia and move somewhere bigger. So, at just 16, having signed up with a modelling agency through her agent, she moved to New York and continued her studies at an online high school. “I was always headstrong and independent,” she says.

Her mum came with her for the first weeks as she settled into an apartment in New York with a person she knew from high school, but by 17 she had her own apartment and was working as a model and travelling. She says modelling opened the world up to her. She lived in London and did shoots in the French Alps and other locations.  As she has a lot of free time, she was able to devote herself to her online studies. As the years passed, she started gradually phasing out her modelling work and increasing her focus on her studies, but she continued to do modelling work during her undergraduate years.

Learning and memory

Emily did her bachelor’s degree in communications and media at the City University of New York, including internships at media companies. She pursued post-bacc studies at Columbia in psychology, and became fascinated by the subject. So much so that she started doing research in Dr Janet Metcalfe’s laboratory on cognitive-focused learning and memory. The project she worked on was on the hypercorrection effect. According to this, when someone thinks they are right about something and is then corrected their likelihood of remembering the information will be higher than someone who was initially unsure about the answer.

The experience made Emily more interested in learning research and how human emotions affect it. She gives the example of how a person might be more likely to learn how to do a maths problem if, instead of being shown how to do it, they are allowed to make errors and figure it out for themselves first. “I’m interested in how we learn from errors and the role emotion plays in learning,” she says. That includes how a person’s mental state might influence how they learn.

In 2018, Emily started her master’s at UCLA, working with Dr Jennifer Silvers, and focused on the impact of early exposure to stress and later learning, for instance, how stress in early childhood plays out later in adolescence and in responses to rewards or to negativity. “My interest is in how even things you may not remember from your early years, such as being in institutional care, can affect the brain’s development throughout life, including your mental health,” says Emily.

In the last months up until lockdown Emily has been working as a lab manager with Dr Bridget Callaghan at UCLA on a three-year longitudinal study looking at children who have been adopted and placed into foster care and how the way we learn about emotions affects memory. Currently, due to lockdown, she is working on mental health and isolation.

Emily Towner

Emily Towner

  • Scholar
  • United States
  • 2020 PhD Psychology
  • St John's College

As a Gates Cambridge scholar I hope to make a difference in the lives of children and adolescents who have experienced early-life adversity. At the age of 16, I moved from a small town in Georgia to New York City. Living in New York opened my eyes to the diversity of human experience and made me realise that I could make a meaningful difference through education, commitment, and collaboration. Later, while studying at Columbia University, I became fascinated by the science of psychology. I began working with children and adolescents exposed to trauma, which sparked my passion for understanding the ways in which adversity in early life affects mental health outcomes. In my doctoral research at Cambridge, I aim to investigate the mechanisms by which adolescents learn from their environment, and how early life stress affects the development of these mechanisms. In addition, I am interested in how individual differences in these learning mechanisms relate to mental health across the lifespan. By better understanding how adolescents learn, we will be better able to develop interventions to improve the education and mental health of adolescents and children around the world.

Previous Education

University of California Los Angeles Social Science 2019
Columbia University Psychology 2018

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