The Committee in Our Heads, Part II: The Power of the Management and Emotional Subcommittees

This is the second in a five-part “Brain Talk” series that explores how and why the inner-working components of the brain work together.

Committee members that combine to accomplish domain-specific tasks like reading and arithmetic interact with other cognitive subcommittees that generally support learning. The executive function subcommittee, for instance, helps manage the planning and execution of committee work, from formulating an attack plan to evaluating results. It supports the kind of learning behaviors we like to see no matter what content and skills are being mastered: focus, attention, metacognition, perseverance, challenge-seeking, and so on.

The executive function subcommittee supports initial planning. For instance, How should I attack this reading or math task? What do I do first? What has worked for me in the past? What are the steps toward mastery?

This subcommittee also monitors how well the plan is working. Did my mind wander while I was reading those last two pages?  I don’t remember a thing. Maybe I should re-read. I solved that math problem very quickly. I should jump to something more challenging. I’m stumped. Where can I get some help?

The subcommittee members reflect the learning process. Why did that work so well? What should I do differently next time? Let me test myself. That’s a good strategy to see that I really understand it.

The executive function subcommittee has to coordinate with the other subcommittees because even though these learning behaviors seem general, the specific next steps are often grounded in the domain. Knowing what to do next when you’re stuck on a word problem, for example, is not the same as when you’re stuck trying to write a persuasive essay.

One final subcommittee, the emotional subcommittee, is critical to this process. Its members sit in the amygdala and regulate learners’ affective states. A recent NY Times piece highlighted the importance of emotions to learning. Our emotions, for instance, tell us what’s important, engaging us in learning tasks. On the other hand, when these affective subcommittee members panic, everything can fall apart, even when the other subcommittees know and can do their jobs. Will I be embarrassed if I falter? Do I care about this content? I’ve failed so many times at this, how can I possibly succeed this time? Do I have a fixed or growth mindset about my abilities?

Let me illustrate the power of this emotional subcommittee with a personal example. Several years ago I got the opportunity to throw out a first pitch at a Boston Red Sox game. Although this was an exciting opportunity, it was also terrifying. As my friend reminded me, it’s just playing catch. True, but it was playing catch with one throw in front of 38,000 people, displayed on the huge screen in center field.  My emotional subcommittee started thinking about the consequences of bouncing the ball on the way to the catcher or throwing it into the dugout as I’d seen others do on YouTube videos. The sense of dread in my brain manifested itself physically as my throat went dry, my underarms and palms got wet, and my knees became weak. I did manage a slow, looping toss that eventually hit the catcher’s glove on the fly. Imagine what that emotional strain would have done to a task with which I didn’t already have some competence?

The executive function and emotional subcommittees are often characterized as “noncognitive” characteristics or skills. Nobody likes the “noncognitive” label because, well, everything is cognitive, but most everybody agrees these skills are critical to learning.

It’s only when all the subcommittees are working together that deep learning happens. Students are engaged. They feel safe and believe they have the capability to learn. They have the domain resources to tackle the task and the executive function wherewithal to monitor their progress and make adjustments as needed. Committee work may be complicated, but when it clicks, it’s incredibly satisfying.