Human symbolic communication allows for learning that is devoid of the need to act. Thus, humans can learn by associating cognitive concepts together, by creating new mental representations of concepts, and by creating cognitive maps of spatial arrangements. These conceptualizations do not need to be reinforced to be learned, although reinforcement can make learning occur more quickly.
Declarative conceptual information is often described as being linked into associative neural networks of related concepts. Thus, the concept of bird is probably closely related to the concept of sparrow, but less closely related to the concept of ostrich, and even less to the concept of dinosaur. As we learn, however, that birds are the modern descendants of dinosaurs, we can reorganize our associations between different concepts. Although neural networks are generally assumed to be semantic in nature, concepts can also be linked with feelings related to those concepts.
Emotional learning and memory is related to cognitive learning and memory, albeit a distinct form (Eichenbaum, 2008). The brain has circuits, such as in the amygdala, designed specifically to attend to the emotional aspects of situations. These brain circuits support our feelings and expressions of emotions, as well as our learning about the emotional aspects of experiences; they also can change what is learned. There are three major outputs of the amygdala. In response to seeing something (a violent image, for example), one neural response pathway travels to the cerebral cortex to support our conscious awareness of our feelings.
A second pathway travels to other memory systems (e.g., in the striatum and hippocampus), which can influence attention and therefore what is learned. A third pathway controls our bodily responses, such as hormone release and the autonomic nervous system (e.g., the “fight or flight” response). One important implication is that emotion plays an important role in attention and motivation to attend. Specifically, it moderates attention and memories, and facilitates remembering emotional aspects of experiences and concepts.
Also, when we experience an emotional response (especially when the hormones epinephrine and cortisol are released), memory is enhanced. For example, in a study where participants viewed either emotionally arousing or emotionally neutral film clips, the amygdala and related areas were more active during the arousing film clips, and the memory for those clips was better three weeks later than for the neutral film clips (Cahill et al., 1996). Memory performance was significantly related to the amount of amygdala activation for the emotionally arousing film clips, but not for the neutral film clips.