Impulsive behaviours hinder learning

This post explores the reasons why many people in their teens and early 20’s find it difficult to focus on their studies. We will examine some of the forces that are acting on the teenager’s brain and show how this is a normal and necessary process. We will then begin to examine strategies to manage impulsive behaviours.


Educational success depends on many factors. Intelligence is one factor that is seen by many to play a part (see previous post), although exactly how big a part is open to debate.

Also important is the ability to remain focused in a learning situation for extended periods of time. Science now shows us that during the teenage years, there are changes taking place in the brain that will have a large impact on a teenager’s ability to stay focused.

The incentive system

In the developing brain, there is an incentive processing system that drives young people to become more sensation seeking, more emotionally reactive and also more attentive to information coming from their social groups.

This system has been found to exist across cultures and even species, and may have evolved to encourage exploration of the environment in order to help prepare adolescents with the necessary skills for later independence.

While these attention-seeking, emotional actions are quite natural, they can lead a student to making irrational and impulsive decisions and behaving in disruptive ways. Typical behaviours could include skipping classes, being disruptive and not completing assessment tasks. These behaviours of course result in falling grades, conflict with teachers and administrators and possibly dropping out completely.

 The control system

In the adult brain however, there are cognitive systems used to control these types of impulses and to resist irrational behaviour. They are called the executive functions and they act to control harmful, irrational urges. These systems however, do not reach full maturity until the mid to late twenties (Geier & Luna 2009).

There is therefore a time period during which adolescents and students in their early to mid twenties will find it difficult to control their impulses and will be, at the same time, driven by nature to sensational, attention-seeking and emotional behaviour.


In the podcast below, cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore gives an informative introduction to the workings of the teenage mind. This talk was presented as a part of Ted Global in June 2012.

In the talk, Sarah identifies the pre-frontal cortex as the area of the brain largely responsible for:

  • Decision-making
  • Planning
  • Inhibiting inappropriate behaviour
  • Social interaction and
  • Self-awareness

She then demonstrates that this part of the brain is not fully developed in young people.

She then goes on to identify the limbic system as the part of the brain that handles emotion and reward processing, and she points out that it is hypersensitive in the adolescent brain.

These two areas of the brain will appear often in discussions on behaviours that can be strengthened to assist learning and life-development.

In summary

So we can see that there are sound biological reasons behind teenage impulsive behaviours and we can also see that these are a necessary part of the teenager later being in a position to make valuable contributions to their society.

On the negative side however, these behaviours may reduce educational outcomes and indeed are seen to lead to injuries (for example motor vehicle accidents resulting from speeding) higher mortality rates (including suicides) and substance abuse.

A call to action

If you are a parent, a teacher, or a teenager yourself, this understanding of what is happening inside the mind of a young person is the starting point towards moderating impulsive behaviours.

You can for example encourage the practice of identifying strong impulses when they first surface and then asking them to question whether these impulses are appropriate to the situation. Creating this space between the emotion and the reaction can be very effective in reducing inappropriate behaviours.

Coming soon

There are other ways to strengthen the executive functions and bring impulse behaviours under control and these will be covered in future posts.


How the brain regulates emotions

This post looks at how the brain functions to produce the chemicals involved in creating emotional responses. First we look at the two main systems involved in regulating emotional responses. Then we explore how our knowledge of these systems can increase our learning potential.

Brain structures that regulate emotions

There are two tightly connected brain systems that regulate the processing of our emotions. These are the limbic system and the cerebral cortex.

 Limbic System

Limbic system surrounded by cerebral cortex
Limbic system surrounded by cerebral cortex

The limbic system focuses primarily on our survival, emotional, and nurturing needs. It plays the first and possibly most important role in regulating our emotions. This system is located between the brain stem (lower centre of the brain) and the cerebral cortex (upper centre).

Sense messages that are picked up through our 5 senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) are sent directly to the brain stem and from there to the limbic system. Here, the message is interpreted as being emotionally positive, negative or neutral and an appropriate response with a connecting behaviour is identified. This assessment is based on past memories connected to the experience and on emotional states that are connected to these memories.

The limbic system then sends this message to the cerebral cortex with its emotional tone. If this tone is positive then a message with purpose, excitement and positive motivation is sent. This has the potential to lead to positive behaviour. If however the tone is negative then a negative behavioural response will result. Positive emotions include joy, happiness, trust and acceptance and these emotions will enhance learning. Negative emotions on the other hand will stifle learning.

The limbic system also plays an important role in memory processing. It influences how long-term memories are stored –either as unconscious or consciously recalled memories.

 Cerebral Cortex

The cerebral cortex, which is where much of our thinking and learning takes place, makes up approximately 85% of the brains mass and is folded around the limbic system. It is made up of neural networks that are able to interpret and respond very rapidly to sensory information received via the limbic system. These responses include making decisions and activating behaviours.

Within the cerebral cortex, the neocortex at the top is divided into left and right hemispheres in a line that can be drawn backwards from the top of our nose. In terms of language processing, the right hemisphere processes emotions connected to facial expressions, speech intonation and volume, while the left processes what is actually said.

The neocortex is further divided into sensory lobes and frontal lobes. Sensory lobes at the back store memories, while frontal lobes are responsible for critical thinking, problem solving, planning and behaviour rehearsals. The frontal lobes also play an important part in regulating our emotional responses. They can control potentially dangerous, illegal or immoral emotional responses to sensory input received from the limbic system.

It is important to note that message received from the limbic system can be strong enough to override rational, logical thought and this explains to some extent why we are often seen to be following our feelings in decision making.


This article on How Emotions Affect Learning by R. Sylwester has a more detailed description of the processes.

Extra information was also gleamed from this article titled The Connection Between Emotion and Learning by C. Lawson

Key points & significance:

From understanding how emotions are processed we can see quite clearly the strong connection between emotions, behaviour and learning. We can see for example that emotions connected to our past learning experiences affect our present learning potential. We can also see that our present emotional state will affect our ability to learn what is in front of us right now.

We can also see that sometimes we will have an emotional response to a situation, based on a memory or experience that is no longer rational or helpful in our current situation.  For example the negative emotion (shame) associated with a past learning-related failure may lead to anxiety in the present learning context making learning more difficult.

Our new awareness of the processes involved can be used to help us to identify what is taking place within our minds. The early identification of emotions generated from within the limbic system may allow us to choose more appropriate behavioural responses using the rational processes of the frontal cortex.

Where to from here?

This development of emotional awareness will be the topic of a future post.