Emotional Long Division

How 3rd grade taught me the neuroscience of emotion regulation

Posted Jul 31, 2014

            In third grade I learned an invaluable lesson and it had nothing to do with California history or marine biology. I mean, I loved learning about the original 49ers and writing a report on sea otters, but I can’t say that they had a huge effect on my brain development. No, the lesson came from long division, even though I never learned how to do it.

           I’d always liked school, and was good at it. I was even assigned to the 4th grade classroom next door for math. But about halfway through the year we came to the topic of long division, and it didn’t make any sense to me. You put one number under its little gazebo, and the other number next to it. And then you divide it into the first part, and you do some subtraction to find a remainder and stick that below, and you cross out numbers here and there and you keep doing that on down the page. It just seemed arbitrary. Not to mention unnecessary, given the existence of calculators.

            I have a strong memory of doing my homework one night at the dinner table trying to make my way through the tons of practice problems. The first few problems did not go very smoothly, even though my mom was helping. I started getting upset. And then I got to one I just couldn’t get through. I don’t remember the exact problem – maybe I had to divide 256 by 17 or some such monstrosity. I just remember bursting into tears and running into the other room to sit on the couch. And my mom came to comfort me. And she said, “I think you’re just feeling overwhelmed.”

            It’s the first time I remember ever hearing that word applied to me. It made me look into myself, and actually notice how I was feeling. It was also the first time I recognized and named my feeling of being overwhelmed. I didn’t know it at the time, but that sort of introspection is essential to appropriate development of the prefrontal cortex and regulation of the emotional limbic system.

            Emotional self-examination relies largely on the medial prefrontal cortex (where the two hemispheres of your brain press up against each other in front), and is the first step to learning to manage your emotions. These emotional skills are part of emotional intelligence and are essential to becoming a successful adult. Interestingly, these skills are largely learned from your parents – the ability to recognize that while your emotions color reality, they do not define reality. Your internal emotional state is something that can be examined, scrutinized, negotiated.

            Amazingly, I never learned long division. I still got through math, and even a PhD in neuroscience, but I never learned long division. What I did learn is a more important lesson, of introspection and emotional control, and that is something that can’t be replaced by a calculator.

If you liked this article then check out my book - The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time

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About the Author

Alex Korb, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at UCLA, is the author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time.

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