Portugal, Captain Marvel, and learning: the role of emotions in academic achievement – spoiler alert

Image from: http://www.adventuresinpoortaste.com/2019/01/29/captain-marvel-has-proved-to-me-i-have-lost-faith-in-humanity/

One of the most beautiful countries I’ve been to is Portugal. This tiny land, at the far end of Europe, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean is both beautiful and full of history. It was there, in the city of Guimarães, that one of its oldest castles was built giving rise to the united country of Portugal through the hands of Henrique. Upon his death, Henrique’s son, Alfonso Henrique I, became Portugal’s first king. Another beautiful castle was built in the city of Sintra at the top of a hill. It is called the Moorish Castle as it was built by the Moors who fought the Christians during the period known as The Crusades. Portugal was also the country that had the most advanced navy in the Middle Ages. The new Crusades, the era of continental navigations, had in Portugal a pioneer. The Portuguese reached my country, Brazil, in 1500, conquered and colonized it for more than three centuries.

I am certainly not happy with the outcome of our colonization. I do understand, however, that those were different times and I don’t blame the current Portuguese for any of it. But Portugal didn’t just produce great castles and incredible navigators. One of Portugal’s greatest treasure was born in the 20th century and his name is António Damásio. This brilliant Portuguese neuroscientist first caught my attention when I heard about his book entitled Descartes’ Error. In it, Damásio talks about how it is impossible to separate body from mind and reasons from emotions. He demonstrates through the case studies of several patients and iconic subjects that emotions are at the heart of decision-making skills and that we cannot really “think rationally” as the great French philosopher and father of rationalism René Descartes claimed centuries before.

You can read about kids’ emotional intelligence and self-regulation.

“They haven’t got this sort of “lift” that comes from emotions”

António Damásio

In this amusing and short interview with Damásio, he explains that patients with some sort of brain damage that stops them from correctly accessing their emotions are unable to choose. They maintain their analytical and reasoning cognitive abilities, but they don’t have the “lift” that emotions give us so that we can make up our minds. Now, how many times have you heard that you need to be cold or think rationally or keep your emotions aside or stop being so emotional to make a decision? More than a few times, right? If you are a woman, I’d guess every single day of your life.

That’s what we see in Captain Marvel. Carol Danvers liked speed as a kid and wanted to become a pilot. She wanted to join a world that is predominantly male. And throughout the movie, we can see how many time she was told that she was too emotional or that she couldn’t do it because of emotions and that she’d never be a pilot or that she didn’t belong. And every time she fell, she stood up again and kept going. But the most interesting part of the movie was her struggle to fit in as a Kree, a superior race, on their planet. Her instructor and military superior, played by Jude Law, constantly tells her that her emotions are getting in her way. She’ll only be a great soldier when she gets rid of those emotions. And her power of shooting photonic discharges from her arms will get better when she’s able to meet her instructor’s demands.

“I have nothing to prove to you”

Carol Danvers, Captain Marvel

What she didn’t know was that a small device on her neck was actually controlling her powers and all the brainwashing that the Kree, especially her instructor, in the form of submission and suppression of her emotions were the reasons why she couldn’t achieve the full use of her powers, which, by the way, are greater than the characters we’ve already seen in the Marvel Universe in cinemas. Her struggle ends when she decides to embrace her humanity and give in to emotions through the memories of her old self, forgotten and wiped out by her alien abductors. The realization of who she is not only makes her infinitely more powerful but also gives her the confidence to refuse her instructor’s request to fight her without using their powers in my favorite scene where she blasts him and says that she has nothing to prove to him.

What about learning? Is it possible to learn without emotion? Not according to António Damásio and Francisco Mora, a Spanish neuroscientist who says that:

“The brain needs emotion to learn”

Francisco Mora

Indeed it does. As I’ve mentioned before in my online course and on my Instagram account @edcrocks, our brain’s reward system releases the neuromodulator dopamine to make us want to do things, to engage us. Without it, we’d be diagnosed with depression. We’d feel no will to do things, we’d have little to no motivation. I know I’m oversimplifying the entire process but I hope you get the gist. Some emotions can be toxic and make us make bad choices too.

Now, if everything I told you is true, what’s our next step? Discuss how to educate and teach emotional beings and help them be emotionally intelligent. This is what I’ll do in the next blog post. I’ll discuss the contributions of Howard Gardner, Daniel Goleman, and Paul Ekman. Strong emotional intelligence is linked with higher academic achievement, growth mindset, and financial success for instance.

For now, you can ask yourself:

  • Are we taking into consideration students’ emotions in the classroom?
  • Can we teach how to deal with emotions?
  • How many emotions are there?

Also, ask yourself this: why do we keep holding women to impossible standards? Why was it that Carol Danvers was told to be less emotional her entire life and when she embraced her humanity she could use her full potential? And, most importantly, why were there several people, chiefly men, criticizing how “serious” or “emotionless” the actress Brie Larson was when playing Captain Marvel? In my opinion, she did a great job portraying a woman who had soul and was constantly brought down by society telling her what to do, but, above all, portraying a human being, flawed and amazing. It seems to me that the little neck device of our women is our own society, it is us.

Imagine a world where both women, men, and LGBTQ+ were treated equally and encouraged to express their emotions in a healthy and intelligent way. A world where parents would tell their sons that crying is OK, and that feeling vulnerable is perfectly normal. Or tell their daughters that they don’t need to always be polite or suppress their wish to be pilots, fighters, engineers, whatever they choose to be. A world where body, mind, reason and emotion work harmoniously to make us achieve our potential. That’s a world António Damásio would probably approve. As a matter of fact, an old saying attributed to the Romans, but adopted by Portugal goes like:

To sail is necessary, to live is not

The journey of discovery (and self-discovery) is intrinsically connected with our emotions. I’ll leave you with the poem of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa and an invitation to do my Neuroscience and Learning course, which covers this and other interesting topics. Fernando Pessoa knew that suffering, struggling, and going through this myriad of feelings and emotions was necessary and worthwhile.

Oh salty sea, how much of your salt

Are tears of Portugal!

To get across you, how many mothers cried,

How many sons prayed in vain!

How many brides were never to marry

In order to make you ours, oh sea!

Was it worth it?  Everything is worthy

If the soul is not small.

Who wants to go beyond Bojador,(*)

Must go beyond sufferance.

God gave the sea peril and abyss,

Yet upon it He also mirrored the sky.

English translation by A. Baruffi, Literary Joint

*Cape Bojador

11 thoughts on “Portugal, Captain Marvel, and learning: the role of emotions in academic achievement – spoiler alert”

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  4. I will share this in my students groups to prove it is really necessary to open not only their minds to english, but also their hearts. I always tell them this: “open your minds and hearts to english”. I am really enjoying your articles, André. I am feeling inspired.

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