Emotion and cognitive self-control in college students seeking internships

April 4, 2024 at 11:02 AM
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Emotion and cognitive self-control in college students seeking internships

By Rachel Cassel UA’24 and Jim Stellar

In a blog series on cognitive-emotional integration and experiential education, Rachel found this 2004 study which opens with the following quote:

“Emotion is easily typecast as the nemesis of self-control. However, recent advances suggest a more nuanced view in which emotion and cognitive control are integrated, at times working in harmony. Emotional states can enhance high-level cognition and can modulate the neural mechanisms that support cognitive control.”

In our last blog post, we wrote about the amygdala, anxiety, and decision. We made the argument that sometimes a little anxiety makes one do a better job on an internship, and because of that higher productivity, it is more useful to one’s career development. Here we are exploring something even more basic. That is whether the emotion (perhaps negative like anxiety) can enhance thinking. We also believe that the enthusiasm one has for a field (a positive emotion) can lead to harder work over a longer duration. Here the quote might be something like

“If you love what you do you never work a day in your life.”

The question we have now is are you also smarter at what you do as well as working harder and happier? Executive Function, from the frontal cortex, is what we want to explore in this blog. It gives you the above quote and we get that point from a TED talk by A. Diamond. Diamond claims that executive functions are impacted by stress; when we are stressed, we can’t think or function as efficiently as when we are relaxed. We may have more difficulty starting tasks, keeping our attention focused, or be unable to come up with an organized plan as to how to complete all of our responsibilities that day. Executive function deficits harm performance and lead to frustration. On the other hand, a positive emotional state can help our prefrontal cortex work to the best of its abilities.

Cognition and emotion are typically thought of as completely separate processes. Many believe that ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’ should not mix because our brains have developed that way. However, recent research shows there is more interaction between the areas that house our emotions and our cognition than we thought, leading to the idea of “cognitive emotion integration”. Our last blog focused on how cognitive emotion integration impacts decision making in an internship. In this section, I (RC) want to focus on the neurological evidence of a connection between cognition and emotionality. Studies have found neuroanatomical links between areas in the prefrontal cortex and in the subcortical limbic structures, the areas which respectively house the cognitive and emotional areas of our brains. When our brains experience negative emotionality, specific patterns of activation are recorded in the prefrontal cortex. When experiencing other emotional states, the pattern of activity in the prefrontal cortex is distinctly different. This is physiological evidence of a connection between our emotion processing and our cognition. This leads into our next point, what implication does this connectionist model have on executive function and performance?

As we described above, our working hypothesis was: anxiety enhances performance and helps to direct decisions regarding one’s career. In this blog, we wanted to explore the effects of anxiety on executive function and motivation. In an internship, executive function skills are crucial. They allow the intern to focus on the task at hand, keep track of several different responsibilities, and restrict impulses to make better decisions on the job. One study we found explored whether anxiety had a negative effect on executive functioning. They found that not all negative affective states caused a decrease in performance on executive function measures, but the group assigned to the anxiety induced group did in fact show deficits in working memory, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility. These findings slightly contradict our line of reasoning for our first blog but don’t undermine it completely. Even if executive function decreases, performance in an internship doesn’t automatically suffer. The intern may be pushed to put even more effort into actively listening to supervisors, organizing their responsibilities, and executing tasks. A simple awareness of one’s executive function deficits is enough to focus their attention and prompt the individual to work harder at these skills. Executive function skills may also be improved over time; if the individual continues to work hard at their internship, this repeated practice can help the intern overcome deficits caused by an anxious state. As performance increases, anxiety will decrease, and the executive function deficits will be reduced. Persevering through an uncomfortable situation and an initial learning curve leads to a cycle of better performance and better feelings about the internship, all of which is helpful for the cognitive-emotion integration we seek to explore.

Another process that is relevant during an internship is self-regulation, or the ability to monitor and control one’s emotions and behaviors. This is important during experiential education because the intern may become confused or frustrated, and self-regulation skills allow the individual to work through that situation without becoming overwhelmed and giving up. Without self-regulation skills, the cognitive aspects of the internship may never be processed as the individual’s emotions would often be heightened. Practicing self-regulation is crucial for receiving the maximum benefit from the internship. In our next blog, we want to explore the development of self-regulation from two angles. One is the intern’s self-regulation and the other is how to support self-regulation in the children I (RC) worked with throughout my internship. This contrast and similarity is the subject of our next blog.

Broken heart syndrome – an example of cognitive-emotional integration and vagus nerve function

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