ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2017, Vol. 49 ›› Issue (11): 1414-1427.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2017.01414

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 Bitterness followed by happiness: A fMRI study on English lovers

 LIU Lulu1; LU Jiamei2; HE Mei3; ZHOU Jianshe4; XIAO Jing1; LUO Jing1,4   

  1.  (1 Beijing Key Laboratory of “Learning & Cognition”; College of Psychology, Capital Normal University, Beijing 100048, China) (2 Education College, Shanghai Normal University, Shanghai 200234, China) (3 School of Labor and Human Resources, Renmin University of China, Beijing 100872, China) (4 Beijing Advanced Innovation Center for Imaging Technology, Capital Normal University, Beijing 100048, China)
  • Received:2016-11-28 Published:2017-11-26 Online:2017-09-25
  • Contact: LUO Jing, E-mail:; XIAO Jing, E-mail:;
  • Supported by:

Abstract:  Academic emotions play important roles in academic motivation and achievement. However, most of the studies on academic emotions focused on negative ones such as test anxiety, the positive academic emotions such as pride, enjoyment, and hope are far less investigated, let alone the brain basis underlying them. In this study, we explored the neural correlates of positive academic emotions by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). College students who have high positive academic emotions for learning English (English lovers) were selected as participants. They were required to remember and recognize English or Chinese materials while their brain activation were recorded. Through comparing the neural correlates involved in processing the Chinese and English materials in different stages, which critically included the learning and testing stages, the mental preparation stage before learning and testing, and the feedback of memory performance stage, we can identify the cognitive brain processes, especially the emotional and motivational ones, characterized English lovers. English lovers were selected by English Happy-Learning Questionnaire (EHQ), together with Maslach Burnout Inventory-General Survey (MBI-GS), Self-Rating Anxiety Scale (SAS), and Self-Rating Depression Scale (SDS) to eliminate possible confounders. Nineteen college students (nine males and ten females) who meet the criterion of the study participated in this experiment. Unfamiliar city-state name pairs, which could be presented in English (e.g., Conakry-Guinea) or in Chinese (e.g., 阿塔富-托克劳), were used as materials. Participants were instructed to remember 144 city-state name pairs (72 for each language), and then they were given the memory (recognition) test. We focused not only on the brain activation involved in memorizing and recognizing English/Chinese materials, but also on those involved in the mental preparation for learning and testing, and that in getting positive or negative feedbacks in memory performance. Our results revealed two major points: (1) In the learning stage, more anterior insula activation were found when the “English lovers” were making mental preparation for learning English relative to Chinese, and this difference in insular activation were found to be positively correlated with the scores of EHQ and that of performance in memory test, implying “English lovers” took more pain and mobilized more cognitive effort in making preparation for learning English. (2) In the retrieval and feedback stage, more activation in the regions for mental reward (midbrain and substantia nigra) and emotional arousal (amygdala) were found to be associated with the receiving of positive feedback for English than for Chinese, whereas more activation in the pain and disgust region (insula) were associated with the receiving of negative feedback for English than for Chinese, both kinds of brain activation differences were positively correlated with the scores of EHQ, implying the success or failure in learning English can have more emotional and motivational implications than its experimental equivalents in Chinese. Taken together, the present study indicated that the emotional, motivational, and cognitive brain processes of the positive academic emotions for learning English mainly embodied in the stages for making mental preparation for learning or testing and for processing feedback on memory performance, but not in the actual learning and testing processes. To be fond of learning may not mean a kind of pure enjoyment, rather it is something that started with bitterness and ended with sweetness.

Key words: academic feeling, positive academic emotions, English, fMRI, insula, midbrain

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