Which Emotions Facilitate Cognitive Performance?

Written by:

I recently had to identify the sharpest person on a team. I needed to choose a software designer, from a group of four, who would do the best job designing a solution to an extremely complex problem. I work with these designers on a regular basis, and I know they’re all super-smart and experienced, but I needed the one who was performing at their best. Their emotional disposition gave me a big clue.

First there was Kyle who always seems to be the happiest and most upbeat. He’s a Tony Robbins fan and is in the habit of pumping his arm like he’s throwing a baseball, while saying “yes, yes, yes!” He likes to be in a state of exhilarated excitement. Unfortunately, research shows that this kind of emotion promotes volatility and is not conducive to optimal cognition and creativity. I couldn’t choose Kyle.

Then there was Sharon who seems to be devoid of emotion of any kind. She’s always serene and calm no matter what’s going on. But quite honestly, I feel sleepy when I’m around her for any length of time. Her state of arousal simply isn’t elevated enough to spark high levels of cognitive performance, so she was not the one.

Marv, on the other hand, is always on fire. He runs hot. He gets angry and frustrated and red in the face anytime things aren’t just right, such as when a teammate misses a deadline, a client changes his mind mid-stream, or a system doesn’t function as expected. His pre-disposition to negative emotions presents a roadblock to his cognitive performance, so it couldn’t be him.

And finally there was Jake. He’s generally positive and upbeat, he regularly expresses appreciation, and he has lots of compassion for others. When you talk to him, he seems to genuinely care about your well-being. He operates from the heart. It’s this disposition that fosters the highest cognitive performance, and he was the one I picked.

Jake is the most emotionally coherent, which means that he’s often in a physiological and psychological state that facilitates the highest cognitive and creative abilities. Emotional coherence is characterized by: 1) positive rather than negative emotions, 2) emotions that are centered in the heart, and 3) an emotional state that is not too relaxed and not overly stimulated. In contrast, people impede their higher brain systems when they regularly experience negative emotions such as frustration and anger, or when they are in a low energetic state or a state of excitement.

The heart is in continuous connection with and influences the brain through multiple pathways. This communication occurs neurologically (through transmission of neural impulses), biochemically (through hormones and neurotransmitters), biophysically (through pressure and sound waves), and energetically (through electromagnetic field interactions).

When a person is emotionally coherent, their heart is optimally activated which influences the performance of higher brain centers that are involved in perceptual and cognitive processing. Their scope of perception is broadened so they’re able to take in more information and see possibilities that others miss. Their cognitive processes are enhanced so they can remember more details, analyze the possibilities with optimal attention, and use the sharpest discernment to arrive at the best decisions. In short, the heart can facilitate a person’s ability to come up with the best solutions to some of the most complex problems.

One of the best things about emotional coherence is that we all have the ability to experience more of it. As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a writer, speaker and consultant helping organizations strengthen agility and performance by shaping emotional energy. She is a thought leader bringing to light the new science of group emotional energy and connecting it to business performance. She has had a 28-year award winning career as a C-level Fortune 500 executive and Big Four consulting firm professional.
  Related Articles


  1. Merooj Aghazarian  September 3, 2012

    I agree. “Heart is wise”.

    Blue print

    ‘Mind’ is house of ‘Emotions’.

    ‘ Thinking’ is generator of ‘ Thoughts ‘.
    ‘Thoughts’ are Raw material, of ‘Emotions’.
    ‘Emotions’ are E ( energy )- in – Motion.
    ‘ Energy ‘ produces ( – ) or ( + ) outcome.
    ( – ) ====> anger, rage, disease ( dis- ease ).
    ( + ) ====> vitality, confidence, creativity.

    Q. Who controls ‘Thinking ‘?
    A. Your ‘Mind’.
    Q. Who controls my ‘ Mind ‘?
    A. You do.
    Q. Then why do I think, ‘Thoughts’ that produces emotions that results in ( – ) outcome?
    A .Your ‘Mind ‘ is on automatic mode ( Program ), most of the time.
    (999 out of 1000 thoughts are recycled thoughts).
    Habits, running on same patterns ( formats ).
    Q. How can I stop, or better, reverse it?
    A. It is easy and immediate.
    It is a ‘ Mental ‘ activity.
    Q. How?
    A. It is a two step process.
    We will talk more about this later.
    [ Part of my book: “Wisdom talk with my daughter”

  2. Gay Mitchell  September 3, 2012

    Very insightful article, Jackiel. I would like to learn more about it.

  3. Ken Ludwig  September 11, 2012

    Consider this quote from Leon Edel: “Art springs from tension and passion, from a state of disequilibrium in the artist’s being.”

  4. Jackie Barretta  September 11, 2012

    I’ve had the pleasure to have deep conversations with several “artists” about their creative process. What I gather is that “dark” or “negative” emotions can provide the seed or idea for a creation, but in order to create something of value from that seed, they transform to a more positive and uplifted state. This is consistent with the science that says the state of “coherence” (as described in the article) is most conducive to cognitive and creative performance. And I know it’s true for me that I simply think better and am more effective when I’m “in the flow”, which is another term for coherence. Is this consistent with what others have experienced?

  5. Ken Ludwig  September 11, 2012

    I appreciate what you’re saying in the article about how being positive, authentic and ‘in flow’ helps us to be most creative and productive. The quote reference was just a reminder that creative work can also arise out of the tension and the angst (though I wouldn’t recommend that anyone cultuvate the life-messiness of some artists).

  6. Janet Valette  September 27, 2012

    I like your question. From my perspective there are many emotions which can fuel or spark my creativity, ranging from: thrill, passion, love to anger, sadness and hurt. If I’m aware of the emotions, grounded & connected to my heart, then I’m connected to a higher place and creativity flows easily. Yet, when I’m cut off from my greater self, I’m “blocked”. If I’m up in my head, thinking rather than feeling–forget it! That is how I’d describe my process.


Add a Comment