Most of the work I do as an executive coach (particularly at Stanford) involves asking clients and students to keep a journal. In some cases this is a structured (and graded!) class assignment, and several times a year my academic duties include reading and commenting on students' journals while they're taking our experiential "Interpersonal Dynamics" class. But even if someone's journal is just a series of informal, private notes, the purpose is to insure that the learning doesn't stop at the end of the coaching session or the class exercise.
My empirical experience as a journal-reader, as a coach working with journal-writers, and as an occasional journal-keeper myself has convinced me of the value of this practice, and this fits with my conceptual understanding of experiential learning cycles. But I'm still left wondering why it actually works: What are the underlying processes that make journal writing a meaningful activity?
Like many scientists in the field of memory, I used to think that a memory is something stored in the brain and then accessed when used. Then, in 2000, a researcher in my lab, Karim Nader, did an experiment that convinced me, and many others, that our usual way of thinking was wrong. In a nutshell, what Karim showed was that each time a memory is used, it has to be restored as a new memory in order to be accessible later. The old memory is either not there or is inaccessible. In short, your memory about something is only as good as your last memory about it.
So journaling 1) compels us to access our memories of an experience, 2) creates another, more recent memory of that experience, and 3) creates a physical record of those memories to which we can return in the future.
But Ledoux's work on emotion and cognition suggests an even more powerful reason for the value of journaling. A key theme for Ledoux is the distinction between emotional memories, which he defined in an Edge interview with John Brockman as "implicit, or procedural memories that are in the brain's systems, but not reflected in consciousness" and cognitive, or explicit, memories, which he defined as "the kind of memory we usually have in mind when we use the word memory in everyday speech."
Some coaching sessions and experiential learning activities evoke intense emotions in the participants, but as Ledoux told Brockman...
[T]he brain can produce emotional responses in us that have very little to do with what we think we're dealing with or talking about or thinking about at the time. In other words, emotional reactions can be elicited independent of our conscious thought processes. For example, we've found pathways that take information into the amygdala without first going through the neocortex, which is where you need to process it in order to figure out exactly what it is and be conscious of it. So, emotions can be and, in fact, probably are mostly processed at an unconscious level. We become conscious and aware of all this after the fact.
So journaling after emotional experiences allows us to process them when we can understand them cognitively and (in some cases) consciously for the first time.
But, of course, many otherwise valuable coaching sessions and experiential learning activities don't evoke strong emotions; is it helpful to journal in these cases as well? Again, Ledoux's work suggests that it is. From an interview with Ledoux conducted by the Dana Foundation:
There is both an upside and a downside to the fact that emotional states make memories stronger. The upside is that we remember our emotional experiences to a greater extent than non-emotional ones. The downside is that we remember our emotional experiences to a greater extent than non-emotional ones.
So journaling after non-emotional experiences bolsters our memories of these experiences and helps to insure that they're not lost among our more powerful and long-lasting emotional memories.
One final thought--Ledoux also discussed with Brockman the potent and even destructive power of emotional memories:
Many people have problems with their emotional memories; psychologists' offices are filled with people who are basically trying to take care of and alter emotional memories, get rid of them, hold them in check.
I'd never suggest that journal-writing is a substitute for psychological care, but I do wonder if the experience of cognitively processing emotional memories in a journal entry might have some transformative power, allowing us not only to better understand those memories but also to better manage and make use of them.
(Perhaps surprisingly, given my general fondness for technology, I'm a big fan of journaling with pen and paper. The downsides are manifest--not searchable, not archivable, and the stuff does tend to pile up. But the upside is that it's a lot less tempting to edit and re-write, and I just get my thoughts out and move on. A sentence today is worth a page tomorrow. I'm not picky about pens--I prefer cheap blue Bics--but I truly love Moleskine notebooks.)