The Brain and Learning

Brain-based learning is a theoretical idea that uses methods of teaching and learning that are informed and/or supported by brain research. This study is also referred to as brain-compatible learning. As Eric Jensen puts it, "the brain is what we have, the mind is what it does." There is a wealth of resources available on this topic. I hope you find these terms useful in pursuing more information on your own.

When we are born, our brain still has a lot more growing to do. We start out with billions of brain cells, they just have not made connections yet. Our experiences profoundly and literally shape our brain. Brain cells migrate, they form connections with each other, and they branch out. A growing number of studies have indicated that our brains do not reach full development until our mid-twenties. Though the most dramatic shaping occurs in early childhood, throughout our lives there is "neural plasticity", the ability to continue learning (making new connections between brain cells).

Brain structures big and small
brain as conductor

What’s “under the hood”?
The brain is encased in the cranium/skull and is like the conductor of an orchestra, the nervous system. Stimuli from the environment and internal information all feed into the brain, where the inputs are processed and organized. Our brain helps us figure out what to make of the world and how to interact with it. The brain is comprised of three major portions: the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the brain stem. Each portion has smaller sections within it.

The brain stem is considered the most primitive portion of the brain. We do not have direct conscious control of its tasks. The brain stem contains structures that regulate our basic bodily functions, such as heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and digestion.

The second largest portion of the brain, the cerebellum, is primarily involved in coordinating balance and movement. The cerebellum is also active during tasks of novelty and some areas of cognition.

The cortex and neo cortex make up the cerebrum, the largest portion of the brain. This is the part of the brain where we are thought to experience consciousness and can exercise considerable voluntary control of ourselves.
  • The cortex, in the middle of the brain, contains discrete structures associated with particular purposes. The thalamus is like a relay station.
Most signals (coming into and leaving from the neo cortex) pass through it. The primary job of the hypothalamus is to help control sleeping, waking, hunger, and temperature. The amygdala houses the fight/flight mechanisms that are triggered when we perceive threat. The pea-sized pituitary gland is “hormone central”, releasing hormones that trigger chemical cascades like an internal domino rally. The hippocampus is associated with emotions and memory processes. The corpus callosum is the bridge connecting the two halves of the brain, the left and right hemispheres.
  • The neo cortex has four major processing centers, or lobes: occipital, temporal, parietal, and frontal. The occipital lobe makes sense out
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of what we see with our eyes. The temporal lobe sorts out auditory inputs from our ears. The parietal lobe handles touch sensations. Most of the sensory part of the cortex is geared to tactile sensations in the hands and facial areas of the body. The frontal lobe houses the motor cortex (our voluntary muscle control) and the prefrontal cortex (where most executive functioning activity happens). "Executive function" includes various kinds of planning, goal setting, task initiation, inhibition of impulses, performance monitoring, and sustained attention.

Click on this link for a succinct, yet complete overview of the brain, its organization, and components. The text contains links to pop-up windows with illustrations. Brain Explorer

Look at the first 7 slides for an overview of the "brain basics".

All three of these portions of the brain (brain stem, cerebellum, and cerebrum) are grouped into two equal halves, called hemispheres. Although most inputs and outputs are processed in multiple areas of the brain, there are some qualities associated with each of the two hemispheres. These findings are based on “split brain” studies, clinical observations made by neuroscientists such as Oliver Sacks, and a variety of brain-imaging techniques (e.g PET scans, MRIs, EEGs). Depending on one’s dominant hand (for skilled tasks) and the type of activity, neural activity will predominate in one of the hemispheres when a person has a novice level of skill. Once the person achieves some expertise in that particular activity, the bulk of neural activity will occur in the opposite hemisphere. There does appear to be some “hemispheric specialization”, such as language functions in the left hemisphere. However, there are some remarkable cases that attest to the fact that people who start with only one hemisphere or lose a hemisphere due to accident, injury, or illness are able to demonstrate abilities attributed to both hemispheres. Jane Healy (Your Child’s Growing Mind) summarizes the hemispheric processing tendencies as “splitters” (left hemisphere) and “lumpers” (right hemisphere).

The tree
The tree

Splitting is characterized by
  • focusing on details,
  • putting things in order,
  • fine-motor activities (such as handwriting, kirigami),
  • and tuning into the lyrics in music.
Lumping is characterized by
  • seeing the big picture,
  • working with shapes,
  • gross motor activities,
  • and tuning into the melody in music.
The forest

The different hemispheres represent different ways of processing. There are pros and cons to each style and it is ideal if a person can tap into and implement the processing tendencies associated with each hemisphere.

Get out your microscope
Each of these portions and sections of the brain are collections of very small units called neurons. (Bundles of neurons are called nerves.) Each neuron is able to receive a signal from and send a signal to other neurons. This communication between neurons involves electrical impulses and the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters. The neurons do not touch each other; there is a slight gap between them, called a synapse. Interestingly, neurons from the primary visual processing area of the brain are the same as the ones that process what we hear. In other words, you would not be able to tell, just by looking at a neuron, what part of the brain it was removed from.
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The part of the neuron that receives signals is called the dendrite. Researchers have learned that a neuron can experience “dendritic growth” (increase its ability to receive signals) when the neuron receives repeated stimulation. Another phenomenon that occurs with repeated neuronal stimulation is myelination, which makes the electrical signal travel faster along the neuron. Dendritic growth and myelination are the physical changes associated with learning. With her book, Magic Trees of the Mind, Marian Diamond PhD brought this neuroanatomy of learning to the lay reader. The incexternal image 140436764_175fe41fbc.jpg?v=0reased dendritic branching facilitates more connections between neurons. Neural pathways that are repeatedly used become faster, more efficient. When deer travel a particular path often enough, we see their trail in the woods. It is faster to move along the path than to forge through the brush. Neural pathways repeatedly used are like deer paths in the woods.

Just as our roads require maintenance, so do the neurons. The glial cells are nursemaids to the neurons, outnumbering them about 10:1. Glial cells help bring nutrients to and debris away from the neurons. Resources are allocated to where the action is. Our bodies are cruelly efficient, so when a structure is not used as much, it is not maintained as much. In other words, unused deer paths become overgrown and indistinguishable from the rest of the understory of the woods. The paths can re-created by repeated use.

Overview of the brain and neuron synapsing

Animation of the electrical and neurotransmitter activity when neurons synapse

functional MRI


Following are two quotes from Richard Restak, author of The New Brain:

spinning_plates.jpg “As a result of increasing demands on our attention and focus, our brains try to adapt by rapidly shifting attention from one activity to another- a strategy that is now almost a requirement for survival. As a consequence, attention deficit disorder is becoming epidemic in both children and adults…..Many personality characteristics we formerly labeled as dysfunctional, such as hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and easy distractibility, are almost the norm.”

“Whenever you attempt to do ‘two things at once’, your attention at any given moment is directed to one or the other activity rather than to both at once. And, most important, these shifts decrease rather than increase your efficiency; they are time and energy depleting.”

Teachers must be thoughtful about what and the timing of what is being asked of the learners. Learners cannot listen to every spoken word and take notes simultaneously. While writing/typing, some of the listening is temporarily suspended. Learners cannot pay attention to what is being said at the same time as reading silently to themselves.

Our nervous system is set up to notice what is new and tune out what seems constant. Decreased responsiveness to a particular input is called “habituation” and helps us process sensory-motor information efficiently. For instance, it is not useful for a person to be continuously consciously aware of the feeling of clothing on the skin or the background hum of the computer fan running. Habituation lets us filter out what we do not need to pay attention to, freeing us up to focus on the stimuli of new information. We alert to what seems novel, unexpected, and relatively strong sensations.

This knowledge has many implications for the classroom environment and management. Some teachers put tennis balls on the bottoms of the chair legs, to reduce the meaningless noise of chairs scraping on the floor. Others make sure each student has their own pencil sharpener, to bypass the sounds of electric pencil sharpeners and the incidental movements/bumping associated with lining up at the hand-crank manual sharpener.

As illustrated in a video example on Marcia Tate’s website, some teachers have students pick up their assignments and lesson objectives as they enter the room and find their seat. This routine prepares the learners for what the teacher hopes the students will pay attention to.
click on "classroom management" - video will open in Windows Media Player

In Mind Wide Open, Steven Johnson includes a chapter called “Your Attention Please”. In it, he describes a number of computer software programs that are designed to use neurofeedback to help the user learn how to focus attention. Tom Blue, the CEO of “Attention Builder”, reports that what kids consistently report is, “Now I know how it needs to feel when I read.”

Here is a video clip about using computer programs to improve attention skills in children:Attention training

Movement supports learning

Eric Jensen (Teaching With the Brain in Mind), has reference a number of research studies that build a strong case for the conclusion that physical movement plays an important role in learning. Movement, gravity, and balance sensory inputs travel through many areas of the brain, including the visual cortex, sensory cortex, cerebellum, and the top of the brain stem (where a lot of regulation of sensory information and attention happens). There is also a neural pathway from the cerebellum to the parts of the brain that handle memory, attention, and spatial perception. Though the cerebellum's primary function seems to be coordinating motor actions/movement, it is also drawn into emotional intelligence. There are many studies that "verify sensory motor integration is fundamental to school readiness." Not only are varied physical movements important for the early years, but also throughout our lifetime. Physical movements present several beneficial aspects, including increased blood circulation, increased oxygenation, fun (which helps reduce stress), and activation of several brain areas in coordinated ways.

Carla Hannaford has written a book called Smart Moves. It focuses on the importance of sensory motor integration exercises, how they support positive development, and ideas for embedding these activities in educational environments. Her work is often associated with "Brain Gym", which is a program that provides exercises designed to support and promote learning.

Official Brain Gym website
Description of some Brain Gym exercises
You Tube video depicting some Brain Gym exercises
TV news covering Brain Gym story

Click here to access several articles pertaining to physical activity and learning: keeping fit for learning
"The Body has a Mind of its Own"
Yoga and Brain Gym in the classroom - teacher resource

Try some laughter yoga to reap the physical and emotional benefits of laughing. You do not have to have a sense of humor, a good joke, or feel happy in order to laugh. Dr. M. Kataria, from India, is credited with starting laughter yoga clubs that now span the globe. Here's a You Tube clip to give you a sense of how easy and fun this is: Laughter yoga Laughing releases body chemicals that promote relaxation and relieve stress and depression.

Nutrition and Brain Function

Eric Jensen (Teaching with the Brain in Mind) sums up the learner’s need for water: “Because the brain is made up of a higher percentage of water than image_of_water_bottle.jpgany other organ, dehydration takes a toll quickly. There’s a loss of attentiveness and lethargy sets in.” Summarizing others’ research, dehydration results in elevated markers of physiological stress. “Water provides the electrolytic balance for proper functioning. The brain needs 8 to 12 glasses of water per day.” Water is better for hydration than any other beverage.

image_of_Salmon_and_greens.jpgJensen goes on to site a number of other studies that indicate the benefits of eating leafy green vegetables, fresh fruits, dairy products, and omega-3 fatty acid rich foods (e.g. salmon). Eating that supports learning considers the micro-nutrients of the food, not just the calories.

For further reading, here's an article about specific nutrition recommendations to support brain function: Live Science article
Medline Plus - child nutrition
Nutrition and Physical activity - state of Wisconsin
Nutrition calendar and activity ideas for educators
Tip sheet for helping teens making healthy eating choices
Tip sheet with multiple health and developmental information - good handout for parents

Music and the Brain


As described by Oliver Sacks, by visual observation alone, the brain of a genius cannot be discerned from the brain of a fool. However, the brain of a musician can be identified because certain regions of the brain are larger, more pronounced. It is not yet known if this physical distinction in the brains of musicians is shaped by the musical activities of their lives or if these are structural differences from birth.
Watch radio interview of Oliver Sacks on Science Friday
Listen to radio interview of Oliver Sacks regarding music and the brain

Music can motivate people to dance (physical movement). Music can be a medium of creative expression. Music can help us remember specific words, sequences of words, and stories. Music can evoke emotion.

Here is a Bill Moyers Journal program about the power of music to bring people together in meaningful and powerful ways. Over the course of 10 years, Mark Johnson put together a music DVD that reflects a sense of building of community and compassion around the globe, using modern technology. Click on the "play" button to run the archived program.

Emotion and the Brain

To quote Eric Jensen again, " Emotion helps reason to focus the mind and set priorities. Emotions are generated from biologically automated pathways. They are joy/pleasure, fear, surprise, disgust, anger, and sadness." These emotions are found across cultures. "The only emotions that researchers have found specific sites for in the brain are fear and pleasure. That's why earlier, biologically linked models of learning were dominated by studies on threats and rewards." Researchers have a variety of objective outcome measures to study a person's experience of emotions, including muscle tension, skin color, blood pressure, as well as imaging technologies (fMRI, EEG, PET scan).

Feelings are not the same as emotions. "Feelings are ... our culturally and environmentally developed response to circumstances." Feelings are processed more slowly and in more areas of the brain than are emotions. Emotions are processed much faster, before thinking happens. Anytime a person perceives threat/danger, the unconscious part of our nervous system (the autonomic nervous system) takes precedence. The amygdala seems to be the brain structure most involved with emotions. "There are more inputs from the amygdala to the cortex than the reverse." It is very telling to note that when areas of the frontal lobe are removed, performance on intelligence tests drops only a little. "Removing the amygdala, however, is devastating."

The experience of emotion is not limited to neurons conveying signals. The neurotransmitters released are circulated throughout the whole body. "When you experience a gut feeling, it's because the same peptides that are released in your brain are also lining your gastrointestinal tract. These chemicals of emotions ...influence most of our behaviors." Body chemicals alter our physical and emotional states. Many of our behaviors are born from an attempt (conscious or not)external image emotions01.jpg to change or maintain a state of mind-body. Advertisers quickly utilized brain research to engineer their marketing efforts to take advantage of what "makes us tick". (Buying this product will make you feel more accepted by others.) It is important for educators to help learners experience pleasure (through celebrations, success, friendship) in the educational environment, on a daily basis. "Emotions triggexternal image pink-heart-LOVE.jpger the chemical changes that alter our moods, behaviors, and, eventually, our lives." Emotional experiences play a large role in motivation. They are the reasons behind our goals, since our thoughts and opinions descend from emotions.

"We remember that which is emotionally laden. That happens because all emotional events receive preferential processing. Emotions give us a more activated and chemically stimulated brain, which helps us recall things better. Emotions are so important, they have their own memory pathways. Good learning embraces emotions." Emotional engagement is essential to learning, not just "bells and whistles".

Research studies suggest the importance of rotating leadership roles. Listen to Caroline Zink explain studies that show a relationship between health and social status

Change Your Mind, Change Your Brain

In Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, Sharon Begley brings together Buddhism and neuroscience, bridged primarily by neuroplasticity. A number of Buddhist monks participated in studies of brain activity and changes during meditation. Meditation is considered a form of training the mind, discipline of thought. Meditation is a way of consciously influencing one's state of being.

"A few findings suggest that brain changes can be generated by pure mental activity: merely thinking about playing the piano leads to a measurable, physical change in the brain's motor cortex, and thinking about thoughts in certain ways can restore mental health." "By thinking differently about the thoughts that threaten to send them back into the abyss of despair, patients with depression have dialed up activity in one region of the brain and quieted it in another, reducing their risk of relapse." The power of our thoughts is significant indeed.
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Meditation and the Mind
Guided meditation for primary students
Quotes from Richard Carlson Richard Carlson is an author famous for the Don't Sweat the Small Stuff books. His books are full of cognitive strategies for adopting perspectives on life circumstances that facilitate adaptive, positive coping thoughts and behaviors.

Where "the rubber meets the road" - suggested applications of brain information to classroom practice

The following lists are derived from Teaching With the Brain in Mind by Eric Jensen, 1998:

What to do with brain research
· The most reliable studies are in-context/real life applications (studies that take place in real life classrooms).
· The next most useful are clinical studies (university supported, large, multi-demographic, multiple experimenters, double-blind).
· Of some consideration are laboratory discoveries, such as EEGs, autopsies, experiments.
Example of applying functional magnetic resonance imaging studies
· The least reliable are any theory about learning and the brain that explains behaviors.

Getting kids ready to learn
· Drink water.
· Balanced meals, adequate nutrition.
· Educational activities /projects that result in kids learning about health.
· Be a good role model, educate parents, try to influence what food is served at school, engage community resources to educate parents (e.g. “Healthy Classrooms” initiative in Wisconsin).

· Challenge and feedback are essential elements of enrichment.
· Integrate arts and movement into curriculum.
· Give choices (level of complexity, type of assignment) in the learning process.
· Variety: group work, drama, music, presentations, computers, self-directed work, guest speakers, field trips, change environments (even within the school).
· Increase appropriate use of music, such as listening, singing, playing instruments.
· Provide environmental options, such as lighting, seating, peripherals.
· Eliminate threat.

· “You can either have your learner’s attention or they can be making meaning, but never both at the same time.”
· What increases intrinsic motivation and hooks attention: choices, relevant material and activities, engaging the students.
· What increases apathy and resentment and decreases attention: externally directed 100%, irrelevant material and activities, passive (lecture, seatwork, video).
· Use contrast.
· Move around the room, don’t stand in one spot.
· Balance novelty and ritual.

Threats and stress
· Teach stress management techniques and strategies.
· Drama, peer support, games, exercises, discussions, celebrations.
· Establish a transition time for students to shift gears (stretching, dance, manipulatives, discussion (small, large group, or with partner).
· Set up clear expectations about classroom behavior, i.e. no threats from students within the class.
· Either send a student out or don’t…don’t threaten to.
· Avoid unrealistic deadlines, no finger pointing.
· Inquire with the student re: barriers to their learning.
· Be aware of learned helplessness and lead them to self-efficacy.
· Use positive humor.

· On-going staff training in culture, learning styles.
· Provide more variety, quality, and quantity of feedback.
· Guide students in generating clear, well-defined goals.
· Teach and role model positive thinking.

· Engage emotions appropriately (neither absence of nor uncontrollable emotion).
· Music, games, story telling, drama.
· Role model love of learning – build suspense, show enthusiasm, and smile.
· Celebrations – showcase student work in various ways.
· Set up a controversy/debate, dialogue.
· Personal engagement – journal, sharing, discussion, issues the engage students personally.

· Stretching, yawning, walks, dance, theater, drama, seat-changing, energizers, role play.
· “Stand in the room where we first learned about…..”
· Ball toss games to review, build vocabulary, storytelling, or self-disclosure.
· Have students create choreography to songs/poems (that can be filled with content review) they write.
· Cross-lateral (e.g. Brain Gym) exercises (many feature patterns of reaching across one’s body, stimulating activity in both hemispheres).

Read the whole chapter to learn about memory pathways (explicit, semantic, episodic; implicit, procedural, reflexive, conditioned, emotional) and the retrieval process, and specific strategies used for each type.

Putting it all together and applying it to a specific classroom:

Marcia Tate's 20 Instructional Strategies that Engage the Brain

In her book, Worksheets Don't Grow Dendrites, Marcia Tate has combed and combined information from learning theories, brain research, and classroom observations to create a compilation of practical application ideas for teachers to use. For each strategy she succinctly references the brain research reasons that support the strategy. She not only names the strategy, but also provides several examples of what that strategy can look like in the classroom. Here is the list of strategies:
  • Brainstorming and Discussion
  • Drawing and Artwork
  • Field Trips
  • Games
  • Graphic Organizers, Semantic Maps, and Word Webs
  • Humor
  • Manipulatives, Experiments, Labs, and Models
  • Metaphors, Analogies, and Similes
  • Mnemonic Devices
  • Movement
  • Music, Rhythm, and Rap
  • Project-based and Problem-based Instruction
  • Reciprocal Teaching and Cooperative Learning
  • Role Plays, Drama, Pantomimes, and Charades
  • Storytelling
  • Technology
  • Visualization and Guided Imagery
  • Visuals
  • Work Study and Apprenticeships
  • Writing and Journals


Teaching With the Brain in Mind by Eric Jensen. Published by the Association for Spervision and Curriculum Development 1998.

Worksheets Don't Grow Dendrites - 20 Instructional Strategies that Engage the Brain by Marcia Tate. Published by Corwin Press 2003.

Your Child's Growing Mind - Brain Development and Learning From Birth to Adolescence, third edition by Jane M. Healy, PhD. Published by Braodway Books 2004

My Stroke of Insight - A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD. Published by Viking 2006.

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain - How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves by Sharon Begley. Published by Ballantine Books 2007.

Mind Wide Open - Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life by Steven Johnson. Published by Scribner 2004.

The New Brain - How the Modern Age is Rewiring Your Mind by Richard Restak, MD. Published by Rodale 2003.

Magic Trees of the Mind by Marian Diamond, PhD and Janet Hopson. Published by Dutton 1998.

The Body Has a Mind of Its Own - How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better by Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee. Published by Random House 2007.

The Usborne Internet-Linked Complete Book of the Human Body by Anna Claybourne. Published by Usborne Publishing Ltd. 2003.

"Kids Discover- Brain" volume 17, issue 11, November 2007. Author: Lorraine Hopping Egan.

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks. Published by The Owner's Manual for the Brain by Pierce J. Howard, PhD. Published by Leornian Press 1994.

Learning and Instruction - Theory Into Practice, fifth edition by Margaret E. Gredler. Published by Pearson - Merrill Prentice Hall 2005.

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. (2008). Retrieved September 16th, 2008.

More resources to explore:

Brain-based learning website ("Teacher Tap") - teacher resources

Link to several articles about neurosciences neuroscience articles pertaining to learning

The following book lists are recommended in "Kids Discover" magazine:
For adults -

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge. Published by Viking 2007.

The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Published by Harper Collins 2001.

An Introductioin to the Science of Sleep by J. Allan Hobson. Published by Oxford University Press 2004.

Third edition of The Owner's Manual for the Brain: Everyday Applications from Mind-Brain Research by Pierce J. Howard. Published by Bard Press 2006.

The Better Brain Book by David Perlmutter and Carol Colman. Published by Riverhead Trade 2005.

How the Brain Learns, third edition by David Sousa. Published by Corwin Press 2005.

For kids -

You're Smarter Than You Think You Are: A Kid's Guide to Multiple Intelligences by Thomas Armstrong and Jennifer Brannen. Published by Free Spirit Publishing 2002.

How Does Your Brain Work? by Don L. Curry. Published by Children's Press 2004.

Power Brain Kids by Ilchi Lee. Published by Healing Society, Inc. 2007.

Me and My Little Brain by John D. Fitgerald. Published by Puffin 2004.

A Walk in the Rain with a Brain by Edward Hallowell. Published by Harper Collins 2004.