Learning Brain-Based

The wave of the brain
By Ruth Palombo Weiss

r a jungle out there! We haveall heard Lt's
and probably uttered that pbrase.Well, the Nobel Prize winning newobiologist Gerald kleknan postulatesthat it's a jungle inside there as well. Edelrnan, director of the Neuroscience Institute at the Scripps Research Institute, compares our brains to a dense web of interconnecting synapses. His metaphor gives us insight into current, sometimesconfusing, researchon how the brain works and its connection to learning theory. Many of us use the Internet daily and are astoundedby the vast and seemingly endless connections we can make. The brain's interconnections exceedthe Internet's by an astronomical number. The typical brain has approximately 100 billion neurons. and each neuron has one to 10,000 synaptic connectionsto other neu"The intricacy and rons. Says Edelrnan, numerosity of brain connections are extraordinary." Our brains are suffirsed with a vast number of interdependent nefworks. We process all incoming information through those networks, and any information already stored influences how and what we learn. "The human brain is the best-organized, most functional three pounds of matter in the known universe," sayseducator Robert Sylwester in his book, A Celebration of Neurons: An Educator's Guide "It's responsible for to the Human Brain. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, computers, the Sistine Chapel, automobiles, the Second World War, Hamlet, apple pie, and a whole lot more."

Increasingly, educators such as Sylwester are relying on brain-basedlearning theory to take advantage of the gtowing body of evidence that neurologists are uncovering about how humans learn. He says, "To learn more about the brain, scientists had to discover how to perfonn intricate studies that would provide solid information on its most basic operationsthe normal and abnormal actions of a single neuron, the synchronized actions of networks of neurons. and the factors that " trigger neuronal activitY. It's clear that no two human brains are alike. Every nerve cell (neuron) servesas a relay station. Neurons not only receive signals from other cells, but they also process the signals and sendthem on to other cells Chemiacrosstiny gaps called synapses. cals called neurotransmitters(theremay be as many as 100) causethe signals to flow from one neuron to another. That electrochemical processis the basis of all human behavior. Every time we speak, move, or think, electrical and chemical communication are taking place between tens of thousandsofneurons. "As a nerve cell is stimulated by new experiencesand exposure to incoming information from the senses, it grows branches called dendrites. Dendrites are the major receptive surface of the nerve cell. One nerve cell can receive input from asmany as 20,000 other nerve cells. If you have 100 billion cells in your brain, think of the complexityl With use, you grow branches; with impoverishment, you lose them. "The ability to changethe structure and chemistry of the brain in response to the

environment is what we call plasticity," saysMarian Diamond, a neuroscientistand professor of neuroanatomy at the University of California at Berkeley. As we might imagine, for a subject as vast and complicated as braia researchand learning theory there are a variety of views. Some scientists feel that there are fundamental differences between learning and education.They insist that brain-based researchon learning isn't fhe same as researchdone on educationtheory. They also note that many of the initial neurological inquiries into learning have been done on animalsand that it's an iffy propositionto extrapolatefrom animals to humans. But during the past 10 Years,hown as the Decade of the Brain, a number of scientists have been using new technologies such as Magnetic Resonance lnaging O/RD, Functional MRI (fMRI), and Positron Emission Topography (PET) scans.Those tests he$ scientists explore how human brains processmemory, emotion, attention, patterning, and context-


Learning Articie 6. Brain-Based

A Few Brain Facts

among other areasin this vast area of inqulry. Renate Numella Caine and Geoffrey Caine,in their bookUnleashingthe Power of Perceptual Change: The Potential of Brain-Based Teaching, confirm the idea that our brains are whole and intercor nected."Even though there are a multitude of specific modules with specific functions, thought, emotion, physical health, the nature of our interactions with others, even the time and environment in which we learn, are not separatedin the brain. They are not dealt with one thing at a time.* "The neryous system Says Edelman: behavior is to some extent seH-generated in loops:Brain activity leadsto movement, which leads to further sensation and perception and still further movement. The layers and loops between them are the most intricate of any object we know, and they are dynamic. Th.y continually change.Parts of the brain (indeed, the major portion ofits tissues)receiveinput only from other parts of the brain, and they give outputs to other parts without intervention from the outsideworld. The brain might be said to be in touch more with itseH than with anythingelse." There are several areas/topics that learning theoriesare examinbrain-based ing. As we will see, they are intercon-

nectedin much the sameway as our own complex neuronal groups.

their higher order, more complex thinking, and creativity." During high-sffess situations, physiologically the informationtakes the primary pathway through the thalamus and amygdala and then moves into the cerebellum. Memorization of isolated facts can be accomplished under high-stress conditions, but higher order and creative thinking may be lost. We tend to respond with either a primitive mode of behaving or to rely solely on early prograrnmedbehavior. In situations that may involve stressbut in which we have a sense of control or choice, the physiology shifts. The primary path is no longer directly tbrough the amygdala but through other paths of the cortex, the parts that are involved in higher-orderfunctioning. Thus, we avoid a "kneejerk response." Learning situations that are low stress favor reflection and analytic thinking. Says "The thalamus,hippocamRenate.Caine, pus, and cortex (where stored memories are housedand higher-level thinking takes place) are involved. With this system,you can translate factual elements and make connections. Furthermore, you can make rhings you know. inferencesbas"6 on e1fogr That higher-order tbinking includes synthesizing information and integrating it to come up with new ideas."

It appearsthat the thalamus, in the center of the brain, plays an especially important role in attention. According to Sylwester, 'telay center between the thalamus is the our senseorgans and the cortex.... This process holds the important information within our attentional and short-term memory systemsby ignoring the less important information, and thus seemsto create the visual awarenesswe experience." Eric Jensen,author of Teaching With the Brain in Mind, ponts out that our bodies have high-low cycles of about 90 to 110 minutes. When students are at the top of tlose cycles, they're more attentive. At the bottom ofthe cycle, people'senergydrops along with their level of attention. Jensen suggests that if educators and trainers "learn to ride with the cycles," they'll have fewer problems. Renate Caine talks about the different types of motivators and what happens in our brains dependingon the source of motivation. "When we encounter high stress in learning, there is apsychophysiological responseto the tbreat, accompanied by a feeling of helplessness or fatigue. This type of responsekeeps people from using


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EDITIONS ANNUAL Context and Patterns
"Without context, emotions' or patterns, information is considered meaningto form 1".r.'Th"r"'" a tendency to try of meaningful pattern out 9J our somekind processseemsinnate"' says i"u*i"g-rnis Jensen. *While the brain is a consumHe adds, maturity mate pattern maker, intellectual the process'PET scansindioften lnriches more cate that a novice chessplayer burns and usesthe *i.r"or" (has to work harder) of the it"p-Uy-tt"p sequential left side ihess player usesless glu;dt. A *utt"t the "ot" *O engageslarger patterns from right side of the brain'" inA lot of recent memory research abilities' One study volves pattern-making inthat n^ been replicated several times ,""diog a long list of words to a subnJrn", ject. When the subject is asked .to 'remember certain words on the list' an inthing happens'Irt's say the list t"r"ttiog has 25 words strung togetber' including car' cake, cookie, sugar,trrin, candy' tree' the word sweetis on dog. If askedwhether say yel tne tst (it wasn't), most subjects the words cake' cookies',and U""u"t"'of of the ,unot. f"t"."ttingly, the sarnearea other words on ttreIist Criio,t ", t"gisteied lights uP on an MRL of Thai clearly illustrates the economy mechanisms' The brain $rain-processing even makeJ a connection and generalizes be wrong' though the generalization might is that detail isn't effrcient O""?o""f*io" always and generalization is, though not The brain doesn't havevalues;it's ""rrir. arbiter of an information organ' It isn't an What we do "uf**, of right *d *toog' eventstohave is a systemthat puts related hierarchies and categones' gether il "The brain-mind Geofftey Caine states: into catenatually organizes inforrnation 'patcall that gories. We can generically These patterns always involve L*i"g.' context' interpieting infornration in u*gt"ut deal of researchto show fn"a"'t as ,nu, *" leam from focused attention perception' When ;;li ^ ftom peripheral p"opt" are forrning patterns' a lot of the intogether itnil"ri"" tnat Urings the pattem idormatron" is peripheral or contextual "Ifformation flows ence on the cortex. ways between the amygdala and the both cortex, but many other areas are involved in subtle emotions," he saYs. "Making daily decisionsbasedon emotions is not an exception;it's therule," says professorAntonio pamasio' a neurologist "t *r" Uoiu"t"ity of low4 in his book Desand the cartes's Error: Emorton"Reason" "While extremesof emotion Human Brain are usually hamful to our best thinking, a middle ground makes sense'Appropriale emotions speedup decision making enor-

w-o:fing. .#il;;, sodic memory' iiexibilitv in tbinking'cremaking' decision #;f,*ro-f;* solving'
and social interactons'

memory' verbal

MemorY and recall
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sPectacularuses of re-

and inattt*oo memory' recall' **;t* information and informail;;;;r""ge tion overload' mouslY." "Memory is the ability to repea! a p:rshowsthat emotionsand ..- Brainresearch it is a dyIn formance. thenervoussystem' tnougnt are deeply interconnected'ln Molpopulations of neuronal ""#" "-0""v of eculls of Emotion, CatdacePert wrote that memory' Unlike computer-based cell in the body are *Ot. on fle surfaceof every memory is inexact' But it's Luio-tur"a receptorsthatrespond to moleculessuchas generaliza"i* ""o"Uf" "f greatdegreesof peptides and neurotransu[tters' various would be useless if it l#.- it"*"w Scientists used to think that those neut";" waYtake into accountthe ";d"'il found only in neluons rotransmitters were sensory t"rnpo.al suc"essionof events---of in the brain, but it turns out they're in every of movement"' "u#, u, well as patterns a thought' o* of ,n" Uody.Whenwe have '.*v saysEdehnan. neurotransmit'nitt of the peptides and -with Carter, who wtote MaPPing the cells throughout the ters interact are saysthatnewneural connechons Mind, what fody, and those interactions trigger sensation and "the experienceof emotions'" -"a" *i,l every incoming *" "uU as old onesdisappear memoriesfade' "Good learning engages feelings' "Each fleeting impression is recorded add-on' Rather than viewing them as a'n but for a while in somenew configuration' learning' Emotions "-o,io"* are a fornof the paftern if it's not laid down in memory' future ut* "rrgug" meaning and predict and degenerates the impression disappears our goals' they involve l"t-l"ilt"tse iit"" the buttocks-shapedhollow in a foam Emotions and expectancies' fJ"f*,"Ui*"., rubber cushionafter you standup' Patterns meailng' and drive the threesomeof attention' that linger may in turn connect with' _. and memory," saYsRenateCaine' other groups--rormspark off, activity in of Hare""o.C"! to Daniel Schacter imemories)or combining ing associations u-J Uoi"".iLy, author of Searching for to createnew concepts' "ip]Tl; "Little explosions wavesof new acMemory, there are two possible and emotionally chargeo tions fbr the way tivity, each with a characteristic pattern' events are emblazoned in our'memones' are produced moment by moment as the and chemical O"" it ,n" stresshormones braiir reactsto outside stimuli' That activare remessengers'or neuroEansmitters' "tag" the event ity creates a constantly changrng internl which to leaseda]tsuchtimes' environment,which the brainthenreacts give it prom*itn *p""iuf signifrcance and createsa feedback loop that as well. That other inence in the memory pathways' Jh3 ensuresconstant change. The loop-back commonly known t t whalare J"pf*uri* process,sometimesreferred to as neural even though as flashbulb memones is that barwinism, ensuresthat patternsthat prorehearsedor reiter,n"VT""', need to be "People'":d.t",g:: ducethoughts (and thus behavior) and that u,"i, *l"v usually are' help the organismthrive arelaid down pertlrer uves "o*r'*d go over 15gthings in manently wbile those that areuselessfade' and that to tl"*' that are imPortant It's not a rigid sYstem." S-cha.cier'snengtbensthe memory"' saYs According to Carter, it seemsthat inthe climate Rlnate Caine points out that coming information is spiit into several the kind of of the workplace is critical to parallel paths within tbe brain' each or to get' lfwe feel luporoao", nout'" going *ni"n ii given a siightly different -treatthe PlYsiolog;"; "i'i'J'"-"''' ;;;; mentdepeidingon the routeit takes'InforEmotion dopamrne' iJ effect is a slight increasein strucmation that's of particular interest to one The amygdala, an almond-shaped G tigttt amount of .u":y*ni"n."f"*"t center' seernsmost rnside of the brain will activate that side uar ture in the brain's choline (another neurotransminer) to more strongly than the other' You can see witb volved wfth emotions' According sdmulatesthe hippocampus'People. emotive rethat happenin a brain scan:The side that's it eplJensen, has 12 to 15 distinct increaseddopamine show improved a tremendousinflugions anOoften exerts



Article6. Brain'BasedLearning
in charge of a particular task will light up while the matching iuea on the other side will glow more dullY.

Richard Restak,a neurobiologist, writes in his book The Brain:'Learning is not primarily dependent on a reward- In fact, consisrats-as well as humans-will experiencesand behaviors tently seeknew with no perceivablereward or impetus. Experimental rats respond positively to simple novelty. Studies confirm that the mere pursuit of information can be valuable by itself and that humans are just as happy to seeknovelty." ' Robert Aitken at tle Vancouver British Columbia Community College poiats out "One of that we chooseto stay motivated. the things becoming clear is that our brains have been built for survival- That hasn't changed in 30,000 years. If something helps us survive, we're motivated to learn. '"Trainers haveto find ways to convince learnersthat this is vital to their survival. If we get an emotional buy-in then learning takesplace." We can approachmotivation from several different points of view, saysGeoffrey "The distinction is between intrinCaine.

Geoffoey Caine reminds us that when we can connectrote memory with ordinary experience,we understandand make sense of things and remember more easily. To fiansfer inforrnation effectively, we needto seethe relevanceof what we're learning.

sic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation hasto do with what we want' need, and desire.It's deeply groundedin our values aad feelings. Extrinsic motivation is often an attempt by someoneelse trying to make us want to do something' In terms of learning and creativity, we know there's a positive correlation betweencreativity and intrhsic motivation. When we're organizing information in our minds' tle way we formpattems is deeply motivated by what in." we're interested We have all heard the phrase Use it or lose it. That's the ultimate truth of the healthy brain's capability to learn, change, and grow aslong as we're alive. '"fhe most exciting discovery about all of this work is that education should continue for a lifetime. With emichment' we grow dendrites; with imFoverisbment, we Diamond' losethem at any a1e:'concludes Ruth Palombo Weiss is afreelatrc e writer based in Potomac, Marylnnd; Pivotal@ erols,com

Reprintedby permission' Fromkaining & Development,luly2000, pp- 20-24' @2000 by ASTD Magazines'



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