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Neuroscience and how we learn

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While still a graduate student, Rebecca Saxe made a breakthrough discovery: There's a specific region in our brain that becomes active when we contemplate the workings of other minds. View at:

Thanks to advancements in sociology, psychology, and neuroscience, our knowledge of how people learn continues to expand. Since the 1990s, with the advent of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), scientists have been looking inside the brain in ways they never have before. New images of the brain coupled with research findings from brain-related research is changing how we think about learning and, therefore, how we think about teaching.
Our brains are always changing
The study of neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to change with learning, provides insights into how the brain compensates for damage following an injury by at least partly rewiring itself and assigning new tasks to undamaged regions. Similarly, brain scans now allow us to see that learning changes the brain by repeatedly organizing and reorganizing it, which literally changes its physical structure. We know, too, that different parts of the brain may be ready to learn at different times and that during learning, nerve cells in the brain become more powerful and efficient. These and similar findings suggest that the brain is a dynamic organ, shaped to a great extent by experience and by what a living being does (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2004).This one idea alone has huge implications for education. By knowing the brain craves variety, for example, a teacher can provide information in unique ways or have students practice solving math problems in many different ways instead of practicing them many times using just one method (NPR, 2011).
No two brains are the same
Neuroscientist John Medina wrote the book Brain Rules, wherein he uses layman's terms to discuss a dozen key concepts that scientists have learned about the brain. Educators have known many of these principles for years, but there are some newer insights. Rule number three, for instance, states that every brain is wired differently. To help explain this, Medina (2008) points to the work of neurosurgeon George Ojemann (1991), who used a process called "electrical stimulation mapping" when working with stroke patients. The "maps" revealed that our brains store knowledge in various places based on our experiences. Simply put, because we all have different experiences, we have different neuron connections, and we all learn differently.
Medina is by no means the first to emphasize the role of schema, or frameworks for storing past experiences (see Anthony & Raphael, 1989; Vacca & Vacca, 2005; Carr, 2010), but he does remind us that students' brains will try to connect the new information that teachers serve up to whatever experiences they've had. Intentionally building students' background knowledge, whether through direct vocabulary instruction or through planned exposure to new experiences, is another way brain science is changing teachers' practices.
Learning is social
An important theme for education that emerges from modern neuroscience is that human brains are designed around the fact that we are social creatures. Neurologist Judy Willis (2011) explains the positive emotional response in the brain when students participate in engaging learning activities in well-designed, supportive, cooperative groups: "The pleasure of learning with one's peers increases the brain's release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that increases pleasure, motivation, perseverance through challenges, and resilience to setbacks. In addition, there is a beneficial response in the amygdala" (n.p.).
Brain imaging studies show the amygdala, which Willis describes as a "switching station" in the brain's emotional-monitoring limbic system, may become overactive during stressful periods and actually impede the processing and storage of information; thus, learning is more difficult when we are experiencing anxiety (Toga & Thompson, 2003). On the other hand, learning with others often has the effect of reducing anxiety.
Reading and writing matter
Reading and writing don�۪t just happen naturally. Brain scans reveal that reading builds new connections in the brain, and these connections allow us to use words to understand other ideas and concepts. There is no ���reading center�۝ per se; rather, reading requires a highly complex network (BBC, 2009). In order to read, the visual inputs must link to the component sounds, and that requires links that are strong and efficient. When children practice reading and writing, their brains are building the new links it needs for them to learn. Brain scan studies suggest that when it comes to reading, it is a case of ���use it or lose it,�۝ and that reading challenging texts offers the brain a healthy workout (BBC, 2009).
We are really just beginning to understand the brain
We still have much to learn, and scientists don't necessarily agree on everything we are discovering. Take the work of Dr. Richard Restak (1994), clinical professor of neurology at George Washington Hospital University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, who believes that the brain is modular. In his book, The Modular Brain, he provides several case studies to support his theory that different parts of the brain control different abilities, and these parts (or modules) operate independently. However, Michael Shermer (2008), author of The Mind of the Market, posits that the new scanning technology does not support the metaphor of modularity. He cites the brain scans of swing voters and asserts that one-to-one mapping between a brain region and a mental state is not possible. It appears neuroscientists are themselves having robust discussions about what they are learning from fMRIs.
They also are pushing the limits. Cognitive neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology leads a team conducting studies on how we think about other people's thoughts. As a parent, teacher, and scientist, Saxe was curious about why it often is difficult to discern what other people are thinking and harder still to change what someone believes. Saxe's team used fMRI to identify what happens in our brains when we consider others' motives, passions, and beliefs and discovered a specific brain region activates when we contemplate the workings of someone else's mind. Saxe believes this new exploration of how humans sense and judge others' actions may inform both child-rearing and education as parents and educators seek to develop moral human beings (Saxe, 2009).
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2. BBC Documentary. (Producer). (2009). Why reading matters [Motion picture].
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4. Carr, N. (2010). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
5. Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.
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