The Neuroscience of Learning

brainAs teachers and learners we know that the human brain is a wonderful thing, but many of us are a bit vague about how it actually works. So it was great to have the opportunity to spend a whole day in the company of Patricia Riddell, Professor of Applied Neuroscience at the University of Reading.  The day was on ‘The neuroscience of learning’ and was hosted by the Business School, as part of Innovative Learning Week here at the University of Edinburgh.

Patricia is an engaging and persuasive speaker and over the course of the day she highlighted significant themes from cutting edge research in the neurosciences.  Could this, she wondered, help us to make sense of how learning takes place, and to reflect on our own teaching practices?  We came away with a much better understanding of the neuroscience of learning and with great enthusiasm for incorporating our new knowledge into our teaching.  Here we crystallise six of Patricia’s key messages in the hope that they will inspire you too.

  1. Neuroscience: Not ‘advanced phrenology’

The day began with a ‘tour’ of the different parts of the brain and their functions.   This came with a health warning though.  While different parts of the brain are associated with different functions, the whole thing works together and cannot be reduced to its constituent parts.  This means that it would be a mistake to think of neuroscience as an advanced form of phrenology that goes beneath the cranium and simply uses anatomy as an indicator of character and mental abilities.  Although it is helpful to associate different parts of the brain with particular capabilities and activities, there is no straightforward one-to-one relationship between its structure and its function. Rather, for complex tasks we make use of basic functions, recruiting from different parts of the brain to create a workable system.

2. The emotional basis of learning

We remember things that matter to us, and these are the events and experiences that give rise to strong emotional responses.  Patricia identified five emotional states that promote learning:

  • Curiosity
  • High energy
  • Healthy concern
  • Enthusiastic confidence
  • Calm reflection

She suggested that an effective teaching session would guide students through each of these states in turn. Neuroscientists can tell us about how the sophisticated interplay of varying levels of cortisone, dopamine and noradrenaline in the brain gives rise to emotional changes, but for teachers the process of triggering these changes can be as simple as playing a piece of music.  How about the Jaws theme for triggering healthy concern (!), or Beethoven’s Pastoral for calm reflection?  Intriguing, but less immediately useful, was her assertion that students who are exposed to a ‘disgusting’ experience just after a learning activity will remember it better.

3.  Neuroplasticity

Patricia had good news for proponents of lifelong learning.  It’s a myth that we are born with a set number of neurons.  Infants start out with the equivalent of 200% of an adult’s allocation of neurones, and these eventually get pruned to meet their specific needs.  However, throughout our lives we can continue to grow new neurones, as long as we are exposed to an ‘enriched environment’; aerobic exercise also seems to help. The connections between neurones can also increase or decrease depending on usage.  One of the eye-popping statements made by Patricia was that the brain of a mouse can lose synapses and create new ones on a continuous basis, to the extent that 20% of its synapses might change over a 24 hour period.  It seems likely that human brains also continually renew themselves.  This more than hints at a rather dynamic relationship between brain physiology and our interaction with what’s around us.

Even more importantly, this connects with the work of Carol Dweck in Social Psychology.  She has shown that those children who have a ‘growth mindset’, and believe that with dedication and hard work they can increase their capacities (such as intelligence), do better on learning tasks than their schoolfellows with ‘fixed mindsets’, who believe that capacities such as intelligence cannot be changed (we only have a certain amount and once used that’s it).

4. The value of confusion

For Patricia the state of confusion is a good starting point for learning.  She explained that we need to know when something is wrong or when a situation doesn’t feel right, and the brain can quickly do this by checking in with the heart, the breathing and the gut.  This reminds us that effective learning doesn’t always feel comfortable so a good learning experience isn’t always fun

5. Epigenetics

The term epigenetics refers to heritable changes in gene activity that are not caused by changes in the structure of the genes.  In each cell, only a part of the DNA will normally be activated, but this proportion is not fixed.  So, the parts of our DNA that are activated can change, based on our experiences, and things that happen to us during our lifetime can affect the genes we pass on to the next generation.

6.  Are we reducing ‘learning’ to memory and ‘memory’ to recall?

Much of the day was focussed on memory, what it is and how it works.  While memory is obviously a very important part of learning, we worry that a focus on memory and recall means we see learning as remembering and representing ‘stuff’ (‘facts’) rather than what we can do with that ‘stuff.’

When we look at the brain with our new technologies are we confusing what we construct or infer (eg ‘memory’) with what is ‘really’ there?

In exploring memory, Patricia illustrated different types of memory including long-term, short-term, working, autobiographical, episodic and so on.  All these types describe things that memory does and evidence was provided to show what can happen to these functions when particular parts of the brain become damaged (eg the well-known case of Clive Wearing see here).  An important point she made was that evidence suggests that memories are not retrieved, rather they are reconstructed, which can account for the different perspectives amongst people who are recalling the same event.  Likewise, it might be useful to recognise that the neuroscientific evidence is interpreted and reconstructed (as memory will have a role in this) in particular ways so although labels serve to describe functions and these functions may be located in particular areas of the brain, the finer detail of both form and function may well be more elusive than we think.  While our concept of memory and its relation to physiology may be ‘bang on’ we don’t know for sure that it is.

This was a useful and stimulating day. It inspired us to think differently about the dynamics of learning and about our teaching practices.

About the speaker

new_Patricia_RiddellPatricia Riddell is Professor of Applied Neuroscience at the University of Reading.  You can read more about her here.




About the authors

photo (2)Daphne Loads is Academic Developer in the Institute for Academic Development at theNeil Lent University of Edinburgh

Neil Lent is Lecturer in University learning and teaching in the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh




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