The Brain and Learning

By Suzanne Miller and Kristina Kauffman

As the 20th century came to a close and the 21st began, educators came to recognize that the wealth of research about how our brain works can lead to greater student success. Important findings include:

  • The brain undergoes physiological changes as the result of experience (Marian Diamond, UC Berkeley; Harry Chugani and Michael Phelps, UCLA);

  • The learning environment impacts the learner:

    • Enriched environments promote dendrite density (brain function)

    • Impoverished environments can lead to the withering of dendrites

  • Memories associated with emotions are often enhanced (Daniel Goldman, Emotional Intelligence).

Memory and Emotions

The most recent discoveries about the brain provide a powerful framework for understanding and boosting memory and recall. Scientists now view memory not as a location, but as a process which cannot be separated from retrieval.  

Emotions drive attention, index events, set priorities, and create meaning. Recent research has produced three important discoveries about emotions:

  1. Emotions have their own biologically automated pathways, which are the superhighways of the brain. Response to emotion occurs before response to thinking.  

  2. The chemicals produced by emotions are dispersed throughout the brain and body and linger to strongly influence our behavior and capacity to learn.

  3. Emotions are a critical source of motivation. We use thinking to plan and set goals, but emotions supply the energy and drive to accomplish them. Whenever we reduce fear and threat, students learn more successfully.

Anxiety Performance CurveToo often we attempt to teach using only techniques that develop reflexive or semantic memory. Failures of recall often lead to fear.   When we are afraid, we downshift from higher level reasoning to our most basic automatic, ritualistic, and resistant processes.  If you have ever had a student explode in anger or break down in tears because they could not master a particular lesson, you have seen the results of this downshifting.  Learning is compromised by fear.


When we incorporate real-world context with its many associations and hands-on exercises, students use the power of episodic and procedural memories to improve recall. Successful retrieval leads to the pleasure of learning and confident, active students.

The research proves that a safe learning environment enhances learning.  In a safe learning environment students feel:
  • Cared about and known as individuals
  • Encouraged
  • Their unique talents are recognized and used to benefit the class
  • That the faculty member guides the learning
  • That they are encouraged to take risks, but supported when they fail
  • A sense of team or community 
  • They are treated with courtesy.

Renate Nemmela Caine and Geoffrey Caine, (writing in Marking Connections:  Teaching and the Human Brain, Addison-Wesley, 1994) report on 12 principles for Mind/Brain learning.  It is wise to keep these principles in mind as you design your class:

1. The brain is a complex adaptive system
2.  The brain is a social brain
3.  The search for meaning is innate
4. The search for meaning occurs through" patterning"
5. Emotions are critical to patterning
6. Every brain simultaneously perceives and creates parts and wholes
7. Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception
8. Learning always involves conscious and unconscious processes
9. We have at least two ways of organizing memory
10. Learning is developmental
11. Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat
12. Every brain is uniquely organized.


dig deepermore about Cognitive Methods

Triune Brain

The Triune BrainRecent research indicates that our brain functions as three interconnected brains controlling behavior, emotions, and abstract thinking. Complexity is the key. Ideally, concepts, emotions, and behavior work in concert to fully realize our human potential.

1. The Reptilian Brain, located in the Brain Stem, is responsible for maintenance and security: breathing, circulation, territory, social hierarchy. Behavior is automatic, ritualistic, and resistant to change.

2. The Limbic System includes the amygdala and hippocampus which serve as emotional guardians. Events are indexed and coordinated.  Memories associated with emotion and context are initiated here.

3. In the Neocortex, abstract thinking, planning, and creativity originate. It gives us the ability to use language, create science and art, tolerate uncertainty, investigate, and synthesize.

Threat, Helplessness and Downshifting
Threat, together with a feeling of helplessness, causes our brain's processing to downshift: perception narrows, stress inhibits short term memory, the indexing function fails, and behavior reverts to more primitive reactions. Students gripped by anxiety lose the ability to think, their eyes "glaze over", and they often feel fatigued.

Types of Memory

Short-term Memory is a selective response to many stimuli and lasts for 5-20 seconds. You look up a telephone number and recall it long enough to dial it.

Working Memory refers to the number of chunks we can hold in our head at one time. For adults, this is usually seven pieces plus or minus two. Emotions influence the content of working memory.

Long-term Memory forms only when information is actively processed. You recall a phone number after repeated use or by association, (eg. 1-800-flowers).

Procedural Memory is motor memory or body learning. Many students often remember hands-on learning best. Some skills, such as driving a car, can only be learned by doing.

Reflexive Memory is full of automatic, instant associations. It has been referred to as the hot stove effect. Reflexive learning is the goal when using flashcards to teach math facts, but too often the reflex is fear. Many students need associations and context to develop reliable retrieval of math facts.

Semantic Memory is word based memory: names, facts, figures, traditional book learning. It requires strong motivation on the part of the learner. Semantic Memory is best activated by novelty, similarities or contrasts. Recall is enhanced by many and/or strong associations.

Episodic Memory is based on experiences, events and memories in context. It has unlimited capacity, forms quickly, and requires no practice.  It is enhanced by sensory input: sights, sounds, smells, and movement. Recall is triggered by contextual cues such as location and emotions.