Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

Feb 16 Dopamine Part 1



The topic of the importance of the neurotransmitter dopamine in education due to its successful ability to engage students by increasing learning will be covered in the February and March 2016 Monthly Ed Tip.

Part 1: The importance of the neurotransmitter dopamine in education

Ever wonder why playing video games, receiving text messages, and participating in social media are such a pleasure, while understanding Algebra, memorizing French verbs, solving physics problems, or taking SATs are such a challenge and not immediately intrinsically rewarding?

The answer is that the human brain is not evolutionarily designed for school, but is wired for our survival and adaptation and seeking activities that provide pleasure, novelty, patterns, and personal relevance in our everyday lives.

“The brain isn’t interesting in learning, it’s interesting in surviving,” writes John Medina, the author of the New York Times bestseller book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Medina is a developmental molecular biologist and in Brain Rules posits that the brain is an organ with six primary functions: Pleasure-seeking, Novelty-seeking, Adaptation/Survival seeking, Energy-conserving seeking, Pattern-seeking, and a Meaning-seeking organ.

Moreover, the six functions are controlled by drugs, and it can be said somewhat jokingly that the brain is addicted to drugs!

The brain does not care


Not actually the type of drugs you might be thinking about, but neurotransmitters, chemical signaling molecules that control communication in the brain by telling a neuron (a brain cell) to either fire or not fire an electrical signal that carries information across gaps (synapses) between the branches (axons and dendrites) that connect other neurons.

Of particular importance for educators is the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine, sometimes referred to as the please molecule, is a neurotransmitter that brings on emotional sensations of joy, delight, pleasure, and pain and governs body movement. Dopamine is one of dozens of neurochemicals and hormones that not only influence learning, but also can be activated by certain teaching strategies and environmental influences. Certain experiences have been associated with the increased release of dopamine, which in turn produces pleasurable feelings. Engaging students in learning activities that correlate increasing dopamine release will likely get them to respond not only with pleasure, but also with increased focus, memory, and motivation.

Dopamine acts throughout the brain and body but is intensely active in the pleasure reward circuit/center of the brain. The circuit is located in the deep recesses of the midsection of the brain and is composed of the nucleus accumbens (NAc or NAcc), substantia nigra, ventral tegmental area (VTA), the amygdala (the emotional center of the brain), and the prefrontal cortex (PFC-the thinking part of the brain often referred to as the executive center).

Per Wikipedia, the reward circuit is a key detector of a rewarding stimulus and helps people choose behavior that leads to positive outcomes. Under normal conditions, the circuit controls an individual's responses to natural rewards and things that are rewarding such as food, sex, drugs, and social interactions, and is, therefore, an important determinant of motivation and incentive drive. In simplistic terms, activation of the pathway tells the individual to repeat what it just did to get that reward. It also tells the memory centers in the brain to pay particular attention to all features of that rewarding experience, so it can be repeated in the future.

Levels of dopamine increased when exposed to humor, to being in a pleasurable mood, to acts of self-appreciation and kindness, to positive peer interactions, to expressions of gratitude, movement, being read to, and to opportunities for predictions and choice.

Of particular importance to the brain is novelty. The brain pays immediate attention when experiencing a novel event, which causes the reward centers of the brain to instantly release dopamine. A modern day example of a novel event is getting an unexpected text causing the dopamine cells in the brain to fire up. Naturally, once the novelty wears off, the faucet for these feel-good chemicals shuts down.

Dopamine significantly promotes attention, concentration, optimism, curiosity, inspiration, motivation, persistence, perseverance, creativity, and imagination. In addition, it assists in regulating balance and movement.

A decreased production of dopamine in the substantia nigra is associated with Parkinson’s disease, a movement disorder that progressively affects body movement, produces tremors, loss of fine motor skills, muscle stiffness, akinesia (an inability to move), and rigidity.

Unfortunately, the reward circuit is also home to addicting behaviors that involve the use of most drugs, opium, nicotine, amphetamine, ethanol, cocaine, and other obsessive-compulsive behaviors such as gambling. For example, cocaine blocks dopamine receptors in the reward circuit preventing the reuptake (removal) of dopamine in the space between synapses. This causes a dopamine increase in the synapse since it has nowhere to go due to the blockage of the receptors.

Judy Willis, a board-certified neurologist, author, and a speaker at national and international professional educator conferences, describes dopamine as cocaine for the brain, for without dopamine, cocaine has no effect on the brain. Figuratively, cocaine is dopamine. If the brain didn’t have dopamine, cocaine would not be effective.

Dopamine = Cocaine


Effects of drugs


Dopamine levels

Below are five teaching strategies based on work and research by Robert Brooks, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, Carol Dweck, and Judy Willis that will increase the release of dopamine and thereby produce pleasurable student learning by significantly improving learning by getting students to respond not only with pleasure, but also with increased focus, memory, and motivation.

Establish an emphatic classroom: They may forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
-- Anonymous

Notes Robert Brooks, on the faculty at Harvard Medical School who lectures nationally and internationally on resilience and self-esteem, teachers can help produce a less stressful, more enriching, and successful learning environment for all students and increase the release of dopamine by “creating motivating environments, that is, environments in which those involved are eager to participate and cooperate.”

Educators must develop a classroom culture that is “associated with the cultivation of motivation and accomplishments” in students, which accomplish the goal of connectiveness and belonging, and combats the feelings some students have that “they are dumb, stupid, and no matter what they can do, they will never learn this stuff,” writes Brooks.

To have this type of learning environment, it is paramount to create a positive and caring student-teacher relationship, posits Robert Brooks. Brooks often asks the question, “Why would anyone want to be in an environment where no one cares about them?” He strongly believes that children don’t care what you know until they know that you care, and that students learn best from people they know who care. He strongly feels that “a teacher can have all of the instructional strategies in the world, but the relationship must be first and foremost because if it’s not you will fail and no learning will occur.”

Self-Determination theory: “Human beings have an innate drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer and fuller lives.”

Want to know how to create a class of motivated and engaged students? For short-term results, rewards will probably work for a short time period. But what about long-term productivity? For lasting results, the conversation must shift to a discussion of extrinsic motivation (i.e., motivation based on external rewards and punishments and the possibility of feeling controlled) vs. intrinsic motivation (i.e., motivation based on “authenticity and responsibility” and a feeling of having choice).

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, authors of the Self-Determination Theory and psychologists at the University of Rochester in New York, offer that in order to achieve this goal, three basic psychological needs of students and employees must be considered.

Deci and Ryan reanalyzed nearly three decades of studies on the topic of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation and found that, “careful consideration of reward effects reported in 128 experiments lead to the conclusion that tangible rewards tend to have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation. When institutions-families, schools, businesses, and athletic teams, for example-focus on the short-term and opt for controlling people’s behavior, they do considerable long-term damage.” Their writings have contributed to our understanding of why “people rewarded for engaging in activities that bring them enjoyment and for which they are intrinsically motivated may actually become less interested in these activities once rewards are introduced.”

Deci does not unequivocally oppose the use of rewards. He states: “Of course, they’re necessary in workplaces and other settings, but the less salient they are made, the better. When people use rewards to motivate, that’s when they’re most demotivating. Instead, we should focus our efforts on creating environments for our innate psychological needs to flourish.”

And what are those three needs? The authors findings are that “there are three basic, innate, psychological needs that we all have: the need to belong or feel connected, the need to feel competent, and the need for autonomy or self-determination. When those needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive, and happy. When they’re thwarted, our motivation, productivity, and happiness plummet.”

Deci and Ryan have produced hundreds of research papers, most of which point to the same conclusion. “Human beings have an innate drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another.” When these needs are met, the actions of our students, employees, and family members will be rooted not by short-term and inconsistent extrinsic motivation, but by sustaining, ingrained and habitual intrinsic motivation.

A message in many of Brooks’ writings and presentations is that individuals will be more motivated, creative, and cooperative when they do not fear making mistakes and when they feel their voice is being heard and respected. Deci and Ryan write that competent people know they are going to fail on occasion, and the first step a teacher can do to help students feel competent in the classroom is to eliminate the fear of making a mistake and of failure. Brooks believes that “the fear of making mistakes is the elephant in the classroom,” and students have to learn and believe they will not be judged harshly, accused, or suspected of being stupid when they make a mistake.

Educators have to understand that for them, learning was in many ways easy, but can be a hard and risky task for many students. For those students, risk-taking will not happen if the cost of failure is too high since the feeling of humiliation from making a mistake is huge and will supersede all other performance factors. Brooks believes that when the fear of humiliation from making a mistake is removed from the classroom, many students will take the appropriate risk to learn and learn from you.

Students should recognize that making mistakes is part of the learning process and “failure is an expected milestone on the path to success and failing does not mean you can never succeed, it just means you don’t succeed every time. When students feel they can practice anticipating and accepting failure without fear or judgment, the door is open for success,” offers Brooks.

Growth mind-set equals successful learning: Fall down seven times, get up eight. A U.S. Marines saying

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck explores how people rationalize the causes of events and behavior (Attribution Theory), and found a critical ingredient of a student’s success in a classroom is what they attribute their accomplishments to.

As a result of her research, Dweck developed the “fixed vs. growth mind-set theory”. Dweck explains that a child with a “fixed mind-set” (entity theory) believes academic successes are due to intelligence and being smart. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, and that they have a certain amount of intelligence, and that’s that. Dweck has concluded that students with a fixed mind-set become excessively concerned with how smart they are, seeking tasks that will prove their intelligence and avoiding ones that might not. The desire to learn takes a backseat and makes thriving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart.

On the other hand, students who believe their intellectual ability is something they can develop through effort and education, demonstrate a “growth mind-set” (incremental theory). When students believe that they can develop their intelligence, they focus on doing just that. Not worrying how smart they will appear, they take on challenges and stick to them. Studies have shown that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.

A fundamental difference between the two mind-sets is a person’s goals. Dweck reports that students for whom performance is paramount want to look smart even if it means not learning a thing in the process. For them, each task is a challenge to their self-image, and each setback becomes a personal threat. They pursue only activities at which they excel in, and avoid the sorts of experiences necessary to grow and flourish. Students with learning goals, on the other hand, take necessary risks and don’t worry about failure because each mistake becomes a chance to learn.

During their discussion on resiliency in The Winner’s Brain, Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske posit that, “Students must be taught to believe that their efforts will result in successful learning, that if they put in effort, they will improve and learn, that one success builds on another, and that they can learn from their mistakes. When an unsuccessful learner understands and accepts a growth mind-set belief, they begin to believe that when they put forth the effort to learn, they will succeed. Many times with a student who feels they are “dumb or stupid”, it is an issue in them believing that their efforts will lead to success.”

Hope you found this article informative and next month this artice will continue discussing the importance of dopamine in ecucation.


“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.