Educators educating Educators

May 26

March 16 Dopamine Part 2

March 2016 Part 2: 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 2: The importance of the neurotransmitter dopamine in education

Smile, and the world smiles with you

When you're smilin' keep on smilin'
The whole world smiles with you
And when you're laughin' oh when you’re laughin'

Song by Louis Armstrong

Finally, a simple and easy way to create an emphatic learning environment is to simply smile and laugh. When people have a smile on their face, they release more serotonin and dopamine – i.e. happiness hormones – than non-smiles, according to the researchers. In addition, laughter is, indeed, the best medicine for stress reduction and studies confirm laughter reduces stress hormones, lowers blood pressure, and boost immune function.

Adds Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske, authors of the The Winner’s Brain, describing our “monkey see, monkey do” brain cells, the mirror neurons, “that have the ability to provide a kind of inner imitation of other people, helping lead you to a better understanding of other people’s actions, intentions, and emotions. When you see someone smiling, your mirror neurons for smiling light up, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes the feelings we typically associate with a smile.”

Realize the significance of the use of predictions to produce dopamine: What goes up must come down – even in the brain

Naturally, teachers would love classes where all students are 100% attentive.

However, teachers must remember that student’s brains must have a reason to be attentive and that attention is a process of selection. Willis posits “that before anything can be retained in memory and learned, it needs to be attended (selected) to by the brain, while things that are not attended to are unlikely to be retained and recalled from memory.”

The use of predictions is an effective teaching strategy that sustains a learner’s curiosity and increases attention and interest. When making a prediction, the brain must make a choice, it has “a stake in the game, and has to know if it is correct.”

For explanation purpose, let’s make a prediction on something an average person has handled at least 10,000 times by the age of 40.

What does a penny look like? Is Lincoln’s profile on the penny facing left or right? What, if anything, is above, below, to the right, or left of Lincoln’s profile? The important question this raises is, what brain mechanisms determine what we will remember and what we will forget?

Penny faces


Penny question 2: What does a penny look like?


The first action the brain does when making a prediction is to activate the PFC, the brain’s thinking center, which, for comparison purposes, instantaneously sends out messages to all brain regions to recall any prior knowledge relating to the prediction. The PFC collects the data, and within milliseconds, sends it to the hippocampus, the Grand Central Station of memory. In the hippocampus, the prior knowledge meets up with the new information and a new memory is formed.

When making a prediction, the VTA, a central component of the brain’s reward circuit, comes alive since it is “the activity of dopaminergic neurons in the VTA that appears to be linked to reward prediction,” according to Wikipedia. When a prediction is correct, the VTA, a stack of dopamine, squirts out a lot of it to the PFC, and the PFC LOVES its dopamine.


Prediction increses memory



In the book Mind, Brain, and Education, Judy Willis explains that when a prediction is correct, the increased release of dopamine creates positive feelings and thereby reinforces the memory of the information used to answer the question, make a prediction, or solve a problem. The brain favors and rewards actions that release more dopamine, so the involved neural memory circuit become stronger and this circuit is favored when making similar future choices.

This set of effects makes dopamine a learning-friendly neurotransmitter since it promotes motivation, memory, and puts a positive value on actions or thoughts that resulted in the dopamine release. Additionally, the neural networks used to make the correct predictions are reinforced.

However, nothing focuses the mind more than surprises, and if the prediction is wrong, the PFC goes into withdrawal resulting in some degree of unpleasantness because it doesn’t receive its dopamine, and wow, does it feel bad. The brain wants to avoid this drop in pleasure and for this to take place it needs to make corrective feedback offers Willis.

Willis notes for this to happen, the brain alters the memory circuit so that the new information is imbedded in the neurons. This process is called neuroplasticity - changes in the brain due to the ability of its neural networks to extend, prune, reorganize, correct, or strengthen themselves based on acquiring new information, obtaining corrective feedback, and recognizing associations between new and prior knowledge.

Dopamine-reward circuit

Wondering what is the answer? First, a question. While waiting and wondering about the answer, did you have a sense of anticipation or urgency about the answer? That sense you’re feeling is your mind hoping for its squirt of dopamine, its reward and feel good drug that its addicted to.

The correct answer is A. (An interesting fact-the penny is the only coin with the nose pointing to the left.)

Penny answer

Lincoln penny profile

Finally, another significant learning aspect can be illustrated with the penny example – attentiveness and selectiveness. As noted above, “that before anything can be retained in memory and learned, it needs to be attended (selected) to by the brain, while things that are not attended to are unlikely to be retained and recalled from memory.”

Even though a person has handled thousands of pennies, one must pause to determine the answer to the Lincoln penny profile question. Why? Because even though a penny is handled countless times, one cannot readily recall its details since they were not attentive - not selected - and therefore not retained to memory.

Teachers must remember that when students are not paying attention to the lesson, it doesn’t mean they are inattentive. Students are always paying attention to sensory input, but maybe not the sensory input of the lesson.

In summary, teachers should often remind themselves that the brain is “addicted to drugs.” Educators should remain cognitive of the fact the brain learns best when learning is accompanied by positive emotion and the production of dopamine, which increases focus, memory, and motivation and is essential for successful learning and long-term retention of information.

Educators must keep in mind that establishing an atmosphere of an empathic classroom, remembering that all students want to feel autonomous, self-determined, and connected,” that students learn best when they have growth mind-set, use the inherent advantages of prediction, and realize the effectiveness of simply smiling and laughing. All will help improve learning for all students by activating the release of dopamine, the pleasure-seeking molecule that contributes to one of the brain’s six primary functions- Pleasure-seeking.


Read April's Ed Tip to understand how using video game design principles will improve instruction.  Moreover, educators should not view video games as the enemy of education, but rather a model for best teaching practices. When educators design instructional strategies, they must keep in mind the principles of video games, namely achievable challenge, and the role of dopamine in education.