Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

Educator Anatomy

“I used to think my brain was my most important organ. But then I thought; wait a minute, who’s telling me that?” ~ Emo Phillips


“In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection.” ~ Plato


Updated May 2011

Emotion is a primary catalyst in the learning process and our amygdala regulates our emotions.

"It is not an accident that the amygdala is sometimes referred to as the “reptilian brain” or the ancient brain. It is the base of our humanity and doesn’t have knowledge or judgment. It is the source of emotion and our fight–or–flight notions. This means our brains are hardwired to remember those things that have emotion attached to them.

However, if we have emotions that are threatening to us, the amygdala readies us fight or flee-to take action. The emotion becomes dominant over reason at that point, and our rational brain is less effective at that point. The environment must be safe for us to learn. This is why high-stakes testing is so problematic. It creates an emotional reaction that produces an opposite reaction that we are seeking from the student.”

Paul Houston, "Giving Wings to Children’s Dream: Making our Schools Worthy of our Children"

Scroll down to increase understand the amygdala’s role in education


***  Teaching Suggestions  ***

1. Employ as many pictures, visuals, and movies as possible in presentations to students

Humans are exceptionally visual animals and are visual learners. In fact, at least 30% to 40% of your cerebral cortex is devoted to processing visual information in one form or another.

2. Using two study sessions with time between the sessions can result in twice the learning as a single study session of the same total time length

Employ this technique when presenting a new topic. During the first 8 minutes of class, introduce the first half of a new topic. Following the initial presentation, students complete a corresponding 5-minute activity. Next, present the second half of the topic followed by a related review activity that encompasses the entire topic.

In Welcome to Your Brain, Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang describe this phenomenon as spaced learning vs. cramming. They explain that synapses (described below) can be maxed out or lose their ability to learn new information, which is called long-term depression or weakening of a synapse connection. A way to avoid this is to utilize two study sessions vs. cramming hours for an exam.


3. Optimal use of time: It’s all in the design-lesson design that is!

The brain prefers a “pulse” learning pattern.

Focused [Diffused] Focused [Diffused] Focused

The best learning occurs when interrupted by breaks of 2 - 5 minutes for diffusion or processing.

How long is best for focused activity? The age of the learner plus two minutes.

Young learners: 5 – 10 minutes

Adolescents: 15 -20 minutes

Adults: 20 -25 minutes

The above example was presented by Sarah Armstrong at the Learning & Brain Conference May 2010.


4. Review, then review, & then review again but in a meaningful and interesting manner

Repeat to remember, is an excellent teaching strategy for short-term memory and Remember to repeat, is a first-rate technique for long-term memory.

Do you remember all of your computer passwords? No. Well, what about your last vacation? No doubt. The difference is due to the type of processing all information undergoes as it enters our brains, which is encoding. The above example concerns two types of encoding: automatic processing/encoding and effortful encoding/processing.

As explained by John Medina in Brain Rules, automatic encoding or processing is unintentional, requiring minimal attentional effort. Memories are easily recalled and seemed bounded together into a cohesive, readily retrievable form. Examples of this type of encoding include concerts you have attended, Thanksgiving, and Christmas routines and tradition observed by your family.

The evil twin of automatic processing is effortful encoding or processing. This type is a task, as in remembering your various user names and passwords. Committing this information to memory is a chore, requiring conscious, energy-burning attention. The information is not bounded together as in automatic processing, and requires a lot of repetitions before it can be retrieved with ease of automatic processing.


***  Insights & Tidbits ***



Updated March 2011

Teenagers act immature and impulsive because their brains are wired to be immature & impulsive. As teachers, why would you expect mature adult behavior from a brain that is not fully developed until age 25!

Why do teenagers act like teenagers and not fully matured adults?  Because researchers have determined that a human brain does not fully mature until the middle of the second decade. The teenage brain is not a mature adult brain due to these three reasons: certain brain areas are not fully developed; the brain is not completely wired from back to front; and, the presence of an absurd level of hormones.  In fact, the region of the brain (pre frontal cortex) responsible for planning, forethought, judgment, organization, and impulse control is the last area of the brain to mature.  And as all high school teachers know, the lack of these traits is quite noticeable in high school students!

Watch the following informative New York Times video for detailed illustration of brain maturation.


Educator anatomy

The brain is the organ of loving, learning, behaving, intelligence, personality, character, belief, and knowing and not surprisingly, the most complicated organ in the universe.


Even though the brain is only about 2% of your body’s weight, it uses about 25% of the calories you consume. On the pathologist’s table housed in formaldehyde, the brain is firm, fixed, and rubbery. But inside your skull, the brain is the consistency of chilled or soft butter or a raw hard-boiled egg, and feels like an avocado. It is the size of a grapefruit or coconut, the shape of a walnut, and the color of uncooked liver. It is 80% water and is the fattest organ in the body. The brain receives ¼ of the body’s blood supply at all times and 20% of the energy of the body. An adult brain weighs about 3 pounds, uses 12 watts of energy/electricity, which is enough to light a refrigerator bulb. In reality, we are really dim bulbs!

The brain has more than 100 billion neurons, more stars than in the sky, and the space where two braches meet is called a synapse, where the brain stores information. If you take a piece of brain tissue the size of a grain of sand, it contains 100,000 neurons and a billion connections all-talking to one another.Information in the brain travels at the speed of 268 miles per hour, unless of course, you are impaired by drink or drug.

For illustration, David Brooks compares the brain to a football stadium filled with spaghetti. Now imagine it shrunk down to skull size, and much more complicated.Writing in The Social Animal, Brooks estimates that humans create 1.8 million synapses per second from their second month utero to their second birthday.Depending on how much your brain is stimulated, you could end up with 100 trillion, 500 trillion, or 1,000 trillion synapses.

Neurosurgeon Katrina Firlik, in her book Another Day In The Frontal Lobe, describes the brain “like tofu, the soft kind, which when caught in suction during surgery slurps into the tube.”  Your soft “tofu-like” brain is housed in a really hard  skull that has many ridges, which can damage the brain during trauma.


The following video will help illustrate the above information.


Brain Matters Videos


The Brain Matters videos are meant to provide an introductory overview of the brain in about an hour.  They have been broken up into five video chapters (each less than 15 minutes long) and serve as a foundation to develop a functional understanding of the learning brain.


The presenter, Todd Rose is a research scientist with CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology) and adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he teaches a course on Educational Neuroscience. Dr. Rose’s work focuses on the complex ways perception, attention and working memory interact to shape learning in classrooms, and on the study of learning disabilities from a developmental systems perspective. He lectures nationally and internationally on learning disabilities, working memory in the classroom, and the role of neuroscience in education.


Chapter 1: The Neuron This chapter provides an overview of the basic cell of the brain -- the neuron. Focus is on the key parts of a neuron, and how neurons make use of electrical and chemical signals to communicate.  [12:18]


Chapter 2: Brain Organization This chapter provides an entry point into thinking about the organization of the brain. It groups brain structures into four areas (brainstem, cerebellum, diencephalon, and cerebrum), and digs deeper into the first three of these areas.  [12:38]


Chapter 3: The Cerebrum This chapter introduces three sub-components of the cerebrum (cortex, white matter, and subcortical structures). Focus is on white matter and three subcortical structures: basal ganglia, hippocampus, and amygdala.  [10:28]


Chapter 4: The Cortex: Frontal Lobes This chapter introduces the lobes of the cortex (frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital), and digs deeper into the frontal lobes. Focus is on three sub-components of the frontal lobes: primary motor cortex, motor association areas, and the prefrontal cortex.  [15:00]


Chapter 5: The Cortex: Sensory Lobes This chapter extends the discussion of cortical lobes, and digs deeper into the sensory lobes (parietal, temporal, and occipital). Focus is on how each lobe processes specific sensory signals, and a critical distinction is made between primary and association areas.  [10:15]



Each brain is wired differently: Our environment causes permanent physical changes in our brains

The Jennifer Aniston neuron example demonstrates the specificity of neurons and illustrates that not all brains are wired exactly the same including identical twins.

In Brain Rules, John Medina relates a story of a conscious man lying in surgery with his brain partially exposed. He is feeling no pain because the brain has no pain neurons. The reason for surgery is life-threatening epilepsy.

Suddenly, a surgeon shows the patient a picture of Jennifer Aniston and a neuron in his brain fired rapidly and intensely. The neuron responded to 7 photos of Aniston, while ignoring the 80 other images of everything else. Furthermore, the neuron fired to all images of Aniston except the one where she appeared with Brad Pitt.

Photos and drawings of Halle Berry, and even her written name activated another neuron. Although this neuron responded to a picture of Halle Berry dressed in her Catwomen costume, it did not respond to the photo of another women in a Catwomen costume. Other neurons responded to Julia Roberts, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Bill Clinton, or even a famous building like the Sydney Opera House.

By using this example, Medina illustrates the principle that all brains are wired differently because “our brains are so sensitive to external inputs that their physical wiring depends upon the culture in which they find themselves.” In other words, each interaction with our environment that our brains experience changes the physical structure of our brain forever. He refers to this concept as “experience-dependent wiring.”

Even identical twins brains that watch the same movie are wired differently. He goes on to explain that, “even though the differences may seem subtle, the two brains are creating different memories of the same movie” because “learning results in physical changes in the brain, and these changes are unique to the individual.”

Watch John Medina explain this principle using the short video link below.




Brainbow”, an imaging technique created by Harvard researchers, provide startling and unique pictures of a mouse nervous system.



By activating multiple fluorescent proteins in neurons, neuroscientists at Harvard University are imaging the brain and nervous system as never before, rendering their cells in a riotous spray of colors dubbed a “Brainbow.”


The technique, described in the cover story of the Nov. 1 issue of the journal Nature, has been developed by a team led by Harvard's Jean Livet, Joshua R. Sanes, and Jeff W. Lichtman and allows researchers to tag neurons with roughly 90 distinct colors, a huge leap over the mere handful of shades possible with current fluorescent labeling.


By permitting visual resolution of individual brightly colored neurons, this increase should greatly help scientists in charting the circuitry of the brain and nervous system.  "In the same way that a television monitor mixes red, green, and blue to depict a wide array of colors, the combination of three or more fluorescent proteins in neurons can generate many different hues," said Lichtman, professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and the center for Brain Science in the Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

"Brainbow" mouse

Coretx & Hippocampus

The cortex and hippocampus of a "Brainbow" mouse

A Neuron

A neuron

Brain Stem

The brain stem of a "Brainbow" mouse: heart rate and breathing, etc.

This combination of cyan, yellow, and red fluorescent proteins highlights a motor neuron in a "Brainbow" mouse.



Neuron/nerve cells

Electrical signals travel down axons at several hundred feet per second, bringing signals from your brain to your hand fast enough to escape the heat of a frying pan or the bite of a dog. This helps all animals get away from imminent danger quickly.

When the electrical signal arrives at the end of an axon, it is changed into a chemical messenger that acts as a chemical signaling machine. Communication between neurons depends on neurotransmitters, which are released from the end of the axon when triggered by the arrival of the electrical signal. Each neuron receives several hundred thousand chemical connections, called synapses.

A synapse may fire 50,000 times in one-half of a second to 200,000 other synapses. At times, you have 100 billion neurons firing all at the same time. This neural firing creates connections and is profoundly involved with learning. In actuality, neurons are the biological unit of knowing, they hold everything.






Use it or lose it!

Expressed another way, neurons that fire together, wire together. Put simply, neurons learn more easily when they fire on their third attempt than their first attempt.In neurological terms, neurons strengthen synapses that are effective and weaken or remove neurons that are silent.

Between the second month in utero and the age of two, each neuron in the cortex forms an average of 1.8 synapses per second.  Which synapses remain, and which are pruned, depends on whether or not they utilized.  If not activated, then like bus routes that attract no customers, they go out of business.  This is an example of ones experiences shaping the brain.  (Armstrong, May 2010)

Let’s say you are learning a new math fact. The first time you hear it, nerve cells recruited for a new circuit fire a signal between each other. If you never practice the math fact again, the attraction between the synapses involved diminishes, weakening the signal. You forget.

Eric Kandel, a Columbia University neuroscientist, shared the 2000 Nobel Prize by demonstrating this process. His research proved repeated activation, or practice, causes the synapses themselves to swell and make stronger connections. These changes are a form of cellular adaptation called synaptic plasticity.


The following video will help illustrate the above information.



Synaptic plasticity is the process that makes learning possible.  Aamodt and Wang describe plasticity as “a process where neurons change in a highly robust and well-developed method to change in response to environmental demands.”  This involves creating and strengthening neural connections and weakening or eliminating others.  In other words, new synapses are formed and old ones die.

Synaptic plasticity occurs more easily at certain times, such as in infancy, and more easily to particular parts of the brain during certain times.  For instance, in adults it occurs more easily in the hippocampus, which is the grand central station of memory.

Additionally, there are “sensitive periods” (note, NOT "critical periods") during which particular types of learning are most effective.  Exposure to speech sounds is critical during the early stages of a child’s development, while vocabulary development does not pass through tight sensitive periods and can be learned over the course of a lifetime.

The video below will help illustrate the above information.


John Ratey discussing learning and long-term potentiation

In his book Spark, John Ratey, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Harvard University Medical School, explains that, “learning requires strengthening the affinity between neurons through a dynamic process called long-term potentiation. When the brain takes in new information, the demand causes activity between neurons.The more activity, the stronger the attraction becomes,” and the easier it is for the signal to fire and make connections. This process is the fundamental principle of the retention and retrieval of information, the neural process called learning.


When I was in college in late 1960s, I was taught that the brain was immutable from birth, with a certain number of brain cells and fixed neuronal circuits. The only changes thought to occur were the lost of brain cells and a reduction of brain volume. But researchers have shown that experience and learning remodels the brain circuits. Examples of such neuronal plasticity include LTP, where memories and learning generate new circuits.

LTP begins with the initial perception of an experience generating the firing of a subset of neurons firing together. Synchronous firing makes the neurons involved more inclined to fire together again in the future, a tendency known as “potentiation,” which recreates the original experience. If the same neurons fire together often, they eventually become permanently sensitized to each other, so that if one fires, the others do so as well. The second time a synapse fires, it takes a little less neurotransmitter and the more permanent a connection becomes, the greater the mylination. This is known as LTP, or learning at a cellular level.

The hippocampus is embedded deep in the temporal lobe. As explained by Rita Carter in her new book The Human Brain, “experiences ‘flow through it’ constantly, and more of them are encoded in memory through LTP. Thereafter, the hippocampus is involved in retrieving most types of memories. When you recall an episode from your life, the hippocampus and the area around it are activated. During memory recall, the hippocampus is busy pulling together various facets of the memory from widely distributed areas of the brain.”

It must be remembered learning is an interaction of biology, behavior, and environment, and is influenced by biochemical and genetic factors, as well as personal experience.Aamodt and Wang note that our brains have at least 12 ways of learning information, and each method or memory system uses a different region of the brain. For example, the hippocampus is brought into play for the storage of new facts and sequences, and initial spatial and episodic memories, while the cerebellum is utilized for remembering a new dance step or that perfect golf swing. In addition, each region has unique properties. The amygdala permits learning to occur quickly after a one-time experience, such as fear, whereas activity in the hippocampus necessitates longer, repetitive learning, such as multiplication tables.

Given the information above, it is no wonder why John Ratey refers to teachers as literal brain surgeons because when a student learns as a result of their instruction, the brain of the student is physically changed forever.  Or as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You never step into the same river twice.”

Refer to the Plasticity section of this site for some dramatic pictures reinforcing Ratey's argument.  I promise, you won't be disappointed.





Plasticity in action: A story illustrating the amazing efficiency of plasticity

The is a story of a 6-year-old Italian child blind in one eye because he was bandage for 2 weeks at a young age is a dramatic illustration of the efficiency and effectiveness of plasticity. As explained by Susan Greenfield in her book The Human Brain: A Guided Tour, the cause of the child’s blindness was a mystery as far as the ophthalmologists could tell because his eye was perfectly normal.

The doctors eventually discovered that when he was a baby, he had been treated for a minor infection. The treatment included having the eye bandaged for two weeks. In a young baby, the development of the eye-to-brain circuits is a delicate and critical process. Because the neurons serving the bandaged eye were not being used during this critical period of development, the brain treated them as if they were not there at all. “Sadly,” said Greenfield, “the bandaging of the eye was misinterpreted by the brain as a clear indication that the boy would not be using the eye for the rest of his life.” The result was that he was permanently blinded in that eye.

Susan Greenfield, Sex, Drugs, and Firing Neurons: This is Your Brain on Cognition

5 minute YouTube video




Kenneth Kosik on Long-Term Potentiation (LTP)

The following is a paraphrased summary of a presentation connecting Long-Term Potentiation (LTP) to learning made by Kenneth Kosik at the May 2010 Learning and Brain Conference in Washington, D. C. Dr. Kosik held various appointments at the Harvard Medical School where he became Professor of Neurology and Neuroscience in 1996. In the fall of 2004, he assumed the co-directorship of the Neuroscience Research Institute and the Harriman Chair in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at the University of California Santa Barbara.

The concept of LTP is simple but profound. LTP is achieving the threshold for the next neuron to fire. When a neuron fires, the next neuron may not fire. But if the sending neuron continues to fire, eventually the receiving neuron will fire. That is called the threshold. It takes a certain amount of firing to get the next neuron to activate. Eventually the threshold for firing the next neuron will decrease.

That is like learning. Like the receiving neuron, we learn from experiences. It takes a certain amount of stimulation to fire. As we get accustomed to something, it gets easier to get the neuron to fire. The physiology of this is LTP and it is a laboratory reflection of memory at a cellular level.




Long-term potentiation (LTP)

LTP in mice


Examples of brain changes due to excessive activation


“The brain acts like a muscle: The more activity you do, the larger and more complex it can become.  Whether that leads to more intelligence is another issue, but one fact is indisputable: What you do in life physically changes what your brain looks like.”

When scientists mapped the brain areas that receive sensory information from the left and of string musicians who practiced a skill year-in and year-out, they found the area larger than that in nonplayers.  They also found that the area of the brain activated on hearing piano notes is roughly 25% larger in pianists than in non-musicians.

London Taxi

London cabbies brains adapt to hold "the knowledge"

London cab drivers' grey matter enlarges and adapts to help them store a detailed mental map of the city, according to research.  Taxi drivers given brain scans by scientists at University College London had a larger hippocampus compared with other people. This is a part of the brain associated with navigation in birds and animals.  The scientists also found part of the hippocampus grew larger as the taxi drivers spent more time in the job.  "There seems to be a definite relationship between the navigating they do as a taxi driver and the brain changes," said Dr Eleanor Maguire, who led the research team.  She said: "The hippocampus has changed its structure to accommodate their huge amount of navigating experience."

The research confirms something, which London's black-cab drivers have suspected for some time - learning their way around the capital is a brain-straining feat.

In order to drive a traditional black cab in London drivers have to gain "the knowledge" - an intimate acquaintance with the myriad of streets in a six-mile radius of Charing Cross.  It can take around three years of hard training, and three-quarters of those who embark on the course drop out, according to Malcolm Linskey, manager of London taxi school Knowledge Point.  "There are 400 prescribed runs which you can be examined on but in reality, you can be asked to join any two points," he told BBC News Online.


Brain development

Early stages of brain development occur in the womb where environmental stimulation is limited. In the womb neurons are born and migrate to their final positions and axons grow out to their intended targets. It is well documented how alcohol and drug use effects such development.

The sensory experience starts at birth, which is called experience-expectant development (EED). As stated by John Medina in Brain Rules,” a great deal of the brain is hard-wired not to be hard-wired. We are hard-wired to be flexible.” Furthermore, our nervous system’s physical wiring depends upon the culture in which our neurons find themselves and the wiring is dependant upon the external inputs received by the brain.

EED is also important for the development of a child’s active vs. passive learning. For example, more learning will take place when a child is exposed to intellectually stimulating activities such as learning an active skill (playing a musical instrument), as opposed to a passive experience, (listening to the same music).

Marianne Diamond, Professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and other researchers have produced evidence of environmental effects on learning through their experiments with rats. Diamond found that rats housed with other rats and with more toys had larger neurons, more glial cells, and more synapses than rats living in a deprived environment. In addition, the rats living in a stimulated environment with other rats could more easily problem solve and complete a variety of tasks.

Interestingly, over the past several decades, IQ in many countries has increased. Aamodt and Wang speculate there is something about modern life that is producing children who do better on IQ tests than their parents. The strongest difference is in children with lower than average IQ. Research suggests this could be due to better prenatal care, early childhood nutrition, and intellectual environment. Neuroscientists have documented that your genes determine how you interact with the environment, including what you get from the environment.


Interesting Parts of the Brain for Educators



Before we get started, watch this 2:05 minute video of the Brain Anatomy & Function




I am going to obsess just a little on the amygdala since I consider it critically essential to understanding how emotions, learning, and the classroom-learning environment interact and are explicitly and powerfully interrelated.


The Limbic System

The amygdala is FEAR, it controls the fight or flight response, it is our emotional control center.  The amygdala, along with the hippocampus, is part of the limbic system, which lies near the center of the brain. The limbic system is critical to human behavior and survival. It enables humans to experience and express emotion by adding to the emotional spice (our passions, emotions, and desires) of our lives, both positive and negative.

The amygdala controls the autonomic system by generating an instant sympathetic response to potential dangerous situations. The main outputs of the amygdala are to: the hypothalamus (responsible for translating our emotions states into physical feelings), the brainstem (controls bodily functions and maintains brain activities), the vagus nerve (longest nerve in the body starting at the brain stem), and the sympathetic neurons (our arousal system). It is extensively interconnected with the frontal cortex (controls higher order thinking skills) and the thalamus (receives all incoming sensory information, except smell, and sorts them to other areas of the cortex).

The amygdala is so important that smell directly stimulates it. This occurs because olfactory information has a direct connection with the amygdala, which enables animals to experience and express passion, desires and emotion, it adds the emotional spice to life, both positive and negative.

All sensory signals must go to the thalamus before being directed to other parts of the brain. This is true for all senses except one, namely smell. Odors enter the nose and proceed to the olfactory region between the eyes, which is the size of a postage-stamp. The nerves then proceed directly to the amygdala and to the orbitofrontal cortex, the decision-making area of the brain, bypassing the thalamus.

It is as if odor is saying, “ My signal is so important, what are you going to do about it?” How much in a hurry is the sense of smell? So much so that nature decided the olfactory receptor cells didn’t need a protective barrier! The cornea guards the visual receptor neurons and the eardrum shelters the hearing neurons. But there is no protective guardian between the olfactory region and the amygdala.

Aamodt and Wang write that the reaction of the amygdala is so important we test for it at birth. We use the APGAR test to assess 5 different functions (Activity, Pulse, Grimace, Appearance, and Respiration). Two of them are about the amygdala. Nurses drop the heads of the baby ever so slightly or lightly clap near the head.This causes a transition because something changes for the baby. Nurses look for the startled reaction, a test of transition. The babies bring their arms up, cross their legs, arch their backs, their eyes get wide; they are getting ready to protect themselves.

Amygdala flowchart


Emotions in our classrooms

In humans, emotions control many of our social behaviors and process our social signals, all of which are naturally present at all times in our classrooms. The amygdala is involved with mood and our conscious emotional response to an event. Neuroscientists have documented that the amygdala mediates the effects on most types of learning because emotional arousal facilitates attention to the most important details of an experience. For instance, victims of armed robbery remember what the gun looked like.

The amygdala plays a major role in instinctive emotional reactions and takes precedence over thoughtful reflection.  It matures before the frontal lobes and results in adolescents responding with guts reaction rather than reason, which may account for the impulsive and risky behavior of adolescents.  (Armstrong, May 2010)

The amygdala responds to fear and positive emotional stimuli by focusing attention on emotional events in our world. Damage to the amygdala reduces fear in animals/people and reduces signs of physical anxiety. Researches on monkeys found those with lesioned amygdalas (damage through injury or disease such as wound, ulcer, abscess, or tumor) are unable to recognize the emotional significance of objects, and for example, show no fear when presented with a snake or another aggressive monkey.

In humans, a damaged amygdala equates to no formation of fear memories and causes a person to fail to concentrate at stressful moments. For example, people in card games with damaged amygdala fail to respond to risks with typical reactions such as increased heart rate and sweaty palms. This lack of reaction is not good in Las Vegas because you need these emotional reactions to make good decisions under uncertain circumstances.


Amygdala and Emotion

The amygdala is the supervisor of emotion. The amygdala supervises not only the formation of emotional experiences but also the memory of emotional experiences.The amygdala is full of dopamine, which considerably aids in the formation and recall of memories.  When the amygdala works as it should, it orchestrates a physiological response to changes in the environment.  That response includes heightened memory for emotional experiences and the familiar chest pounding of fight or flight.  But in people born with a particular brain circuity, the amygdala is hyperactive, prickly as a haywire motion-detector light that turns on when nothing's moving but the rain.

Think of the amygdala as the brain’s Post-IT notes. It tells the brain “to remember this.” In an emotionally charged event, the amygdala releases dopamine, which significantly enhances the event and processes the event. The events associated with the Post-IT notes are going to be more robustly processed and recalled. Simply put, the amygdala creates and maintains emotions using dopamine.

All parents have observed the stages of emotional development. The first emotions developed are happiness, fear, sadness, disgust, and anger, while guilt, shame, jealousy, embarrassment, and pride are in evidence at a later stage.

Happy Students


Emotions and memory

You no doubt remember more about your vacation two years ago than what you did a month ago on a weekend. Why? Emotional events produce vivid memories and emotional arousal is good for long-term storage of details of an event, but at a cost of peripheral details. Research has shown damage to the amygdala results in no memory of an emotional experience.

Biologically, when we become emotionally aroused, adrenaline is released improving the memory of events and experiences in our lives. Adrenaline activates the vagus nerve (the flight or fight reflex), then the brainstem, then the amygdala, and finally the hippocampus. This process causes an increase in synaptic plasticity, which is the foundation of all learning. According to Aamodt and Wang, when adrenaline receptors in the amygdala are blocked, memory decreases, while activating these receptors improves memory.



If the amygdala is fear, then the hippocampus is memory. I refer to the hippocampus as the Grand Central Station of Learning.

Hippocampus and memory The hippocampus is scrolled structure and is located in the medial temporal lobe and can be divided into at least 5 different areas. The hippocampus converts short-term memories to long-term memories, is necessary the development of declarative memory (recall of events and facts), and is involved with spatial navigation.

To illustrate the relationship between the hippocampus and memory, let’s take a few moments to discuss a legendary patient in neuroscience named H. M. (Henry Molaison)  who will help drive the significance of the hippocampus home. H. M. had radical surgery to treat epileptic seizures. As part of the surgery, doctors removed most of his medial temporal lobes and his hippocampus. Since that surgery in 1953, H. M. has formed no new memories. He lost the ability to remember an event, even a few minutes after it happened. H. M. could not form a new memory of events and people. If he met you today, he would have no memory of the event and would greet you tomorrow as if he was meeting you for the first time.

Additionally, H. M. also could not remember any of his distance past. To investigate how much H. M. could remember of his past, researchers asked him if he remembered about events that occurred 2, 5, 7, and 9 years before his surgery. No memory. Undaunted, the researchers explored the memories H.M. had of his early childhood. Amazing, H. M. could perfectly recall his family, where he lived, and details of Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays just as you and I might.

Now the question became at what point did H. M. memory become impaired. Close analysis revealed that his memory doesn’t start to weaken until you get to bout the 11th year before his surgery. In other words, his memory is lucid and explicit until 11 years before his surgery at which time it drops to zero and remains there permanently.

What does this all mean? If the hippocampus were involved in all memory abilities, its complete removal should destroy all memory. But it does not. The hippocampus is relevant to memory formation for more than a decade after the event was recruited for long-term storage. Thereafter, the memory is in another region, one not affected by H. M.’s brain losses. As a result, H. M. brain can retrieve it. According to Medina, “H. M. and patients like him, tell us the hippocampus holds on to newly formed memory for years. Not days. Not months. Years. System consolidation, that process of transforming a liable memory into a durable one, can take years to complete. During that time, the memory is not stable.”

Therefore, the hippocampus is critical for laying down declarative memory, but is not necessary for working memory (short-term memory), procedural memory (actions, habits, skills), or memory storage. Damage to the hippocampus will only affect the formation of new declarative memory (facts, figures, names).

But where is the final resting place of memories once they have fully consolidated? Medina states that, “declarative memories appear to be terminally stored in the same cortical systems involved in the initial processing of the stimulus. In other words, the final resting place is also the region that served as the initial starting place. The only separation is time, not location.”

As we will discuss later, researchers have found that long-term memories are formed in a two-way conversation between the hippocampus and the cortex, and when the hippocampus breaks the connection, the memory becomes fixed in the cortex, which can take years and in some instances, a decade.

Amygdala & Hippocampus


Hippocampus and stress

Stressful situations cause the release of gluco corticoids, namely cortisol, our main stress hormone. With just the correct amount of stress, cortisol enhances memory in the amygdala and the hippocampus, with high and prolonged stress levels produce high amounts of cortisol damaging the amygdala and the hippocampus whereby preventing the enhancement of memory.


“If mild stress becomes chronic, the unrelenting cascade of cortisol triggers genetic actions that begin to sever synapatic connections and cause dendrites to atrophy and cells to die; eventually, the hippocampus can end up physically shriveled, like a raisin.” (Ratey, Spark, 2008)

Prenatal rats whose mothers are subjected to repeated stress grow up to have lower stress thresholds.

People with low self-esteem have lower stress thresholds (although scientists are not sure which condition precedes the other).

Persons without a sense of control and no social support have increased levels of stress.

Under perceived threat the brain loses the ability to take in subtle clues from the environment, reverts to the familiar “tried and true” behaviors, is less able to do the “higher order” thinking skills, loses some memory capacity, and tends to over-react to stimuli n an almost “phobic” way. (Armstrong, May 2010)

The hippocampus is loaded with cortisol receptors, which makes it very responsive to stress signals. If the stress is not too severe, the brain performs better. If the stress is too severe or too prolonged, stress harms learning. Stressed people do not do math very well, do not process language very efficiently, have poorer memories, both long and short-term, and cannot concentrate. They do not generalize or adapt old pieces of information to new scenarios. In almost every way stress can be tested, chronic stress hurts our ability to learn.

One study showed that adults with high stress levels performed 50% worse on certain cognitive tests than adults with low stress. Specifically, stress hurts declarative memory (things you can declare) and executive function (the type of learning that involves problem-solving). Those, of course, are the skills needed to excel in school and business.

The diagrams below helps illustrates this point.

Inverted U Shaped Stress Graph Stress Picture



Hippocampus and exercise

Brain imaging studies have shown that exercise increases the blood flow to the dentate gyrus in the hippocampus, creating new capillaries.


Prefrontal cortex

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the CEO of the brain, the boss, the conductor of the orchestra. The PFC occupies the front third of the brain, underneath the forehead, and is the most evolved part of the brain.

It organizes activity, both mental and physical, by receiving input and issuing instructions to all regions of the brain. It is the home of the working memory and controls all executive functions such as inhibiting stimuli and initiating actions, judging, planning, organizing, time management, critical thinking, and predicting. It watches, supervises guides, directs, and focuses your behavior. It is responsible for behaviors that are necessary for you to act appropriately, focus on goals, maintain social responsibility, and be effective. The neurons of the prefrontal cortex are highly adaptable and are our interface with the world. As John Ratey declares, “our executive functioning makes us human.”

The PFC sends quieting signals to the limbic system and the sensory parts of the brain, which decreases the distracting input from other parts of the brain; it inhibits rivals for our attention. When the PFC is underactive as is the case with a person affected with AD/HD, less of the filtering mechanism is available and distractibility becomes an issue.

In relation to adolescents, the very last part of the brain to be pruned…is the prefrontal cortex, home of the so-called executive functions.  Executive functions refer to activities such as planning, setting priorities, organizing thoughts, suppressing impulses, and weighting the consequences of one’s actions.  (Discoverer Magazine, May 2004 & Armstrong, May 2010)



The name cerebellum comes from the Latin word “little brain” and is about 1/8 of the size of the cerebrum. It is a walnut-shaped clump of neurons located behind the brain stem at the back and base of the brain.

However, maybe the name “little brain” could be reconsidered. Small as it is, the cerebellum is highly convoluted, winding in upon itself. Even more striking, the cerebellum contains 50% of the neurons in the entire brain, and receives one-half of the entire brain’s blood supply. Why all of that blood and nerves in that little walnut? As we will see, nature doesn’t waste.

The cerebellum is an on-going processor, continually updating and changing in relation to balance and space. It keeps all sections of the brain in harmony and balance and controls our smooth flow of attention and thoughts movements. Until the early 1990s, it was thought to be only involved with movement. In an article published in Scientific American titled Rethinking the Lesser Brain, James Bower and Lawrence Parsons report that cognitive neuroscientists have found that the “cerebellum may play a part in short-term memory, attention, impulse control, emotion, higher cognition and the ability to schedule and plan tasks.”

John Ratey refers to the cerebellum as the “rhythm and blues section of the brain” because it keeps all sections of the brain in harmony and balance.

Bower and Parsons note that researchers have found a link between people that have cerebellar damage and dyslexia and difficulties with learning. They go on to write, “it was found that people with dyslexia have reduced cerebellum activity, which would suggest an abnormal cerebellum could be the root cause of why people have spelling, reading, and writing difficulties.”

When you have a problem in the cerebellum, a person cannot sit and hold steady, and have difficulty starting, staying with, and finishing a project.


Nucleus accumbens

Nucleus accumbens is referred to as the reward center of the brain. It provides the necessary motivation for the brain to learn behaviors. All of the things people become addicted to – alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, drugs, sex, carbohydrates, gambling, playing video games, shopping, living on the edge - boost the dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. All of these activities boost dopamine in the reward center. For example, sex increases dopamine levels 50 to 100%; cocaine sends dopamine sky rocking to 300 to 800 percent beyond normal levels. This is where Ritalin, Adderall, and other active agents of other stimulants -from coffee to cocaine - end up.

The reward center needs to be sufficiently activated before it will carry out its important job of telling the prefrontal cortex that something is worth paying attention to. It engages the prioritizing aspect of executive function, and this is the central component of motivation. The brain will not do much unless the reward center is responsive.

Research studies have shown that monkeys with lesions in the nucleus accumbens cannot sustain attention and thus cannot muster motivation to perform tasks that do not carry immediate rewards.


Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)

The ACC guides the front part of the brain, the executive secretary of the attention system. This area decides what is important or not important; this is what we are going to pay attention to or not pay attention to. One of the problems that people with AD/HD have is prioritization. Everything seems important to a student with AD/HD.

The ACC is also involved in decision-making, empathy, emotion, and reward anticipation. Furthermore, it plays a role in a wide variety of autonomic functions such as regulating blood pressure and heart rate.



Anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG)

The ACG is the brain’s gear shifter. It allows you to shift your attention and be flexible and adaptable to change when needed. When there is too much activity in this area, people tend to struggle with obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors, such as drinking when you know it isn’t good for you.


The ACG helps you feel settled, relaxed, and allows cognitive flexibility and cooperation. The ACG runs lengthwise through the deep part of the frontal lobes and is the brain’s major switching station. When there is too much activity there are low serotonin levels, and people are unable to shift attention and become rigid, cognitively inflexible, over focused, anxious, and oppositional. When the ACG works too hard, people have difficulty shifting attention and are stuck in ineffective behavior patterns. They worry too much about the plan too much, become too serious or obsessed. People in this state constantly expect negative events and feel unsafe in the world.

When the ACG is overactive, people are stuck or locked into negative thoughts or behaviors. They may become obsessive worriers or hold on to hurts or grudges from the past. In addition, other compulsive behaviors observed are excessive hand washing or checking locks, and eating, additive, and oppositional defiant disorders.

Also affected are future-orientated thinking such as planning and goal setting. When working well, people are able to plan their future in a reasonable manner, but when the ACG is underactive, people have little motivation.

Damage to this area causes a brain condition called akinetic mutism where people have low movement (akinetic) and little speech (mutism).



Neurotransmitters are chemicals in a synapse (a space between an axon and a dendrite) that act as messengers carrying electrical signals from axons (outgoing) on one side of the synapse to dendrites (receiving) on the opposite side of the synapse.

Serotonin is the policeman. It keeps the brain activity under control, mood, anger, impulsivity, and aggression. Prozac helps with depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Norepinephrine controls attention, perception, motivation, and arousal and was the first neuro transmitter studied.


Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that simultaneously promotes learning and feelings of pleasure.  When dopamine levels go up, behaviors and feelings such as pleasure, creativity, imagination, motivation, curiosity, inspiration, persistence, and perseverance are more prominent.  Dopamine release also increases focus and executive function in the frontal lobes.

Activities known to increase brain level of dopamine are movement, humor, positive peer interactions, being read to, optimism, choice, and intrinsic satisfaction such as achievement of meaningful goals.

Dopamine is involved in reward, learning, satisfaction, attention, and movement.  The dopamine system is called the reward network, the motivation network, and the survival network.    It controls movement and balance and is essential to the proper functioning of the nervous system.  Dopamine assists in the effective communication of electrochemical signals from one neuron to another.

BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor) is a protein produced inside nerve cells when they are active and has been found in the hippocampus, an area of the brain related to memory and learning.  John Ratey refers to BDNF as “Miracle-Gro for the brain” because it fertilizes brain cells to keep them functioning and growing, as well as spurring the growth of new neurons.  BDNF enhances growth of dendrite branches, which in turn solidify the connections of more synapses.  It is responsible for building and maintaining cell circuitry-the infrastructure itself-improves the function of neurons, encourages growth, and strengths, and protects neurons against the natural process of cell death.  According to Ratey, “BDNF is an essential link between thought, emotions, and movement-particularly seeming to be important for long-term memories.”





And now for those of us who might now and again experience a Senior Moment

Where are my car keys? Where are my reading glasses? What is that person’s name? She said to get what at the market? Are these all examples of dementia?According to Aamodt and Wang, no. But you might be on the decline if you forget you wear glasses or how to get to the market.

Why and what is the difference?

As Aamodt and Wang explain, “Alzheimer’s disease, which causes two-thirds of the cases of dementia, is not an extreme example of aging, but involves deterioration of specific brain regions along with symptoms that never occur in normal aging.” The single biggest cause of Alzheimer’s is aging. The risk of getting Alzheimer’s doubles every five years after age sixty, reaching half the population by age ninety according to Aamodt and Wang. How does this number sound? Statistics suggest that about 75% of the people in the U.S. would develop Alzheimer’s if they lived to a ripe old age of 100. Worldwide, currently 24 million people have Alzheimer’s, and by 2040, 81 million will have it.

For a reason why we forget where we put our car keys, we turn to Catherine Myers, the leader of the Rutgers University Memory Disorder Project. Her research proves that the number of neurotransmitters in the brain begin to decrease around the age of 40 or 50. This doesn’t change the brain’s ability to store information but does slow the speed and accuracy with which we retrieve information.

As we age, the chemical electrical signals that the brain sends between the 100 million neurons weaken. Our brains shrink about half a percent a year, starting around age 30 through we don’t notice any change for years. Episodic memory relies heavily on the front areas of the brain, the frontal lobes. These areas start shrinking first but the loss isn’t really that big. But it feels big because we perceive a huge difference between brain functioning at full strength and one operating at 95 percent. That elusive name is probably not gone-it simply takes longer to pop up.


“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.