Brain-based learning is the educational philosophy that the best instructional strategies derive from an understanding of the physical structure and processes of the human brain. As the brain is the organ through which learning happens, it is believed that a thorough understanding of the biochemistry involved in the acquisition of new knowledge will provide insight into a means of replicating this process through education. Many recent advances in the study of the brain have provided the basis for the development of instructional strategies that complement these naturally occurring processes.

Brain Structure

The human brain is an incredibly complex system of connections. Brain cells, called neurons, pass information between each other in the form of electrical impulses. With more than 100 billion neurons in the average brain, and with each exhibiting approximately 10,000 connections, the complexity of the brain is truly phenomenal. Our brain structure, along with its chemistry of transporting information through electrical signals, can be significantly altered depending on the environment. This property, known as plasticity, is what accounts for the brain’s ability to learn in the first place. External stimuli cause the brain to develop more dendrites, the part of the neuron capable of connecting to other neurons, as well as activate increased chemical activity in localized areas of the brain. By understanding what kinds of external stimuli are the most adaptive to learning, neuroscientists and educators can develop a brain-centric educational model.

Brain-based Instructional Practices

A basic understanding of the brain can be beneficial to effective teaching practices. For example, many may see emotions and learning as two distinct realms of human experience. However, studies show that the way the brain learns is intimately wrapped up in emotions (Weiss 2000). The amygdala is thought to be the neurological structure responsible for emotional response. This structure is activated in the processes of memory, motivation and attention. From an evolutionary standpoint, the brain developed in order to ensure the continued survival of the species. Emotional responses can therefore be seen as neurological motivators to survive. For example, we feel fear when we are confronted with something that may harm us in order to motivate us to either fight or run away. This can be adapted to the classroom by creating an environment in which children are excited to learn.

Investing in the emotional responses of students to their work not only motivates them, but it also increases attention and memory. The release of the chemical dopamine in the brain creates feelings of happiness and well-being. According to an article by Ruth Palumbo Weiss, dopamine levels are closely tied to memory (Weiss 2000). Positive emotional connections to the experience of learning reinforce neural loop-backs in the brain, contributing to long-term memory. Creating positive emotional responses to learning material also prevents stress from short-circuiting the brain’s attention structure, the thalamus. Stress causes the brain to go into survival mode, abandoning higher-level thinking in favor of processes designed to handle only the most immediate information. A positive environment that alleviates stress establishes the opportunity for more esoteric thinking.

Understanding the brain is important for developing effective teaching strategies. The physical and biochemical pathways and regulators of brain activity provide key insights into the best ways for teachers to engage students in higher-level thinking and deep learning. One lesson to be learned from brain structure is that the emotional centers in the brain are intimately related to its learning processes. Promoting positive responses to material can therefore increase motivation, memory, and attention in learners. As the technology develops to monitor brain activity more closely, more information will become available to aid teachers in the development of effective strategies.