Building a Better Brain

“Teachers try to change the human brain every day. The more they know about how it learns, the more successful they can be.” —David A. Sousa

If you are a teacher and it is your job to open minds, shouldn’t you know how the brain works? If you are a parent, wouldn’t an understanding of brain development provide useful insights into successful child-rearing? As the proud owner of the most complex object in the entire universe, understanding how the human brain works, and the kinds of changes one can expect as the brain ages, can contribute to a healthy and productive life.

Mammalian brain development over millions of years has culminated in the human brain, which has reliable, specialized techniques to respond intelligently to an ever-changing environment. Within its first 10 years, the human brain is adequately “wired” for functioning within its environment. The brain has an innate predisposition to recognize patterns that are relevant to our personal experiences, found within contexts that are emotionally significant and stored in a manner that makes sense to us. Understanding the how the brain works has helped us develop several brain-considerate strategies for encoding, consolidating, and utilizing information — in other words, learning.

The input/processing/output systems examine incoming sensory information and other environmental data for:

  1. Patterns
  2. Emotions
  3. Relevance
  4. Context, Content, and Cognitively appropriate
  5. Sense-making qualities, or “PERCS”

Most importantly, the brain is a biological organ that has survived the eons by anticipating these criteria and using them in varying combinations to learn from its environment and stay alive in various surroundings. As informational encoding occurs, the human brain methodically constructs the most accurate representation of the world that it possibly can based on its experiences.

All incoming sensory data are meticulously dissected and carefully compared with prior experiences and stored knowledge. The dissected elements are distributed to specialized regions of the brain where their explicit features are further analyzed to determine:

  1. Their significance
  2. An appropriate plan of action/reaction (a response) based on one’s prior knowledge

Memories are easier to retrieve and recall when they are linked to well-established representations in our existing neural circuitry.

A healthy brain is capable of “recollecting” and utilizing vast amounts of stored information, as well as manipulating mental images by rearranging the elements that make up a thought, concept or skill. The human brain does not reproduce events exactly as they occurred, like a videotape recorder. Instead, it re-assembles the components of a memory as an honest (often incorrect) approximation of the original event. One’s accuracy is frequently a casualty of elapsed time — i.e., forgetting.

Understanding the human brain’s processing methodologies can help educators develop instructional practices and classroom environments that are compatible with, and reflect, the natural inclinations for thinking and learning in the human brain. This can improve cognition and academic success for all students.

Patterns and pattern recognition support concept development, understanding, and recall.

How do the conceptual pieces “fit together” in a rational manner that provides me with a viable understanding/explanation of the facts, objects or the events unfolding in front of me?

Can I recognize any relationships or connections that allow me to predict what’s about to occur?

Am I able to construct an internal mental construct or model using this pattern to represent my prior learning or experiences?

Emotions: The emotional significance of an event determines one’s subsequent responses, how to respond, or whether a response is even warranted. Fear and distress become critical factors that can inhibit or enhance concept-learning and memory.

Does this information or experience have personal importance to me? If not, then I will disengage. (Motivation)

Does this object, fact or occurrence have any personal or “emotional currency”? (Interest)

Is my amygdala engaged and has my hippocampus been activated to remember this event? (Is there a danger or an opportunity here that should govern my response?)

Relevance determines whether paying attention is of any likely benefit. (The irrelevant is ignored.) Memories are easier to retrieve when they are connected to frequently used circuits.

Is there an obvious, implicit or explicit connection to my life, needs, or personal goals?

Are there parallel related events or ideas stored within my existing neural pathways?

C3 = Context, Content, and Cognitively appropriate: Learning requires a context. Decontextualized trivia infrequently reaches long-term memory.

Is the target information presented in a “frame” that appears to be realistic, coherent, or memorable to the learner? Can it be connected to a personally recognizable and meaningful situation? Is there a contextual “bridge” (connection) from what I already know that can be linked to this “new” information?

Is the content (the knowledge at stake) interesting to me and is it presented within an interesting context?

Is the information cognitively accessible and “developmentally appropriate”? Information should not be presented in complex abstractions beyond the learner’s experience.

Sense-making: We are instinctively driven to make sense out of incoming sensory input, whether it is self-generated (daydreams or nocturnal dreaming) or exists in

Does new data mesh with previously validated/personally confirmed (“known”) information?

Am I uncertain about the logic behind this information or experience?

Am I able to rectify any discrepant data, erroneous preconceptions or misconceptions?

The repertoire of human behavioral responses is not composed of random reactions. While a portion of them are preprogrammed genetically as a result of our collective evolutionary history, our interactions with our contemporary environment shape each brain to respond in its own characteristic manner. Understanding that process can help us become better educators, parents, and learners.

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