Module 1.0: How the Brain Learns

How the Brain Learns

Neurons and Neurogenesis:

Do you know who this lady is?

No?  OK…try this one.

Do you recognize this actress? If you said Jennifer Aniston, you are correct. It doesn’t mean you are a fan of the show Friends or have a deep understanding of 1990s pop culture, it just means you have a neuron that holds all the information that you know about Jennifer Aniston.

But, what about the first picture?  If you didn’t know, you are about to learn.  Her name is Audrey Hepburn, a famous actress from the 1960s and 1970s who is most famous for her movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Congratulations! If you didn’t know Ms. Hepburn, you now have an Audrey Hepburn neuron in your brain.  It is likely that your neuron looks like this…

Article:  Read more about the neuron.

The process of creating neurons is called neurogenesis. Neurons are brain cells and your brain creates them and connects them with other neurons as you gain new information.  This is the elements of learning.

For example, I just taught you (more than likely) who Audrey Hepburn was. This is not information that you were born with and it did not come to you through evolution.  You gained this knowledge today by reading this and clicking on the links I provided.  Your “Audrey Hepburn” neuron was created and is looking to make a connection with something in your brain to “stick”. I mentioned things like 1960s, 1970s, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and actress to help you do exactly that.

Now, the “Audrey Hepburn” neuron’s “survival is dependent on your effort to make connections to that neuron. Did you read more about Ms. Hepburn? Google her name, click on the links, look at other things she did in her life? Did you do any of those things?  

OK, maybe not….but, since I am your teacher, what kind of teacher would I be if I didn’t “feed” your neuron to help you make Ms. Hepburn “stick” in your brain and stay alive?


Here is another picture.  This one is in color. That is going to feed your neuron.  Now it is starting to grow.  You have a reference for her features, race, hair color, etc… Clearly, Audrey Hepburn was a very beautiful actress for the age.

At this point, you have seen her picture twice and I have written her name about 6 times up to now. I could mention that when she was alive she was very active in humanitarian causes as part of UNICEF. In fact, for most people, she is probably more know for her work with poor children all over the world than from her work as an actress.

It is likely that you are not aware that this is occurring but your brain is reading this information and working very hard to make connections from previous information that you have in other neurons. As it makes these connections, your “Audrey Hepburn” neuron is going to grow and grow and will eventually commit itself to long-term memory storage.  This is what is known as brain wiring.

We often talk about how the brain is wired and you should know that there is really no such thing.  There are no wires in the brain.  We are talking about how these billions and billions of neurons connect with one another through lightning speeds in an information superhighway that lights up like Las Vegas and never sleeps like NYC.

Because the brain grows, creates neurons, and makes connections the way it does; it should be obvious to you by now that your brain is different than my brain.  Yes, if we were to crack open our skulls and take a look, they would be structured the same, have all the same parts, etc… but my wiring is different than your wiring.

Author and brain surgeon, John Medina, describes brain wiring and the Jennifer Aniston neuron in this video.

What factors affect our brain wiring?

  1. Environment
  2. Nutrition
  3. Stress
  4. Movement
  5. Access to information
  6. Memory and repetition

Brain Basics:

So, how do we as teachers create neurons and establish learning for our students.  It certainly is one thing for me to teach you about Audrey Hepburn and hope that you remember who she is when I test you on her later but what about the subjects that we teach in school?  You know…math, science, social studies, language, art, music, etc…

John Medina writes in his book, “Brain Rules”, 12 rules for how the brain developed, what it needs to grow, and what make it unique.

The 12 Brain Rules, by John Medina
SURVIVAL: The human brain evolved, too.
EXERCISE: Exercise boosts brain power.
SLEEP: Sleep well, think well.
STRESS: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.
WIRING: Every brain is wired differently.
ATTENTION: We don’t pay attention to boring things.
MEMORY: Repeat to remember.
SENSORY INTEGRATION: Stimulate more of the senses.
VISION: Vision trumps all other senses.
MUSIC: Study or listen to boost cognition.
GENDER: Male and female brains are different.
EXPLORATION: We are powerful and natural explorers.

We don’t have time to focus on all 12 rules for this course. Instead, we will focus on the ones that are most important for understanding how the brain can receive information through high quality instruction.

Brain Basics for Educators:

  1. The brain does not pay attention to boring things.
  2. Average human attention span is 10 minutes.
  3. Vision trumps all other senses.
  4. Humans are emotional creatures.
  5. Stressed brains cannot learn, focus, or retain information.
  6. There is no such thing as multitasking.

Ok, you should have already called me out. If you were teaching this topic to students, would you just give them a list and hope for the best?  I want you to know these 6 brain basics and I just gave you a list? No repetition. No connections to prior learning? Nothing?

What if I gave you this?

Or this?

Oh baby, you’re a bore.
I don’t want you around no more
I only have 10 minutes to give.
Can’t you see
my feelings are how I live?
You stress me out and I can’t remember
Doing all those things in December.

If you can incorporate as many of the funtions of the brain as you can into your instruction, students are more likely to remember the material.  In the final example, I used music, bold type, and repeitition to illustrate the 6 brain basics for educators.

Course Materials:

Video:  What does Teaching with the Brain in Mind Really mean?
Article:  The Curious Case of Phineas Gage


Assignment 1:
Brain Learning Quiz