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Connecting the science of the brain, psychology, and health with EFL

June 15, 2010

How to engage the major neuro-networks in your classrooms!

A great opening…
I am happy to say that I received many emails full of great questions and notes of anticipation for a resolution of the cliffhanger that I tagged on at the end last month. Besides answering questions, I also have wonderful interviews lined up for this column. Those interviews will be something to look forward to. Today, to finally resolve that cliffhanger, we will be focusing on some of the major networks of the brain and how teachers and students can maximize learning by actively activating those vast systems that we all have upstairs.

Are you networked?
The brain is massively convoluted. Some people say it is the most complex system in the universe. While I am a bit hesitant to make that claim, the human brain is certainly one of the most complex systems that we currently know of. Because it is so complex, there are many different ways we can chop it up into subgroups and subsystems. Today I would like to focus on the practical tri-system grouping format that I studied at Harvard earlier this year, comprising of the Recognition Network, Strategic Network, and the Affective Network.

How many neurons are there in your entire brain? The number varies from person to person, but on average we have about 100 billion neurons up there. How many connections do these neurons make? Depending upon how you calculate the connections, we can have between a hundred trillion to one quadrillion connections per brain. Did I say the brain was convoluted earlier? Well, I was wrong. Convoluted is an understatement. I don’t think we have a proper word for that level of complexity in English. If you can think of a good word to describe the nuance of one quadrillion connections being dynamically created within something about the size of your two fists, please send me an email. I’d love to add it to my own lexicon!

Now, you may think I digressed too much in that last paragraph and may have also wondered when I would be getting back to the main question. Well, that last paragraph was actually a demonstration of engaging our major networks. Please stop what you are doing. Go back to the above paragraph (the one beginning with, How many neurons…), and read it carefully and come back HERE.

Ok. Welcome back! That paragraph probably had you attempt to imagine what one quadrillion neural connections might look like. Some of you may have even put your two fists together to see if it really was about the size of your brain. I even asked you for a better word than ‘convoluted’ to describe the tremendous complexity, so you may have sat back and tried to come up with a fantastic sounding word for me. Thank you! By the way, all of your major networks were activated in that process.

Let’s take a closer look at each of those networks. First, let’s consider the Recognition Network. What is this network? Well, this one is fairly easy to explain. Your brain gathers information from the five senses and then the information goes through the lowest and deepest areas of the brain. These are the parts of the brain that have not evolved much since we were reptiles (well, maybe ‘you’ were never a reptile, but you know what I mean). This network lets all semi- to fully intelligent creatures tell the difference from friend and foe, food and poison. Instantly. At the higher end, it helps us to recognize patterns and give meaning to those patterns. This is what keeps us alive when we are faced with danger. By Darwinian logic, it is only those of us who had strong Recognition Networks that survived long enough to pass on our DNA strands to the next generation. When you read things and recognize what you are reading, you are engaging the Recognition Network. Sometimes you even get a nice ‘Aha!’ from the engagement.

Next, let’s consider the Strategic Network. What is this one all about? It sounds kind of militaristic doesn’t it? Imagine men in uniforms behind closed doors… playing with missiles and tanks on a large map laid out on a huge table in a dimly lit room with flashing red lights and radar screens circling with green blips. Got that picture in your head? Good -that was my strategy.

The Strategic Network is pretty much just like it sounds. It takes the vast library of knowledge that you happen to have upstairs and puts it all to good use. When you are given a puzzle to solve, or given a goal to achieve, your body automatically fires up the Strategic Network. If I ask you what your favorite restaurant is and what your favorite dish is of that favorite restaurant, you will probably sit back and think about it for a second or two while you enjoy hedonistic flashes of sustenance from your past. You will then come up with an answer, put a smile on your face, and have a growl in your tummy. It is happening to me while I write this and it is probably happening to you as you read this too! That’s the great thing about our Strategic Network –it works automatically and very effectively.

Humans are capable of outrageous strategic planning (such as premeditated murder), but we are not the only ones. It seems like our PFC, our Pre-Frontal Cortex, or the ‘executive’ of the brain, plays a great part in this strategic planning. Other mammals that have relatively large PFCs also actually do have similar Strategic Networks, albeit not as complex as our own. Monkeys enjoy playing practical jokes on each other –such as the ever-popular ‘Hide-and-Throw-Feces-at-the-Guest’ game. In a nutshell, the bigger the PFC, the more convoluted the strategies can become –that’s why we don’t see dogs crafting slingshot mechanisms while waiting around the corner to ambush the mailmen (imagine that!) –but that six year old that lives down the block can.

Finally, let’s ponder that third network, the Affective Network. This one is perhaps a bit more difficult to fathom. Affect is another word for ‘emotion’ in this case. Therefore, the Affective Network is a network that gets a hold of incoming data in your brain and decides what perks your interest and what does not. If you are a composer and I play a song for you, you will probably listen for the chord changes and structure of the melody. If you are a linguist, you will probably focus more on the words. If I play for you that song from when Tom Cruise beds Kelly McGillis in Top Gun for the first time (in that room full of blue stuff), you might get goose-bumps, feel jealous, or not even care. The point is, everyone will react differently to very specific and very DIFFERENT parts of the information that is being provided. In the most extreme cases, the information being provided will be completely ignored!

The Affective Network connects your life to the information and filters in what it feels a natural connection with. We don’t get to see or think about information that has been deemed ‘fluff’. Sorry to sound so fatalistic at this point in the game, but that’s the truth. Did any of you take notice of the 17th person that walked by you today? Probably not, but what if that 17th person was wearing a hat that looked a lot like the hat that your best friend used to wear when you were kids? Your Affective Network would take that in as important to you and keep you focused on it. It may bring on a whole set of “old memories” and may cause you get such a warm and fuzzy feeling that you may even decide to send an email out to that best friend of yours. Obviously, this is not a premeditated strategy, nor is it a simplistic “Aha!” moment.

The fact that you went so far as to compose and send an email out to your old best friend, prompted only by a hat worn by a stranger, proves that you are human. You have feelings. You have strategy. You notice things. Moreover, your body is capable of engaging all three of those networks in concert. This concert of the three networks is what makes us uniquely human. The outcome of the concert is what sets you apart from all the other humans on this island that we call Earth.

So, now that we have covered the three bases, how do we tie it all up for our classrooms? I do not believe in passive learning in the classroom. It is boring. Using the jargon from above, passive classroom learning does not engage our Affective Networks enough. Remember, it is because of the work that our Affective Networks do that we are motivated enough to go compose that email to our best friend. Learning in the classroom works in much the same way.

Three things to remember...
Remember the three steps to effective learning (order depends upon the context) : We must recognize what is being presented to us. We must be given a goal for our strategic powers to automatically kick in. We absolutely must find at least some part of it interesting. If we take these three steps, we can engage all three networks and can then make the learning process be a much more meaningful and fruitful experience for both the learner and the teacher.

For further reading please visit this excellent website:

To better understand the Recognition Networks, I particularly recommend this part:

For a great scientific understanding of the Strategic Networks:

And, for the Affective Networks, look here:

The Bottom Line
Ever since the sciences have become more “scientific”, human passions have been downplayed. A typical example is Behaviorism, where scientists/psychologists believed that all human actions could be explained (and controlled) by behaviorist theory. Another culprit is math. With its cold precision, math and its underlying logic put psychology and educational theory on a trajectory away from human passions. This is partially why the Affective Network has been kept from the center of attention in pedagogic theory. What we need to do now is put passion back into the classrooms; we must allow our students to zero in on their passions. This will raise their motivation and give them the extra umph they need to succeed. We must also help them set explicit goals. This will automatically turn their Strategic Networks on. It works like magic. Why not use it? And finally, what seems plain to us, because of our own Recognition Networks, may be invisible to our students. We must keep this in mind; we must help nurture our students’ Recognition Networks.

Every student in your classroom is having a very different set of experiences while sitting in your lessons each day. It may seem like a daunting task at first, but since we all have these three networks, why not attempt to use them to our advantage?

This is an open forum. Please send your ideas to, or add them below. This month I am particularly interested in hearing about how you engaged your own students' three networks in the classroom!

Next month –an interview is coming up. Who will it be? Look for it here on July 15th!

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That was a thoroughly engaging, informative, and (as a new teacher trying to develop myself) USEFUL blog. I am avidly looking forward to your future posts!

Hello Jon,

Thank you for the kind compliments. I look forward to hearing from you again.

Be sure to let me know if what I have discussed here had an impact on your teaching!


I'm very pleased to find this website. I want to to thank you for your time for this wonderful read!! I definitely appreciated every bit of it and I have you saved as a favorite to see new things on your web site.

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