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

August 30, 2010

Kinky neurons in your brain! (or, Why should emotions be center stage in the classroom?)

Kinky neurons!?
What do I mean by this month's title? With my recent studies with Dr. Kurt Fischer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I have come to realize the tremendous importance of emotion in learning. In 2008 I was lucky to be the first person to conduct SiR (Self in Relationship) Interview studies in Japan (Murphy, 2009). Although that particular project was only my pilot study, it quickly became obvious that the subjects and concepts that students have strong feelings for (be it positive or negative feelings) make much easier discussion topics than subjects and ideas that students are indifferent about. Put in these terms, I'm sure this conclusion is hardly earth shaking. In fact, the conclusion is quite mundane, isn't it? However, when it comes to pedagogic design, I think most of us are guilty of not putting students' emotions into serious consideration. Why is this so? Whatever that answer may be, it seems to be the crux of the problem. Not such a mundane point anymore is it?

We have a hundred billion neurons in our brains. What do they do up there? They have dendrites (entry port 'branches') that collect information, a nucleus that processes the information, and then an axon (the tail of the neuron for the 'export' of information to the next neuron). Those are the basics of the neurons. These neurons are also massively connected to each other. Those hundred billion neurons make up about a quadrillion connections. Let's think about this. What kind of crunching power do each of these neurons have individually? -and more importantly, what makes them kinky?

In a nutshell, individual neurons are as dumb as the circuit breakers that are collecting dust on one of your walls at home. Well, almost as dumb.The big difference is that a circuit breaker terminates the signal when too much power comes down the circuit. This protects your living room from exploding when you turn your home theater's volume up too high, rIght? However, in the case of neurons, the opposite is true -the signal is terminated if not enough power comes down the line. In other words, neurons must get thoroughly excited to function as information relays. So, if a neuron's nucleus goes gaga over some data, it will send impulses down the axon shaft and 'ejaculate' neurotransmitters into the synaptic gap in the hopes that the next neuron's 'womb-like' structures will accept them. If that adjacent 'inseminated' neuron gets excited enough by the first neuron's commitment, it will also 'ejaculate' neurotransmitters into the next synaptic gap in the hopes of exciting a third neuron -and so on down the line. If this sounds kind of kinky to you, you are certainly on the right track. It is kind of kinky. Our neurons work very much like the birds and the bees -and the flowers too. However, just as copulation never has a 100% success rate, the exchange between neurons is also naturally fallible. But we are talking about our brain processes aren't we! What could be more important? Why on earth would our brains be based on such a kinky (and utterly clumsy) system!? Well, that's a matter we will just have to take up with mother evolution… there isn't much else we can do about it.

Or is there? If we as teachers embrace the fact that our neurons must be excited enough to pass on information, and if we realize that there are unique individual thresholds within each of us that must be surpassed, perhaps we, as teachers, can find the motivation to add more individualized pizazz into our classroom pedagogies. By that I don't mean to say that we all have to turn into first-rate entertainers for our students. Indeed, what Student A might find entertaining may be downright boring for Student B, so even the most entertaining teacher may not reach every student in the classroom.

What am I saying then? A realistic solution is to let our students have freedom to follow their own passions during the learning process. In normal circumstances, students who are allowed to follow their individual passions during class time will generally be motivated to push their learning further than students who are just being forced to do activities that are uninspiring for them. This is one of the major benefits of student centered and differentiated learning. Student centered and differentiated learning actually make neuroscientific sense. So, the next time you are in class, remember that each one of your students has their own unique 'birds and the bees' context in their heads, and as it is your job to get all of them working as actively and as efficiently as possible, you must attempt to raise every student's interest levels above each of their own individual thresholds. This sounds like a daunting task. Indeed it would be quite impossible in many cases if you adhered to only teacher centered pedagogies. However, as discussed above, student centered activities are a fantastic remedy for these situations. By putting students' emotions centerstage, we solve many classroom problems with one clean sweep!

Remember: Let your students get emotional! Give them opportunities to follow their own passions!

Neuro-myth busters: We've all heard it a million times - if you are cool and logical, you are a left-brained person -if you are imaginative and emotional then you must be right brained… or something along those lines. The neuro-myth often goes even further by saying that we can teach for the left brain, or enhance the right brain. In reality, both hemispheres in our brains are so massively convoluted that it is impossible to perform tasks with only one particular part of the brain being involved. We use huge networks of neurons that span both hemispheres of the brain for even seemingly simplistic processes -such as recognizing a friend's face or drawing stick figures. So, there is no such thing as a left-brained person. There is no such thing as teaching to the left brain. The only people on the earth who are truly left-brained or right-brained are people who have had a hemispherectomy - removal of one hemisphere of the brain, not to be confused with a lobotomy -the removal of some of the frontal parts of the brain.

Next article I will have an interview with a professor that actually studies people who have had a hemispherectomy. They function remarkably well!! We are just getting our feet wet with this topic. Be sure to come back next month for some astonishing findings about the brain!! See you then!

As always, please send in comments and/or questions to, or add to the discussion below!

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Where are all the comments for this fascinating article? Looking forward to what will hopefully be in the next installment - how we actually raise our students' colective excitement threshold to the required level...

Hello Jonathan,

Thanks for the comment. I think we had some server based trouble around when this article was first published. This may have blocked some readers from adding comments at the time. Sorry about that.

And yes, you are very correct in assuming the next, actually next few, articles will be on how we need to go about this.

Look for them here very soon!

Robert Murphy

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