Brain Science

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Information Age Education (IAE) is an Oregon non-profit corporation created by David Moursund in July, 2007. It works to improve the informal and formal education of people of all ages throughout the world. A number of people have contributed their time and expertise in developing the materials that are made available free in the various IAE publications. Click here to learn how you can help develop new IAE materials.


This Brain Science website contains the complete book, Brain Science for Educators and Parents, written by David Moursund. The book is also available as a free downloadable file:


“Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.” (Jeffrey Eugenides; American Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist; 1960-.)

Publication History

The initial Brain Science entry in the IAE-pedia was published 12/19/2007, when the IAE-pedia was just getting started. Its content grew in a haphazard manner over the years. When I encountered a brain science article or topic that seemed particularly relevant to my interests in education, I added it to the IAE-pedia Brain Science page. I made little effort to relate the new section to previous sections. Moreover, the topics were arranged in alphabetical order rather than being grouped into related topics.

In spite of these shortcomings, the Brain Science page grew in popularity. By the end of March, 2015, it had had about 107,000 page views—which made it fourth in popularity in the list of IAE-pedia content pages.

In April, 2015, I decided to reorganize and rewrite the IAE-pedia Brain Science document. Now, nearly four months later, I have completed this project. The result is a book, Brain Science for Educators and Parents. The book contains a great deal of information that I feel will prove valuable to educators, parents, and others who are interested in the capabilities and limitations of the human brain.


This book provides an introduction to brain science that is specifically designed for preservice and inservice K-12 teachers, and for teachers of these teachers. However, parents, grandparents, childcare providers, and others who are interested in K-12 education will find the book useful.

Here are two important and unifying questions addressed throughout the book:

  1. What should preservice teachers, inservice K-12 teachers, and parents know about brain science?
  2. How should K-12 teachers be using their knowledge of brain science, both to improve their teaching and to help their students gain brain science knowledge appropriate to their current and growing cognitive development levels?

The goal of the book is to help you develop and understand answers that fit your needs as an educator and/or parent. If you have not read much about recent progress in brain science—and especially its applications in education—you might want to investigate some the documents and videos listed in the References and Resources section at the end of Chapter 1.

Each chapter focuses on a specific area of brain science in education. The grouping of topics into chapters—and indeed, the order of the chapters—is somewhat arbitrary. My suggestion is that you browse the Table of Contents and feel free to go directly to a topic that interests you. For example, dyslexia is one of a number of brain “disorders” discussed in Chapter 8. If you are specifically interested in dyslexia, you will find that the treatment of this topic in Chapter 8 is relatively independent of the content of the preceding chapters.

Each chapter is relatively self-contained, and ends with a section on References and Resources related to that chapter. While most of the items in References and Resources are specifically cited within the chapter, occasionally one will fall into the category of "additional suggested resources." Most entries are followed by a brief statement designed to help the reader link the reference content to the chapter content. The book ends with a final section on Videos for Brain Science for Educators and Parents. This lists all of the videos referenced in the book, organized by the chapter in which they appeared.

Getting Started

When I study a subject that is somewhat unfamiliar to me, I like to look at some of the older literature in the field. What were the frontiers of the field a decade or two ago? I find that I can understand the “leading edge” overview presentations from that time period.

Michael Merzenich is a world-class researcher and developer in educational applications of brain science. His 2004 TED Talks, Growing Evidence of Brain Plasticity, is now more than ten years old (Merzenich, 2004). I strongly recommend that you view this video before proceeding further in this book.

A Brief and Enjoyable Interlude

Before you get involved in the deep aspects of brain science and its applications to teaching and learning, I want you to enjoy a classic, short video about teaching tennis (Gallwey, 1970). It illustrates a type of coaching (a type of teaching) that has mind and body learning together in a non-threatening, natural, enjoyable, learn-by-doing, mind/body style.

References and Resources for Preface

Each chapter ends with a References and Resources section. The first two items listed below are cited in the Preface, and the remainder are not. The uncited materials provide background information that many readers will find interesting and useful.

Gallwey, T.W. (1970). Inner game of tennis. (Video, 12:14.) Retrieved 6/21/2015 from Quoting from the website:

In 1970 W. Timothy Gallwey author of "Inner Game of Tennis," demonstrates how to teach tennis without teaching. A woman who doesn't know how to play tennis at all, can play within 10 minutes.

Merzenich, M. (2004). Growing evidence of brain plasticity. (Video, 23:07.) TED Talks. Retrieved 6/11/2015 from Quoting from the website:

Neuroscientist Michael Merzenich looks at one of the secrets of the brain's incredible power: its ability to actively re-wire itself. He's researching ways to harness the brain's plasticity to enhance our skills and recover lost function.

Schultz, L. (June, 2015). The surprisingly logical minds of babies. (Video, 20:18.) TED Talks. Retrieved 7/16/2015 from

An enlightening and amusing introduction to the amazing capabilities of the minds of babies. Laura Schultz argues that pre-toddlers and toddlers have mind capabilities that exceed the artificial intelligence of current computers—and the computers she expects to see for many years to come.

Sousa, D., ed. (2010). Mind, brain, and education: Neuroscience implications for the classroom. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

The 17 contributors to this book have produced a "tour de force" that I consider must reading for anyone seriously interested in brain science in education. The book addresses questions such as "What does neuroscience reveal about the brain's ability to learn and use spoken language, to learn and use mathematics, and to think creatively?"

Sylwester, R. (2010). A child’s brain: The need for nurture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. Quoting from the book:

Although children often grouse about adult requests and decisions, they can’t survive on their own and so are much more compliant then adolescents—who are reaching for autonomy.
Extended family, teachers, social workers, coaches, scouting leaders, religious guides, police, and others combine their efforts to help ensure that children are properly sheltered and nurtured.

Sylwester, R. (2007). The adolescent brain: Reaching for autonomy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. Quoting from the book:

A variety of collaborative adult mentors accompany the adolescent reach for autonomy. Parents, stepparents, and other relatives form one group, and surrogate parents form the other group. Teachers, coaches, and youth program directors are examples of surrogate parents who work principally with groups of adolescents.

Chapter 1: Introduction to Brain Science

“I could while away the hours
Conferrin' with the flowers
Consultin' with the rain
And my head I'd be scratchin'
While my thoughts were busy hatchin'
If I only had a brain.
The scarecrow song in Wizard of Oz. (L. Frank Baum; American author; 1856-1919.)

Your 3-pound physical brain is part of your physical body. Quoting from the Wikipedia:

The brain is an organ that serves as the center of the nervous system in all vertebrate and most invertebrate animals.... The brain is located in the head, usually close to the primary sensory organs for such senses as vision, hearing, balance, taste, and smell.... In a typical human, the cerebral cortex (the largest part [of the brain]) is estimated to contain 15–33 billion neurons, each connected by synapses to several thousand other neurons.

The typical human physical brain grows and matures over a period of years. Although it reaches 90% of its eventual full size by about age six, it doesn’t reach full physical maturity until approximately age 26.

The non-brain parts of the physical body of a typical human grows and matures over a period of years, reaching full maturity by approximately ages 18 to 21.

Notice the difference between maturity of a physical body and maturity of a brain. Eighteen-year-old college freshmen may look mature, but their brains still have a long way to go!

Moreover, in terms of a brain, full physical maturity doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Your brain houses a mind. There is a considerable difference between the three-pound physical structure we call a brain, and the consciousness, education, training, and memories that we call a mind stored in the brain.

Quoting from the Wikipedia:

A mind is the set of cognitive faculties that enables consciousness, perception, thinking, judgment, and memory—a characteristic of humans, but which also may apply to other life forms.

What is consciousness?—a seemingly simple question—is an important and challenging question at the frontiers of brain science. A later section of this book presents some of the latest findings.

While some authors strive to differentiate between brain and mind, others just use brain/mind to encompass the combination. This book tries to avoid getting bogged down in brain versus mind—sometimes using the term brain/mind, sometimes using just brain (especially when talking about the physical structure), and sometimes using just mind (especially when talking about thinking, consciousness, and attention).

When you go to sleep, the consciousness state of your brain/mind changes, but your brain/mind continues to function quite actively. You have a subconscious that can continue to work on a problem even when you are not actively paying attention to the problem and working to solve it. A person can wake from sleep and discover that an “ah ha” event or moment has occurred—the subconscious has made progress in solving a challenging problem.

And, you may have heard of the locked in syndrome, in which a patient may be completely paralyzed but still have a functioning brain/mind—and be completely unable to communicate. Recent progress in using sophisticated equipment to read brain waves is helping to develop ways to communicate with people who are completely locked in.

Through appropriate exercise and training, your physical body can gain in capabilities for a great many years after it reaches physical maturity. Similarly, through informal and formal education and experiences, your brain/mind continues its growth, development, and change throughout your lifetime.

You realize, of course, that physical and mental health and development are closely linked. A brain/mind needs a healthy physical body, and a physical body needs a healthy brain/mind. Thus, for example, if we reduce or delete daily physical education from a student’s life, we are potentially damaging students’ brain/minds. This issue is addressed in later parts of the book.

Elkhonon Goldberg is a world leader in brain science. Quoting from Andy Hunter’s interview, On The Threshold: An Interview With Elkhonon Goldberg, Ph.D. (Hunter, 3/31/2011):

Elkhonon Goldberg is one of those rare scientists who are able to distill complex ideas into accessible, entertaining, and even literary prose. His books The Wisdom Paradox and The Executive Brain are as compulsively readable as they are insightful and instructive.
Question: What do you think is the single most important thing that a person should understand about his or her brain?
How about if I tell you two things? One very important thing that one should understand is that one’s brain is part of one’s physical body. When we think about our ability to breathe, digest, or walk, we understand that these are all functions of our bodies. But when people think about our ability to think, have emotions, or make decisions, they often think as if these were some kind of platonic, ex-corporeal phenomenon, which have nothing to do with our physical being. In reality, they’re functions of our brain, and the brain is a biological entity which is part of our body.
The other thing that’s important is that we are in command of what happens to our brain. Like other organs in our bodies, our brain is very malleable, and depending on what we do—or fail to do—with it, it will be healthy and function well, or it will succumb to the effects of aging or other infirmity and it will not function well. Most people understand that we can go to the gym to change the structure of your body. But relatively few people understand in a deep sense that our mind can also be molded through the nature of our mental activity.
Question: Does that include things like how you eat, or your physical condition, as well as whatever mental exercise you do during the day?
All of the above. Obviously, since thinking is a function of the brain, the most direct impact on the brain is through mental activities. One should not shy away from situations where you strain your brain; one should always be mentally active and engage in new challenges. The rigor of your mental activity has a direct effect on the brain, but so does the nature and extent of your physical activities. It has been shown that a physical, active lifestyle promotes various physiological phenomena that are good for your brain. Nobody’s life should gravitate to excesses. It should be a balanced menu of physical and mental activities.

History of Brain Study

Intelligence is the ability to acquire and make use of knowledge and skills—it is the ability to adapt to change. This is a very broad and inclusive definition. All living creatures have intelligence, and humans have a very long history of being interested in intelligence.

However, a “science” of studying the brain and mind was slow to develop. For example, during the 1800s, phrenology was considered by many to be an important approach to studying the brain. Quoting from the phrenology website: it was believed that by examining the shape and unevenness of a head or skull, one could discover the development of the particular cerebral "organs" responsible for different intellectual aptitudes and character traits. For example, a prominent protuberance in the forehead at the position attributed to the organ of Benevolence was meant to indicate that the individual had a "well developed" organ of Benevolence and would therefore be expected to exhibit benevolent behavior.

Brain science took a major leap forward through the work of Alfred Binet and others in developing the concept of IQ in the early 1900s. Quoting from this website:

Intelligence testing began in earnest in France, when in 1904 psychologist Alfred Binet was commissioned by the French government to find a method to differentiate between children who were intellectually normal and those who were inferior. The purpose was to put the latter into special schools where they would receive more individual attention. In this way, the disruption they caused in the education of intellectually normal children could be avoided.

This led to the development of the Binet Scale, also known as the Simon-Binet Scale in recognition of Theophile Simon's assistance in its development. The IQ is the ratio of “mental age” to chronological age, with 100 being average. An 8-year-old who passes the 10-year-old’s test would have an IQ of 10/8 x 100, or 125.

Now, more than a century later, various theories of IQ and measures of IQ are still active areas of study and research. A theory of multiple intelligences (a person having more than one type of cognitive intelligence) has been put forth by Howard Gardner, Robert Sternberg, and others. Other types of intelligence, such as social and emotional intelligence, are also being studied.

Brain Science

The field of brain science (also called cognitive neuroscience) is expanding quite rapidly. It may well be that the totality of knowledge in this area is doubling every five years. You can get a sense for the breadth and depth of research going on in this field by viewing a 5:37 video from the Allan Institute for Brain Science (Allan Institute, 2015). For much greater breadth and depth, see the free University of Texas online book, Neuroscience Online (University of Texas, 1997-present).

It is only in recent years that technology and brain theory have progressed to a stage that allows us to gain an understanding of how brains work at the neuron level. Non-invasive brain scanning neuroimaging equipment has come onto the scene and has added very important new dimensions to the field of brain science. Quoting from the Wikipedia:

Neuroimaging falls into two broad categories:
• Structural imaging, which deals with the structure of the brain and the diagnosis of gross (large scale) intracranial disease (such as tumor), and injury, and
• Functional imaging, which is used to diagnose metabolic diseases and lesions on a finer scale (such as Alzheimer's disease) and also for neurological and cognitive psychology research and building brain-computer interfaces.

In addition, our increased understanding of genes is providing information about a variety of brain "defects" and diseases. We are developing useful interventions based on brain education (training, retraining) and drugs.

Our increased understanding of brain functioning is quite important in education. A superb example is provided by the research and development in dyslexia, a relatively common reading disorder. Appropriate interventions can actually "rewire" the brain and help many dyslexics to become good readers. This topic is discussed later in this document.

A Good Source of Educational Materials

There are a number good sources of brain science and education materials. Many of them are woven into the subsequent chapters of this book. However, here is one you might want to explore right now.

The DANA Foundation’s website provides substantial amounts of educational material. For example, here you can access:

BioEd Online: Biology Teacher Resources. Baylor College of Medicine has resources for K-8 and high school biology teachers, including lesson plans, news stories, and classroom activities.
The Brain From Top to Bottom. This site, from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction sponsors, offers in-depth information to students of all levels about such brain-related issues as the senses, memory, pleasure and pain, and mental disorders.
The ChemCollective. The ChemCollective offers teachers and students free virtual lab materials, tutorials, scenarios, and simulations to use in class, along with an opportunity for teachers to share materials with one another. The National Science Digital Library and the National Science Foundation sponsor the site.

The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives was officially launched in 1993. Its founding members pledged their commitment to advancing public awareness and education about the progress and promise of brain research, and to disseminating information on the brain in an understandable and accessible manner. See more at:

Consciousness and Self-awareness

"Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am.” (René Descartes; French philosopher, mathematician, scientist, and writer; 1596-1650.)

Not only do you and other humans think, you can think about the past and plan for the future. (You are saving for your eventual retirement, right?) Consciousness has long been a far frontier of the field of brain science. In recent years, significant progress is occurring in understanding this phenomenon, but we have a long way to go.

What might it mean to say that we understand what consciousness is and what makes/creates consciousness? Quoting from Steven Pinker, The Mystery of Consciousness (Pinker, 1/29/2007):

It shouldn't be surprising that research on consciousness is alternately exhilarating and disturbing. No other topic is like it. As René Descartes noted, our own consciousness is the most indubitable thing there is. The major religions locate it in a soul that survives the body's death to receive its just deserts or to meld into a global mind. For each of us, consciousness is life itself, the reason Woody Allen said, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying." And the conviction that other people can suffer and flourish as each of us does is the essence of empathy and the foundation of morality.
Another startling conclusion from the science of consciousness is that the intuitive feeling we have that there's an executive "I" that sits in a control room of our brain, scanning the screens of the senses and pushing the buttons of the muscles, is an illusion. Consciousness turns out to consist of a maelstrom of events distributed across the brain. These events compete for attention, and as one process outshouts the others, the brain rationalizes the outcome after the fact and concocts the impression that a single self was in charge all along.

Both the United States and the European Union are embarking on large, long-term brain projects. Shortly before the New Scientist Consciousness and the Extended Mind event held in England (4/7/2015), Liz Else interviewed Margaret Boden, one of the participants (Else, 3/31/2015). Quoting from the article:

Big money is being spent on initiatives like the European Union's Human Brain Project. Will people hoping to learn about consciousness be disappointed?
Absolutely. From what I hear, some of that project's neuroscientists are disappointed because it isn't nearly strong enough in asking cognitive questions. It is asking the basic, materialistic questions—such as which cells connect with what, or which chemicals are diffusing—but these basic questions aren't the only important ones.
So are we much closer to grasping consciousness than when you started work on it, four decades ago?
Not very. I think the fundamental problems aren't just scientific—knowing what's going on in the brain when we're conscious and so forth—but philosophical questions, and in particular about the phenomenon of consciousness. This concerns the so-called hard problem of how conscious experience emerges from matter, and why we experience, say, the redness of red or feel pain. It isn't just that we're not sure what scientific questions to ask; it's that we don't know what questions to ask because we don't know what we're talking about.
So where have we seen progress?
One area is in understanding functional consciousness, such as decision-making. And we understand more about how systems in the brain cooperate and integrate to make conscious or unconscious decisions.

Mythologies About the Human Brain

“The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.” (John F. Kennedy; 35th president of the United States; 1917-1963.)

We each have some knowledge about our own brains and the brains of other people. Some of your knowledge may fall into the category of “mythologies.” A 4/29/2015 Google search of the expression brain myths in education produced over 15 million results.

Quoting from Pete Etchells’ article, Brain Baloney Has No Place in the Classroom (Etchells, 10/17/2014):

If you want to make a neuroscientist’s head explode, all you need to do is confidently and triumphantly tell them that humans only use 10% of their brains. Or that right-brained people are more creative than left-brained people. Or that jiggling your head around gets more blood to the brain so you can think more efficiently. These are myths about the brain that have now been around for so long, it’s a wonder they haven’t had a congratulatory message from the Queen.

The field of brain science is making amazing progress. Many people read a little bit about this progress and try to translate it into ways to solve problems or accomplish tasks in their own particular areas of interest. In the process they may create neuromythologies that others come to believe are true and accept without question.

In education, we now have a great many neuromythologies. You might ask yourself, what does a person gain by believing a myth even when there is substantial research evidence that says the myth is incorrect? Doing so makes you a less credible person and belittles the discipline you are talking about. IAE has published a collection IAE Newsletters on the topic of credibility and validity.

For example, consider the 10% brain use mythology mentioned above. Such a myth is often accompanied by various techniques (more studying, meditation, drugs) suggesting that one can learn to make use of a much greater part of their brain.

Now that we have appropriate brain-scanning equipment, we know for a fact that 10% is a ridiculously low estimate. Even in mundane tasks, nearly 100% of our brain neurons are engaged.

Learning styles is another popular area of mythology. We all have heard about VAK (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic) learners. It seems obvious that a person might be a lot better in one of these learning modalities than in the other two. From this one might conclude that education can be improved by teaching students almost completely in their best learning modality.

This is incorrect. What's the Story on Learning Styles? by Maryellen Weimer provides a nice summary of this topic (Weimer, 4/30/2014). Quoting from her article:

Then several years ago, we started seeing articles that challenged the validity of learning styles (see Pashler, et al. for an example). The Pashler et. al literature review did not find empirically valid evidence connecting learning styles with instructional methods and better learning outcomes for students with that style when compared to students with other styles. And so, challenged empirically and questioned in several widely referenced articles, learning styles are now out.
However, what's left standing is one unarguable fact: People do not all learn in the same way. Some of us always read the instructions first and others of us just start putting it together. [Bold added for emphasis.]

John Geake’s Neuromythologies in Education is an excellent research-based article on the fallacy of believing in neuromythologies (Geake, 2008). His article discusses the 10% myth, the learning styles myth, the left- and right-brained thinking myth, and a number of others.

Mind, Brain, and Education: Neuroscience Implications for the Classroom (Sousa, 2010) provides a number of examples of neuromythologies and an excellent introduction to mind, brain, and education.

You and Your Students

"No two minds ever come together without thereby creating a third, invisible, intangible force, which may be likened to a third mind." (Napoleon Hill; American author; 1883-1970.)

As you read this book, think about possible applications in your own professional and personal life, and think about what you want students to know about the various topics. The brain myths mentioned in this chapter provide an interesting challenge. Perhaps you strongly disagree with the research on brain myths. What are you going to do about this situation?

You may enjoy working with your students to find out what they “know” (think they know) about their own brains. Here are some possible topics for small group and whole class discussion, or writing assignments.

  • Do your students believe that girls are naturally smarter than boys, or vice versa?
  • Do they believe that left-handers are smarter than right-handers, or vice versa?
  • What do they “know” about multitasking?
  • What do they "know" about study skills—how one learns new material? Do they use different approaches to learning different subject areas?
  • To them, what does it mean “to know and understand” something? How do students know that they know something? For example, how does one know they have learned the math they are studying versus the history they are studying? How do they self-assess?

These and similar questions can spark interesting class discussions and student research projects.

References and Resources for Chapter 1

Allan Institute (2015). Allan Institute for Brain Science: Fueling discovery. (Video, 5:37.) Retrieved 4/27/2015 from

The non-profit Allan Institute was founded by Paul Allan, one of the founders of Microsoft. The Institute carries out research on fundamental, challenging brain science topics, and shares its results with researchers throughout the world.

Brandt, R. (April, 2012). How educational neuroscience will contribute to 21st century education. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 4/23/2015 from

Ron Brandt was editor of publications for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (now ASCD), from 1978 until his retirement in 1997. This newsletter summarizes some of the early history of bringing “modern” brain science into education.

Else, L. (3/31/2015). We must pull together to grasp consciousness. New Scientist. Retrieved 5/31/2015 from Quoting from the article:

Are robots with human-like intelligence just around the corner? Are we close to understanding consciousness?

Etchells, P. (10/17/2014). Brain baloney has no place in the classroom. theguardian. Retrieved 6/19/2014 from Quoting from the article:

And so we’re left with a situation in which neuromyths have largely been left unchallenged in the education system. But, at least there’s a spark of hope that this is changing. Both teachers and neuroscientists alike are starting to see an increased need for better communication.

Geake, J. (2008). Neuromythologies in education. Educational Research. Retrieved 10/4/2013 from Quoting from the article:

The basis for the argument put forward includes a literature review of relevant cognitive neuroscientific studies, often involving neuroimaging, together with several comprehensive education reviews of the brain-based approaches under scrutiny.

Howard-Jones, P. (10/15/2014). Neuroscience and education: Myths and messages. Nature. An abstract of this research article is available at

A newspaper article based on the research is available at

Hunter, A. (3/31/2011). On the threshold: An interview with Elkhonon Goldberg, Ph.D, BrainWorld. Retrieved 7/5/2015 from Quoting from the article”

… neuroscience has finally crossed the threshold of being a real science. Thirty or 40 years ago, it was in a prescientific, intuitive state. People had certain ideas and concepts, but there was no rigorous body of methods or knowledge to justify calling it a real science. Now, finally, neuroscience is coming of age into a serious, rigorous science.

Kanwisher, N. (2014). Nancy’s brain talks. (Videos, various lengths.) Retrieved 4/23/2015 from Quoting from the website:

Welcome! I’m a professor at MIT who uses a brain imaging method called fMRI to study the human brain. This site contains short talks on the different scientific methods we can use to study the human mind and brain, and some of the cool things we have learned so far. You do not need any background in the field to understand the talks. For an overall introduction, watch my [March, 2014] TED talk.

Pinker, S. (1/29/2007). The mystery of consciousness. Time. Retrieved 5/31/2015 from,9171,1580394,00.html. Quoting from the article:

The Easy Problem, then, is to distinguish conscious from unconscious mental computation, identify its correlates in the brain and explain why it evolved.
The Hard Problem, on the other hand, is why it feels like something to have a conscious process going on in one's head—why there is first-person, subjective experience.

Sousa, D., ed. (2010). Mind, brain, and education: Neuroscience implications for the classroom. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

The 17 contributors to this book have produced a “tour de force” that I consider must reading for anyone seriously interested in brain science in education. The book addresses questions such as “What does neuroscience reveal about the brain’s ability to learn and use spoken language, to learn and use mathematics, and to think creatively?”

Sparks, S.D. (6/4/2012). Experts call for teaching educators brain science. Education Week. Retrieved 6/14/2012 from Quoting from the article:

"For the most part, teachers are not exposed systemically in a way that allows them to understand things like brain plasticity," said Michael J. Nakkula, the chairman of applied psychology and human development at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. Mr. Nakkula is part of the Students at the Center project, a series of reports on teaching and learning launched this spring by the Boston-based nonprofit group Jobs for the Future.

Sylwester, R. (August, 2013). Understanding and mastering complexity: Understanding our brain and applying that knowledge. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 4/23/2015 from Quoting from the newsletter:

The recent development of at least eight kinds of brain imaging technologies that measure and display variations in chemical composition, blood flow patterns, and electromagnetic fields opened up the possibility of studying brain organization and function in ways that were not previously thought possible.

University of Texas (1997-present). Neuroscience online. Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston. Retrieved 5/3/2015 from

Chapter 7 of Section 4 is titled, Learning and Memory. Quoting from this chapter:
The analysis of the anatomical and physical bases of learning and memory is one of the great successes of modern neuroscience. Thirty years ago little was known about how memory works, but now we know a great deal.

Weimer, M. (4/30/2014). What’s the story about learning styles? Faculty Focus. Retrieved 4/30/2015 from Quoting from the article:

[Over simplification of learning and learning styles] derives from dualistic thinking. Either something is right or wrong, it’s in or out, up or down. As mature thinkers, we disavow these dichotomous perspectives.

Chapter 2. Executive Functions and Memory

“The strongest memory is not as strong as the weakest ink.” (Confucius; Chinese thinker and social philosopher, whose teachings and philosophy have deeply influenced Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese thought and life; 551 BC–479 BC.)

In this book, the term information is used to represent any combination of data, information, knowledge, wisdom, and foresight.


Frequently in my early teaching career, I taught a computer literacy course. In this course I taught my student that a computer is a machine for the input, storage, processing, and output of information. That is, a computer is a brain-like, information-processing machine. In my teaching, I emphasized that if we leave out the word machine, this description fits a human brain.

So, then as now, it is interesting and fun to involve students in discussing capabilities and limitations of the human brain versus those of a computer as a brain-like machine. Research and development in improving a computer’s brain-like capabilities has both helped the field of brain science and has been helped by continued progress in brain science.

This chapter focuses on three important aspects of the human brain: executive function, attention, and memory. The executive parts of the brain are in charge, telling other parts what to do. A useful analogy is to think about how a company’s Chief Executive Officer is in charge of the company.

The attention components direct the mind and senses to pay attention, and the memory stores information that can be used by the other parts of the brain to solve problems and accomplish tasks.

A University of Texas online book, Welcome to Neuroscience Online, the Open Access Textbook, is available free. Chapter 7 of Section 4 is titled, Learning and Memory.

Executive Functions of the Brain

The executive functions of a human brain are a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one's resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation. Quoting from the Executive Functions section of (UCSF, n.d.):

The term “Executive Functions” refers to the higher-level cognitive skills you use to control and coordinate your other cognitive abilities and behaviors. The term is a business metaphor, where the chief executive monitors all of the different departments so that the company can move forward as efficiently and effectively as possible. Who we are, how we organize our lives, how we plan, and how we then execute those plans is largely guided by our executive system.
Executive functions can be divided into organizational and regulatory abilities. Organization includes gathering information and structuring it for evaluation. Regulation involves evaluating the available information and modulating your responses to the environment.

Here is a list of some functions quoted from What Is Executive Functioning? by Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Laurie Diet (2008):

  • Inhibition. The ability to stop one's own behavior at the appropriate time, including stopping actions and thoughts. The flip side of inhibition is impulsivity; if you have weak ability to stop yourself from acting on your impulses, then you are "impulsive."
  • Shift. The ability to move freely from one situation to another and to think flexibly in order to respond appropriately to the situation.
  • Emotional Control. The ability to modulate emotional responses by bringing rational thought to bear on feelings.
  • Initiation. The ability to begin a task or activity and to independently generate ideas, responses, or problem-solving strategies.
  • Working Memory. The capacity to hold information in mind for the purpose of completing a task.
  • Planning/Organization. The ability to manage current and future- oriented task demands.
  • Organization of Materials. The ability to impose order on work, play, and storage spaces.
  • Self-Monitoring. The ability to monitor one's own performance and to measure it against some standard of what is needed or expected.


You have probably heard teachers say, “Now class, please pay attention.” The teachers want the students to focus their attention on new information and ideas that are about to be presented. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines attention as “the act or power of carefully thinking about, listening to, or watching someone or something.”

Attention is an important brain executive function. Quoting from the Wikipedia:

Attention is one of the most intensely studied topics within psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Attention remains a major area of investigation within education, psychology and neuroscience.

A longitudinal study and other research projects are reported in Katrina Schwartz’s article, Age of Distraction: Why It's Crucial for Students to Learn to Focus (Schwartz, 12/5/2013). Quoting from the article:

Perhaps the most well-known study on concentration is a longitudinal study conducted with over 1,000 children in New Zealand by Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, psychology and neuroscience professors at Duke University. The study tested children born in 1972 and 1973 regularly for eight years, measuring their ability to pay attention and to ignore distractions. Then, the researchers tracked those same children down at the age of 32 to see how well they fared in life. The ability to concentrate was the strongest predictor of success.
“This ability is more important than IQ or the socio economic status of the family you grew up in for determining career success, financial success and health,” Goleman said. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Michael Posner has long been a world leader in attention. In his video interview, Implications of Cognitive Neuroscience for Education, Posner describes research on attention and the executive function of the brain—especially as they apply to learning a natural language (Posner, 2009). This research provides us with increased understanding of the brain functioning of infants. It also helps to explain why both phonetics and whole word teaching are important in learning to become a fluent reader. One part of the brain deals with phonemes and a different part deals with whole words.

Posner’s interview includes a brief discussion about research on infants' ability to distinguish between small numbers—perhaps up to four or five. Research on infants learning language and math provides solid evidence of the role of parents and other child care providers in very early childhood education.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)—sometimes called Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)—is a relatively prevalent learning disorder. Quoting from a Mayo Clinic website (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2015):

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a chronic condition that affects millions of children and often persists into adulthood. ADHD includes a combination of problems, such as difficulty sustaining attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior.
Children with ADHD also may struggle with low self-esteem, troubled relationships and poor performance in school. Symptoms sometimes lessen with age. However, some people never completely outgrow their ADHD symptoms. But they can learn strategies to be successful. [Bold added for emphasis.]

The last sentence quoted above is particularly important. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC, 2015) currently “treatment” for ADHD usually consists of a combination of:

  • Medications
  • Behavioral intervention strategies
  • Parent training
  • School accommodations and interventions

Chapter 8 contains an extensive section on ADHD,

Long-term Memory

Quoting from the Wikipedia:

Declarative memory (sometimes referred to as explicit memory) is one of two types of long-term human memory. Declarative memory refers to memories that can be consciously recalled such as facts and knowledge. … Declarative memory's counterpart is known as non-declarative or procedural memory, which refers to unconscious memories such as skills (e.g. learning to ride a bicycle). Declarative memory can be divided into two categories: episodic memory, which stores specific personal experiences, and semantic memory, which stores factual information.

As indicated earlier in this chapter, we use the term information to represent any combination of data, information, knowledge, wisdom, and foresight. Information stored in a computer’s memory is represented in binary code—as a sequence of zeros and ones. That is not how we store information in our brains!

One popular—but incorrect—mental image or analogy of human long-term memory is a collection of very tiny filing cabinets, perhaps with the information arranged in alphabetical order. The information just sits there, waiting to be retrieved.

This is an interesting analogy, but rather weak. For example, when you think about animals, do you direct your brain to look in the “A” part of its memory system? Certainly not. The content in your brain’s memory is not arranged in alphabetical order.

Consider the complexity of a storage and retrieval system that can find/access appropriate information when it sees the word animal in print, hears the word, sees any of many different animals in the flesh or in pictures, hears the sound of an animal, smells an animal, is asked to describe some different four-footed animals, and so on.

Quoting from Luke Mastin’s website, The Human Memory (Mastin, 2010):

...our memory is located not in one particular place in the brain, but is instead a brain-wide process in which several different areas of the brain act in conjunction with one another (sometimes referred to as distributed processing). For example, the simple act of riding a bike is actively and seamlessly reconstructed by the brain from many different areas: the memory of how to operate the bike comes from one area, the memory of how to get from here to the end of the block comes from another, the memory of biking safety rules from another, and that nervous feeling when a car veers dangerously close comes from still another. Each element of a memory (sights, sounds, words, emotions) is encoded in the same part of the brain that originally created that fragment (visual cortex, motor cortex, language area, etc), and recall of a memory effectively reactivates the neural patterns generated during the original encoding.

This distributed-memory aspect of information stored in a human brain provides an important clue to effective learning to facilitate information retrieval. Each chunk of information that you store in your brain becomes distributed and connected to (associated with) many other different chunks of information. When we “understand” something, we have stored, can retrieve, and can make use of a collection of interrelated information.

So, in learning something new, we relate it to things we already know, understand, and can use. That, is constructivism is a natural process of how a human learns. As we try to remember (retrieve) information from our memory, we depend on our brain finding and assembling widely distributed but related pieces of memory elements. We improve our retrieval capabilities by helping our brains make a widely distributed but interrelated schema for whatever we are trying to learn.

This analysis also helps to explain why rote learning without understanding is not an effective process. Isolated pieces of information that may well be stored in one’s brain are often difficult to retrieve.

Sensory Memory

Each of our five senses has some short-term memory. You have probably experienced this in your auditory sense. You are not paying much attention to what is being said, and somehow your subconscious says, “Pay attention to what you are hearing.” Your short-term auditory memory allows you to retrieve (in essence, sort of rehear) the last few seconds of the auditory signal.

Quoting from the Wikipedia:

Humans have five main senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch. Sensory memory (SM) allows individuals to retain impressions of sensory information after the original stimulus has ceased.
During every moment of an organism's life, sensory information is being taken in by sensory receptors and processed by the nervous system. The information people receive which is stored in sensory memory is just long enough to be transferred to short-term memory.

Sensory memory stores only a quite short length of input. Depending on the particular sense, this might be as little as a tenth of a second up to a perhaps two-three seconds (Ricker, n.d.). Information coming into sensory memories is transferred into the brain’s short-term working memory (which is discussed later in this chapter). There, the brain processes the information.

In a conversation, for example, the incoming information is often combined with information stored in long-term memory to produce a verbal response. Think about the complexities of receiving a signal consisting of vibrations in the air, translating that into information stored in short term (working) memory, understanding what the signal means, retrieving additional information from one’s long-term memory that relates to what has been said, formulating a response, and directing one’s speaking mechanism to utter a response.

Most of the sensory information that we take in is ignored—that is, does not come to the attention of short-term memory. This observation reinforces our understanding of attention. If we don't pay attention to sensory inputs, we do not learn from them.

Short-term Memory (Working Memory)

Short-term memory has come to be called working memory, and in the remainder of this chapter we will use that term. If a person tells you their 10-digit phone number, can you remember it long enough to write it down? If you can remember a random 10-digit sequence of number long enough to write them down, your working memory is quite unusual.

But, suppose that you know the person has a local phone number, and you live in the same area code. Then the person’s phone number consists of “my area code” followed by a seven-digit number. The 10-digit number has been reduced to eight chunks of information. Eight chunks are easier to remember for the short time it takes to write it down or “dial” it.

George Miller’s 1956 research article, The Magical Number Seven Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, is a classic and well worth reading (Miller, 1956). It discusses the capabilities and limitations of working memory, and argues that for typical people, working memory is approximately five to nine chunks.

The size (capacity) of memory varies significantly with different people, and it also varies under conditions of stress, drugs, and so on. Quoting from Miller's article:

In order to speak more precisely, therefore, we must recognize the importance of grouping or organizing the input sequence into units or chunks. Since the [working] memory span is a fixed number of chunks, we can increase the number of [binary] bits of information that it contains simply by building larger and larger chunks, each chunk containing more information than before.
A man just beginning to learn radio-telegraphic code hears each dit and dah as a separate chunk. Soon he is able to organize these sounds into letters and then he can deal with the letters as chunks. Then the letters organize themselves as words, which are still larger chunks, and he begins to hear whole phrases.

Each of us has learned to deal with the limitations in our working memory. Still, in our roles as communicators and teachers, we often forget about the limitations of the student brains that are trying to receive and process the information we are communicating. I am reminded of presentations in which an overhead projector is used. With a click of a button a “page” of information is flashed up on the screen. The speaker makes some comments about this information, and then moves on to the next slide. Question: How much information should a slide display?

We want students to simultaneously read the slide’s contents, listen to and process what is being said, and take notes! Think about the demands that this places on a brain’s sensory and working memory capabilities. In my opinion, most speakers (most teachers) go far too fast.

For effective communication and learning, here is what needs to happen. An idea is presented both as a short line of text (perhaps accompanied with a graphical image) on a slide. Often the presenter speaks the words, so that the listener/viewer gets both a written and oral version, and perhaps a visual image version of the idea.

The presenter then presents some related ideas designed to help the students construct knowledge and understanding that ties in with their current knowledge and understanding. This might be via a sequence of examples, personal stories, and so on. In a teaching situation, the presenter may then provide time for students to talk together in small groups—such human to human interaction helps students to better understand what has been presented and to gain insights about what one’s fellow students are learning and understanding.

Somewhat the same ideas apply to designing effective Web pages. Jacob Nielsen is a world-class researcher in the design of Web pages. Quoting from his article, Short-term Memory and Web Usability (Nielsen, 12/7/09):

The human brain is not optimized for the abstract thinking and data memorization that websites often demand. Many usability guidelines are dictated by cognitive limitations.
People can't keep much information in their short-term memory. This is especially true when they're bombarded with multiple abstract or unusual pieces of data in rapid succession. Lest designers forget how easily users forget, let's review why our brains seem to be so weak.
Human beings are remarkably good at hunting the woolly mammoth. Considering that we humans have neither fangs nor claws, our ancestors did fine work in exterminating most megafauna from Australia to North America armed with nothing better than flint weapons. (In today's more environmentally conscious world, we might deplore their slaughtering ways, but early humans were more interested in catching their dinner.)
Many of the skills needed to use computers aren't highly useful in slaying mammoths. Such skills include remembering obscure codes from one screen to the next and interpreting highly abbreviated form-field labels. It's no surprise that people are no good at these skills, since they weren't important for survival in the ancestral environment. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Although Nielsen is writing about user interfaces in Web design, the same idea hold for a teacher designing a teacher-to-student interface. The learning teaching/learning interface needs to be designed to effectively cope with limitations of the brain. Again quoting from Nielsen:

Although the average human brain is better equipped for mammoth hunting than using websites, we're not all average. In fact, there are huge individual differences in user performance: the top 25% of users are 2.4 times better than the bottom 25%.

That fact is one of the major challenges in teaching. How does one teach a group of students whose brains contain that much brain variance?

Hippocampus and Long-term Memory

An intact human brain has two hippocampi, one in each side of the brain. The hippocampus belongs to the limbic system and plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory.

Quoting from

This part of the brain appears to be absolutely necessary for making new memories. If you didn’t have it, you couldn’t live in the present: you’d be stuck in the past of old memories. And this is common: Alzheimer’s disease affects the hippocampus first and severely, before other parts of the cortex (later, the frontal lobes too). So memory is usually the first thing to start to falter in Alzheimer’s — the ability to make new ones, that is. Who visited yesterday? Where did I put the car keys? Why isn’t there any mail today (when you brought it in 3 hours ago)?

Modern brain-scanning equipment allows us to “see” what parts of the brain are most active when the brain performs various tasks. For example, quoting from Byrne (2009 to present):

Figure 7.5 illustrates an example of a PET scan of an individual who is performing an object location test. The color code is such that the brighter, redder regions indicate increased brain activity. The most active region is the hippocampus. In discussions of memory, the hippocampus is mentioned repeatedly because it is a major part of the brain involved in declarative memory] [long-term memory] function. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Henry Molaison (H.M.) had a bilateral medial temporal lobectomy to surgically remove the anterior two thirds of his hippocampi in an attempt to cure his epilepsy. Researchers studied his brain for many years after the operation, until he died. Quoting again from Byrne (2009 to present):

Before the operation, H.M. had a fine memory, but after the operation, H.M. had a very severe memory deficit. Specifically, after the operation H.M.'s ability to form any new memories for facts and events was severely impaired; he had great difficulty learning any new vocabulary words; he could not remember what happened the day before. So if H.M. had an interview the day following a previous interview, he would have little or no memory about the interview or events during it. This study clearly indicated that the hippocampus was critical for memory formation. But whereas H.M. had great difficulty forming new memories for facts and events, he still had all of his old memories for facts and events. Specifically, he had all his childhood memories, and all of his memories prior to the operation.

Brain stimulation using electrical current to various parts of the brain has become both an important area of research and a new fad. Here is information about research on electrical stimulation of the hippocampus that improved learning. Quoting from Schmidt (2/8/2012):

UCLA neuroscientists have demonstrated that they can strengthen memory in human patients by stimulating a critical junction in the brain. Published in the Feb. 9 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, the finding could lead to a new method for boosting memory in patients with early Alzheimer's disease.
The UCLA team focused on a brain site called the entorhinal cortex. Considered the doorway to the hippocampus, which helps form and store memories, the entorhinal cortex plays a crucial role in transforming daily experience into lasting memories.
"When we stimulated the nerve fibers in the patients' entorhinal cortex during learning, they later recognized landmarks and navigated the routes more quickly," Fried said. "They even learned to take shortcuts, reflecting improved spatial memory.
"Critically, it was the stimulation at the gateway into the hippocampus — and not the hippocampus itself — that proved effective," he added.

There has been substantial research on how exercise benefits the brain. See, for example, (Chaddock, et al., 2010) and (Erickson, et al., 2009). Quoting from the Chaddock, et al. reference:

Exercise increases hippocampus size and improves memory. One year of brisk walking by older adults caused their hippocampus to grow by 2 percent. They walked 40 minutes, three days a week. The control group that did not walk saw their hippocampus shrink by over 1 percent, due to normal aging.

Quoting from the Erickson, et al. reference:

Aerobic fitness is correlated with hippocampal size. Physical fitness is directly associated with a larger hippocampus and better spatial memory in older adults. Participants in this study who were more fit were shown to have a significantly larger hippocampus. According to the study authors, "If you stay fit, you retain key regions of your brain involved in learning and memory."

Mirror Neurons: Monkey See, Monkey Do

Quoting from the Wikipedia:

A mirror neuron is a premotor neuron which fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another (especially conspecific) animal. Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of another animal, as though the observer were itself acting.… In humans, brain activity consistent with mirror neurons has been found in the premotor cortex and the inferior parietal cortex. Some scientists consider mirror neurons one of the most important findings of neuroscience in the last decade.

Mirror neurons have received quite a bit of publicity and perhaps have been over-hyped. A January 2005 NOVA broadcast contains an excellent 14-minute video about mirror neurons (NOVA, 2005).

Here is a very brief book suggestion quoted from an email message written by Robert Sylwester. He recommends Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others by Marco Iacobonni (2008). Quoting from Sylwester's comments on the book:

Within the brains of humans, apes, and monkeys is a small set of neurons that simulate the actions of others in real time. When you see Humphrey Bogart lock lips with Ingrid Bergman, the same brain cells fire as when you kiss your honey. When you hear co-workers crack open a soda, in your brain it's as if you'd opened the can yourself.
Since their discovery in monkeys less than two decades ago, mirror neurons have been called into service to explain just about everything that makes us human--from empathy and language to politics and pornography. Are these cells really the be-all and end-all of human nature? In one of the first books on the subject, neuroscientist Marco Iacobonni clearly explains what we do know (and how) and what we don't know (and can't).
Want to learn what mirror neurons have to do with Super Bowl commercials, violent video games, autism, addiction, and even free will? This is your book.

Gregory Hickok’s book, The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition (Hickok, 2014) questions some of the literature in the field of mirror neurons. Quoting from a review of Hickok's book by Bob Grant:

Serving as a case study in how excitement about a scientific discovery can go astray, The Myth of Mirror Neurons relates the breathless exuberance that attended the identification of a new type of brain cell initially regarded as a revelation in our understanding of human brain function. University of California, Irvine, cognitive scientist Gregory Hickok throws cold water on the idea that mirror neurons, which were first observed i