What the brain wants to learn and how it likes to do it

Learning is an inevitable biological instinct, but what we learn and how we learn it has very clear cultural components

4 min
Students of the Virolai school of Barcelona in an archive image

BarcelonaThe brain is the organ of thought. It is where all mental capacities originate and where they are managed, including learning, with all the cognitive processes associated with it. 130 years ago, in a laboratory located in Carrer de Carme in Barcelona, the doctor and researcher Santiago Ramon y Cajal first drew the neurons of the brain and the connections they make between them. Much progress has been made since then, with the use of non-invasive techniques that allow us to see the activity of different areas of the brain while we are performing any action. For example, we can discern which brain areas associated with motivation and pleasure are activated more intensely when we are doing something that interests us than when we are doing it out of obligation. Or when we do it individually or as part of a collaborative process.

From a neuroscientific and educational perspective, the first question we have to ask ourselves is whether learning is a cultural construct or a biological instinct. The distinction is important. If it were a cultural construction, we would have to dedicate a lot of effort to teaching students how to learn. On the other hand, if it were a biological instinct rooted in the intrinsic functioning of the brain, what would be necessary is to understand how it works and what biological needs it obeys in order to take advantage of them. And also how everything we learn is fixed in the brain and how this conditions its subsequent functioning, in order to be able to make the most of it through appropriate educational proposals. The answer to this rhetorical question is clear: learning is an inevitable biological instinct. However, what we learn and how we learn has very clear cultural components, which largely depend on the curricula and teaching methodologies we use.

Of all the important aspects in educational neuroscience, there are four that are considered to be crucial. To begin with, the biological instinct to learn drives us to acquire knowledge of our environment, especially, but not only, of our social environment, for a specific purpose: to be able to anticipate changes and interact in the best possible way with others. We live in a dynamic, changing and uncertain world. That is why it is important to be able to anticipate threats, in order to avoid them, and also opportunities, in order to take advantage of them. Therefore, a first aspect to highlight is that the brain prioritises learning that it perceives may be necessary in the future, especially when it has social components. Consequently, when we transmit knowledge, we need to take advantage of the social aspects through collaborative pedagogical methodologies and integrate them into the present and future reality of the students.

Everything we learn, whether they are concepts, attitudes or skills, is fixed in the brain in neuronal connections. It has been seen that the more brain areas are linked to the same learning concept or skill through these connections, the better we remember it and, above all, the more efficiently we can use it later. And we can also combine it more easily with other learning in a creative way. That is to say, as a second key aspect to highlight is that the brain prioritises transversal and contextualised learning, which should serve to direct pedagogical strategies towards this milestone.

Another important aspect that research in educational neuroscience highlights is the role of emotions in learning. It has been seen that any learning that has emotional content, the brain incorporates much more efficiently. However, not all emotions are equivalent. Fear, for instance, of failing, of making a fool of oneself, etc., means that everything that is learned in this way is linked in the brain to the uncomfortable sensations caused by this emotional state. And this fact has consequences in the medium and long term, since through the neural connections that are established it conditions the character and responses of this person. Fear acts as a brake for future learning and decreases empowerment and proactivity. In this sense, the emotions that are considered most useful for establishing efficient learning that maintains the capacity and interest to continue learning and growing are joy and surprise. Joy is an emotion that transmits trust, and we learn from those we trust. Moreover, confidence is key to face new uncertain situations in a proactive way. Surprise, in turn, which is directly related to curiosity, activates brain areas related to attention and motivation, and generates feelings of reward and pleasure. The third aspect to emphasise would be, therefore, that in order to transmit knowledge in an efficient way that stimulates the progression and proactivity of students, it is necessary to do it always from a place of trust and curiosity, through the emotional states that are associated with it.

Finally, another of the many important aspects highlighted in neuroeducation is the importance of the so-called executive functions for the construction of personalities capable of managing their lives in a proactive and transformative way. Executive functions, which depend on neural networks found in the so-called prefrontal cortex of the brain, comprise a set of cognitive abilities such as planning, reflection, taking decisions based on these reflections and not only on the immediacy of the moment, adapting behaviour to implement the decisions we take (which involves managing emotions) and making responses, attitudes and behaviors more flexible in order to adapt and readapt them to the changes that occur. The way to contribute to their maturation is by facilitating environments in which students can use them. Every time we allow time for students to plan, reflect, decide, etc., and every time we help them by example to do these activities, the neural networks that sustain them are activated, and this makes them stronger and establish new connections that increase their efficiency of functioning.

To summarise, the brain prioritises the learning done in the environment where we live, but which contains a vision of the future, to be able to face novelties, changes and uncertainties in a proactive way, and also learning that has socio-emotional components. In addition, it fixes and uses with much greater efficiency cross-cutting and contextualised learning, and ends up managing everything through executive functions, which should be fostered by giving students the opportunity to use them and making them proactive subjects of their own learning.