Neuroscience and Learning – a basic need

For those of you following the Making Memories online course, remember that video you watched? (It’s here if you need a reminder

Let’s start the journey of seeing how these areas relate.

The brain is an understandably substantial area of the body to explore and has generated many fields of study as a result; neuroscience and neuropsychology are just two. Gleaning key findings of the brain’s function and character is difficult as all are inextricably related.

As a result, there are no nice neat silver bullets to generate clear ideas for teachers and no simple formulae to implement in the classroom. But there are some possible concepts that, have we these in mind, may make a difference in how we view learning.

So, a little bit of basic biology

The brain is a complex structure but at its core is the need to survive. At least 250 million years (1, p49) of hard wiring programme the two oldest areas in our brain, the primitive and limbic systems, to keep us safe and happy. The primitive system includes the brain stem and cerebellum (7)

The pleasure and fear centres in the primitive system (ibid) are effectively in charge of, as Andreas Komninos cleverly puts it

“Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing, and… Reproduction (well, we won’t use that other f-word here!) (2)

The second area, the limbic system or diencephalon, is constituted of various structures that are in charge of our “emotional responsiveness, motivation, memory formation and integration, olfaction, and the mechanisms to keep ourselves safe” (6).

The third area, the neocortex or cerebrum, is a relatively new kid on the block, having possibly been around for 5-10 million years (1, p49-50). It is in charge of our rational being; our intellect, conscious thought and self-awareness (4)

Whilst the neocortex/cerebrum plays a substantial part in how we operate and is the area that will be of main interest in the learning discussion, what needs to be clearly noted is that it can be placed “offline” when the older areas are engaged as “first responders” in keeping safe and secure (3, 5).

As Nigel Nicholson (3) suggests:

“You can take the person out of the Stone Age, not the Stone Age out of the person.”

Whilst that is a very basic and crude summary of the brain structure, and one that may make a proper neuroscientist cringe, what is notable is that our rational brain, the place we aim to influence as educators, will not engage if we do not feel safe and happy.


(1) Zull, J.E. The Art of Changing the Brain. (2002) Stylus Publishing: Virginia USA

(2) Posted Sept 2017 Accessed 30/03/2018

(3) From Harvard Business Review 1998 Accessed 26/07/2022

(4) Posted Aug 2017 Accessed 30/03/2018

(5) Posted Oct 26 2016 by Matthew Dahlitz, Accessed 26/07/22

(6) Posted Dec 27, 2016 by Matthew Dhalitz Accessed 26/07/2022

(7) Updated 16th August 2020. Accessed 18/08/2020

3 thoughts on “Neuroscience and Learning – a basic need

  1. Really interesting, but need to look at this information in alot more detail as there is alot to digest.


    1. Studying the brain can’t be done overnight! It’s best to take your time, study a small chunk and leave some space between those studying events. Your brain indeed needs time to digest!


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