The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. It can process emotion, memory, and learning while controlling body functions such as heart rate and breathing. How do our 100 billion neurons work together to accomplish the greatest human achievements in art, science, mathematics, engineering, government, and language?
Neuroscientists have made enormous progress in unlocking the mysteries of the brain. Researchers know that the brain changes continuously as we learn, a process called neuroplasticity. Before teachers can fully make use of the latest brain research, we must first address common myths about how the brain works.
We only use 10% of our brains
No evidence supports the assertion that we only use ten percent of our brains. In fact, brain-imaging studies show that we use all parts of the brain. A large portion of the body’s energy is used to maintain and operate the brain. Why would the body invest so much in an organ and not make full use of that investment?
Even during sleep, the brain is active. Although there is much we don’t know about what the brain does during sleep, we do know that it alters between cycles of deep slow-wave sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Some neuroscientists conjecture that the brain may use sleep time to prune and reorganize neurons.
Researchers know that various regions of the brain work together and neurons with similar functions cluster together. Furthermore, should the brain experience trauma, it can reorganize and rewire itself to compensate for the loss. That’s pretty amazing!
We can learn without paying attention
Who hasn’t wished this one were true! Each moment, our senses are bombarded with stimuli that compete for attention. The brain uses this information to make sense of the world.
When our brains receive new information, a nerve cell transmits an electrical signal, triggering the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters. As we learn, brain cells undergo chemical and structural changes, and there are changes in the number and strength of the connections between neurons.
Brain cells work together to sort and prioritize data competing for attention, a limited resource that drives learning. Selective attention is the way the brain allocates resources allowing us to tune out distractions. Instead, we focus on what matters; what doesn’t we ignore. By filtering out unessential information, the brain manages cognitive load.
How does your brain processes conflict between word-recognition and color-recognition?
See for yourself. How fast were you able to name the color? The delay in your reaction time is known as the Stroop effect, which occurs when our brain fights to inhibit the automatic process of word-recognition in favor of color-recognition—selective attention at work! Did you make errors?
Now, imagine a brain with a developing prefrontal cortex completing the same task. Consider your student’s reaction time, impulse control, and fatigue. Teaching children executive function and self-regulation skills will enable them to focus their attention, filter out distractions, and control distracting impulses. These are essential skills in school, work, and life.
We are either right-brained or left-brained
The myth explains that left-brainers are verbal and analytical and right-brainers are artistic and creative. Left-brainers tend to do better in mathematics and logic, whereas right-brainers excel in music and art. Left-brainers plan in advance and approach challenges in a rational, linear way. Right-brainers, on the other hand, tend to think in images rather than words, focus on the big picture, behave spontaneously, and have scattered thoughts. In this paradigm, left-brain and right-brain are merely two different ways of thinking, preferences, or personality traits.
It’s not quite that simple.
No one is fully right-brained or left-brained.
Before Roger Wolcott Sperry established that brain has specialized functions in the left and right hemispheres, the right hemisphere wasn’t even considered conscious!
Today we know that the brain’s two hemispheres are specialized, can communicate, and have the capacity to reorganize and rewire themselves. Environment and experience physically change the brain, so no two brains are completely alike.
Language, for example, is largely a function of the left hemisphere, but some components of language occur in the right hemisphere. Precisely how much will vary from person to person. The point is that many regions of the brain work together to process language.
We use the whole of our brains, and they change constantly as we learn. Teachers can change their students’ minds and brains—both literally and figuratively.