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The Brain and Language Learning

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

The Brain: The Story Of You by David Eagleman

What can I say? I read this and thought it was so challenging: the realization that so much of what we are, and what we think and feel is an electro-chemical process. As teachers, most of us know so little about who we are, and more importantly so little about our students. Let me recommend you read the book, and let me hope that my notes here will inspire you to read the book and learn more.

We have conquered the world because

All other animals are far better pre-programmed to survive than a human baby is, but their capacity to adapt does not compare with a child’s

•We are born weak, vulnerable and incapable

•We come with a huge drive to experience, interact with the world and make meaning

•An infant’s brain makes two million new connections (synapses) every second (2,000,000 every second)

•We are full-time meaning-makers because we need to be

Think about it: we are wired to make meaning – if we recognize how that happens and have suitable input, we can have great learning

The Brain and Language Learning: Neuroscience and learning

•Meaning is not out there

•Meaning is what your brain makes

•Learning is an electro-chemical process in which we make meaning through

synaptic connections

•Learning a skill, e.g. video games, changes your brain structure

•Changing your amygdala will make you more or less aggressive

•Changing your orbitofrontal cortex will increase or decrease your decision making


•Changing your hippocampus will improve or reduce your memory

Think about it: to know about learning, you need to know the brain. The future may be more about enhancing the capacity to learn rather than learning content

Meaning and the brain

•Our brains create meaning systems in cultures, religions and science through

being part of the world

•The world is senseless – our brains take waves and turn them into a codable and

decodable system which we then ‘experience’ as sound

•Sound, light, touch, smell all follow the same paradigm – there is no colour, no

texture, no smells in the world, but there is a multiplicity of externals that we

give meaning to

•Sense input is a small part of meaning creation

•We expend 10 times the amount of processing to create meaning than we do in


Think about it as a teacher: we need to think less about what we teach and much

more about the meaning-models our learners have –what are their brains doing

with your input? *Page 51

Where are we going educationally?

We can only reasonably determine what we should be doing educationally when we know what it is we are to become.

Without a core understanding of how we are structured cerebrally, we have minimal idea of what/who it is we happen to be educating

Knowing the brain, what consciousness is, what learning is, what perception is, and what our capacities are, are fundamental to any effort to create a better world

I have always liked the sentiment expressed in this poem:

The Brain and Language Learning: Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope: English Poet, 1688 – 1744

Alexander Pope: An Essay on Man

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;

The proper study of mankind is man.

Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,

A being darkly wise, and rudely great:

With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,

With too much weakness for the stoic's pride,

He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;

In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;

In doubt his mind or body to prefer;

Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;

Love and stimulation changes your brain

•Ceauşescu’s policy in Romania forced parents to have more children, but burdened parents sent their children to orphanages*

•In orphanages they were deprived of affection and stimulation as a response to insufficient staffing

•EEGs showed dramatically reduced neural activity

•Average IQs were measured at 60s to 70s

•‘Without an environment with emotional care and cognitive stimulation, the human brain cannot develop normally.’

•Let’s stop and think about this. When you are teaching VYLs and YLs, it is not that there is some slight effect in a reduction of care and stimulation, and no causal relationship – it is big and it is direct

*Pages 13-15

You are unique (Page 21)

Everything you’ve experienced has altered the physical structure of your brain – from the expression of genes to the positions of molecules to the architecture of neurons

Your family of origin, your culture, your friends, your work, every movie you’ve watched, every conversation you’ve had – these have all left their footprints in your

nervous system

These indelible, microscopic impressions accumulate to make you who you are, and to constrain who you can become

Think about it: you are teaching unique entities

Emotional intelligence in adolescents

•What is the neurology that influences Emotional Intelligence?

•From childhood into adolescence, the brain shows an increasing response to rewards in areas related to pleasure seeking, e.g. nucleus accumbens

•In teens, the pleasure-seeking activity is as high as it is in adults, but the orbitofrontal cortex (executive decision making, attention, and simulating future consequences) is still as it is in children

•A mature pleasure-seeking system plus an immature orbitofrontal cortex means less

ability to control emotions

•Adolescents will seek more pleasure, and take more risks because that is effect of their brain structure

Think about it; humans are wired to seek, and control, pleasure-seeking

Teaching adolescents the sort of skills that are highlighted in Yale’s RULER can go some way to helping them redress their neurological challenges

Language and learning

•In language learning we know that high volume exposure to the target language and interaction in that language is critical to developing competence

•How does neuroscience help with our understanding of this?

•Firstly, we know that the brain is a meaning-making organ –that is its number one job (after keeping us alive) -and it will make meaning according to the available inputs

•High-volume accurate input allows creation of an accurate internal model of language

•Low-volume decontextualized input will generate poor and uncertain language models

and low competence

•Language learning will not occur without the opportunity for the brain to test and

upgrade its internal model against what is happening in the world

Think about it: a brain needs real language input and interaction to make meaning

What happens in your brain produces different waves

•Alpha waves (8–13 Hz): associated with being relaxed and calm

•Beta waves (13–38 Hz): associated with being actively thinking and problem


•Gamma waves (39–100 Hz): associated with being concentrated mental activity

such as reasoning and planning

•Delta waves (below 4 Hz): associated with being asleep

•Theta waves (4–7 Hz): associated with being asleep, deeply relaxed, visualizing…*

We may think we live in one great amorphous brain state, but we are in a constant state of flux with what we do affecting how we think, and how we think affecting what we do

*Page 75

Your judgement is affected by lunch (Page 116)

•A study in 2011 analyzed a thousand rulings from judges, and found judgement was mostly about hunger…

•Just after the parole board had enjoyed a food break, a prisoner’s chance of parole rose to its highest point of 65%

•A prisoner seen towards the end of a session had the lowest chances: just a 20% likelihood of a favorable outcome

•A prisoner’s fate is irrevocably intertwined with the judge’s neural networks, which operate according to biological needs

So, when you are marking papers, do it when you are sated, and when you give students tests, make sure they have eaten well just before the exam starts

Your physical state directly influences what you think (Page 83)

If you’re holding a warm drink, you’ll describe your relationship with a family member more favorably;

When you’re holding a cold drink, you’ll express a slightly poorer opinion of the relationship

In a foul-smelling environment, you’ll make harsher moral decisions –for example, you’re more likely to judge that someone else’s uncommon actions are immoral

If you sit in a hard chair you’ll be a more hard-line negotiator in a business transaction; in a soft chair you’ll yield more

A moment’s thought will tell you a lot about a suitable environment for teaching and learning

For more information on this and related subjects check out our training options at:


by David Eagleman

Pantheon Books, Copyright

© 2015 by

David Eagleman

Artwork copyright © 2015

by Blink Entertainment

trading as Blink Films

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