Thursday, 10 January 2019

How the brain works

A new online resource gives readers a glimpse into how the brain works.

Professor Michael Thomas from the Centre for Educational Neuroscience tells us more about this new website.

Educational neuroscience is about taking findings from neuroscience - and exploring their potential to enhancing learning in the classroom. From the outside, it sometimes seems like how the brain works is a bit of a mystery. But there is a lot we do know. The new resource gives an accessible, sometimes even humorous, overview of what we know about how the brain works. It gives a glimpse of the sorts of things the brain does that are likely to impact on learning - for example, that memories are consolidated during sleep and key themes extracted from the day's learning. Not having enough sleep - as with many teenagers these days - will likely therefore impact on learning.

This video shows the possible impact of not getting enough sleep.

Who is the website aimed at?

Parents and teachers, but not neuroscientists!

Where did the idea for this website come from?

I was having coffee with a neuroanatomist, an expert in the field, who claimed we know 'almost nothing about how the brain works'. That's true in a sense - we don't know how the detailed microcircuitry works, we don't know how the brain generates consciousness - but it's also selling neuroscience short. There's plenty we do know, and I thought it was time to try to get these ideas across.

And finally, what is the most interesting fact on the website?

There are definitely intriguing titbits. It turns out, for example, that most of the neurons in the brain aren't in the cortex (the wrinkly bit on the outside that is involved in the kinds of skills we learn in school, numeracy and literacy). Most of the neurons in the brain are actually in the cerebellum: about 80%. That's the small, cauliflower-looking bit at the back. What does that do? It's dedicated to the job of coordinating movement and sensation, making all your movements hang together and run smoothly and automatically. That actually takes a lot of unconscious thinking power!

Perhaps the most surprising thing for educational neuroscience is that we now know that many of the properties of learning that we find in people aren't necessary properties of learning devices. As we build computers that can learn, we now understand that emotions like ‘stress’ or ‘anxiety’ aren't necessary. These emotions seem to detract from learning performance in people. We know computers can learn without getting disappointed at failure or cock-a-hoop at success. The fact these properties are found in human learning is because we have to do learning with brains, which have their own particular biological and evolutionary history.

This post first appeared on the NPJ Science of Learning community website.

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