Neuroscience of Learning

PSYCH/635 Version 2: Chapter 2 Neuroscience of Learning


PAR-1 Select a part of the brain. Explain its functions and how it impacts learning!


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Brain—3 Divisions

Hindbrain—primitive core, 1st to form, top of spinal cord, regulates basic somatic activities like breathing

Brain stem-top of spinal cord-2 parts

i. Medulla oblongata-bump in spinal cord, controls breathing, heart rate, BP, digestion; damage is usually fatal

ii. Pons-connects the two halves of the cerebellum, regulates arousal

1. raphe nuclei—system of nerves through the pons, uses serotonin, believed to trigger and maintain slow wave sleep

Cerebellum—maintains balance, coordinates movements, and controls posture. Damage can cause ataxia—slurred speech, tremors, and loss of balance.

Midbrain—old brain, next to form, involved with other aspects of movement and sleep

Reticular formation—system of nerves; from spinal cord through hindbrain and into midbrain. Involved with sleep, maintaining a waking state, arousal and attention. Also plays a part in the sensation of touch.

Substantia nigra—midbrain into forebrain—system of nerves; regulates many aspects of movement such as initiation, termination, smoothness, and directedness. Parkinson’s—reduced dopamine, destroys substantia nigra

Forebrain—newest brain, last to form, involved with higher order thinking

Subcortical Structures

i. Thalamus—“the relay station”—relays information from incoming sensory systems (except for olfactory information, which goes directly to the limbic system) to the appropriate areas of the cortex. Also involved with motor activity, language, and memory. Korsakoff Syndrome involves damage to neurons in the thalamus and mammillary bodies of the hypothalamus.

ii. Hypothalamus—controls ANS and Endocrine system in conjunction with the pituitary gland. Maintains homeostasis of fluids, temperature, metabolism, and appetite. Involved with motivated behaviors such as eating, drinking, sex, and aggression.

1. Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN)—system of nerves located in the hypothalamus; involved with regulating circadian rhythms. Takes information from the eyes (retina), interprets it, and passes it on to the pineal gland which then secretes the hormone melatonin.

iii. Basal Ganglia—system of nerves; includes the caudate nucleus, putamen, globus pallidus, and substantia nigra. Involved with planning, organizing, and coordinating voluntary movement. Disorders associated with the basal ganglia are: Huntington’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, and Tourette’s Syndrome. Also implicated in mania, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, and psychosis.

iv. Limbic System—several brain structures that work together to mediate the emotional component of behavior. Also involved with memory.

1. Amygdala—integrates and directs emotional behavior, attaches emotional significance to sensory information and mediates defensive and aggressive behavior

2. Septum—inhibits emotionality

3. Hippocampus—involved more with memory, particularly the transfer of memory from short-term to long-term memory

Cerebral Cortex—makes up more than 80% of brain’s total weight and is responsible for higher cognitive, emotional, and motor functions. This is the outer, gray “squiggly” area, and it is divided into 4 lobes.

i. Frontal lobe—includes motor, premotor, and prefrontal areas. Receives information from other areas of the brain and then sends out commands to muscles to make voluntary movements. Involved with expressive language. Higher order skills, such as planning, organizing, and reasoning. Also, some concentration, attention, and orientation.

ii. Parietal—contains somatosensory cortex; involved with interpreting and making sense of touch, pain, and temperature

iii. Temporal—sound and smell, receptive language, memory and emotion

-lateral fissure—separates the temporal lobe from the frontal and part of the parietal lobes

iv. Occipital—receives visual impulses, involved in understanding visual information

THE BRAIN: THE LEARNING MACHINE VIDEO ASSIGNMENT PART-2 Transfer of learning is discussed in depth in Chapter 6, so make sure to review this!

What are the types of transfer that can occur? Describe the transfer process as it relates to learning in a specific workplace of your choosing.

THE BRAIN: THE LEARNING MACHINE VIDEO ASSIGNMENT PART-3 Review this week’s course materials and learning activities, and reflect on your learning so far this week. Respond to one or more of the following prompts in one to two paragraphs:

  • Describe what you found interesting regarding this topic, and why.
  • Describe how you will apply that learning in your daily life, including your work life.
  • Describe what may be unclear to you, and what you would like to learn.

**Provide citation and reference to the material(s) you discuss.**


Analysis of Factors in the Transfer Process

Watch the “The Learning Machine” video available on the student website.

Select and complete one of the following assignments:

Option 1: Transfer of Learning PresenSelect specific detailed examples of learning theories (behaviorism, social cognitive, information processing and constructivism) in the video that demonstrate ways to apply transfer of learning concepts in a specific workplace of your choosing.

Prepare a 10-12 slide Microsoft® PowerPoint® presentation with speaker notes for your classmates on your ideas.

Address the following in your presentation:

· Relate the example to one or more of the explanations of transfer of learning included in one of the learning theories.

· Provide a description of how this example can be generalized to the workplace.

Option 2: Transfer of Learning Paper

Select specific detailed examples of learning theories (behaviorism, social cognitive, information processing and constructivism) in the video that demonstrate methods to apply transfer of learning concepts in a specific workplace of your choosing.

Prepare a 3- to 5-page essay on your ideas. Share this essay with your classmates by posting on the student website or providing paper copies.

Address the following in your essay:

· Relate the example to one or more of the explanations of transfer of learning included in one of the learning theories.

· Provide a description of how this example can be generalized to the workplace.

Format your paper consistent with APA guidelines.


ABC/123 Version X


Analysis of Factors in the Transfer Process

PSYCH/635 Version 2

Chapter 2 Neuroscience of Learning

The Tarrytown Unified School District was holding an all-day workshop for teachers and administrators on the topic of “Using Brain Research to Design Effective Instruction.” During the afternoon break a group of four participants were discussing the day’s session: Joe Michela, assistant principal at North Tarrytown Middle School; Claudia Orondez, principal of Templeton Elementary School; Emma Thomas, teacher at Tarrytown Central High School; and Bryan Young, teacher at South Tarrytown Middle School.


So, what do you think of this so far?


It’s really confusing. I followed pretty well this morning the part about the functions of different areas of the brain, but I’m having a hard time connecting that with what I do as a teacher.


Me, too. The presenters are saying things that contradict what I thought. I had heard that each student has a dominant side of the brain so we should design instruction to match those preferences, but these presenters say that isn’t true.


Well they’re not exactly saying it isn’t true. What I understood was that different parts of the brain have different primary functions but that there’s a lot of crossover and that many parts of the brain have to work at once for learning to occur.


That’s what I heard too. But I agree with Bryan—it’s confusing to know what a teacher is to do. If we’re supposed to appeal to all parts of the brain, then isn’t that what teachers try to do now? For years we’ve been telling teachers to design instruction to accommodate different student learning styles—seeing, hearing, touching. Seems like brain research says the same thing.


Especially seeing they said how important the visual sense is. I tell teachers not to lecture so much since that’s not an effective way to learn.


True, Joe. Another thing they said that threw me was how much teens’ brains are developing. I thought their wacky behavior was all about hormones. I see now that I need to be helping them more to make good decisions.


I think this really is fascinating. This session has made me aware of how the brain receives and uses information. But it’s so complex! For me, the challenge is to match brain functioning with how I organize and present information and the activities I design for students.


I’ve got lots of questions to ask after this break. I know there’s much that researchers don’t know, but I’m ready to start working with my elementary teachers to use brain research to benefit our children.

Many different learning theories and processes are discussed in subsequent chapters in this text. Behavior theories ( Chapter 3 ) focus on external behaviors and consequences, whereas cognitive theories—the focus of this text—posit that learning occurs internally. Cognitive processes include thoughts, beliefs, and emotions, all of which have neural representations.

This chapter addresses the neuroscience of learning , or the science of the relation of the nervous system to learning and behavior. Although neuroscience is not a learning theory, being familiar with neuroscience will give you a better foundation to understand the learning chapters that follow.

The focus of this chapter is on the central nervous system ( CNS ), which comprises the brain and spinal cord. Most of the chapter covers brain rather than spinal cord functions. The autonomic nervous system ( ANS ), which regulates involuntary actions (e.g., respiration, secretions), is mentioned where relevant.

The role of the brain in learning and behavior is not a new topic, but its significance among educators has increased in recent years. Although educators always have been concerned about the brain because the business of educators is learning and the brain is where learning occurs, much brain research has investigated brain dysfunctions. To some extent, this research is relevant to education because educators have students in their classes with handicaps. But because most students do not have brain dysfunctions, findings from brain research have not been viewed as highly applicable to typical learners.

The advances in technology have made possible new methods that can show how the brain functions while people perform mental operations involving learning and memory. The data yielded by these new methods are highly relevant to classroom teaching and learning and suggest implications for learning, motivation, and development. Educators are interested in findings from neuroscience research as they seek ways to improve teaching and learning for all students (Byrnes, 2012 ). This interest is evident in the opening vignette.

This chapter begins by reviewing the brain’s neural organization and major structures involved in learning, motivation, and development. The topics of localization and interconnections of brain structures are discussed, along with methods used to conduct brain research. The neurophysiology of learning is covered, which includes the neural organization of information processing, memory networks, and language learning. The important topic of brain development is discussed to include the influential factors on development, phases of development, critical periods of development, language development, and the role of technology. How motivation and emotions are represented in the brain is explained, and the chapter concludes with a discussion of the major implications of brain research for teaching and learning.

Discussions of the CNS are necessarily complex, as Emma notes in the opening scenario. Many structures are involved, there is much technical terminology, and CNS operation is complicated. The material in this chapter is presented as clearly as possible, but a certain degree of technicality is needed to preserve the accuracy of information. Readers who seek more technical descriptions of CNS structures and functions as they relate to learning, motivation, self-regulation, and development are referred to other sources (Byrnes, 2001 , 2012 ; Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, 2007 ; Heatherton, 2011 ; Jensen, 2005 ; National Research Council, 2000 ; Wang & Morris, 2010 ; Wolfe, 2010 ).

· When you finish studying this chapter, you should be able to do the following:

· ■ Describe the neural organization and functions of axons, dendrites, and glial cells.

· ■ Discuss the primary functions of the major areas of the brain.

· ■ Identify some brain functions that are highly localized in the right and left hemispheres.

· ■ Discuss the uses of different brain research technologies.

· ■ Explain how learning occurs from a neuroscience perspective to include the operation of consolidation and memory networks.

· ■ Discuss how neural connections are formed and interact during language acquisition and use.

· ■ Discuss the key changes and critical periods in brain development as a function of maturation and experience.

· ■ Explain the role of the brain in the regulation of motivation and emotions.

· ■ Discuss some instructional implications of brain research for teaching and learning.

The central nervous system (CNS) is composed of the brain and spinal cord and is the body’s central mechanism for control of voluntary behavior (e.g., thinking, acting). The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates involuntary activities, such as those involved in digestion, respiration, and blood circulation. These systems are not entirely independent. People can, for example, exert some control over their heart rates, which means that they are voluntarily controlling an involuntary activity.

The spinal cord is about 18 inches long and the width of an index finger. It runs from the base of the brain down the middle of the back. It is essentially an extension of the brain. Its primary function is to carry signals to and from the brain, making it the central messenger between the brain and the rest of the body. Its ascending pathway carries signals from body locations to the brain, and its descending pathway carries messages from the brain to the appropriate body structure (e.g., to cause movement). The spinal cord also is involved in some reactions independently of the brain (e.g., knee-jerk reflex). Damage to the spinal cord, such as from an accident, can result in symptoms ranging from numbness to total paralysis (Jensen, 2005 ; Wolfe, 2010 ).

Figure 2.1 Structure of neurons.
Neural Organization

The CNS is composed of billions of cells in the brain and spinal cord. There are two major types of cells: neurons and glial cells. A depiction of neural organization is shown in Figure 2.1 .

The brain and spinal cord contain about 100 billion neurons that send and receive information across muscles and organs (Wolfe, 2010 ). Most of the body’s neurons are found in the CNS. Neurons are different from other body cells (e.g., skin, blood) in two important ways. For one, most body cells regularly regenerate. This continual renewal is desirable; for example, when we cut ourselves, new cells regenerate to replace those that were damaged. But neurons do not regenerate in the same fashion. Brain and spinal cord cells destroyed by a stroke, disease, or accident may be permanently lost. On a positive note, however, there is evidence that neurons can show some regeneration (Kempermann & Gage, 1999 ), although the extent to which this occurs and the process by which it occurs are not well understood.

Neurons are also different from other body cells because they communicate with one another through electrical signals and chemical reactions. They thus are organized differently than other body cells. This organization is discussed later in this section.
Glial Cells.

The second type of cell in the CNS is the glial cell . Glial cells are far more numerous than neurons. They may be thought of as supporting cells since they support the work of the neurons. They do not transmit signals like neurons, but they assist in the process.

Glial cells perform many functions. A key one is to ensure that neurons operate in a good environment. Glial cells help to remove chemicals that may interfere with neuron operation. Glial cells also remove dead brain cells. Another important function is that glial cells put down myelin, a sheathlike wrapping around axons that helps transmit brain signals (discussed in the next section). Glial cells also appear to play key functions in the development of the fetal brain (Wolfe, 2010 ). In short, glial cells work in concert with neurons to ensure effective functioning of the CNS.

Figure 2.1 shows neural organization with cell bodies, axons, and dendrites. Each neuron is composed of a cell body, thousands of short dendrites, and one axon. A dendrite is an elongated tissue that receives information from other cells. An axon is a long thread of tissue that sends messages to other cells. Myelin sheath surrounds the axon and facilitates the travel of signals.

Each axon ends in a branching structure. The ends of these branching structures connect with the ends of dendrites. This connection is known as a synapse . The interconnected structure is the key to how neurons communicate, because messages are passed among neurons at the synapses.

The process by which neurons communicate is complex. At the end of each axon are chemical neurotransmitters . They do not quite touch dendrites of another cell. The gap is called the synaptic gap .When electrical and chemical signals reach a high enough level, neurotransmitters are released into the gap. The neurotransmitters either will activate or inhibit a reaction in the contacted dendrite. Thus, the process begins as an electrical reaction in the neuron and axon, changes to a chemical reaction in the gap, and then reconverts to an electrical response in the dendrite. This process continues from neuron to neuron in lightning speed. As discussed later in this chapter, the role of the neurotransmitters in the synaptic gap is critical for learning. From a neuroscience perspective, learning is a change in the receptivity of cells brought about by neural connections formed, strengthened, and connected with others through use (Jensen, 2005 ; Wolfe, 2010 ).
Brain Structures

The human adult brain ( cerebrum ) weighs approximately three pounds and is about the size of a cantaloupe or large grapefruit (Tolson, 2006 ; Wolfe, 2010 ). Its outward texture has a series of folds and is wrinkly in appearance, resembling a cauliflower. Its composition is mostly water (78%), with the rest fat and protein. Its texture is generally soft. The major brain structures involved in learning are shown in Figure 2.2 (Byrnes, 2001 ; Jensen, 2005 ; Wolfe, 2010 ) and described below.
Cerebral Cortex.

Covering the brain is the cerebral cortex , which is a thin layer about the thickness of an orange peel (less than ¼ of an inch). The cerebral cortex is the wrinkled “gray matter” of the brain. The wrinkles allow the cerebral cortex to have more surface area, which allows for more neurons and neural connections. The cerebral cortex has two hemispheres (right and left), each of which has four lobes (occipital, parietal, temporal, and frontal). The cortex is the central area involved in learning, memory, and processing of sensory information.

Figure 2.2 Major brain structures.
Brain Stem and Reticular Formation.

At the base of the brain is the brain stem . The brain stem handles ANS (involuntary) functions through its reticular formation , which is a network of neurons and fibers that regulates control of such basic bodily functions as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, eyeball movement, salivation, and taste. The reticular formation also is involved in awareness levels (e.g., sleep, wakefulness). For example, when you go into a quiet, dark room, the reticular formation decreases brain activation and allows you to sleep. The reticular formation also helps to control sensory inputs. Although we constantly are bombarded by multiple stimuli, the reticular formation allows us to focus on relevant stimuli. This is critical for attention and perception ( Chapter 5 ), which are key components of the human information processing system. Finally, the reticular formation produces many of the chemical messengers for the brain.

The cerebellum at the back of the brain regulates body balance, muscular control, movement, and body posture. Although these activities are largely under conscious control (and therefore the domain of the cortex), the cortex does not have all the equipment it needs to regulate them. It works in concert with the cerebellum to coordinate movements. The cerebellum is the key to motor skill acquisition. With practice, many motor skills (e.g., playing the piano, driving a car) become largely automatic. This automaticity occurs because the cerebellum takes over much of the control, which allows the cortex to focus on activities requiring consciousness (e.g., thinking, problem solving).
Thalamus and Hypothalamus.

Above the brain stem are two walnut-sized structures—the thalamus and hypothalamus . The thalamus acts as a bridge by sending inputs from the sense organs (except for smell) to the cortex. The hypothalamus is part of the ANS. It controls bodily functions needed to maintain homeostasis, such as body temperature, sleep, water, and food. The hypothalamus also is responsible for increased heart rate and breathing when we become frightened or stressed.

The amygdala is involved in the control of emotion and aggression. Incoming sensory inputs (except for smell, which travel straight to the cortex) go to the thalamus, which in turn relays the information to the appropriate area of the cortex and to the amygdala. The amygdala’s function is to assess the harmfulness of sensory inputs. If it recognizes a potentially harmful stimulus, it signals the hypothalamus, which creates the emotional changes noted above (e.g., increased heart rate and blood pressure).

The hippocampus is the brain structure responsible for memory of the immediate past. How long is the immediate past? As we will see in Chapters 5 and 6 , there is no objective criterion for what constitutes immediate and long-term (permanent) memory. Apparently the hippocampus helps establish information in long-term memory (which resides in the cortex), but maintains its role in activating that information as needed. Thus, the hippocampus may be involved in currently active (working) memory. Once information is fully encoded in long-term memory, the hippocampus may relinquish its role.
Corpus Callosum.

Running along the brain (cerebrum) from front to back is a band of fibers known as the corpus callosum .It divides the cerebrum into two halves, or hemispheres, and connects them for neural processing. This is critical, because much mental processing occurs in more than one location in the brain and often involves both hemispheres.
Occipital Lobe.

The occipital lobes of the cerebrum are primarily concerned with processing visual information. The occipital lobe also is known as the visual cortex . Visual stimuli are first received by the thalamus, which then sends these signals to the occipital lobes. Many functions occur here that involve determining motion, color, depth, distance, and other visual features. Once these determinations have occurred, the visual stimuli are compared to what is stored in memory to determine recognition (perception). An object that matches a stored pattern is recognized. When there is no match, then a new stimulus is encoded in memory. The visual cortex must communicate with other brain systems to determine whether a visual stimulus matches a stored pattern (Gazzaniga, Ivry, & Mangun, 1998 ). The importance of visual processing in learning is highlighted in the opening vignette by Joe.

People can readily control their visual perception by forcing themselves to attend to certain features of the environment and to ignore others. If we are searching for a friend in a crowd we can ignore a multitude of visual stimuli and focus only on those (e.g., facial features) that will help us determine whether our friend is present. Teachers apply this idea when they ask students to pay attention to visual displays and inform them of learning objectives at the start of the class.
Parietal Lobe.

The parietal lobes at the top of the brain in the cerebrum are responsible for the sense of touch, and they help determine body position and integrate visual information. The parietal lobes have anterior (front) and posterior (rear) sections. The anterior part receives information from the body regarding touch, temperature, body position, and sensations of pain and pressure (Wolfe, 2010 ). Each part of the body has certain areas in the anterior part that receive its information and make identification accurate.

The posterior portion integrates tactile information to provide spatial body awareness, or knowing where the parts of your body are at all times. The parietal lobes also can increase or decrease attention to various body parts. For example, a pain in your leg will be received and identified by the parietal lobe, but if you are watching an enjoyable movie and are attending closely to that, you may not experience the pain in your leg.
Temporal Lobe.

The temporal lobes , located on the side of the cerebrum, are responsible for processing auditory information. When an auditory input is received—such as a voice or other sound—that information is processed and transmitted to auditory memory to determine recognition. That recognition then can lead to action. When a teacher tells students to put away their books and line up at the door, that auditory information is processed and recognized, and then leads to the appropriate action.

Located where the occipital, parietal, and temporal lobes intersect in the cortex’s left hemisphere is Wernicke’s area , which allows us to comprehend speech and to use proper syntax when speaking. This area works closely with another area in the frontal lobe of the left hemisphere known as Broca’s area ,which is necessary for speaking. Although these key language processing areas are situated in the left hemisphere (but Broca’s area is in the right hemisphere for some people, as explained later), many parts of the brain work together to comprehend and produce language. Language is discussed in greater depth later in this chapter.
Frontal Lobe.

The frontal lobes , which lie at the front of the cerebrum, make up the largest part of the cortex. Their central functions are to process information relating to memory, planning, decision making, goal setting, and creativity. The frontal lobes also contain the primary motor cortex that regulates muscular movements.

It might be argued that the frontal lobes in the brain most clearly distinguish us from lower animals and even from our ancestors of generations past. The frontal lobes have evolved to assume ever more complex functions. They allow us to plan and make conscious decisions, solve problems, and converse with others. Further, these lobes allow us to be aware of our thinking and other mental processes, a form of metacognition ( Chapter 7 ).

Running from the top of the brain down toward the ears is a strip of cells known as the primary motor cortex . This area is the area that controls the body’s movements. If while dancing the “Hokey Pokey” you think “put your right foot in,” it is the motor cortex that directs you to put your right foot in. Each part of the body is mapped to a particular location in the motor cortex, so a signal from a certain part of the cortex leads to the proper movement being made.

In front of the motor cortex is Broca’s area, which is the location governing the production of speech. This area is located in the left hemisphere for about 95% of people; for the other 5% (30% of left-handers) this area is in the right hemisphere (Wolfe, 2010 ). Not surprisingly, this area is linked to Wernicke’s area in the left temporal lobe with nerve fibers. Speech is formed in Wernicke’s area and then transferred to Broca’s area to be produced (Wolfe, 2010 ).

The front part of the frontal lobe, or prefrontal cortex , is proportionately larger in humans than in other animals. It is here that the highest forms of mental activity occur (Ackerman, 1992 ). Chapter 5 discusses how cognitive information processing associations are made in the brain. The prefrontal cortex is critical for these associations, because information received from the senses is related to knowledge stored in memory. In short, the seat of learning appears to be in the prefrontal cortex. It also is the regulator of consciousness, allowing us to be aware of what we are thinking, feeling, and doing. As explained later, the prefrontal cortex seems to be involved in the regulation of emotions.

Table 2.1 summarizes the key functions of each of the major brain areas (Byrnes, 2001 ; Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, 2007 ; Jensen, 2005 ; Wolfe, 2010 ). When reviewing this table, keep in mind that no part of the brain works independently. Rather, information (in the form of neural impulses) is rapidly transferred among areas of the brain. Although many brain functions are localized, different parts of the brain are involved in even simple tasks. It therefore makes little sense to label any brain function as residing in only one area, as brought out in the opening vignette by Emma.
Localization and Interconnections

We know much more about the brain’s operation today than ever before, but the functions of the left and right hemispheres have been debated for a long time. Around 400 B.C. Hippocrates spoke of the duality of the brain (Wolfe, 2010 ). In 1870 researchers electrically stimulated different parts of the brains of animals and soldiers with head injuries (Cowey, 1998 ). They found that stimulation of certain parts of the brain caused movements in different parts of the body. The idea that the brain has a major hemisphere was proposed as early as 1874 (Binney & Janson, 1990 ).

In general, the left hemisphere governs the right visual field and side of the body and the right hemisphere regulates the left visual field and side of the body. However, the two hemispheres are joined by bundles of fibers, the largest of which is the corpus callosum. Gazzaniga, Bogen, and Sperry ( 1962 ) demonstrated that language is controlled largely by the left hemisphere. These researchers found that when the corpus callosum was severed, patients who held an object out of sight in their left hands claimed they were holding nothing. Apparently, without the visual stimulus and because the left hand communicates with the right hemisphere, when this hemisphere received the input, it could not produce a name (because language is localized in the left hemisphere) and, with a severed corpus callosum, the information could not be transferred to the left hemisphere.
Table 2.1 Key functions of areas of the brain.


Key Functions

Cerebral cortex

Processes sensory information; regulates various learning and memory functions

Reticular formation

Controls bodily functions (e.g., breathing and blood pressure), arousal, sleep–wakefulness


Regulates body balance, posture, muscular control, movement, motor skill acquisition


Sends inputs from senses (except for smell) to cortex


Controls homeostatic body functions (e.g., temperature, sleep, water, and food); increases heart rate and breathing during stress


Controls emotions and aggression; assesses harmfulness of sensory inputs


Holds memory of immediate past and working memory; establishes information in long-term memory

Corpus callosum

Connects right and left hemispheres

Occipital lobe

Processes visual information

Parietal lobe

Processes tactile information; determines body position; integrates visual information

Temporal lobe

Processes auditory information

Frontal lobe

Processes information for memory, planning, decision making, goal setting, creativity; regulates muscular movements (primary motor cortex)

Broca’s area

Controls production of speech

Wernicke’s area

Comprehends speech; regulates use of proper syntax when speaking

Brain research also has identified other localized functions. Analytical thinking seems to be centered in the left hemisphere, whereas spatial, auditory, emotional, and artistic processing occurs in the right hemisphere (but the right hemisphere apparently processes negative emotions and the left hemisphere processes positive emotions; Ornstein, 1997 ). Music is processed better in the right hemisphere; directionality, in the right hemisphere; and facial recognition, the left hemisphere.

The right hemisphere also plays a critical role in interpreting contexts (Wolfe, 2010 ). For example, assume that someone hears a piece of news and says, “That’s great!” This could mean the person thinks the news is wonderful or horrible. The context determines the correct meaning (e.g., whether the speaker is being sincere or sarcastic). Context can be gained from intonation, people’s facial expressions and gestures, and knowledge of other elements in the situation. It appears that the right hemisphere is the primary location for assembling contextual information so that a proper interpretation can be made.

Because functions are localized in brain sections, it has been tempting to postulate that people who are highly verbal are dominated by their left hemisphere (left brained), whereas those who are more artistic and emotional are controlled by their right hemisphere (right brained). But this is a simplistic and misleading conclusion, as the educators in the opening scenario realize. Although hemispheres have localized functions, they are connected, and there is much passing of information (neural impulses) between them. Very little mental processing likely occurs only in one hemisphere (Ornstein, 1997 ). Further, we might ask which hemisphere governs individuals who are both highly verbal and emotional (e.g., impassioned speakers).

The hemispheres work in concert; information is available to both of them at all times. Speech offers a good example. If you are having a conversation with a friend, it is your left hemisphere that allows you to produce speech but your right hemisphere that provides the context and helps you comprehend meaning.

Neuroscientists do not agree about the extent of lateralization . Some argue that specific cognitive functions are localized in specific regions of the brain, whereas others believe that different regions have the ability to perform various tasks (Byrnes & Fox, 1998 ). This debate mirrors that in cognitive psychology ( Chapters 5 and 6 ) between the traditional view that knowledge is locally coded and the parallel distributed processing view that knowledge is coded not in one location but rather across many memory networks (Bowers, 2009 ).

There is research evidence to support both positions. Different parts of the brain have different functions, but functions are rarely, if ever, completely localized in one section of the brain. This is especially true for complex mental operations, which depend on several basic mental operations whose functions may be spread out in several areas. Neuroscience researchers have shown, for example, that creativity does not depend on any single mental process and is not localized in any one brain region (Dietrich & Kanso, 2010 ). Studies employing fMRI have demonstrated that neural representations of stimuli in the cortex often are widely distributed (Rissman & Wagner, 2012 ), thus lending support to the idea that neural networks are highly connected. “Nearly any task requires the participation of both hemispheres, but the hemispheres seem to process certain types of information more efficiently than others” (Byrnes & Fox, 1998 , p. 310). The practice of teaching to different sides of the brain (right brain, left brain) is not supported by empirical research. Some applications of these points on interconnectedness and lateralization are given in Application 2.1 .
Brain Research Methods

We know so much more today about the operation of the CNS than ever before, in part because of a convergence of interest in brain research among people in different fields. Historically, investigations of the brain were conducted primarily by researchers in medicine, the biological sciences, and psychology. Over the years, people in other fields have taken greater interest in brain research, believing that research findings would have implications for developments in their fields. Today we find educators, sociologists, social workers, counselors, government workers (especially those in the judicial system), and others interested in brain research. Funding for brain research also has increased, including by agencies that primarily fund non-brain–related research (e.g., education).
APPLICATION 2.1 Teaching to Both Brain Hemispheres

Brain research shows that much academic content is processed primarily in the left hemisphere, but that the right hemisphere processes context. A common educational complaint is that teaching is too focused on content with little attention to context. Focusing primarily on content produces student learning that may be unconnected to life events and largely meaningless. These points suggest that to make learning meaningful—and thereby involve both brain hemispheres and build more extensive neural connections—teachers should integrate content and context as much as possible.

Ms. Stone, a third-grade teacher, is doing a unit on butterflies. Children study material in books and on the Internet that shows pictures of different butterflies. To help connect this learning with context, she uses other activities. A local museum has a butterfly area, where butterflies live in a controlled environment. She takes her class to visit this so they can see the world of butterflies. A display is part of this exhibit, showing the different phases of a butterfly’s life. These activities help children connect characteristics of butterflies with contextual factors involving their development and environment.

Mr. Marshall, a high school history teacher, knows that studying historical events in isolation is not meaningful and can be boring. Over the years, many world leaders have sought global peace. When covering President Wilson’s work to establish the League of Nations with his U.S. history class, Mr. Marshall draws parallels to the United Nations and contemporary ways that governments try to eliminate aggression (e.g., nuclear disarmament) to put the League of Nations into a context. Through class discussions, he has students relate the goals, structures, and problems of the League of Nations to current events and discuss how the League of Nations set the precedent for the United Nations and for worldwide vigilance of aggression.

Learning about psychological processes in isolation from real situations often leaves students wondering how the processes apply to people. When Dr. Brown covers Piagetian processes (e.g., egocentrism) in her undergraduate educational psychology course, she has students in their internships document behaviors displayed by children that are indicative of those processes. She does the same thing with other units in the course to ensure that the content learning is linked with contexts (i.e., psychological processes have behavioral manifestations).

Another reason for our increased knowledge is that there have been tremendous advances in technology for conducting brain research. Many years ago, the only way to perform brain research was to conduct an autopsy. Although examining brains of deceased persons has yielded useful information, this type of research cannot determine how the brain functions and constructs knowledge. Research investigating live brain functioning is needed to develop understanding about how the brain changes during learning and uses learned information to produce actions.