Many of you know that I moved to NYC last fall to study Neuroscience and Education at Columbia University (check out my last post about my thoughts on living in NYC). When I talk to people about it, I feel like they want me to tell them the secrets of the world. To package it up in a sound bite and put a bow on top. What have I learned? What can I share with teachers who are trying to use ‘brain-based strategies’ in their classrooms? Does neuroscience have anything to offer the field of education? Or regular people in their every day lives?

I’m still practicing talking in the language of neuroscience. And doing so in a way that non-science people still find interesting, but that science people still respect. So bear with me, as I try to find that balance. I don’t have a science background, nor did I ever think I would go into science (although it was my favorite subject in elementary school…. where did they lose us?). But after managing a college access program for youth in foster care and then teaching special education, I was desperate to learn more about how our brains function and how we can do a better job of helping our kids learn.

Of course, mainstream podcasts (like Radiolab covering CRISPR ) and interesting science blogs (like IFLScience) certainly piqued my interest into the field of neuroscience as well.

Since beginning my studies last fall, I’ve definitely been learning firsthand about the importance of motivation. Learning about how action potentials occur and how different neurons and neural systems interact (i.e. communicate) with each other isn’t always the most fascinating or easy to understand shit. But my end-goal of understanding how people learn has helped me stay genuinely interested in even the minutiae of the brain. I have had to re-read many pages over and over just to make sense of them, look up supplemental materials, google terms I’d never heard, and watch tutorial videos on the center-surround receptive fields of bipolar cells in the vision system (the vision system is so complex, it’s crazy). It has been tedious… but for the most part, I have found it all incredibly fascinating.

I marveled at even the really basic shit.

Do you know why you grab your toe and hold on for dear life after you stub it? It’s because different cells in your skin are preferentially activated by different things (touch, pain, temperature etc.), and the cells that are activated by touch/pressure have more myelination on their axons which causes the signal from those cells to move faster than the signal from the cells screaming “pain!” Essentially, the pressure signal moves  to your brain quicker and overrides (somewhat) the pain signal – giving you a little relief from the stubbed toe.

The axon on the right has more myelination which allows the signal to travel faster.

Why are our fingers more sensitive than say, our backs? Fingers simply have more receptors, or cells that process sensory information, than our backs do. And the more receptors you have, the more sensitive you are to anything touching that part of your body. And it just makes sense that we would want/need more receptors on our fingers since we use them for so many things.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that our bodies are complex, but also, really fucking simple. Most of neuroscience just makes sense. Like, of course, each cell is specialized to do one very small job. There are many cells in our vision system that specialize in simply identifying if there is a light in a specific area of the visual field moving in a specific direction. And other cells that are preferentially activated by light that is at a specific orientation (i.e. some cells really like horizontal bars of light and others prefer diagonal bars of light and others like their light to be slightly more diagonal). And that specialized information from each of these neurons gets fed into neural networks that combine information from the whole shit ton of neurons allowing us to make sense our environment.

Can teachers use neuroscience? This is a very young field, so it certainly doesn’t have all the answers to our education questions. Nor can neuroscience solve any problems without collaboration with other researchers and educators. But what I love about it is that it can help us understand why things happen (and how we can use that to our advantage when teaching students). Here’s a simple example. Teachers frequently use review games before giving a test as a way to help students study and learn the information. Games are great because they’re engaging and fun, right? But what if you could take advantage of the reward system in the brain so that the kids are even more engaged? and so that all the students on that one team that is falling severely behind during the game don’t give up and start acting out?

If we incorporate an element of chance or luck into the game, we can do just that by activating the “reward pathway” more strongly. For example, if the students/teams get an answer correct, instead of giving them the standard number of points – we could have them roll a die and award them the number of points that show up on the die. Or have them draw a piece of paper out of a hat and award them the number of points written on that paper. Not only does this activate the reward network more strongly, but it also levels the playing field a little bit so that students who maybe aren’t doing as well in the class still have a chance to compete because of the element of luck. If you want to know more about the reward system in the brain, check out this article by Dr. Paul Howard-Jones which is where the review game ideas came from.

If you find this shit as fascinating as I do, be sure to click the follow button so you will be notified when I post! I plan to continue posting about other things as well (travel, feminism, poetry, politics etc.), but I’ll have the different tags on my homepage and posts like this one will be listed under Education.

***Disclaimer: Obviously, the above info is super simplified with the goal of keeping it interesting and easy to understand. 🙂 If you are looking for more detailed info, feel free to email me, and I’ll try to point you in the right direction.