Learning and the Human Brain
The disciplines of brain science and education haven’t
had a lot to say to each other — mostly because they live
in isolation. I think this estrangement is puzzling, because the
two are naturally aligned.
A simple but crude experiment can prove
the point of intersection: Cut off someone’s head, and try
to teach what's left.
If brain scientists and educators were allowed to work together,
they would probably turn both disciplines upside down. But because
at this point they don’t even have a common vocabulary, the
best we can do is come up with ideas for research projects that
would get them acquainted. At the Talaris Research Institute, we’ve
identified nine separate areas of potential collaboration — nine
brain rules, if you will — that may one day rescind the apparent
no-contact order between the two disciplines:
1. Repetition is critical for memory.
2. Sleep is important to the learning process.
3. Every brain is different from every other brain.
4. We process meaning before details.
5. People are natural explorers.
6. We are visual learners.
7. Exercise aids learning.
8. Focused attentional states facilitate learning.
9. Stressed brains don’t learn the same way as non-stressed
These facts about human learning are well established and
could serve as organizing nuclei for a dialogue between brain scientists
and educators — with the goal of optimizing classroom learning.
For starters, let’s consider Brain Rule No. 9. What can research
on stressed brains teach us about education?
The Depressing Work of Megan Gunnar
It’s clear from everything we know about how the brain works
that stress can seriously inhibit the ability to learn. The
type of stress I’m talking about is long-term and chronic.
It’s the stress a little boy or a little girl might encounter
living in a sustained emotionally unstable or abusive home environment.
It’s the stress that sometimes turns into the toxic condition “learned
There are a number of cognitive processing features that
begin to collapse under the pressure of relentless stress, features
that are absolutely critical to success in the classroom. First,
stress affects the ability to process new or nearly new input,
to perform higher-order thinking, to remember and to problem solve.
Second, stress can change the ability to sleep, and that inhibits
memory and information processing. Third, stress can cause
chronic illness, decreasing the number of circulating immune cells
and impairing the body’s ability to fight off viral and bacterial
Megan Gunnar is a scientist who is interested in the development
of something called “the HPA (Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenals)
axis.” You would know it as those areas and organs in your
body that mediate the “fight-or-flight” response in
moments of stress or danger. Gunnar has known for a long time that
new-born babies don’t regulate their fight-or-flight responses
like you and I do. So her question was this: At what point does
that regulation begin to occur?
Here’s what she did. She visited what rightfully could be
called “pediatric concentration camps.” I’m talking
about the 1,000-bed Romanian orphanages that became familiar on
the news after Romania’s communist government fell. You could
go into these orphanages and not hear a sound, even though they
contained children from ages 0 to 12 months. The reason it
was so quiet was that the children weren’t fed regularly,
and they were given water only infrequently. Their pathogen
loads were unbelievably high, and their ability to respond to caregivers
was heartbreakingly silent. Gunnar followed 150 severely traumatized
babies as they were adopted by 150 Canadian couples with normal
marriages. She wanted to know: How would the babies do? After five
or six years, what would their grades look like? What would their
social skills be like? What about their incident of psychiatric
disorders? Her study made her extraordinarily famous — and
here’s the reason why:
Gunnar found that as these kids began to grow up (the study is
now in its ninth year), she could put them in one of two groups.
The first group looked absolutely normal. They had normal grades;
they had normal social interactions; they had normal serum cortisol
(a stress hormone) regulation. They looked perfectly fine.
They looked just like Canadians. You couldn’t tell them from
Then there was a second group you could call “the Titanic
group,” because it looked like they hit something. These
kids exhibited antisocial behavior, poor self-calming and deregulated
serum cortisol. Their grades were in the toilet, and they
were always in detention. They were damaged.
And what separates these two groups of kids? What is the dependent
variable? It’s the age of adoption. If a couple adopted a
child from a Romanian orphanage before the fourth month of life,
he or she was just fine. If a couple adopted a child between the
ages of 8 and 12 months of age, he or she was in the Titanic group.
And these kids are now 10 years old. They’re still
fighting the effects of their stress.
The point? In the first year of life, the environment plays
an extraordinarily powerful role in shaping a brain’s capacity,
so powerful that in the 10th year of life, children are still
not over getting over it. The perceived emotional landscape
of a baby’s environment is probably a brain development
issue, and Gunnar may have stumbled onto a critical period of development
for the HPA axis. And if it’s a brain development issue,
then if you recall the decapitation experiment, it’s actually
an education issue.
The Hopeful Work of John Gottman
I don’t want to leave us depressed; in fact, I think there’s
a great deal of reason for hope. The hope comes, in part,
from attempting to be a careful scientist. Gunnar’s work,
for example, only applies to severely traumatized babies. Another
thing to remember is that only in the last resort is anything considered
conclusive. In fact, we usually award Nobel Prizes on collective
failed efforts to prove somebody wrong.
With that caution in mind, I’d like to focus on some hopeful
news, beginning with something that even in research circles is
usually referred to as “the love lab.” You’ve
probably heard of it. It’s one of the reasons why University
of Washington psychologist John Gottman is so famous.
Through a series of psychological and physiological tests, Gottman can
now predict if a couple is going to get a divorce. At the end of
his testing in the so-called love lab, he gives the couple a score,
and the score is so powerful and so robust that it’s proven
to be actually predictive of what’s going to happen to them
within a few years after the test. Amazingly, he is more than 96
So what is the dependent variable here? It’s very simple
and, strangely, it goes along gender lines. If the woman feels
like she is being heard by the man — by that, I mean if he
chooses to be emotionally intelligent enough to find something
reasonable in a partner’s complaint, even to the point of
becoming willing to accept her influence, especially in a conflict — the
marriage makes it. That’s it. It’s not intellectual
disparity. It’s not active listening. It’s not financial
disposition. All the usual suspects don’t work. Humility
and a teachable spirit on the part of a guy does.
I am greatly simplifying this data, but I am not simplifying the
result, or even what came later. Based on this predictability,
Gottman decided he didn’t just want to be a good diagnostician;
he’d like to be a good physician. He began to design intervention
protocols he thought might really succeed, especially in high-risk
couples. His design was as rigorous as the diagnosis. Rather than
going through the entire marital relationship and the usual active
communication issues that are often taught, he simply concentrated
his intervention on the dependent variable he saw coming out of
the love lab. The results were nothing short of extraordinary.
Nine months after intervention, those couples predicted to divorce
had a greatly reduced risk of going their separate ways.
It’s an extraordinary finding. If you think about it for
a second, what he’s actually come up with is a tested method
to create emotional stability inside somebody’s house. Put
another way, he’s found a way to remove the toxic relational
effects of stress. Now, what does all this have to do with learning
and the human brain? To help make the connection, let’s talk
about mom, dad and baby.
Of Mom, Dad and Baby
The problem with an idealized picture of having children — though
I personally experience the great riches of being the father of
two children under 6 — is that there’s a flip side
to having kids in American culture these days.
With the introduction of the first baby into a family, within six
months there is a ninefold increase in toxic marital conflict.
Within the first year after birth, there is a 70 percent drop in
marital satisfaction on the part of the female and a 0 percent
drop on the part of the male — and that disparity is a killer.
The couple gets less sleep and is more prone to viral and bacterial
infections, depression and anxiety disorders. In fact, having a
baby is a risk factor for behaviors that eventually end in divorce.
Talaris has a strong interest in this, particularly as it relates
to brain development in kids. It turns out that Gottman has also
been interested in the subject. Here are the questions he wanted
to ask: What if the intervention strategies so successful in stabilizing
the emotional landscape of a marriage were given to couples before
they had babies? Or while they were pregnant? Or just after pregnancy?
Would that change the emotional environment in such a way that
they would stop fighting? That they would report a positive
change in the level of their satisfaction? What would happen to
the brains of the kids under certain situations, and how would
they perform in school later?
Talaris has funded an experiment to answer these questions. Gottman
found couples who were about to have babies and provided the intervention
that has been shown to help “divorce-proof” marriages.
Then he began tracking the infants, and the answers are coming
in. He already has much of the marriage data and is waiting on
some of the infant data.
Did the intervention stabilize the marital emotional landscape
when compared to the controls? Did it work for couples having babies
like it works for couples who don’t have babies? The
answer was yes. The observed hostility rate profoundly decreased
in the group that had undergone the intervention. Marital satisfaction
actually showed a slight increase with the intervention. Significantly,
the amount of diagnosed postpartum depression fell by almost 40
percent in the females compared to the controls.
We now know how to stabilize the emotional environment of a home
when a baby is first born. And we know that its environment has
measurable effects on a child’s nervous system. And with
this, I’m ready to tell you why I think all of this is so
Why All of This Is Important Anyway
Adult behaviors are bellwethers for the kinds of emotional environments
in which kids thrive. Our research shows that babies in stable
emotional environments shift attention better than their controls.
They become terrific self-soothers. They’re quicker
at lowering their heart rates and have faster recovery times from
environmental stressors. These features predict better impulse
control, which predicts fewer behavioral problems, a drop in pediatric
psychiatric disorders and better pair relation- ships in the future.
the kicker: These factors in turn predict greater academic
achievement in school. All of a sudden, by meddling in a home situation,
helping to create an emotionally stable environment, we can change
a kid’s grade!
Based on all these observations about stress, learning and the
human brain, and during SPU’s Day of Common Learning, when
we celebrate creative thinking, I want to make a very practical
three-part proposal that has absolutely no basis in reality. This
proposal, which refers explicitly to the education system, actually
comes out of a talk I gave to the National Governors’ Association
a couple of years ago: “Why I Don’t Believe in the
First, I propose that the inaugural event of the formal education
system should not occur in a classroom, but in a maternity ward.
Designing an education system with first grade aimed at a 6-year-old
is too late. As we see from both Gunnar’s and Gottman’s
work, as well as a whole litany of other research, a great deal
of critical brain activity occurs before 6 years of age, activity
that has profound influence on a classroom later. First grade should
liter-ally start either while the couple is pregnant or shortly
Second, I propose that the first student in this first grade not
be the child; indeed, the child doesn’t even have to be born
yet. Starting an education system by focusing first on the performance
and behavior of the child is the wrong audience. The proper
first student in the American education system should be a parent — or
whoever is going to be in charge of the emotional climate of the
home. Thus I am not only attempting to re-imagine the concept
of school, I am re-imagining the concept of student.
Third, I propose that the curriculum for this odd definition
of first grade should be rigorously researched interventions proven
to show couples how to sustain an emotionally stable atmosphere
for their kids. By concentrating first on stabilizing the emotional
climate of the home, you can build the rest of the curriculum around
a baby’s brain, which is more active than it will be at any
time during the rest of its life.
I realize I’ve never taught 30 kids in a classroom, half
of whose parents are getting a divorce, 25 percent of whom are
on some psychoactive drug. And I understand that I’ve been
in an ivory tower for years and know a lot about brains only from
an academic perspective. I realize that my proposals are not how
the education system is currently conceptualized. And I realize
even more fully what it might take to infuse these ideas into an
already existing system. I also have to tell you, I could care
It may not be how the system works, but it’s how the brain
works. You can ignore it or you can accept it, but you’re
not going to change it. And if educators and brain scientists ever
got together to effect best practice, these are the kinds of things
they’d probably come up with. And, if that’s true,
the best design of all is to get out of their way and let them
begin the research.
May this spirit of inquisitiveness stay with us throughout the
entire day today, this Day of Common Learning. May we, at least
for one day, dream of ideas that are creative, difficult, innovative,
almost impossible to implement — and life-changing if we
Editor’s Note: For more information
about the Talaris Research Institute or the work of John Gottman,
— BY JOHN MEDINA, FOUNDING DIRECTOR
OF TALARIS RESEARCH INSTITUTE
This essay is adapted from a keynote address delivered by
John Medina at SPU’s second annual Day of Common
Learning on October 22, 2003. For an audio tape of the
full address, email email@example.com or call 206/281-2051.
Back to the top
Back to Home