Neuroscience and emotions

Having an understanding of neuroscience and the implications it can have on learning in and beyond the classroom is important if we are to provide young learners with the ideal circumstances to thrive in their school careers.

This section offers a basic understanding of the brain and how it learns best, and offers some strategies for applying some of what neuroscience has taught us.


The human brain is a highly complex, adaptable and sensitive organ able to constantly modify and alter connections in response to virtually every experience, a concept known as neuronal plasticity. This flexibility is not only fundamental in our ability to learn but also offers the opportunity to respond and be in tune with our current environment and to the social network and culture that we live in.

The vulnerable brain

Behaviours in simple organisms tend to be inflexible, genetically driven stereotyped actions and therefore less learning is required. More complex organisms such as primates mainly rely on learned behaviour, which enables individuals to respond to stimuli based upon experience, providing flexible context dependent responses. Learned behaviours form the basis of intellectual activity and enable us to respond appropriately to an ever-changing environment. The trade off for all this flexibility is vulnerability. The neonatal brain is far from complete, enabling experience to have a strong influence as development progresses; however, this means that unlike simpler organisms, human offspring are born into the world completely dependent on their mothers for survival. Throughout the long period of neurodevelopment and maturation the mother/primary caregiver has a powerful influence on the connectivity of the brain as it moulds to fit the world into which it has been born.

The neuroscience of learning

Neuroanatomist Ram¢n y Cajal was the first to discover that modification of the strength of connections (synapses) between communicating (firing) neurons was the key to how information can be stored, now termed ‘synaptic plasticity’. This modification only occurs if the two neurons are in close enough proximity and are simultaneously activated. It involves metabolic change to take place, such that the efficiency over which one cell can alter the firing of another cell is increased. Substantial research, from behavioural to molecular neuroscience, suggests that synaptic plasticity, in a region of the brain called the hippocampus, underlies the formation of memory.

Early connections

In the first few years of life there is a rapid proliferation of neural connections, ensuring the brain is in the optimal state to embed the necessary associations between the incoming stimuli. The extensive possible array of connections, resulting from each incoming stimulus, makes it difficult to make sense of the world, and slows neural processing. Thus the process of pruning, where these neural connections are reduced, is vital to enable us to function successfully and efficiently. Based on our experiences we weaken pathways between neurons that are not commonly stimulated together and we strengthen pathways that tend to be activated together, hence the expression ‘cells that fire together wire together’.

During this process connections, which are not frequently used, are also weakened, hence the truth in the statement ‘use it or lose it’! Although this frustratingly makes it much more difficult to become fluent in a foreign language in adulthood, for example, it essentially enables us to make sense of the world around us, drawing from common occurrences to make predictions and enabling us, through practice, to become skilled and efficient at performing important processes and tasks.

The brain is extensively interconnected in early life enabling the associative network of neurons to be pruned and strengthened as a result of repeated experience.

most complex structure on earth

The brain is a highly integrated, complex organ. The brain is rudimentarily divided into specific functional regions but these regions function in a highly correlated fashion. As certain areas become stimulated, they are not only able to directly influence each other through instantaneous electrical stimulation via the extensive neural connectivity, but they are also able to have a much longer lasting effect on the workings of other areas of the brain through the release of specific chemicals (neurotransmitters). Therefore the emotional state and social proficiency provide a sound foundation for developing cognitive abilities. Additionally, the initial social, motor and cognitive-linguistic skills, which develop in the first few years of life, are the basis for future success, academically, in school and in later careers, and socially, in the wider community.

impact of stress

A focus of maladaptive neural programming has been the dysregulation of the stress system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The brain’s control centre, the hypothalamus, produces corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) in response to most stresses. This acts on pituitary cells resulting in their production of adrenoscorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which in turn acts on the adrenal glands (located above the kidneys), producing cortisol. The resulting release of cortisol acts to reduce the harmful effects of stress via physiological mechanisms. Once the stressor subsides, a negative feedback loop to the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, result in a decrease of ACTH and cortisol in the blood.

Regulation of the HPA axis is controlled by a complex network of neuronal and hormonal pathways and involves important structures such as the hippocampus (a key structure for memory) and the amygdala (controlling emotional responses). Although HPA activation resulting from stress allows important physiological changes to occur, such as stimulation of the flight/fight response, prolonged stress causes hypersecretion of CRF, which can result in HPA dysregulation promoting a range of psychiatric disorders, including anxiety and depression. Hippocampal atrophy results from these maladaptive changes, leading to a host of memory impairments and further dysregulation of the stress response.

Frequent and prolonged exposure to cortisol can affect the development of brain regions associated with attention and memory. High levels of cortisol in pre-school children is correlated with poor effort control, self regulation and attention span.

Neonatal Programming

‘That which we don’t remember we shall never forget.’

The brain of the developing foetus is at the hands of the mother. Research from animal studies has found maternal stress to result in low birth weight, which in adulthood, is correlated with an increased activity of the HPA axis, leading to a greater risk of obesity, cardiovascular diseases, depression and a lower life expectancy (Barker, 2002). Additionally, poor quality mothering, or separation from the mother, in early infancy lead to a permanent increase in responsiveness to stress in the offspring, who, themselves turn into ‘bad mothers’ and the opposite holds. In rodents this adverse fetal programming leads to an increase in anxiety behaviors and an increased HPA axis response (Weinstock, 2001) and primates also respond with an increased HPA axis response, learning is also retarded and attention span is decreased (Schneider et al. 2002). In humans, stress during pregnancy (following the loss of a partner, the effects or war, etc.), results in significantly impaired attention spans in offspring alongside delayed and impaired motor and cognitive development (McIntosh et al. 1995, O’Connor et al. 2002).

On a more positive note, research suggests that the negative impact of challenging early life experiences can be reversed due to the plastic nature of the brain. However, the plasticity of the brain decreases with age and therefore early intervention is vital to successful treatment.


Having an awareness of neuroscience and learning can help to impact, positively, quality of teaching. The strategies gathered together here are to inspire interest in, and attention to, neuroscience in the classroom.

Pay attention to classroom atmosphere

In order to provide all children with the opportunity to learn to the best of their ability, the atmosphere in the classroom needs to be conducive. These ideas will help:

  • Create familiar routines throughout the school day. Build security by enabling pupils to anticipate what will happen and when. Familiar routines and activities are particularly important for children with a tendency to become hyper-aroused
  • Create an emotionally contained environment. This is about maintaining a calm atmosphere and paying attention to the visual stimuli surrounding children. Consider using music to calm in the classroom, although take care that it doesn’t have more than 70 beats per minute as music can entrain the heart
  • Use stilling exercises before learning begins and as necessary throughout the school day. For example: use chiming bells to create a clear sound. Ask pupils to listen to the sound in silence as it fades. Then ask them to think of their feet and sense whether they are hot or cold, tingling or any other sensation. Work through the whole body. Then ask them to mentally review the day so far (use prompts if necessary) and ask the children how they have felt. End with finding two words that they would use to describe the day. Make sure you join in too!

Maximise learning by experience

Experience changes the brain. What we experience each day means that our brains are constantly changing. While all classroom work will necessarily be a blend of instruction and experience, it is important to be aware of the potential impact that experiential learning can have in maximising achievement. Try these ideas:

  • Get out and about. Spending time outside the classroom is an excellent way of helping children to experience learning
  • Move more throughout the school day. Offer children the opportunity to get up at regular intervals. Focus this movement; try introducing specific exercises
  • Encourage discovery in the classroom. This kind of independent learning helps children and young people to become more comfortable with taking risks in their learning. It is also a great way of ensuring novelty in learning.   

Teach to pupils’ strengths

It sounds obvious to teach to pupils’ strengths, but there is often a tendency to identify weak areas and teach only to those.

This idea is about building on strengths and using existing interests to further learning:

  • Learning cannot be all about learning styles, but there is no doubt that children have certain learning preferences. These may change over time, but if learning is to be enhanced, it’s important to be mindful of how children are operating in this respect
  • Adapt learning, where possible, to accommodate any known interests of children
  • Be open about what interests you and what you are learning – modelling lifelong learning is key.


Charlie Rose brain series
A discussion of the developing brain with Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington, Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard University, Stephen Warren of Emory University and Huda Zoghbi of the Baylor College of Medicine and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Physiological stress response
Animation on YouTube.

Barry C Smith, director of the Institute of Philosophy on neuroscience

Top 10 TED talks on neuroscience

Educational neuroscience page on Wikipedia

The Cognitive Neuroscience of Motivation and Learning (scroll down)
Paper by Nathaniel D Daw, New York University and Daphna Shohamy, Columbia University.

Brain Waves 2: Neuroscience: implications for education and lifelong learning
Royal Society Brain Waves Project.

Centre for Educational Neuroscience
Inter-institutional transdisciplinary project.

Neuroscience and technology enhanced learning
Futurelab neuroscience and technology enhanced learning pages.

Radical Teaching: Classroom strategies from a neurologist by Judy Willis