We have three primary areas of focus that we can derive from brain physiology: information absorption (literally being able to process and intake information), information synthesis (the ability to analyze, comprehend, and make meaningful), and information retention (memorization and encoding).
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To understand the nature of neuro-learning, it is helpful to have the basic orientation on how the brain is constructed. We’ll try to keep this part short and snappy—it’s important for background, but you don’t necessarily need to know the whys if you follow the guidelines later in this book. It’s mostly a battle of two brains, as you’ll read.
The cerebral cortex is probably the most recognizable part of the brain, as we’ve seen the brain depicted in biology textbooks—the gray matter that physically resembles a thick sponge. The cerebral cortex is the processor of thought, reason, language, and general consciousness. It may help to assign a so-called avatar to each portion of the brain, and since this portion is focused on analytical thought, this is the Albert Einstein portion. It is further divided into four subcomponents called lobes.
• Frontal. The front part of the cerebral cortex processes reasoning, expression, and body movement. This is where information synthesis occurs.
• Parietal. The middle of the cerebral cortex processes sensory information like touch, pressure, and pain. This is where information absorption occurs.
• Occipital. The back of the brain covers visual information we receive through the eyes. This is also where absorption occurs.
• Temporal. The bottom part of the cerebral cortex handles the interpretation of sounds and language through the primary auditory cortex and also processes memories through the hippocampus. This is where information retention occurs.
It may seem that the brain has all the components to make learning effortless and easy, but wait, there’s more. There’s a significant portion of the brain that actively works against our best interests much of the time, and it is known as the limbic system.
This is a complex series of parts that conduct all matters involving emotions, stimulation, and memories. It’s often the part of our brain that we want to shut off because it is behind most of our fears and anxieties. As such, we can think of an avatar for the limbic system as an easily spooked and skittish cat who runs from everything and everyone. At this point, it’s pretty tough to absorb, synthesize, retain, or even think straight. Major components of the limbic system include the following:
• Thalamus. A mass of gray matter resting between the two halves of the brain, the thalamus relays sensory and motor signals, which help regulate the body’s circadian rhythms and functions like sleep. This can create distraction from your learning activities.
• Hypothalamus. Positioned directly below the thalamus, the hypothalamus controls responses to hunger and thirst, emotions, body temperature, and the automatic nervous system. How can you focus if you’re too cold or hungry?
• Amygdala. A tiny oval inside each of the brain’s hemispheres, the amygdala is the hothouse for emotions, survival instincts, memories, and sex drive. Learning and emotion don’t play well together, as one requires focus and the other demands it.
Also part of the limbic system is the hippocampus, which we mentioned earlier. The hippocampus’s main objective is the formation and long-term maintenance of memories. As such, a useful avatar would be the elephant, known for its memory abilities. So why is the hippocampus grouped in with the parts of the brain that are counterproductive? Because memories are not only conscious pieces of information; they are also subconsciously coded and contain multitudes of emotion.
Learning effectively really comes down to a battle of two brains: the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system.
The prefrontal cortex is probably where most of us “exist” in our minds: the conscious and analytical part of us that makes choices based on the information we’ve obtained. It’s the hub of “free will” and our personality development, including decision-making, planning, and thought and analysis. It’s like the conference room of the mind.
The prefrontal cortex is where we try to organize our behavior and thoughts with the goals we’ve set up. It’s typically associated with “executive function”—where we make judgments and decisions and formulate strategies to align our actions with our “beliefs,” like moral or value judgments (good vs. bad, better vs. best), qualitative assessments (similarities and differences), consequential thinking (what will happen if certain actions are taken, what’s the predicted outcome), and social behavior. We use the prefrontal cortex to predict stock market rises, strategize marriage proposals, figure out if we’re going to dress up like a unicorn, and decide where to get lunch.
If we’re pondering the possibilities of neuro-learning, the prefrontal cortex is where we begin and end.
Unfortunately, it’s clear that not all of our intentions translate into actions, and our tendency to act against our best interests is due to the other brain.
Our prefrontal cortex is in a constant battle with the limbic system—the part of the brain that’s unconsciously dictating our actions by focusing on fear, survival, needs, risks, and desires. The limbic system thinks it is still the year 10,000 BC and hasn’t updated itself despite the world around it changing dramatically.
The limbic system is always watching out for us, which is great in theory, but it can also be unnecessarily restrictive. Imagine how phobias and anxiety can derail you despite your best intentions—those are both the result of the limbic system not being adequately balanced by the prefrontal cortex. Both the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system very badly want to make our decisions for us, and as such, they’re frequently battling each other for that responsibility. It’s your good old-fashioned conflict between logic and emotion.
This struggle is what makes learning so difficult. As your prefrontal cortex is making evidence- and logic-based decisions, your limbic system hijacks that process with its emotional response. When the limbic system overrides the reasoning abilities of the prefrontal cortex, it results in the formation of bad habits or simply distracts you from information absorption.
One function of the limbic system that can create chaos despite its best intentions is the fight-or-flight response. This subroutine happens whenever the brain encounters a frightening situation and is forced to decide whether to stay and confront the problem or get the heck out of Dodge and seek safety. The fight-or-flight response emerges from several different kinds of threats: an oncoming car (flight), a stovetop kitchen fire (fight, hopefully), a snarling attack dog (could go either way), or a vindictive father-in-law knocking at your door with a shotgun (you’re on your own).
In a suddenly stressful situation, the body releases hormones that signal the body’s sympathetic nervous system, which alerts the adrenal system to release hormones that spur the chemical production of adrenaline or noradrenaline. This causes the body to feel certain physical symptoms (high blood pressure, increased heart and breathing rates). The body doesn’t return to “normal” until between 20 and 60 minutes after the threat goes away.
Obviously, the fight-or-flight response is key to one’s ongoing survival—but it also has certain drawbacks. Most troublesome is the fact that it doesn’t differentiate between actual threats or just perceived ones. Yes, it reacts to a speeding car going through an intersection and heading straight toward you. But it also reacts to misinformation that perpetuates fear of unrealistic events: the recurrence of diseases that have been cured, a swarm of killer bees, a zombie apocalypse, or a piano falling from a tall building. These just don’t happen, not even the zombie apocalypse. And the limbic system’s inaccuracy about such potential events is what leads to the development of phobias, which have an oversized influence on the super-reasonable prefrontal cortex.
Additionally, the amygdala, that tiny part of the limbic system, also causes some headaches for the prefrontal cortex. Similar to the fight-or-flight mechanism that calls up our survival instinct, the amygdala processes our emotional responses to outside stimulation. Working from information sent from the thalamus through the neocortex, the amygdala decides what emotion to feel and floods the brain with hormones.
This is all fine and well unless the amygdala processes the stimuli as a threat, in which case the thalamus bypasses the filtering neocortex altogether and sends info straight to the amygdala. That causes the amygdala to become a fight-or-flight arbiter on the spot, which usually leads to emotion-driven decisions—which can be very bad (though not always). The amygdala encourages a response that’s more reactive than thought-out. This is when we lash out at a friend or loved one for being five minutes tardy or physically lunge at someone who insults our mother.
One of your brains wants to help you, and the other one wants nothing to do with critical thinking and the learning instinct. But we still haven’t quite touched on memory itself yet.