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The Power and Pitfalls of Brain-Based Learning Programs

The seduction of using brain research to study everyday experiences.

Source: vecteezy-com

Over the past two decades educators and psychologists have extolled the application of brain-based learning programs. Buzzwords such as neuroplasticity and prefrontal cortex are commonplace to the extent that they have invaded our Sunday comics (see the recent Doonesbury strip). Colorful functional magnetic resonance images (fMRI) point to specific brain regions involved in learning and memory. Indeed, there is a sense that by attributing biology to educational practices (such as stating that "students must activate their prefrontal cortex!"), we have advanced our understanding simply because we are doing Science (with a capital "S").

As someone who has had the pleasure and privilege of studying how the human brain learns and remembers, there is no doubt in my mind that an understanding of the biology of memory has important implications for educational practices. Educators should be aware of advances in memory research, as recent findings suggest that there are ways to improve student learning. Indeed, everyone should be knowledgeable about these advances as we are "teachers" whenever we disseminate our knowledge to others. How exactly can brain-based research benefit learning and retention in everyday situations?

From human neuroscience investigations, we have come to appreciate that there are brain regions that contribute to specific memory functions. These findings come largely from neuroimaging studies as well as from analyses of neurological patients who have memory impairment following damage to isolated brain regions. Memory researchers have focused on two brain regions—the prefrontal cortex in its role in focused attention and keeping things in mind (i.e., working memory) and the medial temporal lobe (specifically the hippocampus) in its role in binding new information with existing knowledge (i.e., relational memory). It is these findings of localized memory processes that exemplify both the power and pitfalls of brain-based learning programs.

For researchers interested in the biology of human memory it is reasonable to focus on specific brain regions. Yet for educators interested in implementing brain-based learning strategies, it is critical to note that these brain regions do not function by themselves. Over-indulgent practitioners often fall prey to a modern day form of phrenology—if we can only boost activity in these brain regions, we can solve the problem of poor student learning. Even worse are those practitioners who use brain regions as markers for "styles" of learning—are you a left-brain (verbal), right-brain (spatial), back-brain (perceiving), or front-brain (thinking) learner? A major pitfall in applying brain-based learning approaches is the over-attribution of brain regions to psychological function.

Efficient learning and retention depends on coordinated brain activity in a multitude of brain regions. No brain region works in isolation. To improve student learning, we must consider the learner's ability to be motivated, to focus attention, to perceive relevant information, to integrate new information with existing knowledge, to practice retrieving information, and to monitor success in learning. Of course, learning always centers around a topic of interest, which includes an assortment of facts, concepts, examples, and contextual knowledge linked in an integrated manner. In psychological terms, efficient learning invariably depends on motivation, perception, memory, language, retrieval ability, and decision making. In biological terms, it's a whole-brain issue, stupid!

The actual power of brain-based learning programs is that they focus our attention to learning strategies that will engage a multitude of memory-related brain regions. Identifying specific brain regions is merely the first step. Further analyses must determine how these brain regions interact as neural circuits that enhance learning. Such analyses require studies of psychological processes—that is, specific mnemonic techniques and strategies—that can drive the multitude of brain activity involved efficient learning and remembering.

Arthur Shimamura
Source: Arthur Shimamura

As an example, consider the generation effect, which I view as one of the most useful mnemonic strategies and one that can be applied daily. In its simplest form you just repeat aloud (i.e., generate) what you’ve learned. For instance, a common complaint among older adults is the failure to remember the name of someone you just met. By simply generating the person’s name out loud, such as responding, “Hello Mary, pleased to meet you,” you've boosted your memory by 20-40%! In my laboratory, fMRI was used to measure brain activity while individuals generated information (Rosner et al., 2013). We know the critical brain regions related to memory processing, so in this study we assessed the degree to which the generation effect drives these and other regions. Individuals were shown word cues and fragments (e.g., GARBAGE-W_ST_) and asked to generate the second word (e.g., WASTE). On other trials, individuals simply read word pairs (e.g., QUARREL-FIGHT). Compared to reading the word pairs, generating the word fragment activated a broad neural network for those fragments that were later recalled in a memory test (correct hits). This network included the prefrontal cortex, medial temporal lobe, and regions in the back of the brain known to be involved in thinking and imagining.

Teachers and students should be aware of the power of the generation effect in remembering newly learned information. By simply reiterating what you've learned you will significantly enhance memory for the material. Of course, whenever we teach we are reiterating what we've learned, and thus the generation effect substantiates the adage: when one teaches two learn. Moreover, you will improve your own memories simply by telling others what you've read on the web or heard on the radio or a podcast. From brain-based research, we know that this memory strategy will activate a broad neural network related to thinking and remembering. We should also note, however, that even the broad activation shown in the figure above underestimates relevant activations as it should be remembered that this and most other fMRI analyses are based on the activation from one set of trials (those involved in generating word fragments) compared to activation from another set of trials (those involved in reading word pairs). Thus, the activation in the figure does not include brain activity related to perceiving the visual stimuli, reading the words, and simply being conscious during the task as these activations are cancelled out in the comparison. In fact, your brain is continually active, and thus the myth that only a small fraction of your brain is active at any given moment is indeed a myth.

The generation effect is but one of a set of mnemonic strategies critical for efficient learning (and driving memory-related brain processes). Other brain circuits will be involved in motivating student engagement, focusing attention, retaining information, and evaluating what has been learned. When we acknowledge the fact that learning is a whole-brain issue, we can develop a more comprehensive approach to brain-based learning programs.


Rosner, Z. A., Elman, J. A. & Shimamura, A. P. (2013). The generation effect: Activating broad neural circuits during memory encoding. Cortex, 49, 1901-1909.

Shimamura, A. P. (2014). Remembering the past: Neural substrates underlying episodic encoding and retrieval. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23, 257-263.

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