Neuroscience and Learning in Adulthood

Learning Objectives

Type your learning objectives here.

  • [2]Explain the development of cognitive processes throughout adulthood.
  • [3]Provide a rationale for instructional strategies based on specific cognitive and/or learning principles.

Key Takeaways

  • General understanding of how neuroscience plays a role in teaching and learning.
  • The invention of the MRI and how brain scans have changed the way we understand the brain’s function in development.
  • Neuroplasticity explains that the brain is not hardwired and can change throughout a person’s lifetime.

The Evolution of Neuroscience

Neuroscience has come a long way since the 1970s. The creation of the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Computerized Tomography (CT) scans has allowed researchers to view the electrical synapses within the brain while it is being cognitively tested – WHILE THE PERSON IS AWAKE AND ALIVE!! Exciting stuff!! Previously, brain research was conducted postmortem which does not give adequate information on how the brain functions while it is in action.

The evolution of neuroscience and the inventions that came along since the 1970’s have really changed the way scientists study brain function, including how it applies to education.

Exercises (optional but encouraged)

Read the following article, annotate the key findings in the article, and fill out the years on the timeline

Exercises (optional but let’s be curators of information regarding neuroscience and learning)

  • Find one peer-reviewed research study on neuroscience and learning
  • Summarize the findings of the study
  • Determine whether a study is relevant, reliable, and can be replicated
  • Post your responses here


“I am set in my ways” is a phrase that describes someone who believes they cannot learn or is unwilling to learn something new. That person is resistant to change or new learning. Fortunately, regardless of outlook,  people have the ability to learn something new at any age. It has been shown, through neuroscience, that adult learners can rewire their brain due to neuroplasticity.  The brain is not hard-wired as some may think.

Read: What is Neuroplasticity?

Watch: The Woman who Changed her Brain

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The Impact of Neuroscience on Teaching and Learning

Watch the video below for some understanding of how the study of neuroscience can be useful in education.

Big Thinkers: Judy Willis on the Science of Learning

While a lot of Ms. Willis’ talk relates to children, the science behind the brain and learning is the same. Adult brains need stimuli to continue building interest in a subject. The science behind boredom shows that without stimuli and a dopamine response, people discontinue learning.  This is because the amygdala is continually sorting information into the appropriate parts of the brain. Boredom causes the amygdala to become stressed; similar to a ‘fight or flight’ response to a high stress situation, the amygdala throws up a big STOP sign.

Learning With an Emotional Brain

Some believe that emotions get in the way of learning.  The contrary is true, however:  We learn with passion.

The following are 10 key takeaways from the next video:

1. “Social-emotional learning changes the brain”

2. “Brain is an organ that is built to change and respond to experience” ~ Neuroplasticity

3. Social and emotional learning can change brain function and structure which allows for adaptive emotional and cognitive functioning.

4. The bottom front of the brain (the orbitofrontal cortex) is for decision making or emotional judgments (ie: whether something is good or bad).  The top front of the brain is called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC), responsible for guiding decision making through positive emotions.  The amygdala is important for negative emotions and for detecting threats and the anterior cingulate is important for both cognitive and emotional conflict resolution.

5. People who are able to downgrade their emotional response and regulate their amygdala, show an increase in activation in the prefrontal cortex. There is a responsive relationship between the two.

6. The stress hormone, cortisol, can be harmful to your body, memory, and brain function if too active. Higher PFC activation during emotional regulation can make it possible for lower levels of cortisol to be activated. The lower the cortisol level, the less stress on the mind and body.

7. Over time, high-stress levels and consistent cortisol levels are damaging to your brain (amygdala and hippocampus) and can be harmful to learning and memory.

8. Anxiety can be a major interference in learning and memory. Learning how to calm yourself can increase academic performance.

9. New noninvasive technology shows how social-emotional learning can be seen and verified.

10. Neuroplasticity occurs throughout life.

Key Takeaways from the next video:

  1. It may feel like your emotions are hardwired but you are not born with emotion circuits.
  2. Emotions are guesses that your brain constructs at the moment.
  3. Experiential blindness occurs when one is unable to identify with something based on what you already know.  The brain makes predictions about things it cannot make sense of.
  4. Emotions you believe are happening to you are actually being created by you. You have more control over your emotions than you think you do.
  5. Be the architect of your experience.
  6. Your body’s response is not necessarily a bad thing.  For example, a fast heartbeat during test taking may not be anxiety, but simply your body getting ready for a fight.




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Teaching and Learning in Adulthood by Tracy Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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