The Neuroscience of Learning

Neuroscience has the potential to prove and disprove existing educational learning theories, as well as identify learning disabilities. It will eventually lead to new discoveries and clearer explanations about the internal processes of the brain/mind. Hopefully, this information will make its way into educational textbooks and school curriculum. It already has determined many specific functions of the brain and aspects of human memory from research experiments using electrodes, electroencephalography (EEG), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). For example, from the use of implanted electrodes in rats, neuroscientists identified place cells (neurons) that respond to a specific place from a collection of neurons (schemata) when needed (Ward, 2010).

Neuroscience has determined specific learning activities directly related to components of the brain. Neuroscientists are able to measure neuronal activity by observing the spiking rate of neurons as they code information. For example, the hippocampus stores contextual details for recall in a spatial map of the environment (Ward). This was discovered in a research study that planted electrodes in rats that maneuvered a maze; these rats’ neurons exhibited a high spiking rate only when they were in a particular location (O’Keefe, 1976). Later, in a study of humans that maneuvered in a virtual environment, it was determined that humans have place cells that are lateralized to a particular region of the hippocampus (Hartley, Maguire, Spears, & Burgess, 2003). The implications from this research finding suggest that it’s important for learners to discover the routes themselves in order to store this information; otherwise, it may not become a part of the spatial map if provided directly from the instructor.

Another study related to learning and cognition identified the basal ganglia as being responsible for regulating motor skills and skill learning (Ward). This was found through disorders of the basal ganglia. For example, individuals with Parkinson’s disease have damage to the basal ganglia structures and subsequent poverty of movement (hypokinetic). Neuroscience is helping better understand neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson, but it still has not been able to solve them all.

Moreover, neuroscientists used fMRI to identify mirror neurons in monkeys. These neurons respond specifically to precise actions that are goal-directed but not to mimicked actions without an object (Ward). The neurons were even sensitive to the direction of rotation in mirroring an action. A study with infants showed similar imitation processes that are goal-directed more so than action-oriented. This data was collected from observation, not with the use of fMRI. These studies indicate that the act of imitation requires deeper cognitive processing than mimicry. Neuroscientists are investigating relations with mirror neurons and mirror systems such as empathy. These mirror systems are “…neural resources that disregard the distinction between self and others (Ward).”

There are many limitations to collecting data for neuroscience. For example, it’s difficult for young children to keep still under a scanner, and this disrupts the MR signal. Children are also unlikely to tolerate electrodes from an EEG. Bruning, Schraw, and Norby (2011) noted that even though fMRI shows activity in particular parts of the brain in correlation to specific mental activities, it really does not explain why or how. Additionally, the medical ethics of research on human subjects limits some of the advances of neuroscience. There is also a political debate on the use of animals as subjects of research studies. 


Bruning, R. H., Schraw, G. J., & Norby, M. M. (2011). Cognitive psychology and instruction. New York, NY: Pearson.

Hartley, T., Maguire, E. A., Spears, H. J., & Burgess, N. (2003). The well-worn route and the path less travelled: Distinct neural base of route following and wayfinding in humans. Neuron, 37, 877-888.

O’Keefe, J. (1976). Place units in the hippocampus of the freely moving rat. Experimental Neurology, 51, 78-109.

Ward, J. (2010). The student’s guide to cognitive neuroscience. New York, NY: Psychological Press.

Author: teacherrogers

Content developer, instructional designer, trainer, and researcher

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