Brain waves

Where were you when the Twin Towers collapsed? Can you remember receiving your first diploma, your first bicycle or your first kiss? Emotional imprints like these may do more than generate mental images that create pain or delight. Scientists now think they could influence learning.

Most teachers would agree that students participate in class and learn best when in a relaxed, yet motivated, environment. The opposite is also true: fear or anxiety can inhibit learning and educational performance. But addressing the classroom environment alone is not enough. Neuroscientists believe they know why.

At a recent OECD-CERI* symposium in Ulm, Germany, experts examined the link between emotions, learning and the brain. Two specific parts of the brain were of particular interest: the hippocampus, which among other things functions as an interface between short and long-term memory, and is crucial to storing information; and the amygdala, which involved in assigning emotional significance events, and is especially engaged in the management of fear.

As Bruno della Chiesa, co-ordinator of the OECD-CERI project, explains, if you confront a dangerous bull, for instance, the amygdala will take over and inhibit reasoning. This way, you become more effective trying to run away. Under stress, transmission of information to the neocortex (the grey matter of the brain) either does not happen, or at least, not normally or optimally. Later on, you might recollect coming face to face with the animal, but forget what happened immediately before or after.

Dangerous animals are rare in the classroom, but they have emotional counterparts, like teachers, other students, or the learning materials themselves, such as books or computers. There may be external negative influences, such as family breakdown, terrorism, play yard violence, even influences from entertainment or the media, etc, which can disturb the emotional stability of kids.

Put simply, whereas fear is detrimental to motivation and learning, pleasure is positively related to motivation. As David Servan-Schreiber, of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, emphasized at the Ulm symposium, students simply “cannot process information as required in schools if we don’t have a handle on the interaction between emotional arousal and brain function”. He pointed out that what we do to our bodies directly affects the brain’s ability to function in a learning capacity. Diet may also be crucial, he said, as it is responsible for fabricating that 20% of our brains which is made up of fatty acids.

Studies have been carried out on the effects of nutrition on behaviour, including one in prisons by Alex Richardson of the University Laboratory of Physiology at Oxford, which detected a 35% reduction of violent acts after inmates were simply given a nutritional supplement to compensate for what is lacking in institutional kitchens.

By understanding neurofunctional mechanisms and processes, sensible educational programmes could be devised to help train up emotional intelligence, so enhancing the learning capacity of the brain. Slower learners can be trained away from their fears and blockages, opening the way to absorbing and processing information more easily. This demands effort from educators.

Various learning therapy interventions to cope with stress and enhance emotional intelligence and stability are already being incorporated in school’s programmes. The British government recently identified 25 education authorities which will test and implement pilot emotional literacy programmes. And in Denmark a number of schools and day-care centres are participating in a Play and Learning Consortium, which explores the relationship between body, mind, cognition and learning.

Social and domestic influences clearly count, but rather than just teach, our brain waves show that educators and policy-makers should address emotional influences in the classroom too.


OECD (2002), Understanding the Brain: Towards a New Learning Science, Paris.

“Smarter minds”, OECD Observer No 233, August 2002.

“Brain train”, OECD Observer No 223, November 2000.

The OECD-CERI project, Learning Sciences and Brain Research, aims to bridge neurosciences with educational policy and practice, setting an agenda for joint research. If you have questions on neuroscience and education, why not join the OECD Brain and Learning Club, where the public is invited to pose questions to the CERI panel of scientists and educators? These are then posted on the website. The site’s Q&A page is diverse, covering everything from learning a language and reading fluency, to age-related learning and dementia. See

©OECD Observer No 242, March 2004

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