Smarter minds

OECD Observer

Understanding the Brain: Towards a New Learning Science 

It shouldn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out why some people can’t read. But teachers and policymakers now concede that it might help to consult one. Three years ago, OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovations (CERI) launched a project on “Learning Science and Brain Research” that brings the hardware of brain science to bear on the software of learning. Neuroscientists, policymakers and educators are now all looking hard at questions like the use of mental imagery in learning and the role of age-related deterioration of brain cells.

They have also shattered some myths in doing so. For instance, it is generally asserted by non-specialists that the left hemisphere of the brain is used for logic and coding for verbal information, while the right hemisphere is the creative one and codes for visual information. In fact, while certain tasks such as face recognition and speech production belong primarily to one hemisphere, most thinking requires both hemispheres to work in parallel.

Common knowledge asserts that our brain loses 100,000 neurons every day. That belief has also been re- examined, with one study showing that the number of total neurons in each area of the cerebral cortex is not dependent on age. Instead, with ageing the number of large neurons shrink and smaller neurons increase. This could cause some decrease in the number of synapses, but while this may effect the speed of thought, it doesn’t reduce intelligence.

In one Japanese study on adults 25 to 83 years old, no age-related differences were found in fluency, originality of thought, productivity and application of creative ability. Besides, emerging data show that physical fitness and learning can contribute to improvements in the management or control of mental processes. Learning actually modifies the brain physically by increasing the growth of new connections among neurons. This brain plasticity is an exciting find for cognitive scientists.

Educational policy could learn from this and improve too. If a reading anomaly has been detected in the brain, it may be treated in the classroom. In fact, many scientists predict that the study and treatment of dyslexia will be one of the major success stories of cognitive neuroscience in the near future. Who knows, maybe a visit to the neurologist will one day be as common as a dental check-up.

©OECD Observer No. 233, August 2002

Economic data


Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Suscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive print editions delivered to you directly

Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • Africa's cities at the forefront of progress: Africa is urbanising at a historically rapid pace coupled with an unprecedented demographic boom. By 2050, about 56% of Africans are expected to live in cities. This poses major policy challenges, but make no mistake: Africa’s cities and towns are engines of progress that, if harnessed correctly, can fuel the entire continent’s sustainable development.
  • “Nizip” refugee camp visit
    July 2016: OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría visits the “Nizip” refugee camp, situated between Gaziantep and the Turkish-Syrian border, accompanied by Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek. The camp accommodates a small number of the 2.75 million Syrians currently registered in Turkey, mostly outside the camps. In his tour of the camp, Mr Gurría visits a school, speaks with refugees and gives a short interview.
  • OECD Observer i-Sheet Series: OECD Observer i-Sheets are smart contents pages on major issues and events. Use them to find current or recent articles, video, books and working papers. To browse on paper and read on line, or simply download.
  • Queen Maxima of the Netherlands gives a speech next to Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto (not pictured) during the International Forum of Financial Inclusion at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico June 21, 2016.
  • How sustainable is the ocean as a source of economic development? The Ocean Economy in 2030 examines the risks and uncertainties surrounding the future development of ocean industries, the innovations required in science and technology to support their progress, their potential contribution to green growth and some of the implications for ocean management.
  • OECD Environment Director Simon Upton presented a talk at Imperial College London on 21 April 2016. With the world awash in surplus oil and prices languishing around US$40 per barrel, how can governments step up efforts to transform the world’s energy systems in line with the Paris Agreement?
  • Happy 10th birthday to Twitter. This 2008 OECD Observer interview with Henry Copeland said you’d do well.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • Once migrants reach Europe, countries face integration challenge: OECD's Thomas Liebig speaks to NPR's Audie Cornish.

  • Message from the International Space Station to COP21

  • The carbon clock is ticking: OECD’s Gurría on CNBC

  • If we want to reach zero net emissions by the end of the century, we must align our policies for a low-carbon economy, put a price on carbon everywhere, spend less subsidising fossil fuels and invest more in clean energy. OECD at #COP21 – OECD statement for #COP21
  • They are green and local --It’s a new generation of entrepreneurs in Kenya with big dreams of sustainable energy and the drive to see their innovative technologies throughout Africa.
  • Pole to Paris Project
  • In order to face global warming, Asia needs at least $40 billion per year, derived from both the public and private sector. Read how to bridge the climate financing gap on the Asian Bank of Development's website.
  • How can cities fight climate change?
    Discover projects in Denmark, Canada, Australia, Japan and Mexico.
  • Climate: What's changed, what hasn't, what we can do about it.
    Lecture by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, hosted by the London School of Economics and Aviva Investors in association with ClimateWise, London, UK, 3 July 2015.
  • Is technological progress slowing down? Is it speeding up? At the OECD, we believe the research from our Future of ‪Productivity‬ project helps to resolve this paradox.
  • Is inequality bad for growth? That redistribution boosts economies is not established by the evidence says FT economics editor Chris Giles. Read more on
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at .

Most Popular Articles


What issue are you most concerned about in 2016?

Euro crisis
International conflict
Global warming

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2016