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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The realities of standardized tests and increasingly structured, if not synchronized, curriculum continue to build classroom stress levels. Neuroimaging research reveals the disturbances in the brain's learning circuits and neurotransmitters that accompany stressful learning environments. The neuroscientific research about learning has revealed the negative impact of stress and anxiety and the qualitative improvement of the brain circuitry involved in memory and executive function that accompanies positive motivation and engagement.

The Proven Effects of Positive Motivation

Thankfully, this information has led to the development of brain-compatible strategies to help students through the bleak terrain created by some of the current trends imposed by the Common Core State Standards and similar mandates. With brain-based teaching strategies that reduce classroom anxiety and increase student connection to their lessons, educators can help students learn more effectively.

In the past two decades, neuroimaging and brain-mapping research have provided objective support to the student-centered educational model. This brain research demonstrates that superior learning takes place when classroom experiences are relevant to students' lives, interests, and experiences. Lessons can be stimulating and challenging without being intimidating, and the increasing curriculum requirements can be achieved without stress, anxiety, boredom, and alienation as the pervasive emotions of the school day.

During my 15 years of practicing adult and child neurology with neuroimaging and brain mapping as part of my diagnostic tool kit, I worked with children and adults with brain function disorders, including learning differences. When I then returned to university to obtain my credential and Masters of Education degree, these familiar neuroimaging tools had become available to education researchers. Their widespread use in schools and classrooms globally has yet to occur.

This brain research demonstrates that superior learning takes place when classroom experiences are motivating and engaging. Positive motivation impacts brain metabolism, conduction of nerve impulses through the memory areas, and the release of neurotransmitters that increase executive function and attention. Relevant lessons help students feel that they are partners in their education, and they are engaged and motivated.

We live in a stressful world and troubled times, and that is not supposed to be the way for children to grow up. Schools can be the safe haven where academic practices and classroom strategies provide children with emotional comfort and pleasure as well as knowledge. When teachers use strategies to reduce stress and build a positive emotional environment, students gain emotional resilience and learn more efficiently and at higher levels of cognition.

Neuroimaging and EEG Studies

Studies of electrical activity (EEG or brain waves) and metabolic activity (from specialized brain scans measuring glucose or oxygen use and blood flow) show the synchronization of brain activity as information passes from the sensory input processing areas of the somatosensory cortex to the reticular activating and limbic systems. For example, bursts of brain activity from the somatosensory cortex are followed milliseconds later by bursts of electrical activity in the hippocampus, amygdala, and then the other parts of the limbic system. This data from one of the most exciting areas of brain-based learning research gives us a way to see which techniques and strategies stimulate or impede communication between the parts of the brain when information is processed and stored. In other words, properly applied, we can identify and remove barriers to student understanding!

The amygdala is part of limbic system in the temporal lobe. It was first believed to function as a brain center for responding primarily to anxiety and fear. Indeed, when the amygdala senses threat, it becomes over-activated. In students, these neuroimaging findings in the amygdala are seen with feelings of helplessness and anxiety. When the amygdala is in this state of stress-induced over-activation, new sensory information cannot pass through it to access the memory and association circuits.

This is the actual neuroimaging visualization of what has been called the affective filter by Stephen Krashen and others. This term describes an emotional state of stress in students during which they are not responsive to learning and storing new information. What is now evident on brain scans during times of stress is objective physical evidence of this affective filter. With such evidence-based research, the affective filter theories cannot be disparaged as "feel-good education" or an "excuse to coddle students" -- if students are stressed out, the information cannot get in. This is a matter of science.

This affective state occurs when students feel alienated from their academic experience and anxious about their lack of understanding. Consider the example of the decodable "books" used in phonics-heavy reading instruction. These are not engaging and motivating. They are usually not relevant to the students' lives because their goal is to include words that can be decoded based on the lesson. Decodability is often at the expense of authentic meaning to the child. Reading becomes tedious and, for some children, confusing and anxiety-provoking. In this state, there is reduced passage of information through the neural pathways from the amygdala to higher cognitive centers of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, where information is processed, associated, and stored for later retrieval and executive functioning.

Additional neuroimaging studies of the amygdala, hippocampus, and the rest of the limbic system, along with measurement of dopamine and other brain chemical transmitters during the learning process, reveal that students' comfort level has critical impact on information transmission and storage in the brain. The factors that have been found to affect this comfort level such as self-confidence, trust and positive feelings for teachers, and supportive classroom and school communities are directly related to the state of mind compatible with the most successful learning, remembering, and higher-order thinking.

The Power of Joyful Learning

The highest-level executive thinking, making connections, and "aha" moments of insight and creative innovation are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of what Alfie Kohn calls exuberant discovery, where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning. With current research and data in the field of neuroscience, we see growing opportunities to coordinate the design of curriculum, instruction, and assessment in ways that will reflect these incredible discoveries.

Joy and enthusiasm are absolutely essential for learning to happen -- literally, scientifically, as a matter of fact and research. Shouldn't it be our challenge and opportunity to design learning that embraces these ingredients?


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Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

I've only had a handful of teachers that made learning fun (That I can remember). None in elementary school. Polish, Catholic nuns tweak ears at the very first sign of fun.

In high school, I had two science teachers that were great. One of them just finished his 40th year teaching chemistry. He told stories about fishing, almost cutting his leg off with a chainsaw, and made chemistry easy. He would write this long complicated equation on the board and say..."See that! Skip it. Do this." Then he would write a very short, easy formula. He also electrocuted the whole class. Just a little.

Why is this particular teacher my favorite teacher of all time? Why was this FUN?

1. I looked forward to his stories.
2. I loved science.
3. He made chemistry easy for ME.
4. He lectured like we were all sitting at the bar talking about chemistry.

Here's the thing. Take one or more of those factors away and this teacher no longer becomes fun. Fun education is just as specialized as everything else in education. I know for sure the young lady sitting next to me in chemistry didn't enjoy electrocution as much as I did.

It also has a lot to do with content. No matter how much fun I had in math class, I still hated it. This is why I do believe that education needs to be specialized sooner. I have no idea how to do this. I only know that If i could have specialized sooner, I would have valued more what school had to offer and would have had more fun doing it.



Tris341's picture

This is a very interesting article. She is totally right. Kids should be treated better and actually talked to and have fun during class.

DMeans's picture

This week as a class assignment, I studied the inner workings of the brain to understand how we learn. Of the four parts, the temporal lobe, where the Amygdala is located, is what I've found to be amazing.
I became curious about this structure of the brain after learning that "the Amygdala figures prominently in emotions (especially "negative " ones such as fear, stress, anger, and depression) and in automatic emotional reactions (e.g., aggression) "(J. Ormrod p.34) from my readings.
I also became intrigued on the subject of how stress effect the way we learn so I began searching the internet and websites listed on my colleagues blog. And came across your article that I find to be very informative on how stress effect students. "...if students are stressed out, the information cannot get in. This is a matter of science." (Dr. Judy Willis)
Thank you for this article. Would you have any other articles in the area of Behaviorism? if so, please email me the link. Thanks again.
Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., " Gredler, M. (2009). Learning theories and instruction (Laureate custom edition). New York: Pearson. Chapter 2, "Learning and the Brain" (pp. 27-36 and 45-46) Chapter 3, "Cognitive Information Processing Theory"

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

Hi D,
Thanks for caring about this important topic. Below are links to a few of my articles, blogs, and videos about the amygdala, stress, and interventions. LOTS more through my website
Through my website you can email me and I'll send you a long list of links and my twice a year newsletter. Keep igniting,

View 7 Video Chapters of Dr. Judy Willis' "Big Thinker in Education" Interview:
The Big Thinker video interview is divided into 7 1-2 minute segments by topic. From "Big Thinker" Judy Willis page, scroll down the bar to the right of the video/photo and you can open each section by name, such as Judy Willis on the Science of Learning (video).

Strategies to Prevent the Neurotoxic Impact of School Stress

Grasp the effects of math-related stress. STEM Magazine. P 18-24. November 2014.

The Goldilocks Zone of Game-Based Learning. ASCD Express. July 3, 2014 Volume 9 | Issue 20. willis.aspx?utm_source=ascdexpress&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=express920

Planning for the Ideal Emotional Atmosphere - in June STEM Magazine. P12

What Does Neuroscience Research Say About Motivation And The Brain? In Partnership for 21 Century Skills

The Neuroscience of Joyful Learning

Neuroscience reveals that boredom hurts. Phi Delta Kappan. V95 N8. 2014

RaiseYourIQ's picture

more people are now going to school than ever before. In fact, people are also becoming more intelligent as measured by standardised tests, as more and more people experience the boost to the brain power that comes with increased access to education, better nutrution and better general health.
But going to school and learning are two distinctively different things. I am an educational psychologist and I regularly deal with see kids who are attending school ... , but who are not learning. They are memorizsing facts, but they cannot apply those facts in any meaningful and creative ways to novel situations. They rote-learn mathematical methods, but in the absence of a deep understanding of what those methods represent. What good is it if you can regurgitate facts for a test on Fridayclass test, but don't know how to apply that "knowlegde" what to do in a real lifeworld scenario? What does that "A" grade mean, if it translates to nothing outside of the classroom? Something is wrong with the way we approach education. Some of the latest science regarding teaching and learning is not making its way through to the educational system, and harnessing these new advances may do a lot to aleviate the problems of the over stretched teacher.

Deb F's picture
Deb F
Professional Development Provider

The science re-validates the work I do to train inservice teachers in Project CRISS. When we empower students to be aware of themselves and make learning choices, the affective filters drop and learning occurs. With Common Core, it's a matter of structuring learning experiences to engage - something that's lost in many districts across the US. We've know what works for kids for 30 years. The science validates it, nuances it, allows us more pathways to facilitate learning. I will be sharing this to encourage our teachers - we're doing what the learners' brains need us to do!

Heather Lambert's picture
Heather Lambert
Learning Consultant, COREChild

Judy - It was refreshing to read this blog post. I love brain research. I'm curious as to your thoughts about self-awareness in terms of strengths, weaknesses, and learning preferences. Do you think that they affect attitude toward learning, and if so, what impact do you think they have on this research? I only ask because this is the majority of my own research over the last 6 years or so. I feel like we spend a lot of time attacking the problem of motivation from the aspect of what happens on the outside, and I want to attack it from what is going on inside the brains of our students. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Jeffrey Peyton's picture

Judy, we're going to have to tap into the brain's deepest reservoir to outsmart a learning culture that has stubbornly refused to welcome the millennium. Play is one word for describing the last 20 years of brain research. Play is the key to transformation. Here's a way to apply some good brain science

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

Great to hear you are working for what the students need so very much. I'm sure you won't find anything new, but perhaps you might find this article about motivating reading, useful to share to promote your insights. Celebrating Literacy With The Reading/Pleasure Cycle. TeachThought. 06/16/2014,
Keep igniting,

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

I don't think educators are discouraged from having fun. I think it's a conscience effort on the teachers part to know when fun is appropriate and when it's not. It also depends on how the class reacts to "fun." I've had classes that just have a hard time recovering/concentrating after a fun activity. Having fun in an educational way is an Art. It's management. It's gut feelings. It's timing. It takes time as a teacher to know how to fuse fun and learning effectively.


florentina's picture


This is my first time reading a blog not from curiosity, but to be able to complete a requirement for my grad course. Last week I worked on a paper about motivating high school students, one of my challenges as an educator.
Your blog provided a great explanation of brain development in connection with learning. It validated what I discovered in scholarly journals when preparing my paper. Thank you

I do not think teachers are discouraged to have fun. They are overwhelmed with too many daily tasks and due dates. I believe that the teacher should spend more time learning about the individual needs of the students and create lessons that are meaningful to them. I have more fun when I teach knowing that my students enjoy the lesson.

Robin Ruiz- Teacherparent's picture
Robin Ruiz- Teacherparent
Middle School Integrated Curriculum-Aspiring Leader-Lifelong Learner

Lets bring this kind of philosophy into the reading classes for our southern schools.
This is what I said to my principal,when she asked me if I thought the reading scores in Florida, our district, and our schools were going to be better. I am not a Negative Nancy but a Real Robin, I said " No." We are not having fun and the students are not having fun. I never thought you implied that teachers are discouraged from having fun.
I believe it is a matter of being able to assess the students, and creatively cater to each environment as needed. Great research and understanding for teachers.
Robin Ruiz


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