The 3-Part Brain!

Dr Paul Maclean of the National Institute of Mental Health, Washington DC suggests that the brain is made up of three distinct areas:

The Reptilian Brain

The Limbic System/Mid-Brain

The Neo-Cortex

The brain's hemispheres

The Reptilian Brain

(5% of the brain)

This lies at the base of the brain and is likely to be the oldest, evolutionary part of the brain. The main responsibility of this brain is to ensure survival and to maintain routine body functions (breathing, heart beat ... etc)

There are certain things that keep the Reptilian Brain happy eg: maintaining a sense of territorial space, ritual, avoiding anxiety..etc If the Reptilian Brain is not kept happy and the learner becomes too cold, stressed, insecure ... etc then learning becomes biologically impossible. Professional educators need to make their learning environments are places of low emotional and physical stress if learning is to be most effective.

The Limbic System

(15% of the brain)

This is located at the seat of the emotions and regulates the sense of self-identity, belief, values and long term memory. A high level of self-esteem and motivation keeps the mid-brain happy and open to successful learning. For this reason use of praise is a necessary part of a professional educators role, this is linked to the idea of Emotional Intelligence.

RAS (Recticular Activating System) works with the Limbic System to control attention. It filters the data that flows through the senses - picking out the important pieces of information and bringing them into consciousness (eg; why you are able to hear your name through a cacophony of sound). The more senses learning experiences trigger or are needed for response, the more memorable the experience will be.

The Neo-Cortex

(80% of the brain)

This is the academic brain where the higher order thinking skills occur. It is divided into two hemispheres: the right and the left (see below). The brain is stimulated to learn by novelty, multi-sensory learning techniques (see VAK theories), high stimulation and regular feedback. It works best in short bursts.

Each brain is unique and the individual must tailor learning approaches according to their own needs (see Gardner's 8 Intelligences/multiple intelligences).

The Brain is divided into two hemispheres

– a right and left side, linked by the corpus collosum. As Nobel Prize Winner Dr Roger Sperry has identified, each hemisphere specialises and operates in different ways:

The Left Side

Often seen as the analytical side, this hemisphere controls language, logic and number concepts. It tends to work from the details and build up to the big picture in a sequential manner.

The Right Side

This is the more intuitive side of the brain that works with non-visual concepts such as visualisation, imagination, rhyme and rhythm. It tends to work from the whole to the details.

If one side of our brain is dominant over the other it will affect how effectively we are able to access the content and concepts in learning situations and the type of learning situation we prefer. The best learning situations will stimulate both sides of the brain eg: using both words and pictures, music, tactile sequencing opportunities in teaching approaches.


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