General Neuroscience

The Neuroscience Behind Education

Anish Natarajan


The question regarding the role of neuroscience in modern education is one that has interested both researchers and educators over the past few decades. As the understanding of cognitive development expands and new studies overturn entrenched beliefs while reaffirming select traditional practices, the field of neuroeducation is increasing in prominence in schools throughout the world. The ubiquitous formative assessment–a staple of standardized education for nearly 2000 years–is shown to play a beneficial role in enhancing student learning and long term potentiation; new studies are being conducted to establish the link between the ability to play musical instruments and synaptic growth; and new research has instigated a push for reform in school timings. Through the study of neuro-education, it is possible to capitalize on these critical periods of development during childhood.   

History in Education

    The formative assessment in modern society plays what is believed to be an integral role in quantifying intelligence. In 165 BC the first standardized test in recorded history was implemented throughout Imperial China to act as a filter for candidates applying for a state government position. Executives in the Han Dynasty believed a nation-wide test of memorization and speaking skills would help select only the most qualified contenders. Students were required to memorize Confucian proverbs and write an eight paragraph essay developing an argument. Since the era of the Hans, standardized examinations have been a staple of education as a credible means of interpreting a student’s knowledge on a subject. In recent years, a growing number of school throughout the nation are calling for more comprehensive tests that do not involve rote memorization, an activity that has now acquired a negative connotation.


Neuroscience of Memorization

    In 2006, University College of London Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience Eleanor Maguire conducted a study involving the neural structure of London taxi cab drivers. Her findings revealed a larger than average posterior hippocampus, a region of the brain involved with memory and spatial awareness [1]. The process of creating a memory relies primarily upon the stimulation of N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors in the brain during a process of what is known as Long Term Potentiation (LTP). During LTP, calcium ions are released into the synapse, causing the release of cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), which in turn stimulates the release of cAMP-response element binding protein (CREB). Together, the effects of cAMP and CREB result in stronger synaptic connections as well as the growth of the synapse itself, leading neuroscientists to believe that the formation of memory is crucial to neural development throughout life. The process of rote memorization is nothing but a more active form of the passive generation of new memories.


Memorization and Understanding

    There is a significant misconception amongst educators that memorization often takes place in lieu of a genuine understanding of the subject material. A recent study regarding these different methods of learning conducted by Australian psychologist John Biggs assessed this issue in regards to the translation of qualitative factors such as intelligence into quantifiable sums such as the grade point average (GPA). He refers to the connection between memorization and understanding through what is known as “constructive learning,” where it is taken upon the student to adopt their own learning methods or activities in order to help them gain an understanding of the material.  The anterior temporal lobe, which is involved primarily in sentence comprehension, is adjacent to the parahippocampal gyrus, a structure that plays a vital role in memory encoding and retrieval.


Natural Intelligence and Education

    Intelligence is due, in large part, to polygenetic factors influencing the development of nervous tissue. During critical periods in childhood, humans must be exposed to a variety of stimuli to truly develop the synaptic connections necessary for a healthy cognitive development. These processes continue well into schooling, leading researchers to believe that increasing educational complexity corresponds to the exacerbated effects of gene expression. In one study conducted by Columbia University professor Douglas Ready, a statistical analysis of the effects of socioeconomic status on learning through computing the literacy rates of students across the socioeconomic spectrum [2]. A growth curve analysis showed that despite the fact that low socioeconomic status generally indicated poor performance overall, attendance rates were the primary determining factor. Repeated exposure to a learning environment had a causal nature in the initiation of long term synaptic potentiation and to a larger effect, memory.


Traditional Teaching Methods

    The human body is conditioned to a day-night cycle known as the circadian rhythms. This cycle is primarily due to the presence of chemicals within the human body which mediate alertness and sleepiness, namely, Adenosine and Cortisol. Throughout the day, energy stored within the bonds of Adenosine-triphosphate (ATP) is broken down into its components of Adenosine and three phosphate groups. This gradual buildup of adenosine accumulates during the day, where it is resynthesized in mitochondrial centers in cells at night[3]. Cortisol, on the other hand, has the reverse effect. Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal cortex in large amounts in response to a signal from the hypothalamus, a brain structure which mediates the detection of noxious stimuli threatening to disrupt homeostasis. However, cortisol is also released during the day in a waveform pattern, resulting in peak times of alertness. Despite several attempts to reform school timings both domestically and internationally, there has not been a significant response from educators to instigate change. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement in 2014 advocating for later start times to enhance students’ overall learning; new research is currently being done to help integrate the fields of neuroscience and education to better aid in the teaching of youth throughout the world [4].


Research Frontiers

    Neuroeducation is a rising line of study that is steadily gaining traction amongst educators and researchers alike. Several new and exciting inquiries are being made by neuroscientists throughout the world; on such example posed in this field includes the association of non-academically oriented activities such as the playing of an instrument can affect cognitive development and provide memory and learning benefits. A paper published by University of Geneva professors Ewa Miendlarzewska and Wiebke Trost outlined a study using neuroimaging to detect plastic changes in the brains of adult musicians. Described as a ‘multisensory motor experience,’ the authors constructed the definition of playing an instrument as requiring a complex set of skills such as “reading a complex symbolic system (musical notation) and translating it into sequential, bimanual motor activity dependent on multisensory feedback; developing fine motor skills coupled with metric precision; memorizing long musical passages; and improvising within given musical parameters,” all of which contribute to an enhancement of executive function in the cerebral cortex [5].


  1. Miendlarzewska, Ewa., Trost, Wiebke. (20/01/2014). How musical training affects cognitive development: rhythm, reward and other modulating variables. Frontiers in Neuroscience. 279. Retrieved: 03/29/2018.

  2. Carskadon, M., et al. (25/8/2014). School Start Times for Adolescents. American Academy of Pediatrics. Retrieved: 03/27/2018.

  3. Basheer, R., Porkka-Heiskanen, T., Strecker, E., Thakkar, M., McCarley, W. (2009). Adenosine as a Biological Signal Mediating Sleepiness following Prolonged Wakefulness. Biological Signals. 319-327. Retrieved: 03/26/2018.

  4. Ready, Douglas. (01/10/2010). Socioeconomic Disadvantage, School Attendance, and Early Cognitive Development: The Differential Effects of School Exposure. Sociology of Education. 271-286. Retrieved: 03/26/2018.

  5. Maguire, Eleanor., Woollett, Katherine., Spiers, Hugo. (05/10/2006). London taxi drivers and bus drivers: A structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis. Hippocampus. 16. Retrieved: 03/25/2018.

Anish Natarajan

Anish Natarajan

Anish Natarajan is an aspiring neuroscientist and a current first-year student at UCLA.