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Why Neuroeducation?
Dr. Charles Limb, M.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, School of Medicine
Director of Research, Neuroeducation Initiative, School of Education
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD

Much of the allure of neuroscience lies in its capacity to study the most complex features of the human brain. How is it possible that we can see images of sheer majesty and hear music of heartbreaking beauty? More vexing still, how is it that we can contemplate our own existence and conceptualize our own mortality? Indeed, the human brain, a mass of neurons speaking to one another via neurotransmitters and electrical impulses, is a wonderful, astounding organ. Despite this allure, neuroscientists have for decades remained primarily at the bottom-most levels of the brain, working to understand how individual molecules or certain neurons operate in a series of exhaustive, intensive labor-intensive experiments. To complicate matters, much of this invaluable research has been based not on human brains, but instead on the physiology of sea slugs, zebrafish, and rhesus monkeys. The majority of the scientific advances made throughout history have been the result of such research, and these approaches remain fundamental cornerstones of how science has, and should, proceed. Yet, it has the effect of causing neuroscientists to shy away from questions of cognitive, artistic or philosophical significance. Consequently, when most neuroscientists consider the concept of neuroeducation, the typical reaction is one of puzzlement that neuroscience could have much to say about education.

Artists have been likened to neuroscientists who are trying to figure out what combination of colors, sounds, words, tastes, shapes, textures or patterns appeal to our brains. Rather than perform experiments in a lab, an artist uses his or her medium to communicate to an intended audience, to express something of significance. Similarly, teachers in the field of education can also be likened to neuroscientists in that they are trying to figure out how to stimulate, inform and shape the minds of students, both young and old, in the laboratory of the school. The implicit goal of all education is to change the brain, by improving its knowledge base and facilitating its mental processes, a pervasive neural process known as plasticity that affects our brains both structurally and functionally. This much is clear: when we learn something, we modify our brains biochemically, synaptically, anatomically, and hemodynamically. Teachers, students, artists and scientists therefore share a common target of interest—the brain. From this perspective, then, the question is not really about figuring out whether neuroscientists and educators have anything in common, but instead it is about figuring out why it has taken the two groups so long to begin playing together!

It appears to me that educators and scientists have been like cars traveling on opposite sides of a highway, each concerned with the obstacles directly in front rather than across the median, yet sharing the same road. The basic facts remain that most neuroscientists have never taught a classroom of children, and most teachers don’t want to perform lab experiments. More to the point is that one does not need to be a skilled teacher to be a good scientist, or understand the physiology of the brain to be a good teacher. The more natural subdivision is that teachers must work well with students, and scientists must work well with data, as they have done for centuries. However, if those remain the only values deemed important by each group, then we will continue to travel down our one-way roads, side by side.

What has changed then? Technology. We live in an age of rapid information dissemination that has reached a pace unlike anything that has been witnessed previously. This explosion of virtual information has affected every aspect of modern society, especially how scientific information is shared and how students absorb new knowledge. It is also responsible for a whole generation of new scientific methods, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and magnetocephalography (MEG) that permit access to the inner workings of the human brain in ‘natural’ settings to an unprecedented degree. These new modalities of studying the brain encourage us to ask questions that relate not just to elemental levels of function, but also to the most complex cognitive human functions. While cognitive processes pertinent to art were once the primary domain of philosophers, today we can actually examine what the brain is doing as it performs tasks such as solving a math problem, reading a book, or improvising a melody.

Figure 1. Three-dimensional surface projection of activations and deactivations associated with spontaneous musical improvisation in jazz musicians revealed by functional MRI (from Limb CJ, Braun AR (2008) Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation. PLoS ONE 3(2): e1679)

We may not yet have the knowledge to know how to interpret the data that we generate, but we certainly have a better sense of what direction to follow. It cannot be emphasized enough how unique these scientific opportunities are for the field of education today: we have the methods available to study functional neural tasks—how we think, how we learn, how we teach—in a quantitative manner similar to how scientists study any other complex neural process. We can now explicitly study the processes of the brain that are most relevant to education at a level that is an order of magnitude different than what was previously feasible. While it may take one hundred years for us to grasp how a neuroscientific understanding of the brain can help us teach algebra to 9th graders, we can at least start heading there. In light of the exciting findings of the past decade in neuroscience, we would be foolish not to go. And who knows what scientific techniques will be available to us twenty, fifty, or one hundred years from now?

Of all human attributes, the capacity for generative, unscripted behaviors is among the most fascinating. Each day, we complete a series of novel, unplanned behaviors. These behaviors can be rather mundane (such as having an offhand conversation about the weather), or rather profound (finding a solution to a long-term problem). In many ways, creativity is the key to human society—it is how we innovate, advance, and grow. If it were not for the creative spirit, it is difficult to imagine that humans would have conceptualized the wheel or how to harness electricity. It is creativity that allows us to solve problems and to figure out new solutions to improve upon old solutions. It is readily apparent that there are multiple forms of creativity, and that each needs to be studied in a different way if we are to understand them. However, I would submit here that teachers do not teach knowledge to students so that they can regurgitate it back. They do not teach ways of thinking to students so that they can be memorized. The implicit hope and goal of all education is to allow students to digest and internalize the information given and then to combine it all together in new, unforeseen ways. This is how we innovate and improve upon the human condition; this is why teaching a child matters. For several reasons, I have been personally interested in the neural processes involved with creative behaviors. I have chosen thus far to study them using musical improvisation as a prototypical creative activity, but I hope to be studying at the same time something larger than music—I hope to understand how brains take what they know and do something different, something unexpected and wonderful. Through the Neuroeducation Initiative, I hope that we can learn someday how brains get educated, and the most effective way to facilitate these processes. I realize that in the meantime, scientists will continue to gather information, and teachers will continue to do the best they can with students. But through these types of efforts, I’m betting that the sixth-graders of 3010 will receive an education that has, with the help of neuroscience, undergone a radical evolution.

©May 2010 The Johns Hopkins University New Horizons for Learning

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