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The Art of the Changing Brain

by James E. Zull

I had an interesting time picking a title for my book. A lot of clever things were possible, like "Using our heads," or "Making a smart brain," but none of them seemed satisfying. Actually, in the end it was my publisher, John VonKnorring, who suggested "The Art of Changing the Brain."

But even though John chose the title, I like it a lot. One reason is that it is just slightly provocative. This translates into potentially interesting, and what could be better for a new author? True, it has gotten me into hot water once in a while, with people worrying that I had written about mind-control, or brainwashing. But the positives outweigh the negatives. What the title says is that learning is a physical change in the brain. This is one thing neuroscience has shown us, and if it is true, then it must be that successful teachers produce change in the learner's brain. But generating that change is not a science; it is an art. In other words, science may tell us what learning is, and what influences it, but to apply this knowledge effectively is nothing if not an art!

What, then is this art?

The first part I would mention is the art of challenging the whole brain. Although the human brain is immensely complicated, we have known for some time that it carries out four basic functions: getting information (sensory cortex,) making meaning of information (back integrative cortex,) creating new ideas from these meanings,(front integrative cortex,) and acting on those ideas (motor cortex.) From this I propose that there are four pillars of human learning: gathering, analyzing, creating, and acting. This isn't new, but its match with the structure of the brain seems not to have been noticed in the past. So I suggest that if we ask our students to do these four things, they will have a chance to use their whole brain.

The next part of the "art" has to do with the foundation on which these pillars stand. Biologically, it appears that our thinking brain evolved by building on parts that are now know to be involved in emotion and feelings. This brings our body into the story, since we feel with out bodies, and our brain is always influenced by how our body is feeling. Are we feeling optimistic, frustrated, bored, satisfied, eager, or afraid? The fascinating thing is that these feelings come from the brain itself and its perceptions as to what is happening to us and how we like those things. The feelings then are both created and perceived by the brain. They directly influence our behaviors and attitudes. For students they determine whether or not they are motivated to learn.The biological basis for all this is that the emotion centers of the brain are strongly connected to the thinking areas. Emotion and thought are physically entangled—immensely so!

This part of the "art" then, is that the teacher must find ways that the learning itself is intrinsically rewarding. That seems to mean two things: first, the learning itself must evoke emotion, and second, it must be about things which naturally engage the learner. For the process of learning, extrinsic motivators, such as grades or gold stars, are only needed when these intrinsic conditions are not met. If the learner is given assignments that connect with things which naturally interest her, and if she finds the learning itself rewarding, if she makes progress, extrinsic rewards are not needed.

The biological basis for these claims are described in the book. I will leave you to read them for yourselves.

Another key part, perhaps the key part, of the "Art" is the art of helping students find connections with their past beliefs and experiences. Knowledge grows as our neurons make new connections, and as they increase or decrease the strength of existing networks in the brain. Most teachers have learned about "constructivism" somewhere in their training, but this physical view of constructing knowledge puts it in very concrete terms. Information enters the brain through existing networks of neurons; there seems to be no other way. So it is these existing networks, this prior knowledge, that is the substrate for constructing new understanding. We learn by attaching the new to the old. This modifies the old, sometimes beyond recognition, but we are always building on what has gone before. Sometimes these old networks are so powerful that they become a barrier to new knowledge. Thus, we often carry childhood beliefs with us for a lifetime, even when we know that they are technically incorrect.

The "Art" of working with these connections can be thought of as having two components. The first component is the art of discovery of existing networks. This means understanding the student. The better we understand how she thinks and the nature of her prior experiences, the better insight we can have into how she can build on her existing neuronal connections. These connections include all the factors I discussed above, including the four pillars, and the networks that are responsible for emotions and feelings.

The second component is the skill of building on existing connections, even when they seem wrong. The pedagogical idea here is one of building on what exists, rather than trying to eliminate things that bother us. No dismissive comment by a teacher, or mark of a red pen can suffice to eliminate existing neuronal networks in a student brain. The art is the skill of finding the parts of existing networks that are "right" and helping the student attach new things to them which generate more complete understanding. This approach suggests that much of what we consider "wrong" is just incomplete. We can add to it if we have the "Art."

But we don't have to trust to black magic in these challenges. Neuroscience has shown us two key things that lead to change in networks of neurons. The first one of these is simply practice. Neurons that fire a lot tend to form more connections and strengthen new connections. This is nothing new, of course, but it is more subtle than just drill, drill, drill. For example, neurons have the ability to just stop firing when the stimulus turns out to be unimportant. This phenomenon is known as habituation, and it is the same thing that happens when we stop hearing the cars that go by our window on a busy street. In fact, if you live on such a street, you eventually may come to believe that it isn't very busy at all, because you never hear the cars. So repeating isn't necessarily enough.

The other thing that helps neuron networks get stronger and become larger and more complex is emotion. There are recent experiments which show that such changes in networks can be generated simply by triggering neurons to dump "emotion chemicals" on the firing networks. These chemicals are things like adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine, and they are delivered to specific parts of the brain by specific neuron pathways. Thus, the concomitant frequent firing and exposure to the chemicals of emotion lead to great change in neuronal networks.

So the "art of changing the brain" comes down to some things that we have always known. Practice and meaning are the most important parts of this art, but of course the student will not practice in a meaningful way unless she cares. Ultimately it is the learner that is in control. The teacher can arrange the conditions and the challenges in ways that engage the learner, but still we must have faith in learning itself.

But never fear. When our students find the right connections, they will learn. They won't be able to help themselves. It is just what the brain does. And having that faith in learning is part of the "Art."

About the Author

James Zull is Professor of Biology and Director of the University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education at Case Western Reserve University. You may email Professor Zull at

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