The Reptilian Brain


by Gene Van Tassell

The brain is made up of separate parts, each with its own function. The more ancient brain, the one that evolved first is called the Reptilian brain or limbic system. This is the part of the brain which controls the flight or fight complex. The neocortex evolved second and with it came abstract thought. Input into the brain goes through the limbic system which decides where input data will be sent for further action. When significant stress occurs, the chemical-electrical impulses which allow communication between the limbic system and the neocortex are so overwhelmed that communication between the limbic system and the neocortex shuts down. The Reptilian brain controls more basic thought processes and tends to be more dominant when a person feels threatened or under stress.

Creativity and higher order thinking skills take place within the neocortex. This understanding of how different parts of the brain are responsible for different types of thought helps to explain why creativity may be so seriously damaged under reward and high stress situations. The Reptilian brain understands extrinsic motivators and relies on them more than the neocortex. There is always a battle for control between the Reptilian brain and the neocortex.

When a student is placed in a stressful environment, it becomes difficult for the abstract thought in the neocortex to take place. When a person experiences stress, the body often goes into an automatic reaction commonly called flight or fight. Context free, taxon systems take over. A reward and punishment based systems have significant used in classrooms, it should be no surprise that children may be accused of not being able to think. Creativity is stifled and the student may react in ways which are confrontational and stressful to educators.

The lack of creativity in children who are living with stress may help to explain the lack of creativity in students who may be discipline problems in the classroom. Students who are constantly living with a stressful situation may develop their Reptilian brain and react in confrontational ways that reflect a flight-or-fight reaction. Educators often react to these confrontations by increasing the stress on the student. It can an unpleasant cycle for the student and the educator. Natural learning vs classroom teaching. When young students come to their first year of school they have already learned a great deal about the world around them. They have usually learned to speak, to interact with others, to communicate effectively, know ethnological customs, and how to please and not please others. They have learned these bits of information in a natural way without the formal structure and discipline that reside in most schools. Students quickly learn the difference between learning what is needed for a passing grade and the natural learning they had experienced previously. "They learn to pass tests and earn a diploma, but fail to use their education for their personal growth. In addition, they leave school unprepared to cope with the increasing complexity of the world in which they live" (Edwards, 1994, p. 341).

Individuals do not use knowledge learned in school in everyday life, nor do they use everyday knowledge in school applications. In the natural learning that occurs outside of school, there are no boundaries which separate one subject from another. Children are used to making inferences about how different subjects are interdependent and affect each other. It is only when children come to school that subjects are isolated from each other, memorization skills are emphasized and endless arrays of facts are required to be stored in taxon memory systems.

Commonly in schools, it is not the student that is asked the relevance of these skills. The teacher simply knows that the child will need this information and continues on with a lesson plan. This occurs even though the student may not make the connection where the teacher sees and implies an obvious one. The information is then stored away in a taxon memory system without any labels of retrieval, without sensitive pathways which would allow this information to be processed in the future. In many classrooms knowledge is transmitted by teachers with the expectation that it will be received by the student.

Teachers face the responsibility of trying to pass on the results of thousands of years of learning in a single curriculum. Most educators understand that it took mankind thousands of years to progress from the basic physics of Aristotle to the model of understanding put forward by Newton in the Principia. It is not possible to duplicate that process in the short time constraints of a classroom.

All too often the answer to that dilemma is simply to give the answer and then expect the student to understand the results. However, with the knowledge of the brain functioning that is currently available, educators must realize that unless the information is labeled and pathways developed, this information provides little help to the ability of a child to be successful in the world. Children need to construct the information in their brain. This construction will allow multiple pathways connecting that information to other stores within the brain. Knowledge should be constructed by the individual rather than being transmitted by the teacher. With the pressure of grades, competitive test scores and the continuous growth of curriculum, educators are continually pressured to put more and more information into their classroom instruction. It is not surprising that students learn early in their life to equate learning with the jumping through hoops. Education can easily be confused with the assimilation of facts. Until information is processed, labeled, stored, and cross referenced with other memory in storage, the job of education is not finished.

Teaching more does not always translate into students learning more. Studies have shown that increasing the volume of instruction will interfere with the learning process so that less learning occurs. In one example college students were given a list of vocabulary words to memorize. One group was given the words and their definition, while a second group was given the additional help of having the word being used in a sentence. Even though more time was given to the group with the additional data, the group with the additional information performed worse than the other group. Educators must deal with the manner in which education is delivered. An adjustment in the volume of information given to students, by itself, is not the solution.


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