The biological process of learning

This post will look at how neural networks are created, grow and are strengthened. In essence this is the biological process of learning.

In a previous post on Emotions and Learning, we identified that neural networks are used to carry information from the body into the brain and between different areas of the brain.

The Brain

First a little about our brain: The human brain weighs approximately 3 pounds (1.4kgs) and is about the size of a grapefruit. It is made up of 78% water, 10% fat and 8% protein.  It uses around 20% of our body’s energy and oxygen and receives 8 gallons (30 liters) of blood per hour. It is soft and spongy and can be easily cut with a butter knife. The brain is divided into different regions that perform different functions. As an example, a previous post on Emotions and Learning discussed the function of the limbic system in relation to processing emotions and the functions of the cerebral cortex in general.

 Brain cells

There are two kinds of brain cells, the glia and the neuron. Glia make up 90% of the total and their function, apart from proving a gluing function is not well known. Neurons make up the remainder and there are approximately 100 billion neurons in the human brain. They are made up of the cell body (soma), dendrites and axons. Dendrites are parts of the neuron that receives information. They form tree-like structures as they are attached to other neurons. Axons are responsible for sending information to other neurons.

Information is carried inside neurons and is passed from one cell to another across the gap between neurons called the synaptic gap using chemicals created within the soma. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters.

The growth of neural networks

From as early as four weeks after conception, the human embryo begins creating neurons at the rate of half a million every minute. The neurons soon begin to reach out to each other, establishing points of contact called synapses. By the end of pregnancy, points of contact between neurons are being made at the rate of 2 million per second.

Before birth, neural networks are partly created in response to what the embryo is experiencing in the mother’s womb, including the physical sensations of touch, sound and taste. Then, from the moment of birth, babies start to absorb everything that comes through their senses.

The strengthening of neural networks

In babies, neural circuits that receive repeated stimulation through the senses develop stronger synaptic connections, while those that do not begin to lose strength. In the same way with adults, our neural networks are made stronger through repeated learning.

The video below demonstrates how this process happens:



How the brain regulates emotions

This post looks at how the brain functions to produce the chemicals involved in creating emotional responses. First we look at the two main systems involved in regulating emotional responses. Then we explore how our knowledge of these systems can increase our learning potential.

Brain structures that regulate emotions

There are two tightly connected brain systems that regulate the processing of our emotions. These are the limbic system and the cerebral cortex.

 Limbic System

Limbic system surrounded by cerebral cortex
Limbic system surrounded by cerebral cortex

The limbic system focuses primarily on our survival, emotional, and nurturing needs. It plays the first and possibly most important role in regulating our emotions. This system is located between the brain stem (lower centre of the brain) and the cerebral cortex (upper centre).

Sense messages that are picked up through our 5 senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) are sent directly to the brain stem and from there to the limbic system. Here, the message is interpreted as being emotionally positive, negative or neutral and an appropriate response with a connecting behaviour is identified. This assessment is based on past memories connected to the experience and on emotional states that are connected to these memories.

The limbic system then sends this message to the cerebral cortex with its emotional tone. If this tone is positive then a message with purpose, excitement and positive motivation is sent. This has the potential to lead to positive behaviour. If however the tone is negative then a negative behavioural response will result. Positive emotions include joy, happiness, trust and acceptance and these emotions will enhance learning. Negative emotions on the other hand will stifle learning.

The limbic system also plays an important role in memory processing. It influences how long-term memories are stored –either as unconscious or consciously recalled memories.

 Cerebral Cortex

The cerebral cortex, which is where much of our thinking and learning takes place, makes up approximately 85% of the brains mass and is folded around the limbic system. It is made up of neural networks that are able to interpret and respond very rapidly to sensory information received via the limbic system. These responses include making decisions and activating behaviours.

Within the cerebral cortex, the neocortex at the top is divided into left and right hemispheres in a line that can be drawn backwards from the top of our nose. In terms of language processing, the right hemisphere processes emotions connected to facial expressions, speech intonation and volume, while the left processes what is actually said.

The neocortex is further divided into sensory lobes and frontal lobes. Sensory lobes at the back store memories, while frontal lobes are responsible for critical thinking, problem solving, planning and behaviour rehearsals. The frontal lobes also play an important part in regulating our emotional responses. They can control potentially dangerous, illegal or immoral emotional responses to sensory input received from the limbic system.

It is important to note that message received from the limbic system can be strong enough to override rational, logical thought and this explains to some extent why we are often seen to be following our feelings in decision making.


This article on How Emotions Affect Learning by R. Sylwester has a more detailed description of the processes.

Extra information was also gleamed from this article titled The Connection Between Emotion and Learning by C. Lawson

Key points & significance:

From understanding how emotions are processed we can see quite clearly the strong connection between emotions, behaviour and learning. We can see for example that emotions connected to our past learning experiences affect our present learning potential. We can also see that our present emotional state will affect our ability to learn what is in front of us right now.

We can also see that sometimes we will have an emotional response to a situation, based on a memory or experience that is no longer rational or helpful in our current situation.  For example the negative emotion (shame) associated with a past learning-related failure may lead to anxiety in the present learning context making learning more difficult.

Our new awareness of the processes involved can be used to help us to identify what is taking place within our minds. The early identification of emotions generated from within the limbic system may allow us to choose more appropriate behavioural responses using the rational processes of the frontal cortex.

Where to from here?

This development of emotional awareness will be the topic of a future post.


The Herd Instinct

This post will firstly look at theories on why we sometimes act irrationally, and then as an example, examine one particular bias know as social proof or the herd instinct.

Introduction to Cognitive Biases

Humans often make mistakes. In the behavioural sciences there is said to be a gap between how we should make decisions (rationally, logically, examining all the possibilities) and how we actually decide. This gap is known as a cognitive bias and there are an increasing number of studies that attempt to show when and why these biases occur.

 Theories of cognitive bias

Plato saw emotion and logic as 2 horses pulling in different directions
Plato saw emotion and logic as 2 horses pulling in different directions

Early theories on why we sometimes make irrational decisions pointed to the effect that emotions play in the decision-making process. There was said to be a struggle between the forces of logic and emotion that sometimes saw eruptions of irrational behaviour. This struggle of course continues into the present. Refer to the post on Emotions and Learning for a brief introduction to the role of emotion in thinking and learning.

A second, more recent theory is centred on the idea that it is sometimes a better use of our brain’s energy to make intuitive rather than rational decisions in some situations. Making well-reasoned decisions can take a long time and often the risks of making the wrong decision are low. In addition it is not always possible to have all the necessary information to make the best choice. In this event we often unconsciously act on instinct. This behaviour on later reflection can seem irrational to us and so creates stress or anxiety (known as cognitive dissonance). We therefore often attempt to justify these actions later.

A third theory comes from the relatively new field of evolutionary psychology. The argument is that some of the decision-making processes that evolved in the brains of early hunter / gatherer humans in response to the challenges of their environment may no longer be in our best interests but still influence our behaviour. They point to the significant changes that have occurred over the past 10,000 years including developments in agriculture, the move to towns and cities, industrialisation and more recently, changes in communication technology.

Whatever the causes of irrational decision-making, one way to reduce the number of costly errors we make is to recognise the bias before making the decision.

 The herd instinct

This is an example of a bias explained using evolutionary psychology theory. The explanation is that our brains evolved a herd (or social proof) instinct to encourage us to unconsciously follow the behaviour of others.

Imagine a situation 600,000 years ago when one of our ancestors was hunting and suddenly saw others in the clan frantically running past in one direction. The safest action at a time when man-eating predators roamed the world would have been to join them without thinking. Over time, those that ran survived to breed and so the behaviour was passed on, while those that stopped to think were regrettably unable to pass on their genes.

Now take a modern situation. Advertisers tell you that 9 out of 10 dentists prefer a particular type of toothpaste, or that a particular brand of detergent is preferred my ‘most people’. Are you influenced to buy these brands?

Another example is where we may be influenced to eat at a restaurant where there are more customers. Do you walk past the empty restaurant? If you do then you may be following your herd instinct.

The examples above show this bias in operation. We also often see this operating during sporting events or political rallies, sometimes with disastrous results.


The art of thinking clearly by Rolf Dobelli, published by Hodder and Stoughton, 2013

Key points & significance

We tend to think of ourselves as rational, reasonable people, making up our own minds and forming our own value systems. Sometimes however we make mistakes. We act on pure instinct, or we allow ourselves to be influenced by clever people who know how to take advantage of our cognitive biases.

This is not a conspiracy theory. It is just modern life. To counteract these influences and to make fewer errors in judgement we need to build up an awareness of the types of cognitive biases that influence our behaviour. Once recognised and understood, we are in a position to choose whether to be influenced or not.

 Where to from here?

A Google search on cognitive biases will reveal well over 100 separately listed and researched biases. How many are you familiar with? How many have influenced your decision making?

If you recognise any that have played a role in your life then post a response and let us know.


The chemistry of emotions

This post firstly defines what emotions are and then look at how chemicals are used in the processing of emotions. Future posts will examine areas of the brain associated with emotions and how to develop emotional intelligence through awareness.


What are emotions?

Emotions play a large part in our lives, yet are a difficult concept to define. They arise in response to external events experienced through our senses and are influenced by memories and past experiences.

From a psychological perspective, there are three components to emotion. These are:

  1. personal conscious feeling, followed by
  2. physical arousal and then
  3. a behavioural response (Weiten).

From a personal perspective, the quote below is a nice expression of the value of positive emotions:

 “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart”

Helen Keller

From a learning perspective, a positive emotional response creates a commitment to learn, which in turn causes us to focuses our attention on the object of learning leading to learning and remembering.

There is also a link between emotions and creativity. The artist Paul Cezanne is quoted as saying:

Genius is the ability to renew one’s emotions in daily experience.

How are emotions processed?

New developments in cognitive science are helping us to understand the way emotions are processed and their effect on our learning.

Neural pathways extend from the brain’s emotional centres into the logical/rational centres and influence the decisions that we make. Sometimes rational, logical decision-making will override emotions (Tonight I’m going to study for the final exam), while at other times emotions can by-pass the conscious decision making process leading us to make irrational decisions or act in illogical ways (my friends are all going out tonight so I can’t let them down by staying home).

To understand this process better it is necessary to explore both the chemical and brain structures that play a part. This post will focus on the chemical side of processing, and in particular on the effects of cortisol and endorphins. A future post will explore related brain structures.


Molecules called peptides carry emotional information to different parts of our brain and body. These molecules are a chain of amino acids that travel throughout our body and brain through our neural networks, circulatory system and air passages. Changes in the levels of these molecules leads to shifts in emotional energy resulting in changes in behaviour. Examples of peptides include:

Cortisol This peptide is released by the adrenal glands when it is necessary to activate a quick brain/body defence response in the event of physical or emotional danger. On the positive side, when we feel in control of a situation our body produces low levels of cortisol, which results in a feeling of euphoria. In stressful situations however, high levels of cortisol are produced which can lead to feelings of despair. In addition, increased levels of cortisol experienced over a longer period of time can lead to the destruction of neurons in the brains hippocampus area that are associated with memory and learning.

Endorphins These are a class of opiates that are released by the pituitary gland. Their effect is to reduce pain and increase feelings of euphoria. Levels of this peptide increase through exercise and through positive social experiences.



Information on how emotions are processed has been adapted from a paper titled How emotions affect learning, by Robert Sylwester

The psychological definition of emotion comes from Psychology themes and variations by Wayne Weiten, published by Cengage Learning, 2007.

Quotes are from

 Key points & significance

As learners, if we are exposed to physically or emotionally stressful situations, our learning ability will be diminished through the overproduction of cortisol. It is therefore important to maintain a stress-free environment – both physical and emotional – in order to ensure that maximum learning can take place.

In addition, if we can encourage the release of endorphins, even in a stressful situation, this will promote learning and increase our problem solving ability. Encouragement can take the form of exercising and making sure that we spend sufficient (non-stressful) time with our friends and family.

In summary, making time to enjoy ourselves and learning in stress-free situations will help ensure better learning outcomes.

Where to from here?

Can you think of a time when you were under pressure to perform or achieve something and your mind just went blank? What happened? How do you overcome this? What is a strategy you might use the next time this happens?

Post a comment and let us know.


The Body Language of Hands

 In a post on the connection between relaxation and learning, I suggested that relaxing our hands was a good way to open our minds to new ideas. This post looks at our hands in a different way – to communicate thoughts, ideas and emotions. I will firstly introduce body language as a topic in general and then allow you to test your understanding of the meaning behind the way we use our hands.

 Body Language

From the very first moment we begin to interact with others, our bodies are in communication. We are telling each other the way we feel about them and the way we feel about ourselves. We are communicating our physical and emotional states; are we feeling happy or sad, strong or insecure, stressed or relaxed, are we lying or telling the truth – all through our movements, expressions, tone of voice and other forms of body language.

 The language of hands

The way we use our hands is one way we reveal ourselves to others. Being aware of the way we use our hands and observing the hand movements of others is a way to learn more about ourselves and others.

A word of caution – the meaning of body language cues will differ depending on the place and purpose (context) of communication and also the words that accompany them, so listen carefully to what is being said as well as the way it is communicated.

Take the quiz below to see how well you can read the body language of the hands.

[WpProQuiz 2]


Based on an article published in Psychology Today titled What the hands say is often louder than words! written by Joe Navarro in the Spycatcher series.

Supplemented by material from Body Language, by Susan Quilliam, Carlton Books 1995.

 Where to from here?

Try to develop your powers of observation by consciously paying more attention to your own body talk. Observing your own hands is a good place to start. Notice how you respond in different situations and then observe the hands of those around you. Are their actions different or similar? Why do you think this is?

Post a comment and let us know.

Future posts will explore other areas of the body including the language of the face, arms, legs and skin .


Relax to Learn

Alternative Text

This post identifies recent research that connects posture to performance and then draws a connection to learning.

The Evidence

There is some very good emerging evidence that links body posture and actions to learning. It is generally accepted that to a large extent our moods, emotions, attitudes and personal feelings are reflected in our outward appearance. It is also known that positive mental states generally improve learning. What is becoming more evident is that by deliberately modifying our outward physical posture we are ourselves able to affect our emotional states and thereby our learning potential.

In an article titled Eight Easy Bodily Actions That Transform Mental Performance, Jeremy Dean lists eight different studies that show links between posture and the ability to perform in different situations. Of particular significance for learners is a study published in the Journal of Experiential Social Psychology, which found that adopting a relaxed position while listening to others can increase the amount of new knowledge taken in. In the study, subjects who were told to adopt a relaxed posture were found to be more likely not to reject information that was not in keeping with their currently held beliefs or opinions (referred to in the study as decision-inconsistent information).

Being a relaxed listener therefore increases our ability to learn new ideas.


 Where to from here?

Next time you feel yourself tensing up while listening, remind yourself that your tense posture may be stopping you from really understanding the ideas being expressed. Make a conscious decision to relax your hands and any other tense parts of your body. First identify the tight muscles and breath in. Next, relax these muscles as you slowly breath out. Now bring your attention back to what the speaker is saying. At this point you could also nod your head a few times and smile to show that you are listening.

How did you go?

Post a response and let us know.

Another study identified by Dean in the same article points to the connection between the physical act of jumping and the creation of a feeling of joy. The connection between happiness and learning and how to increase our happiness will be explored in upcoming posts.