Last week, I had the opportunity to spend a block of time introducing a class of grade 6’s to the amazing world of the human brain. I began by telling them a bit about MindUP, and then asked them why they thought we started with the brain. As always, their answers were insightful and showed real thought. One student argued that we need to understand the brain to understand how we learn. Another stated that by understanding how the brain works we are able to make it work even better. Another student argued that everything starts with the brain, which is something I had not really considered. Really, they are all correct. When it comes to MindUP, or being mindful, everything really does center around the brain and how it functions, how it allows us to learn, and how it can be shaped and molded to function more efficiently.
In a single lesson, students learn all about four key parts of the brain. They learn about the prefrontal cortex, which is the learning, thinking, and reasoning center of the brain. They discover the hippocampus, which students refer to as a memory bank where we store and retrieve memory. There is the reticular activating system, which filters information and distributes it to the various parts of our brain. Finally, they learn about the amygdala, which I describe as the security guard for the brain. The job of the amygdala is to protect us and to process danger quickly and efficiently in order to keep us safe. When faced with danger, or a stressful situation, our amygdala tells us to fight, flight, or freeze.
Where this information all comes together is how these four parts of the brain interact. This is also where MindUp comes to play. What we know about the brain is that when it is in a state of calm, the reticular activating system is able to process information in a more efficient manner. Information generally gets to the places it is intended and learning is more efficient. When our mind is in a state of stress, it treats everything like a five-alarm fire. At that point, the amygdala kicks into overdrive. Suddenly simple things send the brain into a tail spin and we find ourselves in survival mode. While our amygdala’s are in an overactive state learning is hindered, forming and retrieving memories becomes harder, and focus can be near impossible. As an adult, think of a time when you have faced enormous stress or when life has moved at a pace that seems too fast. Often, we find ourselves in a fog. We can’t remember what we had for breakfast let alone what we were supposed to accomplish in the day. We feel out of sorts, anxious, and muddled. We may even become reactive and snappy to those around us. That is an overactive amygdala at work. Dan Siegel often refers to this as flipping our lids. For a great clip from Dan on the hand model of the brain check out the following clip.
The reason I love this lesson so much is largely based around the insight and connections I see students make between what they are learning and how their brain is functioning. I remember one student, who had a particularly hard time making good choices, approach me with a sense of excitement. The student explained that they had finally figured out why they made so many bad choices. It was because they had a huge amygdala and a teeny tiny prefrontal cortex. In fact, the student was not sure if they had a prefrontal cortex at all. I assured the student that their prefrontal cortex and amygdala were the same size as everyone’s. Rather, what we needed to do was to figure out how he could make each part of his brain function a little bit better. He seemed equally satisfied with the revelation that his inability to make good choices did not have to be a lifelong curse.
Understanding our brain is not about making excuses for our behavior. What we know about the brain is that it is constantly changing. This gives hope to our students who find it hard to focus, who find it difficult to make good choices, or who react before thinking. I have seen more than a few of my toughest kids come out at the other end much calmer, more focused, and able to make better choices. Learning about the brain lets them know that their actions may not entirely be their fault but that they have the capacity to train their minds to work for them and not against them. It is like Oprah always said, when we know better we have the chance to do better.
Education should be about empowering students and about providing them with knowledge that makes a difference. There is no greater sense of empowerment than to understand how their minds work and to feel a sense of control and ownership over the decisions they make. As they dive deeper into mindfulness education, they will keep returning to what they know about the brain and, in turn, add additional information to what they have already learned. It becomes the foundation for all future work and each lesson they learn focuses on ways to shape the brain to make it calmer and more efficient. Like any new skill, students realize it takes perseverance and practice but in the end it never fails to pay off.