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Understanding the Brain

In the last 50 years there has been a huge growth into our knowledge and understanding of the brain. Psychological research, which has sought to explain our thoughts, feelings and behaviour, has been matched by technological advances which have allowed doctors and scientists to get inside the workings of the brain. The field of neuroscience was born and has grown to be able to offer new insights into the complex functioning of the brain and to challenge many previously held ideas about our behaviour and the way we learn.

The following is a limited introduction to the brain and the nerve cells from which it is mainly composed. However, even a basic understanding will reveal implications for those working with children in terms of both behaviour management and learning.

The Triune Brain

In the 60's an American doctor, Dr Paul MacLean, proposed an evolutionary model of the brain. He argued that the human brain was composed of three sections which he called the Triune Brain.

Triune Brain

At the core of the Triune Brain is the Reptilian Brain which deals with the essential life processes and survival. On top of this is the Mid Brain, known as the Limbic System or Mammallian Brain, that deals with complex emotions and memory. The latest addition to our brain is the Neo-cortex or primate brain. This is part that deals with problem solving and pattern recognition.

The Reptilian Brain

The reptilian brain is essentially concerned with keeping us alive. It controls heart rate, breathing, digestion, monitors and responds to environmental needs and threats. This part of brain also controls what might be described an instinctive behaviour and likes routines and rituals. Anxiety, fear and other stresses can allow this part to shut down the other parts of the brain.

The Lymbic System

The lymbic system deals with emotions, our motivations and drives such as wanting to be liked and accepted, our need for reproduction, our self-identity and self-esteem. It is also concerned with long-term memory and controls our levels of attention. Control over many of the brain chemical messages known as neurotransmitters are within the lymbic system. The amygdalae for example influence control over the sympathetic nervous system and the fight-or-flight response.

The Neo-cortex

The neo-cortex is split into two hemispheres joined by a large bundle of nerves called the corpus callosum. Speech, language, working memory, higher order thinking, spatial reasoning, thought and consciousness, problem solving including abstract ideas such as mathematics are all dealt within this area. It is also vitally important for understanding and responding to more complex social behaviour.

Brain Cells

The brain is composed of billions of brain cells called Neurons. Each neuron connects with other neurons to form the working structures within the brain. Each neuron can connect with many other neurons giving an almost unlimited number of possible combinations. All of our behaviour, emotions, thoughts, cognitive processes and memories are a result of the connections made by these neurons.

A mature neuron

A neuron receives signals through the dendrites and these branch out to allow it to connect with lots of other neurons. It in turn can send signals down the axon to the axon terminals where it can then connect to lots of other neurons or other body cells such as muscles and glands. The axon can grow very long enabling a neuron to connect to cells away from it.


A mature neuron that has formed connections with other neurons has an axon that is covered in myelin. The myelination of an axon speeds up and strengthens the signals it is able to send. Myelination of the brain takes most of childhood and in ongoing in response to new experiences and learning. The process of myelination is slower in boys than in girls and may explain some of the gender differences seen by educators.

Synaptic Gap

Neurons do not directly connect to each other. Instead, the axon terminal of one neuron will almost connect with a dendrite of another leaving a very small gap called the Synaptic Cleft. Within a neuron electrical impulses carry the 'signal' but when the signal reaches the axon terminals; it triggers the release of chemicals known as a neurotransmitters that bridge the gap and trigger a new electrical signal in the next neuron. This process continues from neuron to neuron branching out along pathways that have been created through experience and learning.


Neurological function requires neurotransmitters and there is ongoing research into the importance of these brain chemicals, particularly around their role in determining behaviour, learning and memory. For example, dopamine is associated with the reward and motivation pathways of the brain. It is linked to addictive, compulsive and impulsive behaviours and also to depression and other mental health conditions. Dopamine function is also implicated in developmental conditions like ADHD. Other research has indicated that diet may play a part in our ability to create neurotransmitters. For example, having the correct ratio of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids in diets may impact on long term physical and mental health.

You may also be interested in the following pages:

Memory and Learning

Working Memory