How your Brain Learns

How your Brain learns…

Obviously we expect that the brain is where we are going to store all that information we learn, but it is also important to appreciate the impact it has on our ability to learn.

So what do I mean by this?

Well, there are many (internal) things that impact on our ability to learn. This includes:

  • Your feelings about yourself, the topic, the teacher, or about learning itself
  • Your existing beliefs, assumptions and attitude around yourself, the topic, teach or learning
  • Your internal self-talk (e.g. “I can’t do this”, ” I am stupid”, “I’ll never….”)
  • Your mindset (Fixed or Growth – more about this later)
  • Your mental, emotional and physical health and well-being (including lack of sleep and any substances taken)

In short – your mind, body and emotions!


Learning involves change and change creates emotional reactions!

When we learn we are accepting that our previous knowledge/ beliefs/ etc were wrong or incomplete and that “old version” (existing understanding) needs to be replaced by this “newer version”. For some of us, this creates a challenge and a threat.

For example, if we like to think of ourselves as smart, perhaps superior in some way (I always loved to think that I was the only one in our house who could program our VCR as a teenager – showing my age there!), and our knowledge or abilities somehow define who we are – then this concept of change creates fear for us. Much like a physical threat it can set off the emotional response center in our brain.

Introducing our Amygdala & limbic system


The Amygdala is part of our reptilian brain that is responsible for creating that fight, flight or freeze response.


Video Resource: To find out more about how this works and what you can do about it check out this short video below

So if we want our logical part of our brain to be open to learning (i.e. facts & figures), we need to reengage that part of the brain. If we can identify why we are (potentially) experiencing negative feelings about the learning experience, we can start addressing those underlying concerns before they put a halt to our learning.

Activity - Getting into reflection

This is a great time for some Self-Reflection. You may have already had a go at this one from our Blog… Read it here and download the pdf worksheet below.


Random or not so random facts:

10 useful things to know about how the brain works:

  1. The more you do something, the stronger the neural pathway, the easier it becomes (Practice and Apply your Learning within scenarios)
  2. You can’t just “get rid” of an unwanted or undesirable neural pathway (but you can weaken them by not using them)
  3. You can develop new pathways – in fact you do this every time you learn or do something new or even slightly different
  4. Change is hardest when it affects strong, regularly used pathways
  5. Our Amygdala activating can indicate that we are feeling threatened in some way – but it may not be a rational reaction (e.g. it could relate more to a bad experience you had as a child, but your brain is trying to find a related situation which is what is setting off an emotion)
  6. Asking ourselves a question reignites our brains (activates our frontal lobe by bringing blood back into our brains) – eg. “What part of my brain is currently thinking?” or “What is causing me to react this way”
  7. Slow and deep breathing calms the body and brain
  8. Change is more likely to succeed if we focus on just 1-3 key changes at a time (and being able to relate new information to existing knowledge reduces the scale of the change and makes it easier)
  9. The body, our emotions and our thoughts are all interconnected, so when we can align all of these in a positive way, we are not only more open to learning, but it is also easier and can enable more connections to be found. (Ah Ha moments)
  10. We learn best when new knowledge or skills uses existing knowledge and skills as a basis. Essentially it not only reaffirms our previous knowledge but builds on it (think incremental rather than huge leaps)

AND possibly the most important things for our brain are sleep, water, healthy meals and exercise!

Learn2Learn activity Reflecting on how our brains learn.pdf

Introducing the concept of scaffolding

Scaffolding is where we build on our existing knowledge. This could be by incremental learning (slowly building up knowledge), or finding and creating linkages between new and existing knowledge.

What does all this mean for learning?

To change from our existing knowledge and beliefs we need to create a new pathway. Consciously reminding ourselves through practice or repetitive review and application of new knowledge – until (much like riding a bike) it becomes unconscious knowledge.

It is easier to scaffold knowledge (incremental growth) using existing knowledge than trying to learn something completely new … so the sooner you can retrain your brain, the easier it is to build upon and expand your knowledge base.

Scaffolding is essentially about using existing knowledge to learn new knowledge or skill.

Scaffolding example 1: Being able to count to 50 enables you to count to 10 five times and discover the total is 50
Scaffolding example 2: Once you know that animals need to eat, and you understand dogs are animals, you are able to make the connections that dogs therefore need to eat

Activity: Reflect on what you are studying or about to study.

 What experiences have you had that could help you, and how? (Brainstorm ideas for a minimum of 10 minutes)

For example, if you are studying Information Technology, how have you used it in the past? Playing games? Using different interfaces? What have these taught you about what IT can do? What experiences as a user or customer have you had?

If you are studying nursing – what experiences have you had as a patient or patient carer? What work have you done which involves one-on-one customer service? How do you manage the emotions of others? How aware are you of the impact your feelings, thoughts and behaviours have on others around you?

Record them in your journal.

Topic 1 Checklist – have I:

  1. Watched the video?
  2. Completed reflecting on and planning alternative actions for my learning emotional “triggers”?
  3. Reflected on the existing skills I bring to my course?

When you are ready, click below to start the quiz and progress to the next topic.

Why a quiz?

One of the most effective strategies for learning is revision... which is why mini quizzes are a great way to reflect and recall the information covered.

Go on, see how you go!