How Cool Is Your Amygdala?

Have you ever experienced frustration that students don’t remember what you’ve told them?  Ever said to yourself (but hopefully not aloud), “Where have you been for the last hour?”  Have you ever had a student give you a blank stare when you asked him a seemingly simple question?

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Every teacher has had moments like these, but too often we are quick to become frustrated with the student without considering other factors that might be affecting a student’s ability to absorb information.  Most of us have not considered the mechanics of how information enters the brain or what happens to it after it gets there.

According to Judy Willis, a renowned neurologist turned educator, sensory input is not as easy as we may believe.  In order for information to enter the brain, it must go through a daunting three-step process:

  1. RAS – Information enters the brain stem via the reticular activating system.  This completely involuntary brain stem system processes every bit of sensory input:  the pressure of each individual hair on the body, the temperature of the room, every noise, and, yes, the sound of the teacher’s voice.  Billions of “bits” of information rush to get into the brain each second, but only about 2,000 of those bits actually get in.
  2. Amygdala – IF the information we teach is able to compete with the billions of other bits competing for entry, and IF that information is able to enter the brain, it now faces the imposing amygdala, an area of the brain that determines if information that has passed through the RAS goes to the prefrontal cortex (long-term memory) or to the reactive brain (short-term memory).

The amygdala is significantly impacted by external factors, such as

  • stress
  • fear
  • frustration
  • hunger
  • failure (real or perceived)
  • anxiety
  • physical inactivity
  • physical discomfort (too cold, too hot, etc.)

These external factors cause the amygdala to heat up and enlarge, literally blocking the path of the information and, in effect, putting up a stop sign and turning away information.  Even in students under no stress, the amygdala heats up and swells after only 20 minutes of physical inactivity (think: sitting in a seat listening to a lecture).

3.  Prefrontal Cortex – Information that has made it past both the RAS and the amygdala lands in the prefrontal cortex.  This part of the brain creates dendrites to connect this information to the long-term memory.   These dendrites grow as the information is accessed by the brain.  Information not accessed within 24 hours is “pruned” away as unnecessary.  (That’s right – the brain thinks students don’t need any information that your students do not access within 24 hours!)

This information should be both encouraging and challenging for us as teachers.  First, there’s a reason that students don’t absorb everything we throw at them!  We’re competing with a lot!  But, most importantly, how can we challenge ourselves to enhance the long-term retention of our students?

Here are a few suggestions:

*Educate ourselves and our students about how their brains work

*Craft engaging lessons that are able to compete with the billions of “bits” vying for entry into our students’ brains!

*Help our students keep their amygdala cool by helping them process emotions, keeping our room at a comfortable temperature (for them, not us!), and building physical activity into our lessons every 20 – 30 minutes

*Holding students accountable for reviewing notes nightly to grow dendrites

What other things can we do to help our students keep their amygdalas cool and remember what we teach?  

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

You can learn more about the brain and get free resources at Judy Willis’s website, www.RADteach.com.

Marty Reed teaches at Veritas School, a classical Christian school in Richmond, Virginia. Her twenty years of teaching, coupled with her duties as pastor's wife and mother of two, provide her with excellent insights to share with FOCUS readers.