A Neuroscience Primer: Lessons From Rwanda

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As I wrote in my last piece, I traveled to Rwanda in support of Davis College’s Akilah Campus (for women). I volunteered my time for one week, in country, working with the incredible faculty there to really dig into “best” learning.

Before I unpack that “controversial” statement, I wanted to share a quick story from my journey home. I explained last week that I was asked a question which nearly knocked me out of my seat on the way from Kigali to Brussels. Here is what went down.

I was seated for one leg of my flight next to a fellow American. He said that he did government and military consulting work and after sharing his current project with me, asked what I do. I explained my work as succinctly as possible (which is not easy, as I feel like an educational Swiss Army Knife of sorts…). He then asked why I was in Rwanda and I told him of the week at Akilah and the professors. I was a bit surprised that he then inquired about how much the consulting / training / workshops made. But when I explained that I had volunteered my time he specifically asked me, “Why on Earth would you do that?”

I’m sure my face gave away the shock I was feeling and he quickly countered with, “how much do you usually charge for a day of work?” I stumbled around a bit and said that the institute works on a sliding scale depending on the institution type, but for a day long workshop with 20+ faculty, we would normally charge $5-10,000. So he asked what would cause us to donate $50,000 in time and services, not to mention the lost opportunity cost elsewhere. Then he stopped talking and just looked at me.

I wavered between angry and confused. This sure felt rude to me, but while this guy was American, he had been working in and around Africa for over two decades. Maybe this kind of candid conversation is his new norm. And in fairness, he did not seem condescending as much as inquisitive. So I pressed on.

I explained that this trip was about much more than money to me. I explained that I have a 12 year old girl at home who should see her dad helping women around the globe find education and transform their lives. I explained the plight of this non-profit organization and their mission which will always be dependent on the generosity of some. And I then added a cherry on top as I explained that the training itself was one of the best I have ever experienced, seeing faculty genuinely change their approach to teaching and learning.

Make It Stick, 2014

Make It Stick, 2014

My seatmate contemplated all of this for a moment. He nodded slowly and eventually said, “I see. Fair enough. My only question remaining is about teaching. Is there really a better way to teach? Seems like we have done it the same way forever and nothing has changed…” Which leads me back to my original statement of “best” learning. Know that I did not go into detail with this consultant about everything I will now share with you. He got the Reader’s Digest version…

So back to my statement which may be incongruous with what you believe. There is no such thing as “best” learning, some might say. But as my Rwandan professors / friends and I unpacked, while it is not always easy to do, “best” teaching and learning is easy to see. And within some frameworks, such as how the brain works, “best” learning is absolutely possible to map.

So with that said, let me share some thoughts, resources, and frameworks by which to guide the search for best learning. And for this blog, the framework we will use is neuroscience. I promised my colleagues in Rwanda that I would create a reminder blog when I returned, so you are about to see the crux of our week long PD.

The brain is the single most important instrument in learning, yet most educators know very little (if anything) about how it works. As always, a primer is just that. This will not…cannot possibly be exhaustive. But hopefully this is a strong place to start your journey whether for research or as a practitioner. We can help students learn…

To begin, the caveat that I always start with applies here. Brain scientists do not agree on much of anything. It’s a maddening aspect of trying to follow their lead. But there are a few things that most / all cognitive scientists do agree on and that is where I will try to work for this conversation.

So let’s get to it.

It is important to note the terms and concepts we will discuss. If you’re looking to bolster your lexicon, I recommend starting with Judy Willis’: The Neuroscience Of Learning: 41 Terms Every Teacher Should Know. But for our purposes today, we are going to focus on what I call the “learning cocktail” of neurotransmitters. These (mostly) hormones are absolutely a recipe for learning, if used properly. (Please note that after I discuss the 5 key neurotransmitters, I will end with 2 that educators should avoid. These could be seen as more important in some contexts, as they are often very present / created in typical classroom settings! But more on that in a moment…)


1 - Serotonin: In Rwanda, the sun sets every night of the year at around 6:10pm. And sets is a loose term in this case. It’s like someone flipped a switch and turned out the lights! But as a result, when I left Africa at 8pm on a flight through Entebbe to Brussels, the ten and a half hour experience was completely in the dark. Even harder then, was landing in Brussels, which is so far north that the sun does not rise until 8am! So, I was in the dark of night longer than any other time in my life.

I tell you this because serotonin is a neurotransmitter used to carry messages between neurons. It’s like grease for your brain’s engine. And serotonin is reliant on sleep, nutrition, and activity to remain not just present, but strong in the human brain. Too little serotonin has been shown to cause depression, lethargy, and inattention. And just as important to learning, memory is dependent on the generation of at least some serotonin, but enhanced greatly during the sixth and eighth hour of sleep (non-REM).

Takeaways: Tell your students to sleep and tell them why. Encourage them to avoid waking up with an alarm clock, which typically sees a person interrupting a REM cycle. Tell them to eat a healthy diet, particularly avoiding sugar / processed carbohydrates just prior to or during a learning experience. Encourage students to move prior to learning, but also allow them to move DURING a learning experience. Even 15 seconds of vigorous movement can provide benefit.

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2 - Oxytocin: Dr. Kieran O’Mahony, the Founder and Chairman of the Board of Neural Education and the Founding Principal for the Institute for Connecting Neuroscience with Teaching and Learning, makes a powerful statement when training teachers / professors on the usage (or non-usage) of brain science from a teaching perspective: “Teachers don’t usually plan lessons with norepinephrine or oxytocin in mind, but if they did, learning would be immediate and forever. Planning in this manner is so easy to accomplish, and results are self-evident.”

Paul J. Zak and his lab were the first to discover that the neurochemical oxytocin is a key trust and cooperation signal in the brain. “Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others,” Zak explains. “It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions.” And when people have empathy, they’re able to understand others’ reactions, including those of other coworkers, clients, or students. But very importantly, Zak’s team discovered that oxytocin produces trust, in addition to producing empathy and other things in the brain of a person. That includes social trust, but it also includes trust for an expert, such as an educator.

In fact, these feelings can be generated artificially. In an initial study, Kosfeld et al. (2005) first reported that intranasal oxytocin (a nasal spray containing OXT) could increase trust toward others in terms of being willing to make higher risk investments, such as learning.

Takeaways: Matthew Lieberman (neuroscientist) and Danah Boyd (reporter) have been promoting the importance of socialness for years, but we now understand even more fully that learning should be social whenever possible. Avoid autonomous, heads down, quiet, single-expert experiences (like lectures) or lone-student work sessions (which produce the “bad” cocktails we will talk about in a moment) and encourage interactive, collaborative, shared experiences where peers teach and learn from one another, showcase how assignments were approached, and other social experiences. Rather than setting students up to speak about issues they have not mastered yet (or potentially don’t know anything about whatsoever), find ways for student credibility to be apparent to all, enhancing trust within the learning community.

3 - Norepinephrine: According to John Medina (Brain Rules, 2008), Klaff (Pitch Anything, 2012), and the Connectome Project, norepinephrine can be seen as the chemical that occurs when a person feels disequilibrium, tension, or conflict. Note, it does not have to be negative emotionally, also seen when a person feels a genuinely compelling question, a challenge, or some other discomfort that simply must be resolved, norepinephrine is at work. If the best definition of learning includes juxtaposition of old versus new, norepinephrine sits in the sweet spot in between, urging someone to wisely choose the best information or answer.

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Again, foreshadowing our “bad” formula below, too much norepinephrine creates anxiety, leading to glutamate over-production. Too little norepinephrine creates boredom, leading to cortisol flooding the system. But the Goldilocks notion of norepinephrine is just right for students who continue working toward an answer.

Takeaways: While this particular neurotransmitter can easily be seen as the mindset to finish a degree, the grit needed to graduate, or the determination to overcome a particularly bad class, instructors should leverage disequilibrium as much as possible, spurring students on. When dovetailed with the desirable difficulty of Generative Learning (Make It Stick, 2014) by asking students to do something authentic and compelling before they know how, norepinephrine will be at work. When telling a genuine story (using a legitimate arc plot), norepinephrine will be created in audiences.

4 - Dopamine: This neurotransmitter might best be described as the “you can do it” hormone. Dopamine is not associated with the excitement of getting a reward, but of anticipating said reward (Medina, 2008). Dopamine’s release feels desirable to people as it associates with feelings of ability or obtainability. This is “the thrill of the hunt,” people describe, but also a belief that the hunt is going to be won. Dopamine is often seen in people exercising as they push toward a goal, time, or finish line.

The sweet spot between norepinephrine and dopamine might be best seen as novelty. Once again Klaff (Pitch Anything, 2012) illustrates how dopamine and norepinephrine come together in a practical state, surmising that when a person is feeling both desire and tension, that person is paying (genuine) attention. Novelty is seen by the human brain as both desirable and attainable, so long as that novelty is not so overwhelming as to be frightening, which can lead to dopamine creation (Medina, Brain Rules, 2008). The human brain is stimulated by surprise because our world is fundamentally unpredictable. This is why television, gaming, and web surfing is so pleasing. It is minute after minute of motion based, new, and interesting information. Novelty in the form of an unexpected gain gives the brain a blast of dopamine.

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Takeaways: The reasons gamification of learning works (if done well), is because the learner has a challenge to overcome, but they believe they have the skill necessary to overcome it. No challenge would not create norepinephrine, but likely create cortisol as it would be perceived as boring. Too much skill required would create glutamate in the system, a stressor which actually impairs learning. So dopamine can be easily seen in the context of a game. But it can also be identified as mindset and grit, seeing determination to go on and figure something out. The best instructors create plenty of dopamine in their student’s learning experiences.

5 - Endorphins: The cherry on top of this learning cocktail is endorphins. Endorphins (short for “endogenous morphine”) are structurally very similar to opioids (opium, morphine, heroin, etc.) and act similarly in the brain, suggesting that humans are capable of creating ecstatic feelings of our volition. In fact, like opiods, endorphins can reduce pain and increase pleasure (Medina, 2008).

So, in a learning context, endorphins are created when a student feels a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, or finality. Stated as pragmatically as possible, students who experience this “learning cocktail” capper of positive neurotransmitters will feel great about what they learned, but importantly will desire to do it again.

Takeaways: Spikes of endorphin release can be seen when attaining the reward promised (dopamine), through triumph associated with strenuous physical activity, when a challenge has been overcome, or a puzzle has been assembled. In fact, pattern finding (vs problem solving) leads to an almost perfect chemical cocktail (with fMRI and PET scans) illustrating the release of norepinephrine, dopamine, and endorphins all within a single experience (Medina, 2008).

There you have the ultimate learning cocktail, which does equate to “best” learning. This recipe for learning encourages participation, attention, motivation, encoding, decoding, connection of ideas, and memory increases.


But do not forget, there are some bad neurochemicals which can disrupt and even prevent learning from occurring too.

1 - Glutamate: In an over-simplified description, glutamate is part of the central nervous system and is called an excitatory neuron. As the main excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate sends signals to the brain supporting cognitive function, memory, learning, and more. So why would we want to avoid glutamate in an educational context?

It is not avoidance of glutamate, as much as the avoidance of too much glutamate. This neurotransmitter definitely falls into the category of “too much of a good thing…” Glutamate, during times of crisis or high anxiety, literally launches out of the spinal column so as to “eat” neurons (Klaff, 2011). Why? Most scientists believe this is one way our brains protect us. If a bear is charging in the woods, one does not need their neurons firing around why that is happening. They simply need to run! Glutamate helps a person act, instead of thinking too much.

But aside from times of stress or anxiety (such as high stakes testing, bullying, etc.) Lieberman (2014) also showed that another factor leads to the creation of Glutamate. When a person feels socially snubbed, alone, or not friend-worthy, their “social brain” triggers the release of glutamate. In other words, a lonely person generates a neurotransmitter which prevents cognitive function, also known as learning. And students (just as all people) are stating feelings of severe loneliness more and more. Students particularly feel alone in classes, they feel alone in schools, and they feel alone in life. From viral videos like Emery Bergmann’s (Tate, 2017) lack of preparation for being alone to Frank Bruni’s description of college loneliness as the ‘real campus scourge,’ (Bruni, 2017) there is plenty to suggest that students are producing far more glutamate than any other hormone in 2019.

2 - Cortisol: Time (Sifferlin, 2016) and dozens of other commercial periodicals have reported on this “stress” hormone as a significant health risk, potentially leading to premature death. But Sifferlin (2016) even reports that cortisol production is “contagious” in the classroom, with a nod to the institution producing stress overall. Studies have shown that cortisol can be “contagious” as students feel more stress when teachers are burned out, but in education contexts, cortisol can be quickly created by criticism, grades without meaningful feedback, and even boredom, flooding the system with the desire to oversleep / under-sleep, over-eat / under-eat, and other depressed exhibitions.

Included on most education psychology lists of Higher Education are several stressors outside of the classroom, including (but not limited to) homesickness, building (or not building) new friendships, balancing social life, handling roommate drama, loneliness, bullying, financial pressures, work/life balance, support, and more (Walker, 2018). Again, the point is that the holistic student must be the filter for any student success initiative instead of focusing solely on the cognitive aspect of college.


And with that, our primer will end. As I hope you can see, the brain the learning are absolutely joined at the hip. Educators must understand the brain, if they are to genuinely understand learning. That was the crux of my time spent in Rwanda and this is why the professors at the Akilah Institute have radically transformed how they teach and how they architect learning.

Good luck and good learning.