Leonardo da Vinci, Neuroscience, and Neuroeducation
For the last year, I have been working on a book about my experience as a new bilingual teacher and the challenges I faced during my first year in the classroom. In that book, I share how I found inspiration in the work of Leonardo da Vinci as an artist and a scientist to help me facilitate learning.
When learning takes place, we are connecting up neurons to create new synapsis. We know this because of the work of neuroscientists and their desire to understand how the brain works. A desire that was also shared by Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo spent countless hours trying to understand how the brain works and how humans can master multiple skills. During Leonardo’s time, the brain was thought to be comprised of three chambers or ventricles containing elements such as imagination, reasoning, and memory. Based on his observations, Leonardo da Vinci described one of these areas as the ‘senso commune’ and also an additional brain structure called the ‘imprensiva’ or sensation, that was in charge of mediating between sense organs and the ‘senso comune’. This ‘senso comune’ was a place where all sense impressions met or what he also called the ‘the seat of the soul.’ It is interesting to find out that his definition of soul is very similar to what cognitive scientists today call ‘cognition’ or the process of knowing.
Leonardo is also quoted in Richter no. 836 from the Codex Atlanticus: “This Common Sense is acted upon by means of Sensation which is placed as a medium between it and the senses. Sensation is acted upon by means of the images of things presented to it by the external instruments, that is to say, the senses which are the medium between external things and Sensation. Sensation sends them to the Common Sense, and by it, they are stamped upon the memory and are there more or less retained according to the importance or force of the impression. That sense is most rapid in its function which is nearest to the sensitive medium and the eye, being the highest is chief of the others.”
In this quote, Leonardo mentions the “importance and force of the impression” which reminds us of the need to use meaningful and impactful ideas if we want our students to engage and internalize the ideas we are presenting as teachers. He also provided us with an example of which sense we should try to engage first. When discussing the relationship between sense organs and cognition, he described the important role of one particular organ: the eye. For Leonardo, the vision was the ‘chief’ of all the senses. He wrote in his Treatise on Painting (Trattato della pittura), “The eye, which is said to be the window of the soul, is the principal means by which the common sense (senso comune) can most thoroughly and marvelously contemplate the immeasurable works of nature” (Richter, 1970). He sketched his understanding of the brain as well as cranial and optical nerves in what it is called today the Weimar anatomical sheet.
Image: Leonardo da Vinci Composite Rendition of the Brain and Cranial Nerves. The Weimar anatomical sheet verso (ca. 1508). – researchgate.net
It is clear that Leonardo recognized the importance of trying to understand how the brain works.
This might sound like a boring and intricate subject, but I usually tell my students: “You don’t need to know how a car engine works to drive a car, or how a computer operates to use one, but knowing how they work might certainly help on occasions.” For me, trying to understand how our brain works is truly fascinating, and it has helped me become a better teacher.
The study of the brain and how it works is what it is called neuroscience. This is a scientific field that has obviously evolved over the years since the days of Leonardo da Vinci. It has moved from just observing and measuring the anatomy and structure of the brain, along with the neurotransmitters that affect it, to a much wider wide-ranging field dedicated to the study of the whole neurological system. In this evolving process, we can see today how neuroscience is blending many other disciplines such as psychology, sociology, physiology, computer science, and even engineering (artificial intelligence, anyone?). In the last years, I have been particularly interested in a new field that has spawned from neuroscience, and it is called neuroeducation.
Neuroeducation is an emerging field that combines the collective specialties of developmental cognitive neuroscience, educational psychology, and educational technology in order to advance the curriculum and teaching methods. Studies in this area are telling us which are the best ways to facilitate learning while examining what the students are learning and if the particular body of knowledge being taught is what they really need to learn for the challenges presented in the 21st century and beyond.
I am not an expert in neuroscience or neuroeducation, but just like Leonardo da Vinci, I have been moved by curiosity to read and learn more about this area which I consider fundamental to help me design new and meaningful learning experiences. For this reason, I am constantly reading new research publications and books in the field. If you would like to dive into neuroscience or neuroeducation, I would like to recommend three good sources for you. First, you can check the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience at their website http://www.jneurosci.org, which offers constant updates, papers, and new findings. Another wonderful source is the book by Stella Collins (2016) Neuroscience for Learning and Development: How to Apply Neuroscience and Psychology for Improved Learning and Training. And finally, the book by John Medina (2012) Brain Rules (Updated and Expanded): 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. In this post, I will cover the brain’s chemical messengers, or the neurotransmitters and how understanding how they work can help us to design better learning experiences. In this post, I would like to talk about the brain’s chemical messengers.
The Brain’s Chemical Messengers: Neurotransmitters
Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that communicate information throughout our brain and the rest of the body. They transmit signals across a chemical synapse from one neuron (nerve cell) to another. The brain uses neurotransmitters to tell your heart to beat, your stomach to digest, etc. These chemical messengers are constantly facilitating communication up and down your nervous system, and they can also affect mood, sleep, concentration and may cause adverse symptoms when they are out of balance.
There are many different types of chemicals in your nervous system, and based on how they are counted, a neuroscientist can identify between 30 to 100 neurotransmitters. Too little or too much of these chemicals can make or break the learning experiences we have designed for our students. I will be covering the most important neurotransmitters. Essentially, there are two kinds of neurotransmitters: excitatory and inhibitory. Excitatory transmitters are those that increase the possibilities that a neuron will fire, and inhibitory are those that reduce those chances.
Dopamine is one of the brain’s most important neurotransmitters that is produced within your brain, and it serves many purposes. Dopamine activates your reward system and provides you pleasure. It also empowers emotional responses and enables you to see rewards and take action to obtain them. It is the chemical that makes you feel good when you check things off a ‘to-do list’ or when you achieve a milestone. It is what motivates you to achieve incremental goals. It also seems to be released when your curiosity has been sparked, and it is related to addictions.
This is particularly useful to understand when we talk about learning. When you have students showing low or no interest in the information being presented, it can be attributed to low amounts of dopamine being produced. But this is a direct consequence of the type of information introduced and how that information is being presented. You tend to remember events that you enjoy, which is the result of higher levels of dopamine. Therefore, if we want to increase student engagement and retention of information, we need use innovative ways to present that information—by using more exciting learning methods and strategies in class.
Serotonin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that is responsible for maintaining a stable mood by balancing any excessive excitatory neurotransmitter firing in the brain. High levels of this neurotransmitter are important for sleep, and it also seems to be related to optimism. Low serotonin levels are also associated with decreased immune system function and depression. Serotonin is the chemical that drives you to seek the recognition of others at the same time that feeds your feeling of significance and pride. It reinforces the sense of belonging to a group and the relationships within it (e.g., friendships). Serotonin is what moves you to say things like “I want to do it ‘for my mom, my friend, my team, my boss, my wife, etc.’” According to Simon Sinek, author of Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, this is the what he calls the ‘Leadership chemical’ and what creates “a sense of allegiance and organizational cohesion.”
Norepinephrine, also called noradrenaline or noradrenalin, is an excitatory neurotransmitter that is responsible for stimulatory processes in the body such as increasing the blood flow to your brain, among other things. It helps you be alert and pay careful attention to your surroundings (all key factors in learning). Norepinephrine is also related to stress, and there is substantial evidence that high levels could be related to ADHD-like symptoms. A good way to use Norepinephrine for learning is implementing activities that involve risk, challenge, and competition, such as games and projects.
Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in arousal, attention, memory, and motivation. It also seems to be related to your ability to dream and muscle control. Those that have Alzheimer’s disease show a lack of acetylcholine.
Glutamate is the most abundant neurotransmitter in your brain. Because of its role in synaptic plasticity (the ability of synapses to strengthen or weaken over time), glutamate is heavily involved in cognitive functions such as learning and memory in the brain.
GABA or gamma-Aminobutyric acid usually acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter that its principal role is reducing neuronal excitability throughout the nervous system. It is also directly responsible for the regulation of muscle tone and seems to be related to physical relaxation and epilepsy.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is released in response to stress. Cortisol works with epinephrine (adrenaline) to create memories, but elevated levels can interfere with learning memory and lower immune functions.
Another important hormone is oxytocin, which creates intimacy, trust, and is essential for creating strong bonds and improving social interactions. It’s released by mothers during childbirth and breastfeeding. For example, animals will reject their offspring when the release of oxytocin is blocked. Oxytocin can increase positive attitudes, such as bonding, toward individuals with shared characteristics, who then become classified as ‘members of a group.’ The cultivation of oxytocin is essential for creating strong bonds and improved social interactions. There is also consensus among scientists that oxytocin modulates fear, anxiety and has antidepressant-like effects.
It is also important to mention brain hormones such as enkephalins and endorphins that play a role in modulating pain, stress and can produce in you the sensation of being relaxed and calm. Laughter and exercise are some of the easiest ways to induce endorphin release.
As you can see, the chemicals in our brain play an enormous role in the classroom and the learning experiences that we design every day for our students. Understanding how our brain works and how all these chemicals are constantly affecting our interactions with the world that surrounds us is crucial.
In future posts, I will be covering some of the strategies and activities -based on neuroeducation- that I present during my full-day workshop “Strategies for Exponential Success with ELLs.”