by Judy Willis M.D., M.Ed., radteach.com
As education continues to evolve, adding new trends, technologies, standards, and 21st-century thinking habits, there is one constant that doesn’t change. The human brain.But neuroscience isn’t exactly accessible to most educators, rarely published, and when it is, it’s often full of odd phrasing and intimidating jargon. Worse, there seems to be a disconnect between the dry science of neurology, and the need teachers have for relevant tools, resources, and strategies in the classroom.As for the jargon, Judy Willis, teacher, neuroscientist, and consultant has put together an A-Z glossary of relevant neuroscience terms for teachers and administrators to help clarify the jargon. Willis’ writing has been published on edutopia, TeachThought, and Psychology Today, among other sites, and her work in this field has been especially relevant at a time of such great change in education.
The best approach with a list like this is to bookmark and share the page and come back to it intermittently.
41 Neuroscience Terms Every Teacher Should Know
The effective filter an emotional state of stress in children during which they are not responsive to processing, learning, and storing new information. This affective (emotional) filter is in the amygdala, which becomes hyperactive during periods of high stress. In this hyperstimulated state, new information does not pass through the amygdala to reach the higher thinking centers of the brain.
Part of the limbic system in the temporal lobe. The amygdala was first believed to function as a brain center for responding only to anxiety and fear. When the amygdala senses a threat, it becomes overactivated (high metabolic activity as seen by greatly increased radioactive glucose and oxygen use in the amygdala region on PET and fMRI scans). These neuroimaging findings show that when children feel helpless and anxious. When the amygdala is in a state of stress, fear, or anxiety-induced overactivation, new information coming through the sensory intake areas of the brain cannot pass through the amygdala’s effective filter to gain access to the memory circuits.
This is the tiny fibrous extension of the neuron away from the cell body to other target cells (neurons, muscles, glands).
Using electrographic (EEG) response over time, brain mapping measures electrical activity representing brain activation along neural pathways. This technique allows scientists to track which parts of the brain are active when a person is processing information at various stages of information intake, patterning, storing, and retrieval. The levels of activation in particular brain regions are associated with the intensity of information processing.
Central Nervous System
This is the portion of the nervous system comprised of the spinal cord and brain.
This is a large cauliflower-looking structure on the top of the brainstem. This structure is very important in motor movement and motor-vestibular memory and learning.
This is the outermost layer of the cerebral hemispheres of the brain. The cortex mediates all conscious activity including planning, problem-solving, language, and speech. It is also involved in perception and voluntary motor activity.
This refers to the mental process by which we become aware of the world and use that information to problem solve and make sense out of the world. It is somewhat oversimplified but cognition refers to thinking and all of the mental processes related to thinking.
Branched protoplasmic extensions that sprout from the arms (axons) or the cell bodies of neurons. Dendrites conduct electrical impulses toward the neighboring neurons. A single nerve may possess many dendrites. Dendrites increase in size and number in response to learned skills, experience, and information storage. New dendrites grow as branches from frequently activated neurons. Proteins called “neurotrophins,” such as nerve growth factor, stimulate this dendrite growth.
A neurotransmitter most associated with attention, decision-making, executive function, and reward-stimulated learning. Dopamine release on neuroimaging has been found to increase in response to rewards and positive experiences. Scans reveal greater dopamine release while subjects are playing, laughing, exercising, and receiving an acknowledgment (e.g., praise) for achievement.
Cognitive processing of information that takes place in areas in the prefrontal cortex that exercise conscious control over one’s emotions and thoughts. This control allows for patterned information to be used for organizing, analyzing, sorting, connecting, planning, prioritizing, sequencing, self-monitoring, self-correcting, assessment, abstractions, problem-solving, attention focusing, and linking information to appropriate actions.
Functional Brain Imaging (neuroimaging)
The use of techniques such as PET scans and fMRI imaging to demonstrate the structure, function, or biochemical status of the brain. Structural imaging reveals the overall structure of the brain, and functional neuroimaging provides visualization of the processing of sensory information coming to the brain and of commands going from the brain to the body. This processing is visualized directly as areas of the brain that are “lit up” by increased metabolism, blood flow, oxygen use, or glucose uptake. Functional brain imaging reveals neural activity in particular brain regions and networks of connecting brain cells as the brain performs discrete cognitive tasks.
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)
This type of functional brain imaging uses the paramagnetic properties of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in the blood to demonstrate which brain structures are activated and to what degree during the various performance and cognitive activities. During most fMRI learning research, subjects are scanned while they are exposed to visual, auditory, or tactile stimuli; the scans then reveal the brain structures that are activated by these experiences.
These are specialized cells that nourish, support and complement the activity of neurons in the brain. Astrocytes are the most common and appear to play a key role in regulating the amount of neurotransmitter in the synapse by taking up excess neurotransmitter.
Diagrams that are designed to coincide with the brain’s style of patterning. In order for sensory information to be encoded (the initial processing of the information entering from the senses), consolidated, and stored, the information must be patterned into a brain-compatible form. Graphic organizers can promote this patterning in the brain when children participate in creating relevant connections to their existing memory circuitry.
The gray refers to the brownish-gray color of the nerve cell bodies (neurons) of the outer cortex of the brain as compared with white matter, which is primarily composed of supportive cells and connecting tracks. Neurons are darker than other brain matter, so the cortex or outer layer of the brain appears darker gray and is called “gray matter” because neurons are most dense in that layer.
A ridge in the floor of each lateral ventricle of the brain that consists mainly of gray matter that has a major role in memory processes. The hippocampus takes sensory inputs and integrates them with relational or associational patterns from pre-existing memories, thereby binding the information from the new sensory input into storable patterns of relational memories.
This is a group of functionally and developmentally linked structures in the brain (including the amygdala, cingulate cortex, hippocampus, septum and basal ganglia). The limbic system is involved in regulation of emotion, memory, and processing complex socio-emotional communication.
Long-term memory is created when short-term memory is strengthened through review and meaningful association with existing patterns and prior knowledge. This strengthening results in a physical change in the structure of neuronal circuits.
Knowledge about one’s own information processing and strategies that influence one’s learning that can optimize future learning. After a lesson or assessment, when children are prompted to recognize the successful learning strategies they used, that reflection can reinforce the effective strategies.
Judy Willis - education consultant, neurologist, former teacher, author at University of California, Santa Barbara adjunct faculty