Love makes the brain go round

It's Hebbian assemblies (not the school variety) that pupils need, a scientist tells teachers.

CHILDREN WHO feel loved by their teacher learn better. And you can prove it scientifically, the Learning Brain Europe conference in Oxford heard this week.

When pupils feel loved, their brains experience targeted rushes of dopamine, a chemical associated with the anticipation of reward, Dr Andrew Curran, a consultant neurologist at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool, told an audience of teachers and heads. This rush then stimulates the formation of dendrites, the links between brain cells that cement new learning.

"Remember that teacher at school who you always learnt from, and how they made you feel relaxed and confident? Your brain actually has no option but to learn in that environment," he said. "It's just a matter of setting up the right neurobiology to encourage synaptic growth."

When dopamine is targeted at brain cells it helps stimulate them to produce a fine filigree, which reaches out and tries to connect with other stimulated cells, he said. These interconnections are known as Hebbian assemblies.

"Basically your job in the classroom is to get your pupils to release enough chemicals for long enough to grow as many Hebbian assemblies as possible," he said.

Drugs such as tobacco and cocaine also produce dopamine. But they do not help you learn because they "flood" the brain rather than targeting specific groups of cells.

However, in classes where there is the fear of humiliation or violence, steroids are produced that stimulate the brain for a few minutes before killing nerve cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory.

"This is not an effective method of teaching and damages the very structure you want to develop," Dr Curran said.

Peter Rubery, head of Fallibroome high in Macclesfield, said: "It's common sense. It is about training teachers to build relationships, remove anxiety and create opportunities for all children to contribute."

Brain and behaviour TES magazine, page 28

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