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Mind Yoga and Mind Brain Education Theory

May 6, 2010

At its core, mind-brain-education theory supports a collaborative relationship among the various sub-disciplines of neuroscience and education. Specifically, mind-brain-education refers to the practice of building curriculum and teaching and learning strategies that capitalize on our understanding of the biological bases of learning and behavior. More often than not, those biological bases are found in the nervous system and a more sophisticated understanding of that system from the level of axons and dendrites to gross regions of the brain can inform the ways in which we teach and learn. Yoga practitioners and teachers–as well as others–should find this research useful and inspiring.

Personally, two findings in neuroscience research should be kept in constant focus by educators, parents, and students. My favorite gift from neuroscience research: the discovery of neural plasticity and plasticity at the gross level! Ample evidence has shown that our brains do not simply begin to atrophy at a certain age but rather new cells, new connections, and new configurations are made throughout the day, day-by-day, and over long periods. You use it, you don’t lose it. Although few teachers will ever find themselves teaching a student who has had a hemispherectomy, all teachers will find themselves teaching students who have been programmed to perceive the world in accordance with learned patterns favored by their familial, cultural, and socio-economic context. Some students will have had the exposure and support to develop strong and complex connections in their language centers, whereas others will have had the opportunity to cultivate whole brain creative and metaphorical thinking but what plasticity tells us is this: the state of your brain is not a fait accompli. It is a dynamic, organic, plastic, and phenomenal network of protoplasm that has boundless potential.

More often than not, we train our brains to be contained and rigid. Too often, we confuse rigidity with discipline and we conflate flexibility with irreverence and chaos. Plasticity is perhaps the most democratic scientific discovery yet because it puts each learner in the driver seat and tells him or her: Go ahead and shape your brain. This is tremendous and requires an enormous amount of personal accountability; knowing that the environments we expose ourselves to and the activities we engage in shape our very brains, presents each of us with the challenge to determine what we choose to do with that plasticity. What shape do we want our brains to take?

A study carried out with London cab drivers is an excellent reference that shows that the above argument is not an overstatement of the potential of plasticity. That study, which is found in many introductory psychology texts, took images of trainee drivers’ brains at the beginning of their two-year program. Specifically, the shape and size of the trainees’ hippocampii were recorded (the back of the hippocampus is the region of the brain responsible for spatial memory). Because London cab drivers are rigorously trained and tested before being licensed, their spatial memories are consistently exercised and challenged throughout the program. In order to pass, a driver must be capable of charting the most efficient course from any one point in the city to any other point. Researchers found that at the end of this two-year program the back portion of the trainees’ hippocampii had undergone significant growth.  Exposure matters, practice matters, and conscientious and deliberate teaching indeed matters.

The second discovery—this is one in which researchers are continuing to explore and amass evidence of—is the relationship between chronic stress and the executive function. Briefly, several studies have documented that animals exposed to chronic stress experience atrophy in the neural connections that link the frontal lobe—which is home to the executive function—and the more primitive parts of the brain, such as the cerebellum, that instigate behavior. It has been found that populations that are under chronic stress lose the capacity to evaluate the outcomes of their behavior and simply continuously revert to habit, no matter how self-serving or self-destructive those habits of thinking or behaving may be. Such disconnect is clearly not beneficial to any animal—human or non-human. Educators at all levels should keep this in mind when planning curricula, shaping the culture of an educational institution, and allocating funding. Is it really such a great idea to create an environment in which students are under such tremendous pressure that they are forced to revert to habit? Again, I do not think that this is an overstatement. Think, for example, of children living in warzones and warzone-like environments; how much executive function development is likely taking place there? Too, decisions to cut physical education first might be reconsidered in light of research that shows that not only does physical activity reduce stress, it also (cardiovascular exercise) generates new brain cells. With these points in mind, I would argue that generally speaking, US educational institutions in general are not creating the best environments for learning.

Plasticity and the danger of chronic stress which threatens to trap us into patterned and habitual thinking with no interference from the executive function both relate to globalization and educational change because they deal with a core issue found in many conflicts between peoples from disparate cultures: rigid thinking and unchecked habits of thinking and behaving. If we are going to learn to understand those who view the world differently, it is essential that we recognize that learning is not something that takes place during one’s years in formal schooling but is an ongoing process that changes us. We must understand that thoughts, ideas, and patterns of thinking and behaving shape us and shape others but they do not necessarily create an unbridgeable divide. Recognition alone of the above discovery has the power to transform learning in a profound way. Learning is possible only because the brain is plastic! It is crucial to support a conscious shaping of one’s learning by maintaining a supportive, low stress (as much as possible) environment that honors inquiry, analysis, and a healthy dose of irreverence.

So, how will you shape your brain?

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6 Comments
  1. Radhalakshmi permalink

    Saambavi Maha Mudra is an inner engineering programme, which is being conducted by the Isha foundation to shape up one’s brain.Actually only 10 to 15 % of the brain(power) is being used by the scientists.A normal person only uses 5%.S.M.M helps one to be relaxed & this change can be experienced soon after practicing it.Regular practice helps one to be stress free & become highly intellect.If children are made to initiate into this at the right age, a drastic positive change can be seen in them.

    • Hi, Radha, Thank you for your comment. Will you please write more about Saambavi Maha Mudra? –Kelly

  2. Nameste, Kelly-ji,
    Thank you for this great writing!
    being a student my self , I highlyy recommend this for every other student, as its helpful and looking forward for a discussion thread .
    Nameste Radha-ji,
    Inner engineering program is something I want to learn in New Delhi(India) region, any info regarding it will be appreciated!
    Keep helping others!God bless!

    Vaibhav

    • Namaste, Vaibhav,

      Thank you very much for your kind message. Please feel free to share the article with your colleagues at university. Take care and keep in touch.

      –Kelly

  3. Your current article always have got alot of really up to date info. Where do you come up with this? Just stating you are very imaginative. Thanks again

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