The firing of neurons as they send and receive electrical signals

That Aha! moment

How delicious is it when when you hear ‘I get it now!’

The moment when information and recognition turns into understanding is a palpable release of energy. The big questions are: what’s the brain’s physical change that is happening? Can we measure it? Can we influence it? Neuroscience is the key.

Indeed – neuroscience is providing us with exciting new evidence and insights into the brain – where learning and cognition occurs.  Speculation is that one day learning efficiency could be statistically measured and optimsed.

Brain Structures

To illustration, take the recent news from Connectome Project researchers revealing that human brain has at least 180 different regions, confirming the existence of 83 known regions and adding 97 new ones:

The significance is that this  greater resolution in brain function mapping will be the future research built on this.  Combine this with the other result from the Human Connectome Project – the map of interconnections / relationships between the brain regions.  This ties in with the “left-right brain” myth busting research from Bressler and Menon (2010, pp 270-290) showing cognition as multiple processes in distributed brain systems being combined through interconnected large-scale brain ‘networks’.

Furthermore, a 2014 (Fields et al) paper “Glial Biology in Learning and Cognition” postulates that it may not just be neurons that are responsible for cognition and learning.  In fact the structures that support and feed neurons – glial cells – may also have a significant role in information processing and brain plasticity.

Epigentics and Long-term memory

Similarly, a new field in neurocience – Brain Epigenetics – is blurring the nature versus nurture debate and how the brain changes.  Epigenetics is an elaborate marking of the DNA that controls the genome’s functions, serving as a powerful link between our genes and our experiences (Mansuy and Mohanna, 2011). Why is this important?  These markers drive biological functions and features as diverse as memory, development, and disease susceptibility. Studies are showing that several enzymes (or epigenetic markers) that modify DNA are essential elements of signaling pathways, allowing proper neuronal signaling for learning and memory.  Long-term memory requires that epigenetic processes induce lasting changes in gene expression in brain cells. Mice with dysfunctions in any of the epigenetic components can have impaired long-term memory. Conversely, mice with more components favorable to some epigenetic marks have improved memory and better cognitive performance (Mansuy and Mohanna, 2011).

These sorts of advances are allowing connections between theories of the mind and learning with neuroscience. Kim (2013) connects key brain regions with motivational processes and theory:

Levels of explanation and units of analysis on motivation
Key brain regions related to motivational process

Kim states (2013) one of the most powerful variables influencing motivation is reward. The primary brain regions associated with reward is the dopamine pathway (also commonly known as reward pathway). Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is produced in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), passes through the globus pallidus and released into the nucleus accumbens (NAcc).  Some key conclusions from his research include:

  • Reward is an essential driving force in the learning environment because seeking learning would not occur without reward.
  • To motivate the unmotivated, the learning process should be rewarding and interesting.
  • Rewards do not have to be tangible ones.
  • To maintain motivation, the reward circuits can be activated through stimuli such as a variety of compliments, enjoyable activities, interesting materials, positive feedback, and diverse and novel learning contexts.
  • Since the repetition of the same compliment tends to reduce positive RPE, it is desirable to introduce various reward contingencies in an unexpected way in order to sustain motivation.
  • The value a specific object and action must be high enough to lead to an action selection.


Neuroscience is providing the keys for unlocking our understanding of learning and how to optimise it.  Neuroeducation is establishing itselft a very new academic (Kim, 2013).   Powerful new tools are emerging, providing new abilities to study the living physiology of the brain. It has already started to separate fact from fiction in learning theory.  I’m looking forward to that moment when neuroscience can pinpoint that “Aha!” moment of learning and the change in the brain.  That may be not too far off.


Bressler and Menon, 2010, Large-scale brain networks in cognition: emerging methods and principles, Cell Press, Accessed 23/7/2016 from

Isabelle M. Mansuy, Ph.D. and Safa Mohanna, 2011, Epigenetics and the Human Brain: Where Nurture Meets Nature, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, accessed 23/7/2016 from

Kim, Sung-il, 2013, Neuroscientific Model of Motivational Process, Frontiers in Psychology, Volume 4, Accessed 23/7/2016 from

Below are links to more neuroscience research, presentations:

The firing of neurons as they send and receive electrical signals

   Credit: Georgia Tech – NeuronLab
   Imaging by Michelle Kuykendal and Gareth Guvanasen
   Source: License: CC WA ND

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