Applying Neuroplasticity Principles to Higher Education
(Revised April 19, 2009)
S. Mark Barnes and Janae Adamson
Neuroplasticity The ability of the brain to
reorganize itself and create new circuits in
response to our environment and most
remarkably in response to our thoughts.
Life-long Plasticity In recent decades
scientists have discovered that the brain is
plastic throughout our lives.
New Neuron Growth Recent research has
shown that stem cells in the brain can grow
new neurons at any age.
Focus of Attention The tool which creates change
in the structure and organization of the brain is
mental focus. We select where we focus our
Stimulation Having focused our attention, our
brain can be stimulated in specific areas. Neurons
that fire together wire together, creating and
strengthening circuits in the brain.
Simultaneity When two things happen together,
they become linked in our minds.
For example, reading the word
“airplane” and seeing the image of
Intense Experiences Intense experiences are
required for significant reorganization of the
brain. The intensity of the stimulation will
dictate how neuro development occurs.
Nurturing Stimulation Nurturing levels are
most effective for positive effects.
Examples of Intense Neuroplastic Experiences
◦ Learning a Foreign Language
◦ First Year of Law School
◦ Marine Basic Training
Short-term Neuroplasticity happens rapidly.
◦ Rapid expansion of brain maps.
◦ Memorizing the names of people at a meeting.
◦ Cramming for a test.
Long-term Several months are required for
◦ Effects become permanent.
◦ Brain maps contract in size,
but the neurons involved
become very efficient.
Reorganization of the Brain is facilitated when a
person is constrained from using the strong
circuits in their brain and must resort to using
the weaker circuits.
Brain Injury Victims can often recover significant
abilities by preventing the use of the good arm or
leg and using sustained effort to complete tasks
with the bad limb.
Brail Readers see with their fingers as the
constraint caused sight loss causes the brain to
reassign the visual cortex to sensing brail
through the fingers.
Immersion = Constraint Immersion can
provide the constraint needed for
Foreign Language learners living in a foreign
country are constrained by the inability of
others to understand their native tongue.
Law School Students and Soldiers experience
significant constraint by being immersed in a
particular environment. (First year of law
school and basic training)
Mirror Neurons cause the same parts of an
observer‟s brain to activate when watching
another person engage in an activity.
Watching a person dance activates the areas of
an observer‟s mind used in dancing.
Our Frontal Lobes inhibit our actually engaging in
Imitation by Children is less
restrained, since their frontal lobes
are less developed. This allows
children to learn more through
Visualizing an activity activates the same
areas of the brain that are engaged when
actually doing the activity.
Skills can Improve and strengthen solely
Athletes and Musicians routinely
visualize their activities before
苦労 (kurou) is the Japanese word for struggle.
The two characters are “hardship” and “labor.”
The Japanese are world leaders in
In part, this is because the Japanese
intuitively understand the neuroplastic effect
of 苦労 (kurou).
Students must struggle with an idea in order
to create and strengthen circuits in the brain.
No pain – No neuroplastic gain.
High level thinking requires sophisticated
Students without the proper mental tools
become frustrated, because even their best
efforts cannot compete.
It is like a poor farmer with his ox and plow
trying to compete with a modern tractor.
Neuroplasticity is the Mental Tool Factory.
Students who are missing important tools can
be helped with neuroplastic techniques
designed to build and strengthen critical
Students with strong underlying
fundamental structures can learn
to use neuroplastic principles to
create the mental tools they
need to succeed.
Grade Calculator: Rather than using a calculator
or spreadsheet to make basic point calculations,
a teacher may practice grade calculations in her
mind until she can rapidly and accurately make
the calculations in her mind.
Objections: Because a lawyer must object to a
question immediately in Court, a good litigator
will create a mental tool which will instantly
identify a situation calling for an objection. The
lawyer will be on his feet before he has fully
formed the objection in his mind.
Eric Jensen, in his book entitled Enriching the
Brain, How to Maximize Every Learner‟s
Potential, explains how to use the concept of
Neuroplasticity to more effectively learn new
“Attentional mindset to the task: It is
essential to pay fixed attention. The more the
student‟s mind wanders, the less the rate of
change. Even software programs and
videogame programs require the subject to
stay „locked in‟ to the content and the
process.” (Jensen, 2006, p. 82)
“Low to moderate stress: This variable is
quite slippery because what is stressful for
one may not be stressful for another. The
bottom line is that the subject must perceive
some choice or control over the task and the
surrounding conditions. Otherwise, the stress
from that loss of control may neutralize the
positive effects from the learning.” (Jensen,
2006, p. 82)
Learning happens when we are in our
In the book Talent is Overrated: What Really
Separates World-Class Performers from
Everyone Else, Geoff Colvin divides potential
learning situations into three zones.
1. The Comfort Zone
2. The Learning Zone
3. The Panic Zone
Comfort Zone: In this zone we do things that
we already know how to do. Our brain is
already the master of this zone. There is no
need for change.
Panic Zone: In this zone we know we are far
beyond of abilities. Panic overwhelms any
Learning Zone: In this zone we are pushing
beyond our current abilities. We feel some
stress, but we are not overwhelmed. For
learning this zone is “just right.”
“Coherent, meaningful task: The evidence
suggests that random, useless tasks will
create little or no change in the brain. It only
gets the subjects irritated or bored. They
have to buy into the task.” (Jensen, 2006, p.
“Massed Practice: The ideal is sixty to ninety
minutes a day, three to five times a week.
Very young subjects may be unable to focus
for more than twenty to forty minutes, but
teens or adults are better at focusing for
longer periods. This length of practice is
critical or the brain won‟t change much.”
(Jensen, 2006, pp. 82-83)
“Learner –controlled feedback: Most tasks will
involve learners who will make mistakes. If
the feedback is too general, too fast, or too
irritating, the learner will become distressed
and success will drop. Ideally, subjects should
be able to adjust the level and type of task
feedback, though with great care it can be
designed to be appropriate for each subject.”
(Jensen, 2006, p. 83)
“Repetition of task: The brain will create new
connections when there‟s new learning, but
these connections must be reinforced and
strengthened or they deteriorate. The
repetition should be daily, or at least many
times per week.” (Jensen, 2006. p. 83)
“Overnight rest between new learning
sessions: Although new connections and
corrections are formed during the daytime, it
is the nighttime when the learning is
consolidated, organized, and distributed to
various areas of the brain for long-term
storage. Sleep is a critical ingredient for
transfer from short-term to long-term
memory.” (Jensen, 2006, p. 83)
Brain Rules is an amazing book written by
John Medina is the director of the Brain
Center for Applied Learning Research at
Seattle Pacific University.
The Book‟s website can be found at:
John Medina has also created great video to
accompany the book. It is very entertaining.
Buy this book: If you are interested in brain
based learning ideas, this is the first book I
The following are John Medina‟s Twelve Brain
1. Exercise: Exercise boots brain power.
2. Survival: The human brain evolve, too.
3. Wiring: Every brain is wired differently.
4. Attention: We don‟t pay attention to boring
5. Short-term Memory: Repeat to remember.
6. Long-term Memory: Remember to repeat.
7. Sleep: Sleep well, think well.
8. Stress: Stressed brains don‟t learn the
9. Sensory Integration: Stimulate more of the
10. Vision: Vision trumps all other senses.
11. Gender: Male and female brains are
12. Exploration: We are powerful and natural
Students can create their own learning tools
to create neuroplastic effects.
Some possible suggestions:
Create Flash Cards
Audio Recordings – MP3 Players
Create Self-Restraining Situations
This is a traditional Law School technique.
Students spend hours and hours creating
outlines in which they attempt to place cases and
concepts in a meaningful order, which will help
them succeed on the final exam.
This process forces the student to focus and
create meaning out of the class materials.
This process also forces the student to run the
cases and concepts through her mind over and
This process is the reason that many lawyers can
still discuss many of the cases twenty or thirty
Flash cards are a traditional and effective
method of study.
Much of the benefit comes from the act of
creating the flash cards.
The student focuses on the process and is
forced to boil down information and concepts
to the most important parts.
Flash cards also allow repetition.
The Flash Card Machine:
A student can use an MP3 Player in many
Record and listen to a class multiple times.
Listen to podcasts and audio books on
Create an audio outline and listen to it
If the class involves the learning of a
particular skill, the student can design ways
in which to deliberately practice the skill.
Divide the skill into its important parts and
focus on specific parts.
Example: Tiger Woods practicing hitting balls
out of sand traps hundreds or times in a
Example: A finance student calculating a
particular ratio for several different
companies by using the companies 10-Ks.
When we visualize we engage the parts of our
brains used in the actual activity.
Before throwing a bowling ball, visualize your
movements, release and the path of the ball.
Before giving a class presentation, visualize
giving the presentation several times.
Analyze how you did in your mind.
Try out different approaches.
Correct mistakes before you actually give the
Force yourself to do things the hard way.
You cannot learn a language if you have a
My daughter calls me and speaks in Japanese.
She is restraining herself to create
A finance student calculates financial ratios
by hand, rather than using software. He
learns the meaning of the ratio at a deeper
Discussing a topic forces concentration,
organization, provides immediate feedback
and provides repetition.
We have all had intense discussions that we
remember for years.
Look for chances to discuss ideas with others.
If you do not have someone close who can
discuss the topic, look for online discussions.
As with creating Flash Cards or Outlines,
creating a PowerPoint presentation (like this
one) can help the student create the
opportunity for a neuroplastic response.
Is it nature or nurture?
Answer: In large part it is neuroplasticity.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell looks at
why some people achieve such great success.
Success comes from 1) Hard Work, and
Extremely successful people became successful
after running into very specific opportunities for
which they were uniquely prepared.
Bill Gates was one of the few people in the world
who had virtually unlimited access to a computer
for years before the PC revolution.
To be world-class at nearly anything requires
10,000 hours of intense work in an area.
This applies to musicians, athletes, scholars
or anyone who performs at a very high level.
Long-term neuroplastic effects require
intense hard work and repetition sustained
over a long period of time.
If you want to be a very successful business
person, pick you area of expertise and begin
working on your 10,000 hours, now!
Begley, Sharon (2007). Train Your Mind,
Change Your Brain: How a New Science
Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to
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Blakemore, Sarah-Jayne and Firth, Uta (2005).
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Blakeslee, Sandra (2007). The Body Has a
Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your
Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything
Better. New York, NY: Random House.
Colvin, Geoffrey (2008). Talent Is Overrated:
What Really Separates World-Class
Performers from Everybody Else. New York,
NY: Penguin Group.
Doidge, Norman (2007). The Brain That
Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph
from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York,
NY: Penguin Group.
Gladwell, Malcolm (2008). Outliers: The Story
of Success. New York, NY: Little, Brown and
Halpern, Sue (2008). Can't Remember What I
Forgot: The Good News from the Front Lines
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Heath, John F. (2006). When Bright Kids Can't
Learn, How New Brain Research Can Help
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Jensen, Eric (2006). Enriching the Brain, San
Medina, John (2008). Brain Rules: 12
Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work,
Home and School. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.
Santa Fe Productions (2007). The Brain
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