Lack of sleep, junk food, sedentary lifestyles, drugs, alcohol, stress, trauma and the ‘I’m alright’ brain
This article explores the reasons why ‘The Mind’ is one of nine life-based learning themes in the proposed MAC life-based learning framework.
The importance of the brain
The brain controls what you think and feel, how you learn and remember, and the way you move and talk. But it also controls things you’re less aware of — like the beating of your heart and the digestion of your food.Teens Health: Brain and nervous system
The importance of the brain to learning is of particular relevance to schools:
[Learning] goes far beyond memorizing multiplication tables. Any lasting change of mood, outlook, or behaviour requires learning. From childhood onward, we learn good habits, character strengths, and skilful ways to interact with others. Healing, recovery, and development are forms of learning as well. About a third of our attributes are innate in our DNA, while the other two-thirds are acquired through learning. This is very good news, since it means we have great influence over who we become, who we learn to be.Rick Hanson, PhD: The importance of learning
There are very many negative influences on people’s brains and brain development, preventing the full potential of the brain being realised. And yet it is more important than ever we have fully alert and well-developed brains to make the most of our lives as individuals, make the most of our interactions with others and make the most of working together to create a sustainably environment in which all mankind is able to prosper.
The tragedy is that the science to achieve fully alert and well-developed brains is out there. It is simply not applied.
Negative influences on people’s brains and brain development:
Lack of sleep
Researchers have long known that lack of sleep can be bad for your health, affecting everything from immune function to cognitive acuity. Now, new research suggests that long periods of wakefulness can actually result in long-term damage to the brain.Thought Co: Can lack of sleep really damage your brain?
Unhealthy diets containing junk food have been shown to affect the brain and lead to poor mental health…. Specific findings concluded that a part in the brain – the hippocampus – has been shown to be smaller in those who consume junk food. The hippocampus is responsible for learning, memory and mental healthBel Marra Health: Junk food affects the brain’s mental health by shrinking the hippocampus
Staying sedentary for extended time periods decreases blood flow to the brain.
Our blood contains the oxygen and nutrients that are needed for healthy brain function. Decreased blood flow means the brain doesn’t get the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function properly
When oxygen can’t make its way to the brain, cognition skills become poor, and thinking clearly becomes difficult. Memory can also be affected negatively if the brain doesn’t receive the proper amount of oxygenTreehugger: A sedentary lifestyle could be bad for your brain
The hippocampus is part of your brain’s limbic system, and plays an important role in long-term memory and memory formulation. High levels of alcohol consumption can inhibit the neuronal activity in your hippocampus, which can severely impair your brain’s ability to form new memories.Noocube: The long-term effects of alcohol on your brain
Drugs affect all parts of the brain — the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala (triggered by withdrawals), the limbic system, and more. They drastically affect our neurotransmitters, causing irregular messages to be sent throughout our nervous system. This affects how we walk, talk, and remember things, as well as our ability to develop and learn.Foundations Wellness Center: How drugs affect the brain
Smoking can have many effects on your brain. Apart from addiction to nicotine, smoking can also increase your risk for brain diseases, including dementia, stroke, and loss of brain volume.Healthline: What you need to know about smoking and the brain
Numerous studies have reported that human cognitive processes are affected by emotions, including attention learning and memory, reasoning and problem-solving These factors are critical in educational domains because when students face such difficulties, it defeats the purpose of schooling and can potentially render it meaningless.Frontiers in Psychology: The influences of emotion on learning and memory
Stress and anxiety
Stress can kill brain cells and even reduce the size of the brain. Chronic stress has a shrinking effect on the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learningTouro University Worldwide: The mind and mental health: How stress affects the brain
The damage to the hippocampus impairs the patient’s ability to form new memories, thus affecting her ability to learn. Verbal learning can be affected, in which the patient has difficulty retaining information gathered from verbal sources, compared to visual. Another factor that affects learning after trauma is attention. Trauma can affect sustained and focused attention …. The combination of the emotional problems from the trauma and the physiological damage can impair the child’s performance in school, especially if she is not receiving psychological counselling.Bright Hub Education: Effects of emotional trauma on the brain and learning
From birth to age 5, a child’s brain develops more than at any other time in life. And early brain development has a lasting impact on a child’s ability to learn and succeed in school and life. The quality of a child’s experiences in the first few years of life – positive or negative – helps shape how their brain develops.
Poverty, exposure to family violence and lack of access to quality early learning experiences can negatively impact a child’s early brain development, and subsequently, their long-term success.First Things First: Brain development
Delay in thinking and understanding
When a child is diagnosed with cognitive delay, it means he lags in that area of development as compared to his peers. A child with a cognitive delay may probably not have problems with his five senses, however, the way he understands information received by his senses is different from that of a normally developing peersParent Circle: Cognitive delay: Learning, understanding, thinking
The ‘I’m alright’ brain
If all of the above were not problem enough, it seems that the human species is not wired to use its brain outside its comfort zone:
The lazy brain is the brain that keeps us alive, mostly. It’s the brain that turns your head in the direction of a sound, alerts you of strange smells, so it’s good in that sense. But it’s terrible at making complex, judgement calls, analysing data, making accurate inferences, or generally anything requiring effort.Francis Piche: Our lazy brain and how to train it
Not all of the above apply equally to the vast majority of children between the ages of 5 and 11: alcohol, drug abuse and smoking, for example, are obviously associated more with adulthood. However, there are massive implications for many of the negative factors impacting on the brain and brain development, especially for schools with a high intake of socially deprived children and children with special needs.
The answer is twofold:
- Look after the brain so it remains fit and healthy throughout life
- Learn to learn the way the brain works
Looking after the brain
There is plenty of information readily available on the internet on looking after the brain.
Ten ways to look after your brain is an example of looking after your brain from an adult perspective, but it applies equally well to children.
Everyone knows the benefits of taking care of our bodies, but looking after your brain and mental wellbeing is just as important. Here are 8 ways to keep your brain in tip-top condition.
Learning to learn the way the brain works
Learning to learn the way the brain works combines understanding of how the brain works (executive functioning) and the application of that understanding to teaching and learning. It involves the ability of the child to reflect on their learning processes (meta-cognition) and of the teacher to apply techniques popularly referred to as brain-based learning.
The possibilities are there for children to not only learn the way the brain works but to improve the brain’s ability to learn. This has profound implications not just for learning but for the future of society and humankind.
There is a huge amount of online information on brain-based learning, executive functioning and meta-cognition. You can find examples on our website here.
The brain does not feature in the National Curriculum in England for 5- to 11-year-olds.
Given the importance of the brain, we might reasonably that children would learn some basic facts about the brain. Not so. The organs and systems studied in the National Curriculum in England are the skeletal system, the heart and circulatory system and the digestive system. The brain and nervous system are not included.
There is nothing about the importance of looking after the brain and the lifestyle required to keep the brain fit and healthy. Nor is there any evidence of support and guidance for teachers and pupils on how best to harness the power of the brain as a learning tool.
The declared role of the UK government is to tell teachers ‘what to teach’ and not ‘how to teach’. However, school inspection includes observing good practice — that is, how teachers are teaching — and yet each school is left to its own devices in its development of what they regard as good practice.
There is no recognised national body researching the ‘how’ of teaching and providing advice and support to teachers on the best ways of promoting children’s learning. The outcome is lack of research into teaching and learning. Left to schools, the application of existing research is applied in disparate, disconnected and piecemeal fashion.
Children are the losers.
The solution is to raise the profile of mind education in primary schools for children aged 5 to 11.