Success at school is determined, to a large extent, by connection levels.

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What would school be like for your children if they did not have the following?

  • Connection with teachers
  • Connection with other students

It is terrible to contemplate, isn’t it? It would be plain horrible.

Most people who don’t think connection at school is important, appear to be people who have a particular purpose in mind for school. For example, they might say, “Children go to school to learn, not play”. Older wiser people dispense the knowledge. Kids learn it. Logically, parents then ask their children at the end of the day; “What did you learn today?” or “What do you know?”

There are other purposes for going to school that we need to be aware of that may be of equal or higher priority than simply acquiring knowledge. We should ask, “Who did you talk to?” or “Who did you share with?”

Here is my point. No matter your educational goal, all the goals are determined by Heart level functioning.  We won’t even get close to attaining our learning goals if our Heart isn’t functioning well. We learn when we are connected. We are unable to learn if we are disconnected. It is the way our brains work.

I’ll break down this goal neurospychologically. When we learn, there are among many other areas, two  that need to function in concert with each other: One needs to be active, but in order for it to be active the other needs to be quiet.

One of the areas that needs to be active is a thing is called your hippocampus. It is a sub-cortical structure in the newer areas of your brain (newer from an evolutionary perspective) called the forebrain. It is shaped like a seahorse, in fact the structure was given the name hippocampus because it resembles the shape of that creature. The hippocampus is the ‘central railway station’ for what you learn. Together with your frontal lobes it orchestrates the acquisition, storage, organisation and retrieval of knowledge.

 

The hippocampus is a part of the limbic system. The limbic system is a collection of structures that are associated with mood. One of the structures very close to it is called your amygdala.

Your amygdala is the central railway station for your mood. In the image above it is the purple bulb next to the hippocampus. Fear, anger, sadness, you name it, this structure is lit up when we are upset. It is shaped like an almond. Because of its uncanny resemblance to that nut, it was named after it. It too is involved in the learning process in a more simple way. Its involvement is the provision of emotional tones of what is learned and what is retrieved. The amygdala gives information its emotional significance. Having nuanced emotions during learning, particularly if a student finds the information personally significant, makes learning easier. By and large though, this structure plays only a very small role in the formation of declarative memory (the sort of memory system that houses events or information).

The rub is, when the amygdala goes nuts (sorry I couldn’t help myself), the hippocampus shuts off. We literally get hijacked and stop thinking. We become emotionally dysregulated and rendered unable to think. If emotion becomes strong and crude, in the form of anxiety and stress, we won’t learn. We can’t learn, and it isn’t just a functional thing, such as during a stressful episode. Chronic stress actually causes cell death in the hippocampus because the stress hormones deplete glucose causing starvation of the nerves. But it gets worse, it is not just that the cells die, but the stress inhibits neurogenesis or nerve birth! It gets worse still because a researcher by the name of Ajai Vyas (1) and others have discovered that under the same stressful conditions your amydala is growing new cells, which means that you’re getting better at being stressed and anxious.

So in order for the hippocampus to acquire, store, organise and retrieve information, we have to settle our amygdala, and the only way to have it shut off is to be calm because we realise we’re safe. We’re not under threat from a teacher, nor are we from other kids. We have connection. Life is under control. We can speak, we can be creative and curious because we are safe and because we are safe our amygdala is quiet. Declarative learning depends on safety and connection. It is the antecedent condition without which learning will not occur.

This is the good news, it is all a reversible process in a normal healthy brain. When we feel supported and safe, the amygdala will settle and we will begin to think and remember again. Our hippocampus will bounce back when the stress stops.

When my eldest child was half way through year 7, I asked her, “So, you’re already half way through your first year of high school, what do you think?”

She replied “I love school”. I nearly fell off my chair.

“You love it?” I checked.

“Yep” the 13 year old replied.

“Why?” I asked.

“Sally, Emma, Grace,” she replied, naming all her close friends. “Oh,” she continued before I could interrupt “….. and Miss Taylor”. Miss Taylor is her form teacher who takes care of her whole class.

“Miss Taylor! Why Miss Taylor?”

“She is so sarcastic,” replied the 13 year old.

“Sarcastic! What do the kids do when she is sarcastic?” I asked.

“Oh they all laugh” she replied.

“And when the kids all laugh, what does the teacher do?”

“Oh, she laughs too,” she smiled.

Our brains may be embodied but our Hearts and Minds are socially embedded. It is all about connection. It isn’t the end point of learning, but it is the foundation for it. Without it, your amygdala will hijack your hippocampus and all learning will cease.

Dr Jonathan Andrews MAPS
Clinical Psychologist
Brisbane, Australia

1. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Sumantra_Chattarji/publication/11230444_Chronic_Stress_Induces_Contrasting_Patterns_of_Dendritic_Remodeling_in_Hippocampal_and_Amygdaloid_Neurons/links/0c96052e1303b70281000000.pdf

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