Principles of Brain-Based Learning

©Eric Jensen

Below, you will find several of the brain-based learning principles of that Eric Jensen views as most important. Another person might come up with a different list and still be correct.

Not everyone agrees on these principles or on the brain-based learning strategies that can be inferred from the principles. However, these are the principles that drive Jensen’s work.

  • Malleable memories
    Memories are often not encoded at all, encoded poorly, changed or not retrieved. The result is that students rarely remember what we think they should. Memories are susceptible to inattention, erosion over time, subject bias, misattribution and a host of other confounding conditions. Memories are strengthened by frequency, intensity and practice under varying conditions and contexts.
  • Non-conscious experience runs automatic behaviors
    The complexity of the human body requires that we automate many behaviors. The more we automate, the less we are aware of them. Most of our behaviors have come from either “undisputed downloads” from our environment or repeated behaviors that have become automatic. This suggests potential problems and opportunities in learning.
  • Reward and addiction dependency
    Humans have a natural craving for positive feelings, including novelty, fun, reward and personal relationships. There is a natural instinct to limit pain even if it means compromising our integrity. For complex learning to occur, students need to defer gratification and develop the capability to go without an immediate reward.
  • Attentional Limitations
    Most people cannot pay attention very long, except during flow states, because they cannot hold much information in their short-term memory. It is difficult for people to maintain focus for extended periods of time. We are born with the capacity to orient and fixate attention when it comes to contrast, movement, emotions or survival. But classroom learning requires a level of learned attention and many teachers don’t know how to teach this skill. Adapting the content to match the learner provides better attention and motivation to learn.
  • Brain seeks and creates understanding
    The human brain is a meaning-maker and meaning seeker. We assign value and meaning to many everyday occurrences whether it’s on intentional or not. Meaning-making is an important human attribute that allows us to predict and cope with experiences. The more important the meaning, the greater the attention one must pay in order to influence the content of the meaning.
  • Rough Drafts/Gist Learning
    Brains rarely get complex learning right the first time. Instead they often sacrifice accuracy for simply developing a “rough draft” of the learning material. If, over time, the learning material maintains or increases in its importance and relevance, the brain will upgrade the rough draft to improve meaning and accuracy. To this end, prior knowledge changes how the brain organizes new information. Goal-driven learning proceeds more rapidly than random learning. Learning is enhanced by brain mechanisms with contrasting output and input goals.
  • Input Limitations
    Several physical structures and processes limit one’s ability to take in continuous new learning. The “slow down” mechanisms include the working memory, the synaptic formation time for complex encoding and the hippocampus. While we can expose our brain to a great deal of information in a short time frame, the quality of that exposure is known as “priming” and is not considered in-depth learning. Schools typically try to cram as much content as possible in a day as possible. You can teach faster, but students will just forget faster.
  • Perception influences our experience
    A person’s experience of life is highly subjective. Many studies show how people are easily influenced to change how we see and what we hear, feel, smell and taste. This subjectivity alters experience, which alters perception. When a person changes the way they perceive the world, they alter their experience. It is experience that drives change in the brain.
  • Malleability/Neural Plasticity
    The brain changes every day and more importantly, we influence those changes. New areas of brain plasticity and overall malleability are regularly discovered. It is known that experience can drive physical changes in the sensory cortex, frontal lobes, temporal lobes, amygdala and hippocampus. In addition whole systems can adapt to experience such as the reward system or stress response system.
  • Emotional-Physical State Dependency
    Nearly every type of learning includes a “go” or “no go” command to the brain in our neural net signaling process. These complex signals are comprised of excite or suppress signals. Emotions can provide the brain’s signals to either move ahead or not. Thus, learning occurs through a complex set of continuous signals which inform your brain about whether to form a memory or not. Both emotional and bodily states influence our attention, memory, learning, meaning and behavior through these signaling systems.

“This is by far the best PD I’ve attended in a long time. All the content is applicable, practical, and doable. I recommend it since Eric Jensen incorporates research from other conferences like ASCD. I would like to attend the summer session on teaching with the brain in mind!”
-Saba Ebrahim

“Amazing workshop!  I loved the intensity, practicality and intuitiveness of the 4-day presentation. Eric isn’t trying to sell a ‘fad’, but has distilled his principles and suggestions from research.”
-Melissa Hoyne