Short-term memory includes both immediate and working memory, each with very restrictive time and capacity limits (Sousa, 2008). The hippocampus uses “sensory input from the thalamus, movement coordination in the basal ganglion and emotions in the hypothalamus to form short-term memory. Communication between hippocampus and the brain area that handles sensory information fortifies our memories” (Hannaford, 1995, p.60).
During a lesson, we tend to remember best which comes first and second best that which comes last (Sousa, 2008). This is known as the serial position effect. The reason this happens is that the information in the first few minutes is within the working memory’s capacity limits, but later during the lesson, our capacity limits have been exceeded. The following diagram by Sousa, 2006, illustrates what this might look like in a 40 minute lesson. The retention time periods are labeled as prime-time-1 and prime-time-2.
0 10 20 30 40
The degree of retention during a learning episode (Sousa 2008, p. 61)
There are two kinds of long-term memories, declarative and non-declarative (Sousa, 2008), which are stored in different parts of our brains.
Declarative memories include episodic and semantic memories. Episodic memories are when we can remember vividly where we were and what we were doing when an event occurred, like the fall of the Berlin Wall. Semantic memories, on the other hand, are how we remember the meanings of words and other factual and general information of our environment. These memories are stored in the hippocampal region, entorhinal cortex, perirhinal cortex, and parahippocampal cortex (Ullman, 2005).
Non-declarative memories are those that are more emotional, automatic, and procedural. The ability to ride a bike is considered a procedural memory. We would have a hard time explaining exactly how to do it, our bodies just know. These skills are shifted from a reflective to a reflexive thought process after they are mastered (Sousa, 2008).
The parts of the brain that are dedicated to non-declarative memories are the frontal and basal-ganglia circuits; the parietal cortex for working memory tasks and knowledge of motor skills; the cerebellum where memory of balance, skilled movement and motor sequencing is stored; and the Broca’s area which stores the process of non-motor sequences like music, timing, and rhythm (Ullman, 2005).
When examining the idea of neuroplasticity and how the brain can change, we saw that repetition, or rehearsal, is an important element of that change. This is especially true for moving information from our short-term to long-term memory. There is a definite chemical reaction in the brain when information goes from short to long-term memory. A protein, kinase A, “moves from the body of the neuron into its nucleus, where genes are stored. The protein turns on a gene to make a protein that alters the structure of the nerve ending, so that it grows new connections between the neurons” (Doidge, 2007, p. 220). What this means is that when we learn, we are actually changing which genes are turned on.
Sousa describes different types of rehearsal: intial and secondary, which involve when the rehearsal takes place; and rote and elaborative, which is the type of rehearsing being done.
Initial rehearsal occurs immediately when the student is presented with the information and tries to attach meaning to it. If he is unsuccessful at this moment, then the new information will most likely not be retained.
Secondary rehearsal allows students to spend more time to make sense of the material and connect the ideas to previous knowledge, which increases the chance of retention (Sousa, 2008).
When you practice something, it gets easier for the signals to cross the synapse. That’s because the contact area becomes wider and more neuro- transmitters are stored there.
Rote rehearsal is used when trying to memorize, for instance the multiplication tables or other math facts, but elaborative rehearsal is used to associate and connect the new information to prior knowledge and looking for relationships and patterns.
This if from my book, Movement Makes Math Meaningful: Away from the Desk Math Lessons Aligned with the Common core
“Learning is easier to store, remember, and retrieve if it has an emotional base,” (Oberparleiter, 2004, in Lengel, & Kuczala, 2010, p. 19 ). Students who feel safe and respected are more highly motivated to learn and are more likely to be intrinsic learning. The limbic system, which is involved in our emotions and hormone control, is comprised of several parts of the brain, including the amygdala and hippocampus, which play an important role in memory.
The limbic system is stimulated by the Reticulating Activating System (RAS), which is then connected to the pre-frontal cortex by dopamine (Blomberg & Dempsey, 2011). The thalamus is also a structure of the limbic system, which is involved in sensory perception and regulation of movement. Negative emotions not only switches off learning, but can cause the release of neurotransmitters that can weaken the immune system, therefore having physiological affects. Therefore, there is a strong connection between our emotions, memory, and movement.
The patterns formed in the child’s “brain will take in everything he experiences while doing exercises - physical or cognitive - including patterns of not being able to perform that movement or skill or not being able to do it well” (Baniel, 2012 p. 52). What this means to teachers, is that as students are focusing on trying to learn a skill, if there is negative emotion, stress, and frustration attached to that learning experience, it will be wired together with that skill he is trying to learn.
-This comes from my book: Movement Makes Math Meaningful: Away fro the Desk Math Lessons Aligned with the Common core
The brain is not designed for continuous learning, but needs some down time to process and “digest” what it is trying to learn. Throughout the day, our brain has natural lows and highs. Each cycle lasts approximately 90-110 minutes, and constant focused attention can only last approximately 10 minutes (The Brain-Movement Connection, n.d.). Therefore, in the classroom, teachers need to present essential material in short segments and then allow time for processing, whether individually or in small groups. Fatigue is a sure way to turn off the child’s learning switch. Frequent mental breaks are critical for increased learning and productivity.
One way to appropriately attend is to go slow, whether it is a movement or thinking about a new math concept. Fast, we can only do what we already know, and movement done automatically creates little or no new connections in the brain. In fact, when we do things quickly, the brain defaults to “already existing and deeply grooved patterns” (Baniel, 2012).
When we do things fast, or with automaticity, it is the brainstem at work. However, when we do things with attention, connections in the brain are being made. Have you ever driven home and not remembered how you got there? That was your brainstem at work. When trying to learn a new skill, it is important to hold off on going fast until the brain has formed the necessary connections and patterns for performing the new skill (Baniel, 2012).
Baniel (2002) explains that when one goes slow, it allows the brain a chance to feel. Einstein came up with his theory of relativity by imagining himself riding a ray of light, feeling the sensations of movement and the relationships of his body to the space around him. Many children do not know how to go slow and attend and notice the nuances in what they are doing. It is up to us at teachers to encourage and coach students to slow down and to notice relationships and patterns to help develop a deeper conceptual understanding.
--This is from my book: Movement Makes Math Meaningful: Away from the Desk Math Lessons Aligned with the Common Core
Before appropriate connections have been made in the brain between the senses and structures in the brain, it is difficult for the child to make sense of the word and is very difficult for him to pay attention (Gold, 2008).
Merzenich discovered that paying close attention is essential to long-term plastic changes in the brain and that neural connections can be altered only if there is full attention to what we do. He noticed that when we try to learn while having a divided attention, the brain maps created are not substantial (Doidge, 2007).
This means that even though right now you might not have great ability to attend or focus, but if you want to and you try, then you are putting in the effort that will allow for neurons to grow. If this act of trying is repeated on a consistent basis, like every day, then those nerve connections get stronger and the ability to focus and attend will improve. All of a sudden you will notice that it is not as difficult to pay attention as it once was.
This idea of attention being a necessary agent of change is now being used with many practitioners, such as Anat Baniel. Anat works with children with both physical challenges, such as Cerebral Palsy, and learning challenges, such as Autism. For both of these types of challenges, she states that the number one essential, of the nine that she has coined, that makes the most significant changes is “movement with attention.” She states that “the child’s ability to notice differences in what she sees, hears, tastes, smells, and feels in her moving body is at the heart of the brain’s capacity for creating new neuroconnections and pathways” (p. 30). Therefore, if we want to create changes in our brain maps either on a physical or academic level, significant attention to what we are learning is necessary (Baniel, 2012).
In preschool it is expected that children are only able to pay attention for just a few minutes, however as the child grows, so do the expectations. When children grow in age but their brains are not developing accordingly, they then begin to differentiate from their peers in their ability to attend to the lessons.
--This is from my book: Movement Makes Math Meaningful: Away From The Desk math Lessons Aligned with the Common Core
By the 2nd or 3rd grade, the focus of school primarily becomes that of learning information. To be able to do this effectively, the child must have effectively developed his nervous system and have a brain where both halves are working together efficiently. When the brain is unintegrated, the child is unable to cross his eyes or limbs over the midline, an invisible line down the middle of the body. This negatively affects reading and writing. Likewise, the vestibular system, which is connected to the visual and auditory systems and coordinates visual and auditory perception and processing, must be appropriately developed.
Appropriate integration of the two hemispheres is necessary for everyday school tasks such as reading, writing, mathematics, and general processing and comprehension. Stress can block off access to part of the brain, such as the weaker hemisphere or frontal lobe. This is why it is important to create a low-stress environment for learning.
Those who struggle with directionality, for example, have issues that root in their vestibular system, a balance mechanism that lies in the middle ear, and can be helped with daily movement activities in the classroom (Goddard Blythe, 2009).
In addition to academic difficulties, emotional immaturity is often accompanied by immaturity in the functioning of the nervous system. Examples are poor impulse control and difficulty in reading the body language of others (J). Therefore, it is imperative that the early years, including pre-school through first grade, focus on proving children with rich movement activities that develop a well-developed and integrated brain.
---This is from my book: Movement Makes Math Meaningful: Away from the Desk Math Lessons Aligned with the Common Core
Neurological development, which partially takes place during the crawling (on belly) and creeping (hands and knees) process, determines the ability to read and write (Gold, 2008). Carl Delacado was a lead researcher who traveled around the world and found that societies that did not have a written language of its own were the same ones who did not permit their children to crawl or creep on the floor for whatever reason, such as in locations where crawling would be dangerous to the child.
It is important that a child have a solid 6 months of crawling experience in order to connect the two hemispheres needed for reading and writing. Has your child passed the crawling stage without sufficient crawling time, that's ok, you can still incorporate crawling into playful activities, like animals in the wild. Even older children who struggle benefit greatly by going back and crawling 10 minutes a day for 30 days.
Learning happens when connections are made between nerve cells. When the body is inactive for 20 minutes or longer, there is a decline in neural communication (Kinoshita, 1997). This is why spending hours sitting in front of the television or playing video games is so harmful, especially for children with growing brains. In the classroom, this means that lessons that require students to sit and attend for long periods of time can be counterproductive.
Research has shown that two areas of the brain that were associated solely with control of muscle movement, the basal ganglia and the cerebellum, are also important in coordinating thought. All learning, including that requiring abstract thought, occurs through movement, since abstract thought involves the internal repositioning of ideas. “Movement is the primary way that we integrate our learning into expressive action,” (Dennison, 2006, p. 181).
Moving our muscles produces proteins, like IGF-1 and VEGF, which travel to the brain through the bloodstream and affects the pre-frontal cortex allowing children, for example, to have the ability to stop and consider a response before making a decision. Exercise also balances neurotransmitters, and research has shown that simply jogging thirty minutes two –three times a week improves executive function (Ratey, 2008). In addition, learning complex movement sequence stimulates the pre-frontal cortex and improves learning and problem solving.
Dr. Harold Blomberg, a Swedish psychiatrist, explains:
“The frontal lobes of the cortex receive important stimulation from the cerebellum with connections going to both the prefrontal cortex and the Broca speech area in the left hemisphere. In cases of dysfunctions of the cerebellum, these areas may not develop properly causing problems with speech development or difficulties with attention and the ability to make judgments, control impulses, motivation, and making sustained effort. The basal ganglia also have important nerve pathways to the prefrontal cortex. Therefore, when these two areas are not well linked we know that there are …motor problems that will then be part of the basis for problems with attention and impulse control” (108). “If the nerve nets between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic [emotional] system are not sufficiently developed, or if the prefrontal cortex is not sufficiently stimulated from the cerebellum or the basal ganglia, we run a greater risk of switching off the prefrontal cortex and becoming overwhelmed by our emotions, causing fits of anger or anxiety (p. 111).”
For a nerve cell to grow, it receives stimulation from the senses and begins to myelinate, or to create a fatty coating, to make transmissions quicker. Movement causes the continued myelinization, growth of dendrites and axon terminals. When we move, chemicals are produced in the muscle, which results in new dendrites being sprouted. Therefore, repeated movements help to strengthen the neural pathways that run between the brain and the body (Goddard Blythe, 2007).
Stephen Lisberger at UC Berkeley found that to get a cell to fire in the cerebellum, the head must move at the same time as the target. For example, when a baby is creeping on hands and knees, the head continues to move looking at the hand that is placed forward, which is the target. “It is during this creeping time that the cerebellum becomes myelinated,” (Gold, 2008, p. 142). In addition, when babies start to do repetitive rhythmic movements, there is rapid development due to the stimulation of the cerebellum. Children who are unable to rhythmically rock, like sliding up and down on his back with knees bent, may have a dysfunction of the cerebellum, (Blomberg & Dempsey, 2011).
Movement does not necessarily mean that children have to be doing cartwheels during class, it may simply take form of talking, writing, knitting, or chewing, since different muscles of our bodies are being activated. Every movement of the legs, arms, eyes, etc., result in some sensation going to the brain (Kokot, 2010). It “feeds information to the brain, helping to develop a sense of body map, of spatial awareness and body schema in relation to the self and to the environment.” (Goddard, 2005, p. 47).
From my book: Movement Makes Math Meaningful: Away from the Desk Math Lessons Aligned with the Common Core.
In the last couple of decades, mostly from the work of Michael Merzenich, neuroresearchers have begun to understand that the brain is not rigid, rather is plastic and capable of change until the day we die. In fact, back in 1949, Donald Hebb was the first to propose that learning linked neurons. He suggested that “when two neurons fire at the same time repeatedly, chemical changes occur in both, so that the two tend to connect more strongly,” (Doidge, 2007, p. 63). Michael Merzenich, one of this country’s most renoun neuroscientist today, expanded on this by saying that strong connections are made when they are activated at the same time.
He explains that when “we perform an activity that requires specific neurons to fire together, they release BDNF” (p. 80), (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) a growth factor which helps neurons to wire together so they fire together in the future. BDNF also helps with the mylenization of the neurons to speed up the impulses (Doidge, 2007).
The brain does not like change. Therefore, in order for changes to take place in the structure of the brain, we need to have access through all the senses, including the proprioceptive receptors of the muscles. In addition, the brain needs to be engaged, there needs to be repetition, or rehearsal of activity, and feedback to the brain is necessary. It is said that it takes exactly 3 weeks, 21 days, for connections to be made in the brain (Gold, 2008), so consistent repetition is necessary until the appropriate connections are made.
Cognitive and motor exercises are both extremely useful in changing the brain’s structure and thus improving learning, however younger children will make much faster progress than adolescents or adults because “the number of connections among neurons, or synapses, is 50 percent greater than in the adult brain” (Doidge, 2007, p. 42). The younger the child, the quicker the response and the better chance for a more complete recovery.
--From my book: Movement Makes math Meaningful: Away from the Desk Math Lessons Aligned with the Common Core.
Shown below is Dr. Doidge's book, The Brain that Changes Itself, which is considered a fundamental book explaining and demonstrating neuroplasticity of the brain.
The functions of the body and brain cannot be separated (Kokot, 2010). “When we are born, all parts of the brain have been established, however are not yet working well together. In order for all parts to function, they must be linked together” (Blomberg & Dempsey, 2011 p. 17). Our entire brain structure is connected to and grown by the movement mechanisms within our bodies (Dennison, 2006).
Paul MacLean describes the brain as being in layers like an onion. The most inner part of the brain is the brain stem, commonly known as the “fish brain.” The function of this part of the brain is to receive signals from our senses and to relay them to the motor organs. All of our automatic functions are controlled by the brain stem.
The basal Ganglia, part of the brainstem, is “responsible for the organization of involuntary and semi-voluntary activity, upon which consciously willed movements are superimposed” (Goddard, 2005, p. 44). It “connects and orchestrates impulses between the cerebellum and frontal lobe, thus helping to control body movement” (Hannaford, 1995, p. 60).
The brain stem also has a net of nerve cells called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The job of the RAS is to receive impulses from all our senses, except for the sense of smell, and then to transmit them to the cortex, which improves attention and alertness. If the cortex is insufficiently stimulated by the RAS, then the child will be passive and will be unable to pay attention.
Another job of the brain stem is to regulate muscle tone after receiving sufficient stimulation from the vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile senses (Blomberg & Dempsey, 2011).
The cerebellum, which contains ½ of the brain’s neurons, receives signals from receptors for the kinesthetic and tactile senses that transmit information regarding touch and pressure (Blomberg & Dempsey, 2011). It is involved in various aspects of planning and monitoring movements and regulates muscle tone, including saccadic eye movements. Its job is to make our movements coordinated and smooth. Apart from motor control, it also is involved in attention, long-term memory, spatial perception, impulse control, abstract thinking and other cognitive functions (Lengel & Kuczala, 2010), therefore, movement has a direct affect on the latter, including eye movements, reading comprehension, speed of information processing, working memory, learning and speech development.
Impulses to the brain via the different senses and the cerebellum activate the RAS and are then finally sent to and processed by the higher areas of the brain in the cortex. In order for the cortex to process, absorb, and comprehend material, the brain stem must be able to perform its own tasks, such as move the eyes from left to right across a page, adjust visual focus between the desk and board, sound out letters to form words.
The The pre-frontal cortex is located on the frontal lobes of the brain. Elkhonen Goldberg refers to it as the “executive brain” which “gives us our interpersonal abilities and plain old common sense; for example, the ability to ‘read’ situations, discern the meanings of facial expressions, and anticipate the consequences of various actions,” (Dennison, 2006, p. 57).
The Pre-frontal cortex is the decision making part of our brain and is involved in making plans, judgments, motivation, and impulse control. It “enables our conceptual and abstract thinking and our ability to reason and change our conscious concepts and ideas” (Blomberg & Dempsey p. 107), and is the part of the brain that is last to develop. It is also the part that is the most susceptible to damage in adolescents who engage in smoking marijuana. Like other parts of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex develops via our movement and sensory skills. It is also closely connected to the cerebellum and to the limbic system, which controls our emotions.
From my book: Movement Makes Math Meaningfuil: Away from the Desk Math Lessons Aligned with the Common core.
Lisa Ann de Garcia, MA, MEd.