Enthusiasm: Turbo-charged learning for the brain
Learning with relish and enthusiasm – parents remember how it was when their children were between two and four years old. No stone was too boring, no ant too small to be the subject of hours of intense scrutiny. The little ones tried and tried again until the building block tower was built, or the tricycle finally moved in the right direction.
Parents of schoolchildren rightly wonder where this curiosity and the joy of discovery got left behind. Many parents know about unwillingness to go to school, or tears over homework. Yet again and again, they also go through phases in which their children take an immediate interest in a new topic, go into something intensively, suddenly start asking questions or even read up about it themselves. Thus, it does not seem to depend on the child. That can be exciting in many respects – even if the interest is not always in subjects that the parents might consider important.
But how can this happen? Is the school ‘guilty’ because classroom material is unsuitable or too difficult? Does the problem lie in the way the lesson is designed?
How learning ‘works’ neurobiologically
There is no right answer to this question. Various factors have a role to play in learning. From a neuroscientific point of view, learning is nothing more than the creation and strengthening of connections between nerve cells, known as synapses. Neurons use these synapses to collect information, process it and pass on the result. Our brain, and therefore the way we think, feel and act, works best when the ‘right’ connections are strong and well-developed. But what are the ‘right’ connections and how can we encourage their growth more effectively?
The right connections are those that allow us to exhibit the desired and goal-oriented behaviour. Every individual has his or her own needs, from which goals emerge. One of these goals is that our brain strives towards growth and awareness – preferably in those areas where it is especially capable; in other words, where it has talent. At the same time, children, in particular, always wish to be able to cope well socially and adapt to external requirements accordingly.
Until around 40,000 years ago, people lived as hunter-gatherers in small groups. The environment determined what was important and what skills people needed. Children learned by observing and, later, by joining in. In these small groups, each member did not need to know or be able to do the same things. Instead, it was more important for each person to take on the tasks they were best equipped to handle, in order to develop their particular strengths. This meant there were many different skills in the group that helped to ensure survival. The individuals living in such strong groups ideally passed on their genetic material. As a result, various successful learning mechanisms have been inherited to this day.
What is important to our brains first and foremost – and therefore worth learning – is what often occurs in the environment. Our nervous system naturally extracts the rules and patterns that underpin the recurring events in the environment.1 This can be understood via the example of language acquisition.
A toddler’s nervous system derives the structure of single words and the complex rules of grammar from innumerable spoken sentences, entirely without instruction.
Of course, this learning process only works if the child is attentive and applies this attention to the spoken word. This happens especially when things are of interest to the child – as in language acquisition. Because hardly anything is as relevant to people as communication with other people. This means that if students are enthusiastic about a topic, the learning process is as simple and natural, as effortless and easy as learning their own native language. That is why we want our children to be truly enthusiastic about learning, because this makes them happy and, at the same time helps them learn more easily, and better.
If you are enthusiastic about a subject, you learn more easily. But for this to happen at all, you must be interested in this subject. Our brain uses various criteria to decide if something is interesting.1
Enthusiasm is infectious
When you are still very young and have no prior knowledge, everything is interesting to start with – the more noticeable, louder and more colourful, the more it attracts attention. The older you get, the more you already know. Consequently, on the one hand, it is only the new and unknown that is of interest.
On the other hand, it can be observed that teachers who are enthusiastic about their subject matter can really captivate their students. Science refers to this as ‘emotional contagion’. It makes a great deal of sense to orient yourself towards people who have a head start in knowledge. If these people consider something interesting, then it probably is. Enthusiasm is not always a simple matter. It manifests itself in many ways: in the emotional expression of the face, in the posture, in expansive movements in the gestures, but also simply by means of pacing through the room, the choice of words, and the intonation in speech.
Specific areas of the brain respond to these factors.2,3 Only when all or at least most of these brain areas are activated by the teacher’s enthusiasm does it appear authentic and jump – in an almost literal sense – into our nervous system. Certain nerve cells in the brain area that is responsible for our bodily perception, together with others, known as mirror neurons, transmit the signs of excitement perceived in others to our own body, our facial expressions, muscle tension, etc. This change in ourselves leads to a change in our emotional state. But take care: boredom, indifference, irritability, fear or rejection are transmitted just as easily.
It’s better to learn in a good mood
The positive emotions conveyed by a role model and triggered by an interesting topic or a stimulating introduction have two beneficial effects on the learning process: they transmit enthusiasm for the topic itself and also improve the overall frame of mind. As Prof. Markus Kiefer and his team from the Department of Cognitive Electrophysiology at the University Hospital of Ulm have shown, different networks are involved in the processing of information, depending on the mood. When we are in a good mood, the processing is more elaborate, which means that more brain regions are involved and what has been learned can be recalled for a longer period of time.4 These findings alone show that pressure, anxiety and excessive demands, which are likely to provoke overburdening and new fears, tend to hamper learning, and certainly do not support it.
Successes release happiness hormones
So what actually supports learning? Enthusiasm, interest and a learning situation that is free of fear of mistakes, in which fun and happiness have their place and in which humiliation, ridicule and malice are not tolerated, are thus extremely conducive to learning.1 But the absolute incentive for the brain is success, which sets in motion the reward system in the brain as a response to a successful action. Pride, joy and enthusiasm are not long in coming – but that only happens when the outcome of an action is better than expected. So if we face new challenges and master them successfully, then core areas in the middle brain release the messenger substance dopamine, the ‘happiness hormone’, which then floods large parts of the brain. As well as the emotional effect, the release of dopamine is associated with a strengthening of the synapses. All of the connections that were active before the release of dopamine are strengthened and stimulated to grow more intensely.1
If, for example, you have scored your first goal at football, decorated a cake perfectly or otherwise achieved a goal that you subjectively perceive as significant, then precisely those nerve connections that were involved in the preceding action are stimulated to growth. In addition, the feeling of happiness leads us to repeat these previous actions more quickly and with more pleasure, so we can experience the positive feelings of achievement once again. In this way, successful behaviour is always better trained. However, our brain does not distinguish whether the successful behaviour was useful – if a student copies homework and dutifully submits it to the teacher, the dopamine system also takes effect and rewards this action, increasing the likelihood that the child will repeat it.
But to have a sense of success and to feel enthusiasm, one has to do something – sitting around passively and ‘consuming’ learning content provides no basis for this. Activities with which you can enjoy success are therefore required. It should not be overlooked that thinking is also an activity in this respect. Many students love to be purely intellectually active and have a sense of success when they have theoretically penetrated a problem or found a solution. We all know this ‘aha!’ moment. Other students prefer activities that allow them to investigate something or, for example, conduct an experiment. In all these situations, it must be clear which outcome is to be considered a success. Only if success occurs directly after the activity and is also recognised as such by the learner does the dopamine lead to improved retention of this action and the ‘right’ lesson being learned.
Important for dopamine-based learning success is a clearly recognisable goal, the achievement of which accounts for the success. This goal must also be perceived by the learner as significant and worth striving for, otherwise it is purely a task.
Fortunately, success does not necessarily have to be in the task itself, or in its solution. Many students don’t really care which number is the solution to a mathematical equation. Often, the goal simply lies in being told ‘well done’, in affirming that the right process was taken. Above all, it lies in social attention and recognition. In addition to successful actions, social attention is a very effective trigger for the release of dopamine. Therefore, in addition to one’s own enthusiasm, timely praise and recognition of achievements are the most vital tools at the disposal of all adults who care about the development and learning of our children.
Dr Petra Arndt has worked at the ZNL TransferCenter for Neuroscience and Learning at the University of Ulm since 2008. Her goal is to connect findings in neuroscience, psychology, pedagogy and related fields of research and harness them for the design of educational processes.