How the Brain Works: It’s all about layers part 1

The brain has a layered structure. You can think of it a bit like the layers of the Earth, from the crust, to the mantle, down to the burning, ancient core.

The outer layers of the brain process information without caring too much about goals or emotions. Some call it ‘cold cognition’. The inner layers increasingly process information in terms of goals and emotions, so-called ‘hot cognition’.

spider-1403889352yvkThe innermost layers coordinate with the functioning of the rest of the body. When I see a1280px-man_running_scared_cartoon_vector-svg spider, cold cognition recognises the visual pattern, hot cognition gets worried, the body is informed that its heart should race in preparation for fight-or-flight action, and cold cognition prepares the instructions to jump. The layers work together as an integrated whole.

This week’s blog explores how the outer layer, the cortex, works.

The Outer Layer (aka The Cortex)

As we’ve seen, the cortex is big in humans compared to other animals. The back and the front do different things.

The cortex, is a sheet of neurons for processing information. The sheet of neurons, 2 millimetres thick, is just a bit smaller than a sheet of A3 paper, and it needs to be crumpled up to fit it in the skull.  The sheet processes information without caring too much about the results. Where you are on the sheet doesn’t radically change how the information is processed, it just changes what is processed.

The back part of the cortex houses regions involved in sight (vision), hearing (audition), and the processing of space. Senses are processed along two routes. One route, called the ‘what’ pathway, tries to identify what things are. The other route, the ‘where’ pathway, processes where things are in space. You might want to combine this information: catch a cricket ball (howzat!) but don’t catch a snowball (duck!).

The motor areas are towards the front. At the boundary is an area for sensing the body, and the motor circuits for controlling parts of the body. Further towards the front are areas involved in planning, decision-making, and control. As we’ll see, these are still sort of motor circuits.

Between the back and the front, the sensory and motor systems are organised in hierarchies, moving from simple to complex. You can think of these hierarchies as being like a tower with many floors, with a separate tower for each sense. Each floor combines the work done below, and each floor has a farther view than the floor below. The lowest floor spots patterns in sensory information. The next floor up spots patterns within patterns. The next floor, patterns within patterns within patterns. Sensory and motor systems are trying to see patterns within patterns within patterns – and then make connections between the screenshot-2019-03-13-at-18-30-44patterns.

After a while, the upper floors of the towers might know a thing or two about what patterns are likely. Based on their knowledge, the upper floors like to make suggestions to the lower floors on what they may be perceiving (just to help out, mind). The upper floors of the towers for the different senses talk to each other, across cables strung between the upper floors, to see if they can agree what’s out there in the world. The upper layers are connected to the frontal parts of the brain, to pass on conclusions and see if their view fits with expectations.

The motor system has a hierarchy too, but its higher levels are different. They’re about patterns more distant in time. The lowest levels are about immediate actions. The higher levels are about more complex sequences of actions, further forward in time. The lowest level says ‘Do it!’ (primary motor cortex). The next layer says, ‘Prepare to do it’ (supplementary cortex). The next layer up says, ‘You may want to do it sometime in the future’ (prefrontal cortex). A complex sequence of motor actions to be carried out at some future point in time can be described as a plan. Pre-frontal cortex, the planning and decision-making part of the brain, can also be seen as the top of the motor system hierarchy, looking the furthest forward in time.

We saw in the section on evolution that humans have more cortex. This means that humans can build their towers higher than other animals. In their senses, humans can discern more patterns within patterns, more complicated concepts; and in their motor systems, they can build further forward, creating plans into the more distant future.

Read more at!

Language and Executive Function Development in Deaf Children

CEN member Chloë Marshall is Professor of Psychology, Language and Education at the chloeUCL Institution of Education, were she runs the Acquiring Language and Literacy in Challenging Circumstances (ALLICC) Lab. In this blog she discusses her research on deaf children’s language and executive functions.

Deaf children’s language development

The term “deafness” refers to all types of hearing loss from mild to profound, including deafness in just one ear. While assistive technologies such as hearing aids and cochlear implants may improve a child’s ability to hear sounds, they don’t “cure” deafness. Oral language development is delayed in the majority of deaf children because they are having to acquire a language that they can’t fully access, and this impacts their learning to read and write, and their academic learning. In contrast, for the minority of deaf children who are born to deaf parents who use a sign language – i.e. a visible and accessible language – language development generally proceeds normally.

Deaf children’s executive function (EF) development

There is a growing awareness that EFs are associated with children’s learning and academic success. Evidence is also mounting that many deaf children experience delayed EF development. Although researchers have proposed a close relationship between EF development and language development, it is not yet clear whether EFs drive language development or vice versa. Knowing the answer to this question could be important for working out how to best support deaf children in achieving academic success.

Our research study

I am one of a group of researchers led by Professor Gary Morgan at City, University of London, and funded by a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council to the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre at UCL. For several years we recruited and assessed a large group of deaf children aged 5-11 years, and a comparison group of hearing children. We measured their EFs using a range of experimental tasks, and also assessed their vocabulary using a naming task where responses could be given in spoken English or in British Sign Language (BSL). Importantly, we used EF tasks which were non-verbal, in an attempt to not disadvantage our deaf participants, who were likely to have lower language abilities.

Our research findings

Even though our EF tasks were non-verbal, the deaf group as a whole scored more poorly compared to their age-matched hearing peers (although there was a lot of individual variation, and many deaf children scored well). They also scored more poorly on the vocabulary task. By testing children twice, two years apart, we were able to investigate whether growth in vocabulary scores over those two years predicted growth in EF scores, or whether growth in EF scores predicted growth in vocabulary. We found the former – vocabulary development was driving EF development (even though EF had been measured non-verbally). In contrast, developmental changes in EF did not predict vocabulary development. Although we haven’t yet done any detailed analysis to compare the results of deaf children who signed versus those who used oral language, a preliminary analysis of our two visuo-spatial working memory tasks revealed that signers who had started learning BSL when they very young performed as well as their age-matched peers, but that later signers scored more poorly.

Implications of our research findings

Our research findings underscore the importance of language for cognitive development, and highlight the need for deaf children to be supported in their language development. There needs to be greater awareness on the part of parents and of medical and educational professionals that early access to sign language may benefit deaf children’s oral language and EF development. Deaf children are at risk of under-achieving at school, but this under-achievement is not inevitable if we understand the factors that contribute to variation in outcomes, and in particular those factors can be leveraged to improve success.

To find out more about what support is available for deaf children, visit the National Deaf Children’s Society

Read more from this research:

Deaf children’s non-verbal working memory is impacted by their language experience

Nonverbal Executive Function is Mediated by Language: A Study of Deaf and Hearing Children

Expressive Vocabulary Predicts Nonverbal Executive Function: A 2‐year Longitudinal Study of Deaf and Hearing Children



Teen Brain Film – we want your strategies!

Dr Georgina Donati and Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne, researchers at the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, were keen to share the latest research in adolescent brain science with teachers and sought out a film-maker to help them out.

We are Georgie and Annie, researchers at the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, and we are interested in sharing the latest research in adolescent brain science with teachers.

A few years ago, we participated as scientists in an interactive play, with a theatre group called Cardboard Citizens. The play, META, was performed in front of teenagers, and explored how changes in the teenage brain can impact their lives, and even lead them to spin out of control. During performances, we (and our colleagues) were there to explain the adolescent brain science underlying the play. We were often approached by teachers and parents after the play, who said that they found the science fascinating and useful, wishing they had known it sooner.

This feedback inspired us to work on a resource for teachers (parents are also encouraged to get involved!). We teamed up with a film-maker and some great professionals from Small Films to bring you this short film. The aim of the play META had been to encourage teens, armed with new knowledge about how their brains work, to think about how they might be able to change their behaviour for their own benefit. The aim of the film is similar for teachers: how can knowledge about how the teenage brain works influence the way teachers interact with, respond to, and ultimately teach teenagers?

As part of the interactive play, teenagers came up with some interesting strategies to better manage their emotions and stay focused on the task at hand. We’re interested to find out what strategies teachers come up with (or already use) to engage the teenage brain, deal with their quirks, and essentially take advantage of the special world that is the social and emotional rollercoaster of being a teen…

At the early stages of creating the film, we spoke to teachers about our ideas. Based on this discussion, we decided to keep the video short and with basic science, but with more detailed resources about the topics covered on this website. The teachers we spoke to were particularly keen to get ideas for specific strategies to use in the classroom. We are experts in adolescent brain science, but not in teaching, so we are handing over to you, to crowdsource strategies that draw on this science.

Under each topic there is the opportunity to add your own thoughts about how you might use, or have already used, this science to inform your teaching. We hope you will take this opportunity to share your ideas with other teachers. We will regularly update the website to include the strategies that you suggest (anonymously). Our hope is that this will become a useful resource of strategies designed by teachers, for teachers, and informed by research. We are excited to hear from you!

You can also get in touch with us on social media – we have a Twitter account @TeenBrainFilm – come and ask us questions, give us your feedback, or share with your colleagues and friends!


You can also read more about topics touched on in the film in more detail in the CEN pages dedicated to each area…


Sleep      ***      Hormonal Changes      ***      Prefrontal Changes
Inhibitory Control      ***      Mental Time Travel      ***      Limbic Changes
Sensation Seeking       ***       Risk taking       ***       Social Development
Theories of Adolescence      ***     Evolution      ***      Mental Health
Neuroconstructivism      ***     Educational Neuroscience


How the brain works: the brain is mostly for movement

In today’s excerpt from our resource How the brain works, we must come to terms with a rather humbling revelation. We like to believe we are rather clever. If we were asked, we might say our brains are so big and complex because that’s what it takes to create our wonderful, deep, imaginative thoughts. By contrast, reaching out to pick up a cup of coffee and bringing it to our mouth without spilling it isn’t something we’d typically boast about. Well it might be time for a rethink. Grab yourself a cuppa (careful, now) and read on…

gymnastWhy do you need a brain? Not all organisms have brains. Jellyfish don’t have brains. They do all right, floating about.

The main reason for having a brain is to coordinate movement. Sight, sound, and other sensory information is brought together; muscles are controlled to produce coordinated movements of the body in response to perception, to achieve the goals of the organism (e.g., eating, not getting eaten).

Trees don’t move and they don’t have brains tree-with-face

Organisms that don’t move don’t need centralised coordination of information. Trees don’t move and they have no brains, not even a nervous system. Jellyfish float, gently swim, and stay upright waiting for prey to hit their tentacles. They have a different type of nervous system for this less demanding repertoire, with separate sets of neurons to synchronise muscle actions in different parts of their bodies. There is no integration in a single central brain.

Sometimes, your spine will do the thinking for you

Even humans don’t always need their brains to move. Sometimes, your spine will do the thinking for you. Touch something hot, and in half a second, you will snatch your hand away. Temperature and danger receptors in the skin have rapidly signalled to the spine, candlewhere local neurons have already decided to trigger the withdrawal reflex, and the arm muscles spring into action. Quick, withdraw your hand! It is, as they would say these days, a real no-brainer. But anything beyond a reflex movement is going to involve the brain.

At the other end of the scale, human actions can be vastly subtle and sophisticated, aimed towards long-range goals. Studying for a university degree, for example. But it is worth remembering the primary design influence of the brain: make the right movement.

This influence is still discernible in our ‘high-level’ cognitive skills. Take attention. We focus attention on particular objects in our visual field or on particular sounds around us. The ‘attention network’ in the brain involves the circuits of the particular sense (sight, hearing) and two other regions – a system that processes space and a region that controls eye-movements. In the brain, attention isn’t some abstract part of thought: it is about orienting to objects in space and preparing to make the right movement – including movement of the eyes to look to that region of space to get more information. While ‘paying attention’ in the classroom may be held to be a high-level cognitive skill, inside the brain it is about planning for the right movement.

Hang on a minute, what’s this other bit?

cerebellum_animation_smallThe cerebellum! There’s, like, this whole extra ‘mini’ brain at the back, like a petite cauliflower. And you know what? The cerebellum is so densely packed with neurons, it contains around 80% of all the neurons in the brain. What does it do? Is this where all my brilliant thoughts happen?

Well… No. The cerebellum is also all about movement. It is dedicated to the job of coordinating movement and sensation. It needs to make everything hang together, to make it run smoothly and automatically. Because, you know, you may have decided you’re thirsty, and you may want to reach out for that glass of water next to you, but actually your body is already busy. There are muscles holding your posture, keeping you balanced, holding your head up. And if you are going to reach out your arm, a limb is heavy, it’s going to change your centre of gravity. You don’t want to topple over, so lean back a bit, adjust, subtly, unconsciously. A reach of the arm needs to be fitted in with everything else, so that overall movement and posture is smooth, so it all flows together. This takes a lot of integration and monitoring of sensory input and adjusting of motor output. Some heavy-duty number crunching, requiring a lot of neurons and connections. It’s a job for a specialist.

‘When your coffee cup doesn’t quite reach your lips and you spill your coffee down your front . . . only then do you notice what the cerebellum has been up to’

Yet when everything is running smoothly, you don’t notice the cerebellum is there. Only when things go wrong – when your coffee cup doesn’t quite reach your lips and you spill the coffee down your front; when you step off a pavement and misjudge the height of the curb, landing heavily and jarringly – only then do you notice everything the cerebellum has been up to.

It’s keen to take on more work, too. As practised actions become less voluntary and more automatic, the cerebellum takes over from cortical commands to deliver movements swiftly and smoothly.

The cerebellum doesn’t just contribute to movements, but also to thought. Instead of movement, cortex can manipulate images or ideas. When these objects are repeatedly manipulated in the mind, the cerebellum can help make their manipulation smooth and automatic. Here’s some single digit numbers. Six. Eight. Add them together. Adults have years of experience adding single digit numbers. Up pops the answer, 14, smooth as you like, no thinking required, cruise control.

human-pyramidSo our brilliant brains are mostly designed for movement. Now that you’ve got your head around that, in our next installment we’ll take a look at how the layers of the brain are organised and start to get an idea of how the whole set up works together.

If you prefer bingeing and can’t wait, you can leap ahead here

What teachers think about educational neuroscience: Mark Miller

mark-millerAt CEN we are always trying to improve dialogue between academic researchers and teaching professionals and are always pleased to hear from practitioners who are working to bridge that gap. Today, we are delighted to welcome Mark Miller, Head of Bradford Research school.

What does educational neuroscience mean to you?

It’s important that we can further our understanding of the complexity of learning. The interdisciplinary nature of educational neuroscience helps to draw together education, psychology and neuroscience to make more sense of how we can support teachers and pupils. For me, it is the ‘educational’ part that matters most, and it is always our goal to try and make what we know practical and effective in schools and classrooms. But I think that neuroscience needs a ‘bridge’ into education, and I can see cognitive psychology as that bridge.

How do you keep up to date with the latest research?

As Head of Bradford Research School, I am lucky to be able to engage with the Research Schools Network, and learn from colleagues across the network, the EEF and the IEE in York. While it helps to be knowledgeable about a range of topics, it’s hard to be expert in them all, so I constantly rely on the kindness of others to share their knowledge and wisdom.

I have found The EEF’s guidance reports to be accessible and useful. For example, as a secondary English teacher I have learnt much about literacy from the Improving Literacy in Key Stage 2 guidance report. Furthermore, the extensive references offer a reading list for anyone keen to find out more about the evidence base. I am looking forward to some of the forthcoming reports, including Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools, Behaviour and Digital Technology.

I read a great deal. My desk will often have the latest copy of TES, whose revamped research coverage is excellent, the Chartered College’s Impact journal and at least a couple of books: today it is How to Explain Absolutely Anything to Absolutely Anyone by Andy Tharby and The Teacher Gap by Rebecca Allen and Sam Sims. I am indebted to those who signpost, filter and curate on social media.

Can you give some examples of how neuroscience understanding has helped you and your school? Is there a specific research-informed idea that has had a positive impact in your school, one which others could potentially try?

Across Dixons Multi-Academy Trust, and in my school Dixons Kings Academy, we ensure that our work is evidence-informed. We have explored the best available evidence on cognitive science and tried to use it to help inform our school-wide understanding of how we enable a change in long-term memory.

Knowledge organisers have been a useful tool to explore some of the key ideas and we have focused on three principals, supported by evidence, that can facilitate their use. Principal one is to facilitate retrieval practice, informed by the work of Roediger (2011) among others. Principals two and three are designed not just to ensure that material is learnt, but that it is ‘usable’. Principal 2 is elaboration, where material to be learnt is elaborated upon, by relating it to additional knowledge associated with it, often in the form of ‘why’ questions. The Learning Scientists have written extensively on this, and Weinstein (2018) is particularly helpful in explaining this (and other principles of cognitive science).  Principal three is to organise the knowledge – ironically Knowledge organisers don’t always help the mental organisation of knowledge! Reif (2008) offers a clear explanation of why.

You can read more about the evidence here.

How do you get teachers and students involved?

There is always a tension with how much teachers need to know about the cognitive science. At Dixons Kings, we don’t want gimmicks and practical tools that are easily replicated with little understanding of the evidence behind them, but nor do we need to overburden with multiple readings of all the original studies. We have explained the principals and practical implications in CPD sessions and assemblies. The staff CPD is followed up with subject-specific CPD, and the message is communicated regularly.

It’s also the same with students. There is real power in students understanding how the advice we give them about studying is determined but there are many demands on students’ time that we may well need to keep it simple. With students, initial assemblies exploring how to use effective revision strategies for knowledge organisers have been followed up with exploration of how to explore things in individual subjects e.g. elaboration in Physics is different from elaboration in English Literature.

Looking more widely, as a Research School, we share evidence through free events, training courses, blogs and newsletters. Again, there is a balance between keeping things concise and watering down the evidence. Where our blogs and our twilight events keep things concise, our training courses allow for implementation of strategies and deep and thorough knowledge.

Are there areas where you think research should focus next (ie what are the important gaps in our understanding)?

40% of our pupils at Dixons Kings Academy are eligible for the pupil premium. According to Becky Allen, “SES-related disparities have already been consistently observed for working memory, inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility and attention.” I would like to see more research into these aspects and particularly how we can mitigate for factors affected by disadvantage.


To read more about some of the research mentioned, see the references below. And you can stay up to date with Mark by following him on Twitter

Roediger H, Putnam A and Smith M (2011) Ten benefits of testing and their applications to educational practice. Psychology of Learning and Motivation 55: 1–36

Reif F (2008) Applying Cognitive Science to Education: Thinking and Learning in Scientific and Other Complex Domains. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Bradford Books

Weinstein Y, Madan C and Sumeracki M (2018) Teaching the science of learning. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications Open Access


The Frontier of Translation: Teacher and Researcher

amy-fancourt_croppedDr Amy Fancourt head of Psychology at Queen Anne’s school and head of research at BrainCanDo, merges the world of research and teaching in an interesting example of how translation can work.

Could you tell us how research has influenced your teaching?
One of the areas of research that has had the greatest impact upon me as a teacher is the research around motivation and the impact of emotional contagion on learners motivations within the classroom. Queen Anne’s School are working with Prof. Kou Murayama and Prof. Patricia Riddell at Reading University on a long-term research project exploring the impact of emotional contagion on motivation and learning. Through this work I have considered my own behaviour and attitudes and the consequence this has on the emotional reaction of the students sitting in my classroom. If I expect my students to be motivated and engaged in the lesson then I have to communicate to them that what I have to teach them is something to be interested in! This has led me to really think about how I present myself and how I’m feeling when working with my students.

Another area of research that has had a great impact on my teaching is the work on memory and retrieval practice. For durable learning to happen it is vital to provide regular opportunities for students to retrieve the information that they have learned. Therefore, in my department we have adopted regular quizzing and consistent assessments to give students the opportunity to regularly retrieve the content we have covered during lessons.

What is the focus of your research?
BrainCanDo is working with university partners on three main research projects at the moment. The first of these is a longitudinal project with Professor Daniel Mullensiefen, Goldsmiths University, exploring the impact of extra-curricular activities on adolescent outcomes over time. The second project we are involved with is in collaboration with Professor Patricia Riddell and Professor Kou Murayama, University of Reading, exploring the role of social networks in emotional contagion. We are also working with Dr Fran Knight, Bristol University, exploring the impact of a later school start time on attention and impulse control in older adolescent girls.

What led you to this area of research?
Each of these projects came about because we had questions about various aspects of education. There has been a lot of discussion concerning the value and importance of co-curricular programs for pupil development and we wanted a way to systematically measure the impact of such pursuits on school children over time. Working with teachers, every teacher knows that motivating your pupils to want to learn is one of the biggest challenges and therefore we chose to work with motivation experts at Reading University to help us to understand what factors are most influential when it comes to pupil motivation. There is now a wealth of research to show that adolescent sleep cycles shift and there may be detrimental consequences on educational outcomes if this shift leads to a chronic state of sleep deprivation in our adolescent pupils. We opted to work with Dr Fran Knight to implement a later school start trial and measure the impact of this within the particular context of Queen Anne’s School.

Could you summarise your findings?
Each of these projects has yielded interesting and thought provoking findings so far and there is more data to be analysed. Our work with Goldsmiths has shown that active participation in music is related to changes in attitudes and mindset associated with conscientiousness and higher academic outcomes. The work with Reading University has demonstrated that there are clear social networks in operation in different year groups and they exert different influences on the attitudes and behaviours of those in the groups. What is perhaps the most interesting finding to emerge from this research so far is that those pupils who scored highly on measures of GRIT or resilience were those pupils who acted as the central hubs within the social networks. Further longitudinal analysis is needed to understand whether the similarities we see within networks is a product of homophily or contagion. Finally, our work with Dr Fran Knight demonstrated that after shifting the school start time for just one week pupils showed improved impulse inhibition which supports previous research showing the positive benefits of enabling older adolescents to have more sleep by shifting back the start of the school day.

How do you tell if something is working in the classroom?
My students are participative and asking good questions. If something is working and durable learning is happening then I would also expect this to be reflected in exam performance.

Which research-informed idea do you feel has had a big positive impact in your classroom
The research-informed idea that has had a big impact in my department has been retrieval practice. As a department we have integrated regular assessment and quizzing into our schemes of work and this has become central to our teaching. Anecdotally we have found that our students feel more confident with the material going into their examinations and are now using this technique much more in their own revision. We also actively encourage students to regularly recall the information they have learned on blank whiteboards during lessons and this too has become a standard revision practice for many of them now.

What do you think other teachers might find useful?
For teachers in the classroom there are some very direct applications that they might consider:

  • Encourage pupils to participate in co-curricular pursuits wherever possible
  • Be aware of the impact of emotional contagion in your classroom. This contagion can spread through pupils but also transfer from teacher to pupil: how you behave in front of your class matters.  Understand the power of emotional contagion!
  • Teenagers are not lazy but most of them are chronically sleep deprived. Teachers may need to think more creatively about how best to engage the learners in front of them in those early lessons in the day

How do you keep up-to-date with the latest education research? 
I subscribe to updates from The Learning Scientists and the CTTL and they send around regular newsletters and articles that focus on one aspect of education research. I am also a member of the Chartered College of Teaching and so receive their quarterly ‘impact’ journal which is filled with digestible articles relating to the application of research in teaching and learning. As a school we are keen to remain research-informed and so I am also involved in learning study groups in the school and write my own summaries of educationally-relevant research to disseminate to other staff and pupils in the school. I also try to come along to the CEN seminars when my timetable allows

Do you have any suggestions of how communication and collaboration can be improved between teachers and education researchers?
It is important to create opportunities for teachers to meet with researchers and talk to them about their research and to allow teachers the time needed to really consider how this they could use this research to inform their own teaching practice. Creating space and opportunities for teachers to come together to share ideas and experiences of education research is also important.

Finally, if you could share one piece of advice about research-informed practice with other teachers and trainee teachers, what would it be?
Try it for yourself. Taking the time to read around research-informed practice is not wasted time as it has the potential to transform the way you teach and how your students learn.

How the Brain Works: The brain had to evolve

This week, we’re bringing you another tasty snippet from the CEN resource on How the Brain Works.  Here we reflect on the consequences of the often forgotten but completely fascinating fact that our brains weren’t designed or made, but have slowly and organically evolved over millions of years…






The instructions to build the brain – written in DNA – turn out to be more detailed for parts of the brain with a longer evolutionary history of retaining the same function. There’s been more time for biological trial and error to figure out the instructions to build specific structures tuned to specific functions.


Longer evolutionary history also tends to mean these instructions (or similar versions) are shared with other similar animals lying on the same branch of evolution’s family tree. In our case, that means in the branch of: vertebrates (backboned animals); sub-branch: mammals; sub-branch: social primates. A lot of the build plans are similar across similar species.

The general plan for building a body with a brain goes back a long way, perhaps 450 million years; the plans for brain cells – neurons, with their connections, electrical properties, and neurotransmitters – still further. As we’ll see, one bit of the brain is particularly enlarged in humans – the outer layer or cortex. In evolutionary terms, this greater amount of cortex is a recent addition. Therefore instructions to build components within the cortex are less detailed, and they depend more on development for their sculpting. By contrast, other bits of the brain, such as those responsible for the emotions, look almost identical in humans and chimpanzees.



First, evolution tends to innovate at the periphery. The new things that mark out a new species tend to be in the structure and function of its body (including the movements it can perform), its organs, and its sensory equipment. When it comes to the brain, the innovations are less specific, but tend to involve tweaking the general build plan used in this branch of the family tree: some parts of the brain grow bigger, some smaller, but the types of structure are the same. Evolution modifies the existing plan, more here, less there; it doesn’t build a new brain piece and add it in.


Take bats. They can navigate in the dark using sound. But there is no special new part of the bat-brain for navigating using sound. The ability to emit ‘ping’ noises, and enhanced hearing to differentiate the echoes that come back, are innovations. The bat brain uses similar types of brain structures to other mammals, but develops in them the ability to combine sound information to guide flight and not bump into cave walls.

What are the specific innovations in humans, separate from other social primates? We stand upright. We have hands and vocal articulators (lips, tongue, vocal cords) evolved to allow precise movements and speech production. Rib muscles that allow us to generate a smooth flow of air over the vocal cords to produce speech (this works fine so long as we’re not laughing). One particular part of the brain, the cortex, has grown bigger, giving us more thinking power. More on this later.



Second, evolution only improves what it already has. Over generations, the build plans for the body and brain can be changed and improved, but they are modifications of previous plans. This means solutions aren’t necessary the best ones. As the joke goes, a tourist asks, ‘How do I get to London?’ and gets the reply ‘Well, I wouldn’t start from here.’ A desktop computer may be better suited for solving some problems the human brain faces, but evolution has committed to doing things with neurons, with whatever limitations that involves. Evolution can only improve what neurons can do; it can’t switch to silicon.



Third, you don’t have to use something for what it was made for. The visual system was designed to recognise the physical world (objects, scenes) and social stimuli (faces, bodies) 1. But – once human culture had invented reading – each new generation of humans could then use the visual system to learn to read. This point has a second part: but if you use it for something different, it may not work perfectly.

screenshot-2019-02-12-at-14-51-09So, the visual system has been designed to recognise objects from whatever viewpoint: a coffee cup is a coffee cup if seen from the left, the right, or upside down. But in English, we asked children to learn that p, q, b, and d are all different letters, corresponding to different speech sounds. To the young child’s visual system, these all look like the same object (a round bit with a tail) viewed from different angles. It takes months, maybe years of learning to overcome the brain’s preference to interpret what it sees in terms of movable objects, and this is why children learning to read in English often mix up their b’s and d’s, and their 6’s and 9’s.

Lastly, when it comes to big changes in brain structure evolution always takes longer than you think. The brains of humans 5,000 years ago, even 50,000 years ago, looked pretty much the same as our brains now.

Jo Van Herwegen. Neurodevelopmental disorders and classroom practice

Jo Van Herwegen presented a CEN seminar looking at the translation of research into Williams and Downs syndrome learning difficulties to interventions in the classroom. In the video, she gives a short summary of her talk.

For those interested, you can find out much more about Jo’s research, publications and opportunities to get involved with her research on her Child Development and Learning Difficulties Lab website. You can read her blog here and also stay up to date with her research by following her on Twitter

Teachers and educators on what research means for them: Harry Fletcher-Wood

We are delighted to welcome him to the CEN to answer some questions for our blog.

What is the importance of formal evidence, beyond what teachers know works in their classroom?

As a new teacher, I improved a lot through trial and error, and trying what colleagues were doing.  This was powerful: you get rapid feedback from students if you’re boring them or they don’t understand what you’re talking about, so I was able to refine some aspects of what I did.  But there are some things which we are unlikely ever to discover through trial and error: for example, the phenomenon of desirable difficulties: making tasks harder for students (and so seeing worse immediate performance) can increase what they retain in the long-term.  That’s pretty counter-intuitive: without evidence, I’d have been reluctant to believe this or act upon it.  More broadly, learning from trial and error is slow: students come to school because they wouldn’t learn everything we’d hope in eighteen years of trial and error; I think evidence helps students in similar ways – teachers will keep getting better, but acting on evidence can accelerate their improvement.

What enables teachers to take a more evidence-based approach?

I think it’s getting used to questioning what you’re being told, and finding good sources of evidence. The intermediaries are key here: as a history teacher, I didn’t have the training or experience to critically analyse papers in experimental psychology; nor did I have the time.  We need to make this easier for teachers by providing clear, actionable summaries which remain faithful to the underpinning research.

Can you give any specific examples from your experience of how an evidence-based approach has changed practice for the better?

A few years ago I was designing a new history curriculum for Key Stage 3 students.  I’d begun to read around how much students forget, and why.  So instead of designing a curriculum which rattled straight through the topics, I designed it so that we kept revisiting key ideas, key periods and key disciplinary approaches.  Students began Year 7 with a chronological world tour, giving them a rough sense of how Ancient Roman life differed from the Middle Ages, for example.  The next year, we did another chronological course, focused on British political history.  The next year, something similar based around war.  The evidence convinced me that, rather than relying on teaching it really well first time, I needed to design my curriculum to revisit the key ideas from different perspectives.

More recently, as part of the programme I lead for teacher educators, we’ve written a curriculum for teacher educators, designed to offer both a structure and material they can use to help teachers understand how students learn, and adapt their teaching accordingly.  We’ve rooted it in cognitive science.  I’ve seen teacher educators design their entire professional development programme around this, helping teachers understand the evidence and teach accordingly.

I am a teacher who wants to know more about the research evidence; where should I start?

I got into the evidence via Twitter and blogs.  I’ve shared some of my favourite people to follow and blogs here and a list of some of the most useful and interesting papers I’ve read here.  I’d also recommend attending a ResearchED conference: they bring together teachers interested in research and researchers interested in sharing what they’ve learned with teachers: so you end up with a good combination of accessibility, usefulness and rigour.

Are there specific areas of teaching or learning where we need better evidence? Where are the research gaps? 

I’m fascinated by how we take good ideas and make them work in the messy reality of individual classrooms.  I’d love to see more research which offers teachers the underlying ideas in a promising area of research, supports them to develop their own ways to act on them in the classroom, and rigorously measures the results.  The biggest gap isn’t exciting research or determined teachers, but bringing those two together in ways which respect both the evidence of the researcher and the wisdom of the teacher.

For more from Harry, as well as the links already mentioned, you can follow him on Twitter

How the brain works Part 1. In the beginning….

brain_fillerWe’ve been busy at the CEN writing a guide to how the brain works. Yes seriously. How the brain actually works. Not how we think it could have or should have but how it actually does. The guide is intended to give a general audience a decent gist. There’s no show-offy long anatomical names or world record breaking facts, just a best-estimate summary of the brain’s modus operandum. (That’s the last Latin you’ll get.) You can dip into the full resource whenever you like – it’s here and over the next few weeks, we will also be presenting some of the main ideas in bite size portions. We all love a brain-teaser, so where better to start than with some puzzles?

Why can I forget what the capital of Hungary is, but not that I’m afraid of spiders?
Why do I find I have learnt things better after a night’s sleep?
Why do children learning to read and write mix up their bs and ds?
Why does my mind go blank when I’m stressed in an exam?
Why do I learn a new language so much more easily when I’m 5 than when I’m 50?
Why do I sometimes go into a room to get something, then forget what I went in for?

Hungary Capital MapThe answers to all these questions don’t lie in psychology. Even though psychology has some great theories about how the mind works and how we learn, there are some answers it’s less hot on. Instead, the answers lie in the particular – and sometimes peculiar – way our brains work. Our brains didn’t have to work this way. There are other ways you could do things. Our brains work the way they do because of their particular biological and evolutionary origins.

Think of it like this: if you were GoogleAmazonApple Inc. and you were building a robot that learns, you could design your device so that it didn’t have any of these properties. The robot could store Capital-Cities and Animals-I’m-Scared-Of as similar types of memories. It need not forget either. You could build your robot without emotions like ‘stress’ or ‘anxiety’, which on the face of it seem to detract from learning performance.  And, battery life permitting, you could build a robot that didn’t need to sleep to achieve efficient learning.

Figuring out how the mind is generated by the brain has turned out to be pretty tricky. When we look at human behaviour, what we see is often a fluid, smooth, glistening, dynamic interaction with the world. It can seem unified from the outside. When psychologists have taken this outside-looking-in approach, they have constantly run into the same problem: what is one thing in psychology is many things in the brain. For example, ‘keeping something in mind’ seems like a single thing, but there are many different memory systems at work in the brain. In this resource, we’ll come across many cases of ideas from psychology that turn out to be many things in the brain, among them: the self, attention, learning, concepts, people, language.

Much of psychology describes activities – things like ‘problem solving’ or ‘drawing’; these describe what happen on the outside rather than the actions of many mechanisms at work on the inside. To bring about an activity, lots of bits of the brain work together, different subsets work together for different activities and there is fluid interaction between brain, body, and external world.

Sad to say, ‘looking inside your mind’ doesn’t necessarily get you much closer to how the brain works, either. Take that voice in your head, the one that you use to reason with before you make a decision. ‘Should I have that extra slice of cake or not? Well, I only had one slice of toast for breakfast, so maybe it’s okay.’ The voice (psychologists call it the ‘phonological loop’) is generated in the side of the brain, the bit next to the ear. Guess what? That’s not the part that makes decisions. The bit that makes decisions is the front of the brain. When you listen to the voice in your head, you’re listening to the commentator, not the decision maker.

Psychologists are rightly concerned with consciousness, the mental life – the ‘you’ that you experience, your awareness, the thoughts you have about yourself. Here, neuroscience hasn’t really helped out. We’re still at the stage of seeing which bits of the brain become more active when we have certain experiences. The story, though, seems to be headed in the same direction: one experience is lots of bits of brain interacting with each other.

So, have some sympathy for psychologists. Building detailed links between psychology and neuroscience is a big challenge and will take a while. Luckily, we don’t need to worry about that too much to understand how the brain works…

To begin to understand that, we need to go back to the beginning, a few million years ago