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Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Brain - The Final Frontier

The brain, it's functions, structure and how it works is a source of fascination for me. This is due mainly to two things.

Firstly as a teacher I am fascinated about how we learn and remember things because I want to help my pupils to become effective learners. 

I have read many articles and books written about learning styles which have caused me to consider my own 'learning style.'Am I a visual learner? I sometimes like to see things written down before I can understand them or remember them, spellings for example, but not all of the time. I also like to write things down as an aid to remembering them. I used index cards with key words as a revision tool. I also like diagrams and illustrations alongside text to help me figure things out and used Tony Buzan's Mind Mapping and colour methods during exam revision. However I certainly don't fit the spatial understanding part of this style as maps remain a mystery to me. Am I an auditory learner? I would have initially answered emphatically no to this but on reflection I do have songs in my head most of the time, often on a loop, which is infuriating and music plays a big part in my dreams and I do like putting things that I need to remember either to music or at least to rhyme or does this make me a verbal learner?  I could go on and on but my own conclusion to this is that I, like many learners, have a selection of learning styles and that as a teacher I need to .understand learning styles, be aware of them and try to use a variety of learning style approaches in my teaching. What It doesn't provide me with though is a definitive answer to how people learn. 

Ok so what about left brain right brain? You see my problem is I am a pragmatic so whatever comes along I 'give it a go' and yes that meant I stood there in front of my class during 'brain gym' doing figure of eight exercises, the cross crawl or swapping from left to right hand holding my nose with one hand and ear with the other. The principles behind brain gym came from Jean Piaget, Maria Montessori and Anna Jean Ayres to name a few and were born out of lots of research and experience. Did it help my pupils to learn I can't say I noticed any huge improvement but the exercises were fun and did provide brain breaks but that is another story... Am I left or right brained I pondered? I tried this simple test and learned I am 78% right brained,  I would describe myself as creative but also as I have got older have developed a love of maths which whilst it does have its creative side is actually very logical. I'm also not really sure how it helps me understand myself as a learner or how I can use this knowledge to improve my pupils as learners. In fact it provides more questions than answers? I am hoping, or was hoping, to write a book about teaching and I really do wonder if I am logical enough? I find the creative side of my brain means academic research bores the pants off me and I tend to go more from personal experience and rhetoric than academic research after all the research is only as good as the person doing it and is often countered by others anyway.  Or does this just mean I'm a cynic? Who knows but I can see how over reliance on one type of brain research can hinder rather than help providing self limitation.

Next comes memory, a huge topic which is so important to teachers because learning and memory go hand in hand. I would, like most people, describe myself as having an appalling memory and have again used, pragmatic style, many of the memory techniques. I have found these useful but not life changing. This in fairness is due more to the lack of consistency to which I apply said methods than the effectiveness of the methods themselves. I do use some 'memory techniques' in my teaching including again mind maps, story journeys and mnemonics. 

Secondly as someone who has lived with 'hypopituitarism' for over 10 years I am now fascinated about the many other functions of the brain that affect memory, learning and emotion. The pituitary gland which is located at the base of the brain produces a number of hormones or chemicals which are released into the blood to control other glands in the body. If the pituitary is not producing one or more of these hormones, or not producing enough, then this condition is known as hypopituitarism.

To say it was a shock when I discovered I suffered from this condition is an understatement. I was very poorly and glad to finally know what was wrong or at least put a name to it but after 10 years I still don't fully understand it so complex is it. This makes it difficult to manage but I am proud to say I have never let it define me. In fact this is the first time I have discussed it outside of friends and family. I have defied the odds and worked through all of the difficult times determined to not let it defeat me. Pituitary disorders are considered rare. It is estimated that there are between 50,000 and 70,000 pituitary patients in the United Kingdom, which equates to 0.08% - 0.11% of the population. 

I never realised that hormones played such a huge part in the functions of the brain or in fact that the brain played a role in releasing hormones around the body which affect so many parts of our daily lives. 
So what role do hormones play in memory? Because hormones are often more concentrated in the brain, any hormone imbalance can affect brain function dramatically. In The Hormone Solution, Dr. Thierry Hertoghe notes that deficiencies in cortisol, DHEA, estrogen hormones, melatonin, pregnenolone, testosterone, thyroid, and vasopressin exhibit the most common brain-related symptoms, including memory loss, poor concentration, and confusion.

My conclusions? Without even considering trauma, psychology, experiences ... I think (get the pun) that the brain is truly the last great frontier of discovery. We know some things but by no means all. I will I am sure remain as pragmatic as ever and give anything a go when it comes to new 'brain and learning' research and true to form will also retain and use the ones that I find most effective in my day to day teaching as aids and tools to facilitate and enrich the learning experience.