Brain basics for teachers

The human brain is a soft, mushy thing containing between 80-100 billion tiny brain cells called neurons. Each of these neurons can transfer or generate a small electric signal. It’s as if we were all born with about 100 billion tiny batteries inside our head.

All day long our neurons generate differing levels of electricity depending on what we’re doing, thinking or experiencing.

Proactive
Some of these neurons start the electrical charge to make us move the way we want to. They are called ‘motor neurons’ and are more densely packed on the right side (hemisphere) of the brain. Other neurons help us remember things or plan. They can be anywhere but are mostly towards the front of the brain. That is our neurons in ‘proactive’ mode.

Reactive
Often our neurons are responding to something external like pain, noise, food, physical stimulation or fear. That is the ‘reactive’ mode.

Neurons can switch to be proactive or reactive. It depends on the intention or the stimuli, yet really, we don’t actually know how this happens.

The Learning Brain is a specific electrical state in our brain. Called Theta, it’s about a quarter of the way up our electrical spectrum. Here’s a summary of the states from top to bottom.Gamma
The very top electrical state in healthy people is called Gamma. This is when the electricity in many neuron groups is highest – technically between 25 and 100 Hz – very fast. Gamma puts Adrenalin into our system to make us stronger and faster. We can see this when people are in ‘flight or fight’ mode or playing competitive sport.

Strangely, some Tibetan monks have shown Gamma when

Gamma waves

meditating leading to the theory that they are in a heightened state of consciousness that we don’t really understand. More research is needed for this, yet for us normal mortals, Gamma is for running away from lions, playing tough sport or being physically and mentally super active. It is a TERRIBLE state for learning.

Beta
Beta is the next level down from Gamma and happens when we are wide awake, working and multitasking. For teachers, this is most of the day. Planning, organising, teaching, marking and confronting the myriad of fires that exist in a teacher’s day is the realm of Beta. It’s a fast electrical state yet not as fast as Gamma.

It’s a good state for getting things done and strategic thinking. A person in Beta all day will be exhausted by the end of it. A human’s neurons can only be in a high electrical state for so long.

Students are in Beta when doing several things at once. They could be listening and taking notes as well as checking their phone. They are also in Beta when doing tasks they find hard or they are anxious. It is NOT a good state for learning.

Alpha
This is the middle zone of our electrical spectrum. It’s not high and not low. It’s for processing what is happening around you. It is also very necessary for visual processing and understanding. When you’re in an art gallery you are in Alpha. When you’re reading silently to yourself, you’re in Alpha. You’re also in Alpha when driving quietly on a country road.

The one thing that ruins Alpha is sound – or most forms of sound. That’s why you can’t make noise in an art gallery. It ruins your ability to process the art. Watching a silent movie involves far more Alpha than watching a movie with dialogue.

For teachers, Alpha is a good learning zone yet mainly when the learning involves visual processing or reading. English (for native English speakers), art, history and design can benefit from Alpha. Some sound can help with Alpha yet this needs to be quite specific:

  • A low, soothing voice
  • Quiet music without words – just audible
  • Nothing abrupt – consistent volume – no outside noise

It’s the beginning of the electrical state that produces ‘flow’ – the state when time goes quickly and you’re in the zone. Unfortunately, many teachers and students don’t experience Alpha at all during their day.

Theta
This is the true learning state. It is about a quarter of the way up your electrical spectrum. Theta occurs in daydreaming and meditation, yet also very much in single focused attention (doing one thing only).

Theta electrical signals originate in or near the hippocampus (deep inside the brain). They are very concerned with memory & especially the formation of new memories & navigation. There is a reliable relationship between the size of a person’s hippocampus (producing Theta) & memory performance. A person in Theta is THE MOST receptive to information and learning.  A teacher in Theta or Alpha is also at their best, can think clearly and be in control. 

Poor memory, bad behavior and learning difficulties are often related to too much Beta and not enough Theta creation.

The hippocampus has many densely packed layers of neurons & generates very strong EEG signals. These densely packed, memory-rich neurons can actually be formed during vigorous, sweaty exercise. This is called Neorogenesis.

While most people using the MINDZ headset will not be relaxed & meditative, they will be paying attention to one thing (the screen) & will therefore show Theta. Some people have a genetic default in Theta and are quite chilled. Besides that, Theta is produced by:

  • Eating,
  • laughing (or crying),
  • meditating (in whatever way you meditate eg swimming laps)
  • 30 minutes after vigorous or hard exercise.

The DELTA brain wave (0-4Hz).
Delta is experienced in deep, dreamless sleep & in transcendental meditation where awareness is fully detached. Among many things, deep sleep is important in healing & regeneration – both physical & emotional. Not having enough deep sleep is detrimental to your health in more ways than one. No one using the MINDZ headset will show DELTA.