Unit 2: How and Why People Learn

Brain-Based Learning


The 1990s has been declared by the congress as the "Decade of the Brain" to enhance public awareness of the benefits to be derived from brain research (Bush, 1990). Based on the new neurological findings, educators began to explore the implications of brain research on teaching and learning, and made recommendations on instructional approaches accordingly to match training and school teaching more closely to the way students' brains actually learn. Brain-based learning theory is based on the structure and function of the brain, and aims to synthesize brain research information with implications and applications for education and learning.

Brain Structure and Facts

Brain Structure

Figure 1. Brain Structure
Click here to read more about brain.

In the last decade, scientists learned more about brain research than the previous one hundred years (Roberts, 2002). According to brain researchers, the human brain contains billions of nerve cells, or neurons that receive, process, and transmit information. The brain is divided into four lobes, each with its own distinct function for learning and reading, but every element of the brain is still interconnected in learning activities. The following image brings you to a website for more information about brain structure and functions.

Experimentation has shown that the two different hemispheres of the brain are responsible for different manners of thinking. Many individual people have a distinct preference for one thinking styles. It is probably s/he is either left-brain or right-brain dominant. The following table illustrates the different thinking styles between left-brain and right-brain (Funderstanding, 2001b):

Left Brain
Right Brain
Looks at parts
Looks at wholes


Renate Caine & Geoffrey Caine

Renate Caine, professor of education at California State University, and educational consultant Geoffrey Caine have devoted much of their career researching how to help the brain learn better. They summarized 12 principles that can serve as a general theoretical foundation for brain-based learning (Caine & Caine, 1991, 1997):

Principle 1: The brain is a complex adaptive system.
Principle 2: The brain is a social brain.
Principle 3: The search for meaning is innate.
Principle 4: The search for meaning occurs through "patterning".
Principle 5: Emotions are critical to patterning.
Principle 6: Every brain simultaneously perceives and creates parts and wholes.
Principle 7: Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception.
Principle 8: Learning always involves conscious and unconscious processes.
Principle 9: We have at least two ways of organizing memory.
Principle 10: Learning is developmental.
Principle 11: Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.
Principle 12: Every brain is uniquely organized.

Caines' 12 Principles
Figure 2. Caines' 12 Principles
Click here to read more about the principles

Based on these principles, Renate identified three instructional approaches as the three interactive elements essential for the expansion of dynamical knowledge (Caine & Caine, 1991, 1997):

  • The orchestrated immersion of the learner in complex experience - Creating learning environments that fully immerse students in an educational experience.

  • The active processing of experience - Allowing the learner to consolidate and internalize information by actively processing it.

  • Relaxed alertness as an optimal state of mind - Trying to eliminate fear in learners, while maintaining a highly challenging environment.


Eric Jensen

Eric Jensen is another major researcher who has spent most of his life connecting brain research with applications to the classroom. Jensen has authored over 20 books about the applications of recent brain research to education and set up the Jensen Learning Corporation to offer brain-based trainings to accelerate people's learning skills. In his books, he introduces the latest research finding in brain studies, and also recommends specific activities that are fun to do in classroom.

Like Caine and Caine, Jensen also stresses the importance of the plasticity of brain, and encourages teachers and trainers to immerse students in an enriched and positive-thinking environment. Besides, he recommends a few other specific areas of research that have important implications for learning, memory, schools and trainings (Jensen, 1996):

  • The hormonal brain: hormones can and do impact cognition.
  • The moving brain: how movement influences learning.
  • The spatial brain: how space and relational learning & recall works.
  • The attentional brain: prefrontal cortex, what really drives attention and ADD.
  • The emotional brain: impact of threats on hormones, memory, cells and genes.
  • The patient brain: the role of time in the learning process.
  • The computational brain: the role of feedback in forming neural networks.
  • The artful brain: the role of arts and music.
  • The connected brain: how our brain is body and body is brain.
  • The developing brain: what to do and when to do it; value of the first 3 years.
  • The hungry brain: what to eat: the role of nutrition in learning and memory.
  • The chemical brain: which chemicals do what & how to activate the right ones.


Other Researchers

David Sousa, an international educational consultant promotes Pulse learning theory, which tells teachers that learners need a diffusion time after a focused session. Sousa says that in a 40-minute period class, the first 20 minutes and the last 10 minute is the best teaching time, so a good lesson with the most retention is focused, diffused, focused.

Don Campbell, the founder of the Mozart Effect Resource Center , outlines research on the connections between learning, creativity and exposure to music and shows how sound and music can stimulate learning and memory.

Brain-based instructors also do specific physical exercises with their students to assist learning. Carla Hannaford wrote “Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head” about the physical exercises that help our learning potentials. In addition, Paul Dennison devised a Brain Gym , where learners do exercises to connect their left and right hemispheres of the brain.


Implications and Limitations

The expansion of natural science has brought the brain waves to our education world. Many educators are eager to take actions to match the school learning more closely to the way how brain learns and bring out students’ natural potentials and motivation to learn. Overall, the brain-based learning theory impacts education in four aspects (Funderstanding, 2001a).

  • Curriculum – The schools need to place a balanced emphasis on the subjects of arts, social, and natural science. Teachers must design lessons around students’ interests and make learning a multiple, rich and interactive experience.
  • Instruction – Teachers need to structure learning around real problems, and allow students to learn both inside and outside of classroom. Teachers also need to encourage team work and create a joyful learning atmosphere.
  • Assessment – Teachers need to allow students to take charge of learning and the development of personal meanings and encourage learners to reach self-reflection and deeper meanings.
  • Learning disabilities – Neurological testing may assist in diagnosing, treating, and evaluating the effectiveness of programs designed to ameliorate various learning problems (Driscoll, 1999).

However, brain-based learning has often been questioned and criticized about its credentials since the beginning (Davis, 2004). As the brain researches have been progressing rigorously only in the recent 15 years, there are a lack of longitudinal studies regarding the new cutting-edge neurological findings, as well as a paucity of evidence-based research applying these findings in school environment. It is recommended that the expertise combining several disciplines comprising neurophysiology, cognitive psychology, anthropology and social science is needed to make better progress in our understanding of learning and brain. Teachers cannot regard brain-based learning as a panacea or magic bullet to solve all education problems, but they need to keep abreast of the new neurological findings for directions to teach in a more purposeful and informed style.


Additional Resources

Websites for Brain-based Learning:



Bush, G. (1990). Presidential proclamation. Retrieved Aug. 23, 2005, from http://www.loc.gov/loc/brain/proclaim.html

Caine, R. N., & Caine, G. (1991). Making connections: Teaching and the human brain. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Caine, R. N., & Caine, G. (1997). Education on the edge of possibility. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Davis, A. (2004). The credentials of brain-based learning. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 38(1), 21-36.

Driscoll, M. P. (1999). Learning and biology. In Psychology of learning for instruction (2nd ed., pp. 257-298). Needham Heights, Massachusetts: Allyn & Bacon, A Pearson Education Company.

Funderstanding. (2001a). Brain-based learning. Retrieved July, 22, 2005, from http://www.funderstanding.com/brain_based_learning.cfm

Funderstanding. (2001b). Right brain vs. Left brain. Retrieved July 22, 2005, from http://www.funderstanding.com/right_left_brain.cfm

Jensen, E. (1996). Brain-based learning. Del Mar, CA: Turning Point Publishing.

Roberts, J. W. (2002). Beyond learning by doing: The brain compatible approach. Journal of Experiential Education, 25(2), 281-285.


Last Updated: May 11, 2009
Created and maintained by Atsusi "2c" Hirumi, Ph.D. & Baiyun Chen, TA
Copyright @ 2005, University of Central Florida