Neuro-Focused Discourses


Applying insights into the structure and dynamics of the nervous system

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … dynamic networks
  • Knowing is … situation-appropriate responses
  • Learner is … a nervous system
  • Learning is … iterative restructuring
  • Teaching is … triggering




The 1990s saw an explosion of publications out of Neuroscience and Cognitive Science that were aimed at popular audiences. Almost overnight, it seemed, thinking about the brains in terms of containers or computers gave way to notions of vibrant complex systems that arise in, are coupled to, and are elements of many and varied other complex forms. By 2000, many educators and educational researchers were signaling how this shift in thinking undermined prevailing sensibilities on learning, intelligence, identity – sensibilities that infused or oriented much of schooling practice. Since then, researchers have been seeking to understand educational implications of the brain’s networked structure, its lifelong plasticity, and many other emergent insights … all with, disappointingly, little obvious impact on entrenched schooling practices.
The Brain

Because the brain features more and more prominently in the educational literature, we highlight below some of the more commonly mentioned elements, regions, and associated constructs:

  • Nervous System – the network of cells, tissues, and organs that sense and interpret information, coordinate the body’s voluntary and involuntary movements, and regulate the body’s functions (e.g., digestion, respiration, blood circulation) in response to any psychological, social, or environmental trigger.
    • Structurally, the Nervous System is seen to comprise two major aspects:
      • Central Nervous System – the brain and spinal cord, responsible for connecting sensations and perceptions with actions
      • Peripheral Nervous System – a messenger system comprising a web of cells that carry information to and from the Central Nervous System to other parts of the body
    • Functionally, the Nervous System is seen to have two major subdivisions:
      • Sympathetic Nervous System – those aspects of the Nervous System that are mobilized to respond to threats (See Motivation Theories for some prominent associated discourses on learning.) Associated phenomena include:
        • Sympathetic State (Hyperarousal) – a state of heightened arousal (that may trigger Fight, Flight, or Freeze responses; see Drives, Needs, & Desires Theories) that is triggered when the Sympathetic Nervous System is activated by a perceived threat or stress
      • Parasympathetic Nervous System – those aspects of the Nervous System that are associated with establishing and maintaining states of calm (See Well-Being Discourses for some prominent associated discourse on learning.) Associated phenomena include:
        • Parasympathetic State – a state of calmness or relaxation associated with the activation of the Parasympathetic Nervous System
      • Nervous System Dysregulation (Dysregulated Nervous System) – an imbalance of the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System, typically manifesting as a psychological problem or a mental illness (See Psychotherapy – especially the subsection, “Psychotherapies with holist sensibilities” – for some prominent associated discourses on learning.)

The brain has three basic compositional elements:

  • Neurons (Nerve Cells) – comprising about 10% of the Nervous System, specialized cells that transmit information through electrical and chemical signals. Types include:
    • Sensory Neurons – neurons associated with sensory systems that are activated by (i.e., detect) and transmit information
    • Interneurons (Relay Neurons) – neurons that integrate and interpret information from Sensory Neurons
    • Motor Neurons – neurons that distribute information across the body about responses and behaviors
  • Synapses – tiny gaps between the branches of Neurons, across which information passes via Neurotransmitters
    • Neurotransmitters – a variety of chemicals that enable communication among neurons by traveling between Synapses
  • Glial Cells (Neuroglia) – comprising about 90% of the Nervous System, specialized cells that, among other functions, afford structure to hold Neurons in place and to supply them with Neurotransmitters

Many brain regions have been identified. Below we have list parts that are mentioned with some frequency in the educational literature. Note that there is considerable overlap in functionality across parts, underscoring that few capabilities are entirely located in or determined by specific brain regions.

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  • Hindbrain (Lower Brain; Rhombencephalon) – the parts of the brain located where the spinal cord enters. The Hindbrain was the first part of the brain to evolve and is the first to develop in a fetus. Major components include:
    • Cerebellum – the part of the brain that detects movement and shifts in balance, and so plays important roles in coordination of muscles and learning of motor actions
    • Medulla (Medulla Oblongata) – the part of the brain that regulates heart function, respiration, blood pressure, and several reflexes (such as swallowing and coughing)
    • Pons – the part of the brain that manages several unconscious processes, including the sleep–wake cycle and many facial movements
  • Midbrain (Mesencephalon) – a relatively small part of the brain that is associated with perception (especially hearing and vision), arousal (alertness and wakefulness), motor control, and other functions associated with coupling with the world. The Midbrain was the second part of the brain to evolve and is the second to develop in a fetus. Major components include:
    • Reticular Formation (Reticular Activating System) – a key system in enabling attention and supporting consciousness, among other functions
  • Forebrain (Prosencephalon) – the major part of the human brain, playing the principal role in perception, thinking, languaging, and motor function. The Forebrain was the last part of the brain to evolve and is the last to develop in a fetus. Major components include:
    • Cerebral Cortex (Cortex) – a thin outer layer covering the Cerebrum, associated with a range of higher-level capacities, including language, reasoning, decision-making, creativity, intelligence, and personality
    • Cerebrum – the largest part of the brain, regarded as the controller and/or locus of thought, speech (and other language capacities), and learning
      • Hemispheres
        • Right Hemisphere – a region attentive to relationships and holistic understandings, tending to interpret all forms as alive and co-entangled
        • Left Hemisphere – a region that tends to parse elements of perception and to interpret them in terms of mechanical interactions
      • Lobes
        • Frontal Lobes – the largest lobes, associated with executive control, including managing thought, judgment, emotions, personality, muscle control, and memory
        • Occipital Lobes – located at the back of the brain, associated with spatial and visual competencies, including identifying color, discerning shapes, tracking movement, and locating objects
        • Parietal Lobes – located in the upper back of the brain, associated with interpretation so f sensory information and focusing attention
        • Temporal Lobes – located behind the ears, associated with interpreting and remembering auditory information, producing speech, and making sense of visual stimuli
      • Corpus Callosum (Callosal Commissure) – a thick bundle of nerve cells located between the two Hemispheres that both mediates communication between them and enforces hemispheric independence
      • Hypothalamus – a small region that plays a key role in regulating and balancing multiple body functions (e.g., temperature, emotional responses, appetite, sexual behavior)
      • Thalamus – the brain’s information relay center, through which all bodily sensations (expect smell) pass. The Thalamus also participates in sleep, awareness, learning, and memory.

Other associated discourses and additional frequently encountered topics of discussion include:

  • Genetics of Intelligence – an academic domain focused on better understanding the roles of genetics in intelligence – and, in particular, the manners in which genetics influence neural structures
  • Mirror Neurons – a neuron cluster that fires when one acts, when one observes another performing that act, or when one imagines engaging in that act. There was a spike of interest in the phenomenon among educators in the early 2000s, embraced simultaneously as support for and critique of action- and experience-based teaching emphases.
  • Neural Constructivism – the perspective that cognitive development involves the dynamic interaction of the neural substrate of one’s brain and one’s environment
  • Neural Decoding – the attempt to retroactively interpret traces of electrical activity in the brain in terms of the receipt and interpretation of sensory information as well as the triggering of decisions and activities based that information
  • Neurobiology – a field of research that combines interests in Neuroscience and physiology. In this sense, Neurobiology might be described as the complement of Psychology among discourses on learning. Whereas Psychology looks at the functions of the brain and the nervous system, Neurobiology studies their structures and dynamics. Subdiscourses include:
    • Interpersonal Neurobiology (Relational Neurobiology) (Daniel Siegel, 1990s) – a perspective that integrates Neurobiology with research on the social, situated, distributed, and cultural aspects of learning and identity


The matter of how the brain works is not the same as the matter of structuring the learning experiences of the school-aged learners. Part of the reason for that is the obvious fact that knowing about a subsystem in a complex evolving form rarely affords much insight into that grander form. Another, much more subtle part of the reason is that “knowing how the brain works” and “knowing what learning is” are not at all the same thing. Unfortunately, while much of the recent brain-focused advice for educators is well-grounded, many popular movements have arisen that try to reach too far. Neuro-Focused Discourses have contributed greatly by revealing flawed assumptions and indefensible practices. It is also demonstrating much promise in informing a range of education-related issues. But it must be engaged in conversation with – not in ignorance of – insights into learning from Psychology, Sociology, cultural studies, ecology, and other domains. On that detail, associated critical discourses include:
  • Neurocentrism (Sally Satel, Scott Lilienfeld; 2010s) – the reductive assumption that humans can be understood by looking principally (or exclusively) at their brains


  • Central Nervous System
  • Cerebellum
  • Cerebral Cortex (Cortex)
  • Cerebrum
  • Corpus Callosum (Callosal Commissure) 
  • Forebrain (Prosencephalon) 
  • Frontal Lobes
  • Genetics of Intelligence
  • Glial Cells (Neuroglia)
  • Hindbrain (Lower Brain; Rhombencephalon) 
  • Hypothalamus
  • Interneurons (Relay Neurons)
  • Interpersonal Neurobiology (Relational Neurobiology)
  • Left Hemisphere 
  • Medulla (Medulla Oblongata)
  • Midbrain (Mesencephalon) 
  • Mirror Neurons
  • Motor Neurons
  • Nervous System
  • Nervous System Dysregulation (Dysregulated Nervous System)
  • Neural Constructivism
  • Neural Decoding
  • Neurobiology
  • Neurocentrism
  • Neurons (Nerve Cells)
  • Neurotransmitters
  • Occipital Lobes
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System
  • Parasympathetic State
  • Parietal Lobes
  • Peripheral Nervous System
  • Pons
  • Reticular Formation (Reticular Activating System) 
  • Right Hemisphere
  • Sensory Neurons
  • Sympathetic Nervous System
  • Sympathetic State (Hyperarousal)
  • Synapses
  • Temporal Lobes
  • Thalamus

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2024). “Neuro-Focused Discourses” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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