Biological Psychology


Profound complexity of the nervous system

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible actions and interpretations
  • Knowing is … higher-order functions, located mainly in the brain
  • Learner is … the brain and any complex system within the brain
  • Learning is … systemic changes, located mainly in the brain
  • Teaching is … triggering learning




Neuroscience is a multidisciplinary branch of biology that focuses on the structure, functions, and development of the nervous system. With a scope that spans the thousands of distinguishable substructures between the molecular to the cognitive, Neuroscience combines domains as varied as molecular biology, physiology, and psychology (among many others) while it has given rise to many other disciplines, including Neuroeducation. Branches and subdomains of Neuroscience include:
  • Affective Neuroscience – inquires into the neural dynamics associated with emotions – which, given the central role of affect in robust and deep learning, is of increasing interest to educators
  • Behavioral Neuroscience (Biological Psychology; Biopsychology; Psychobiology) – applies the principles of biology to study genetic, physiological, and developmental mechanisms in behavior
  • Cellular Neuroscience – a branch of neuroscience that focuses on the study of types, functions, mutual influences, and co-actions of neurons
  • Cognitive Neuroscience – focuses on the biological processes that underlie cognition. Branches include:
    • Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience – a branch of Cognitive Neuroscience that focuses on the joint development of the mental (e.g., mind, identity, perception of reality) and the physical (e.g., the brain, situated activity)
  • Collective Neuroscience (various, 2020s) – the study of the synchronization of brain waves (i.e., Interbrain Synchrony; see below) that can occur among people involved in a shared experience, such as a conversation or a classroom lesson:
    • Interbrain Synchrony (Brain Synchrony) (various, 2000s) – the alignment of patterns of activity in different brains – which is more pronounced among close friends and between effective teachers and their students
  • Cultural Neuroscience – studies the interrelations between neurobiological systems and cultural environments
  • Positive Neuroscience – studies valued cognitive qualities that enrich existence, rather than focusing on pathologies or mental illness
  • Social Cognitive Neuroscience – uses tools of neuroscience to study social behavior and competence, focusing particularly on mental processes and constructs
  • Social Neuroscience – uses biological concepts and methods to study how social processes arise among biological systems. Associated discourses include:
    • Polyvagal Theory (Stephen Porges, 1990s) – the perspective that the nervous system has three types of response: activating/defensive (see Fight–Flight–Freeze System, under Drives, Needs, & Desires Theories), deactivating/growth, and a hybrid mode that plays out in social engagements. While contested and not endorsed by mainstream Social Neuroscience, Polyvagal Theory is the basis of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy, under Psychotherapy).
  • Systems Neuroscience – a subdomain of Neuroscience that invokes and utilizes insights and methods from Emergent Complexity Discourses to develop models and explanations of cognitive activity, from the subcellular to the social – spanning such phenomena as sensation, perception, memory, language, and self-awareness
Discourses associated with Neuroscience that have relevance to education include:
  • Neuroanthropology – studies the coupling of brain and culture, including how brains give rise to cultures and how cultures influence brains
  • Neurocognition – the neural structures and bottom-up dynamics that are associated with cognition
  • Neurology – the branch of medicine focused on conditions of, injuries to, and diseases of the central nervous system, which include the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves. Associated constructs include:
    • Neurotrauma (Brain Damage; Brain Injury) – the damaging, degeneration, or destruction of brain tissue. Types of Neurotrauma include:
      • Acquired Brain InjuryNeurotrauma due to injury that occurs after birth
      • Congenital Brain InjuryNeurotrauma that is present at birth
      • Genetic Brain InjuryNeurotrauma due to one or more abnormalities in one’s genome
  • Neurophilosophy (Patricia Smith Churchland, 1980s) – the study of the philosophical and epistemological commitments within Neuroscience research – both explicit and (most often) implicit
  • Neuropsychology – a branch of psychology that applies insights from Neuroscience to matters of learning and behavior. Subdomains of Neuropsychology include:
    • Behavioral Neuropsychology – a speciality within Clinical Neuropsychology (see below) that incorporates Behavior Modification methods in therapies intended for individuals with brain injuries
    • Clinical Neuropsychology – an applied practiced of Neuropsychology that is focuses on the therapies for individuals with brain injuries that compromise their abilities to function
    • Cognitive Neuropsychology – a subfield of Neuropsychology that focuses on the role of the brain in knowing and awareness, with a particular emphasis studying the effects of brain injury to better understand normal cognitive functioning


Among educationists, there are few criticisms of Neuroscience, but concerns are frequently voiced about enthusiastic embraces and uncritical applications of its medically focused insights. With relatively little attention to social, culture, and ecological matters, Neuroscience is simply too narrow to address the many and varied issues that surround learning.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

The scientific status of Neuroscience can’t be questioned, but it is fair to ask if the words “theory” and “learning” can be applied to describe it. We are classifying it as a theory of learning here because the field has provided insights into the complex dynamics of learning that surpass almost every other entry on our map. That said, with specific regard to formal education, Neuroscience does fall short on formatting many of its insights in ways that are immediately useful.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Among its core foci, Neuroscience is interested in how the nervous system can be changed. Thus, while it is not a theory of teaching, it has contributed substantially to discussions. (See Neuroeducation.)

Status as a Scientific Theory

The scientific status of Neuroscience can’t be questioned.


  • Acquired Brain Injury
  • Affective Neuroscience 
  • Behavioral Neuropsychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience (Biological Psychology; Biopsychology; Psychobiology)
  • Cellular Neuroscience
  • Clinical Neuropsychology
  • Cognitive Neuropsychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Collective Neuroscience
  • Congenital Brain Injury
  • Cultural Neuroscience
  • Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Genetic Brain Injury
  • Interbrain Synchrony (Brain Synchrony)
  • Neuroanthropology
  • Neurocognition
  • Neurology
  • Neurophilosophy
  • Neuropsychology
  • Neurotrauma (Brain Damage; Brain Injury)
  • Polyvagal Theory
  • Positive Neuroscience
  • Social Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Social Neuroscience
  • Systems Neuroscience

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Neuroscience” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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