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Chapter 1 excerpt

(From Chapter 1)  Metaphorically speaking, the brain has two competing states of mind. One says, “I’m anxious,” the other says, “I’m curious.”  Negotiating this ongoing tension is a major factor  that can affect how learning happens but in our experience, it is one that is not sufficiently addressed in many learning environments.

Here is a metaphorical description of our threat-anticipating, defensive, certainty-seeking, anxious, ready-to-fight-or-flee, no time-to-think-about-learning brain.  Its major responses to the basic question, “What do I have to do to save myself?” are:




• I have to know what’s happening.

• I have to focus narrowly on the immediate potential danger

• I have to be certain.

• I have to be right (uncertainty or ambiguity can mean annihilation!).

• I have to avoid threat.

• I have to be always prepared to react, in case.


Fortunately, we also have a very well-developed novelty-seeking, pattern-constructing, cause-seeking, meaning-making, analogy-directed brain. Its major focus is still and always self-preservation, but it comes at it differently:


• I have to seek experience.FIGURE 1.2 CURIOUS BRAIN

• I have to categorize and associate by comparison (analogy) what’s happening now with what happened before. 

• I have to construct and elaborate patterns.

• I have to determine cause and effect.

• I have to reward myself for figuring things out with “feel-good” hormone release.

• I have to focus more widely, on possibilities beyond the immediate.


In fact, both states of mind have many features in common–both seek to determine what is happening and why–but the brain also suffers from negativity bias, and is many times more likely to focus on and remember negative interpretations of experience.  People in a state of heightened anxiety, such as during tests or performance appraisals, are on brain overload. They may not see or hear correctly, “which causes them to misinterpret and give the wrong answer . . . . Their brains are so busy dealing with the [intensity that the brain can’t] perceive accurately. Our brains are not infinite. They run out of space, out of gas, as it were,” as worry and anxiety leave less room for perceiving (Ratey, 2002, pp. 61–62).

In terms of learning,  when the brain is scared, it has a foot on the brake; when it is curious, it has a foot on the accelerator. The problem is, in many learning situations, both things are happening at the same time.



When the reflexive brain is sharply stimulated—perhaps when an adult is suddenly put on the spot (especially if everyone else is watching)—the capacity of the rest of the brain to reflect, reason, or learn is severely curtailed.  Unless facilitators attend sufficiently well to threat mediation, adults may literally not have enough presence of mind to learn.  Well-planned approaches to facilitation and meaningful learning may fall flat if we have not taken into account adults’ emotional responses to having their beliefs and certainties challenged.

© Kathleen Taylor and Catherine Marienau, 2016