While working with a group of fifth-graders, we had a wonderful discussion regarding neuroplasticityand how one could change the shape and development of his or her brain. These students already had the basic understanding of how neurons process and store information, and recognized the importance of the synapse. What they didn’t realize was how positive and negative thoughts affect this growth and development of these miraculous neurons and their synaptic junctions.
What is going on in the brain when one produces positive or negative thoughts?
Every thought releases some type of chemical. When positive thoughts are generated, cortisol decreases and the brain produces serotonin, creating a feeling of well-being. When serotonin levels are normal, one feels happy, calmer, less anxious, more focused and more emotionally stable (Scaccia, 2017).
Daniel Goleman author of “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence” states that the brain has heightened prefrontal activity and positivity resulting in enhanced mental functions such as creative thinking, cognitive flexibility, and even faster processing. Positive emotions widen our span of attention and it also changes our perception and focus on more of the “we” instead of the “me” (Goleman, 2013. pg. 170). And I asked the students, “Isn’t this exactly what we want when working collaboratively with fellow classmates?”
Looking at the prefrontal cortex, when happy thoughts occur, there is brain growth through the reinforcement and generation of new synapses. The prefrontal cortex allows you to reflect and think about what you are doing at the time, and allows you to control your emotions through your deep limbic brain. Since it allows you to focus, it also gives you time for metacognition (being aware of one’s own thought processes).
As our discussion continued, we talked about what happens when someone is anxious, under stress or angry. When stressed, it’s difficult to take in and process new material, yet alone think creatively. “Stress can alter plasticity in the nervous system, particularly in the limbic system”(Sapolsky, 2003). Negative thoughts also reduce activity in the cerebellum, which controls coordination, balance, working relationships with others as well as speed of thought (Marien, 2015).
The frontal lobe, particularly the prefrontal cortex, decides the amount of attention to pay to something based on its importance and how you feel about it. The more you focus on negativity, the more synapses and neurons you brain will create – supporting your negative thought process. Negative thoughts slow down the brain’s ability to function and it impedes cognition.
The class concluded with a summary on what the students had learned about the power of positive thinking. By thinking positive thoughts, the students came to realize they can enhance their higher-order thinking skills as well as analyze and control their cognitive processes, especially when actively engaged in learning. After a few moments of letting the students process what they just learned, Tony summed it all up by saying, “So, to get better at learning — to improve our thinking – we need to keep our brains happy.”
Dr. Lou E. Whitaker, Ed. D., Neuro-Education Consultant, has a Bachelor of Science in Education from Northern Illinois University, a Masters in Administration from National-Louis University and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Nova Southeastern University. Having over 35 years of experience in education, she has been a teacher, an assistant principal, a principal, and served as the Associate Superintendent for Schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. She is currently an Educational Consultant for Open Minds Enterprises, EdCenter, Global Center for College & Career Readiness, as well as a consultant for MeTEOR Education.
Chosen as one of Dr. Pat Wolfe’s Brainy Bunch Members, she has been involved with Dr. Wolfe’s continuous study of the human brain. The Brainy Bunch is a group of educators and health professionals who are passionate about brain development and its impact on learning. On a yearly basis, the group invites two outstanding neuroscientists to meet with them and discuss their latest research developments. Then this renowned group of educators, led by Dr. Wolfe, translate neurological research into classroom practice. Dr. Whitaker understands the importance of keeping abreast of what is going on in neuroscience as well as understanding the importance of data-driven best practice research. These are essential for making a positive impact on our students’ lives.
Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The hidden driver of excellence. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.
Marien, P. a. (2015). The linguistic cerebellum. New York, New York: Academic Press.
Reynolds, S. (2011, August 2). Happy brain, happy life. Retrieved September 15, 2017, from Psychology Today: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/attention
Sapolsky, R. (2003, November). Stress and plasticity in the limbic system. Neurochemical Research, 28(11), 1735-1742.
Scaccia, A. (2017, May 18). Serotonin: What you need to know. Retrieved September 15, 2017, from healthline: https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/serotonin#overview1