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Increase Student Engagement by
Activating the Brain's SEEKING System
Neuro-educator, Enrichment Teacher, and
Professional Development Specialist
How can teachers leverage students’ intrinsic motivation
to maximize engagement and learning? The emerging field of affective
neuroscience suggests that intrinsically motivated behaviors are
actually exploratory behaviors. The brain has a natural “SEEKING
System,” described by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp as a primary
emotional processing system that energizes our behaviors and attitudes
(Panksepp and Biven, 2012). The SEEKING System prompts us to eagerly
anticipate, and ultimately to find the things we need for basic
survival, such as food, a mate/companion, and shelter. It is the
instinctual drive that all mammals need in order to survive and thrive.
It generates the enthusiasm that underlies all positive motivation and
keeps us intensely interested in exploring our world. The SEEKING
System plays a key role in learning and making connections as it helps
create anticipatory eagerness – including a thirst for knowledge. In
our recently published book, The Motivated Brain: Improving Student Attention, Engagement and Perseverance,
Gayle Gregory and I provided suggestions for teachers on how they might
harness the power of their students’ intrinsic motivation to make
learning fun, engaging, and meaningful (Gregory and Kaufeldt, 2015).
Scientists formerly believed that the release of the neurotransmitter
dopamine caused us to feel pleasure when we achieved a goal or finished
a task. The “dopaminergic pathway,” part of the medial forebrain
bundle, was previously referred to as the brain’s “reward system.” The
latest research by Panksepp, Kent Berridge, and other affective
neuroscientists shows that the release of dopamine actually causes us
to experience anticipation, excitement, desire, arousal, and the need
to pursue and search. Dopamine increases our general level of arousal,
inquisitiveness and goal-directed behavior. The release of dopamine
makes us become excited when we believe we are about to get what we
desire. This is generally a good feeling of enthusiasm. Panksepp also
notes that the system seeks, and is attracted to, novelty, the
anticipation of having fun, playing, and winning (achieving success).
This SEEKING System is believed to generate and sustain curiosity and
Once we have “found” something needed, useful, or interesting, we
become satisfied and temporarily stop further seeking. The latest
research shows that it is the opioid system and the release of
endorphins and endo-cannabinoids (separate from dopamine) that makes us
experience pleasure and feel “rewarded.” According to Pecina and
Berridge (2013) the dopamine system is the “wanting” and the opioid
system is the “liking.” The wanting system gets us into action and the
liking system makes us feel satisfied and to temporarily stop seeking.
Recent research shows that the dopamine system is stronger than the
opioid system. We seek more than we are actually satisfied. The journey
may in fact be more enjoyable and satisfying than reaching the
The SEEKING System and Its Three Distinct Processing Levels
The SEEKING System has three distinct processing levels (Wright
and Panksepp, 2012). Understanding how each one works may be of great
help to classroom teachers who want to motivate students and promote
engagement. The most basic is called the Primary Processing System.
This instinctual system coordinates all incoming sensory information
and generates an urge to see which such resources are available. When
interactions with objects begin and discoveries are made, the Secondary
Processing System launches and learning begins. The Tertiary Processing
System is the most advanced level of thinking and learning. It is at
this level that we SEEK knowledge and answers to higher-level complex
questions. Each of these levels is an integral part of the learning
Primary Processing (First Level)
The very basic emotions emerging from deep within the brain that are
instinctual, ancestral “memories” are what all mammals need in order to
survive and are the essence of the Primary Processing System.
Enthusiasm and anticipation are generated as we explore the environment
for possible resources and anything that might bring pleasure. These
urges (also referred to as anoetic consciousness) motivate us to seek
out, find, and acquire all of the resources we may need to survive –
without any prior learning. It is the inner drive that keeps us
enthusiastically investigating our environment. We are particularly
attracted to anything novel or threatening in the environment. Beyond
meeting our basic needs and without any expectation of rewards, we
vigorously explore everything and everyone around us in order to make
sense of our environment.
How might educators use the Primary Processing Level of the SEEKING
System to promote motivation that results in student engagement? The
answers are not new to us: Orchestrating an enriched learning
environment that encourages exploration, movement, and investigations.
Opportunities for unstructured discovery play are imperative at the
younger grades and may also be key factors to engage older students.
Students need time to explore materials, realia, artifacts, and real
problems, as well as opportunities to make choices. This exploration
time can be enhanced when students get to collaborate and share ideas.
Educators must be vigilant about keeping up with novel experiences.
“When a stimulus ceases to be novel (when the animal becomes accustomed
to it) the SEEKING system no longer responds” (Panksepp and Biven,
Secondary Processing (Second Level)
The foraging and exploration generated by the SEEKING System at the
Primary Processing Level ultimately produces interactions with the
environment. Our brains begin to make new dendritic connections when we
experience an “AHA!” moment as resources are found and we are rewarded
with nourishment, pleasure, play, social interactions, and new
knowledge. The brain begins to learn that certain conditions and cues
may be worth investigating because it remembers the results from past
interactions. This appetitive motivation and goal-oriented behavior
occurs when the brain couples new experiences to memory schemas and
seeks to recreate the reward or experience. Now the generalized SEEKING
System begins to anticipate possible rewards and resources and becomes
consummatory. Noetic consciousness is when we begin to develop an
understanding about our world. When an experience gets intense enough
or proves to be of value, we can describe and reflect on it. This
“recognized awareness” is the beginning of the learning process.
If educators apply this understanding to the design of learning
environments, it is possible that students may experience greater
anticipation and motivation by making connections to prior learning.
Encourage the Secondary Processing Level of the SEEKING System to
engage by discussing new learning experiences, making a connection to
prior learning, discovering relevance to students’ daily lives, and
creating sustained anticipation and interest.
Make a connection to what students already know and have an interest in.
Offer opportunities to socialize and connect with others.
Provide a “call to action” to help others or the planet (to CARE).
Brains are growing and making connections as we are adapting to the
environment, maximizing resources, understanding patterns, and
developing memories. Making sure that students see connections to prior
learning will spark the SEEKING System to attend and engage. Using
metaphors and analogies helps students to compare elements of the new
experience to aspects that are like previous concepts they have already
learned. Additionally, curriculum content must be relevant, meaningful,
and seem important to the learner. The brain may interpret topics as
worthless of pursuing if they appear meaningless, irrelevant, and not
connected to students’ everyday lives.
Tertiary Processing (Third Level)
The SEEKING System's Primary Processing Level urges are instinctual,
unconditioned, and survival-based. The Secondary Processing Level makes
connections and true learning begins to take place. In humans, the
development of the cerebral cortex allows us to think and make
connections at much higher levels. This Tertiary Processing Level is
our ability to begin to think beyond the present, imagine, create,
synthesize and make cognitively sophisticated plans. This level of
SEEKING grows with maturity (Wright and Panksepp, 2012). Executive
functions in the neocortex include: making plans, problem-solving,
complex thinking, organizing, keeping track of time, strategizing, and
combining knowledge and ideas into new possibilities. At the Tertiary
Processing Level, brains SEEK answers to big questions, imagine
possibilities, and analyze our understanding through meta-cognitive
How might educators orchestrate classrooms and instruction to promote
creative thinking, problem-solving, meta-cognition, and other 21st
century skills? Part of the SEEKING System involves the internal
thought processes and strategic planning one does as we seek. Thought
requires understanding concepts and articulate language. As the human
brain seeks, it is constantly comparing incoming data to what is known;
always sizing up the situation. When presented with new experiences,
students who can swiftly generate strong and useful analogies will be
able to make more immediate connections (Sylwester, September, 2013).
Helping students “to think like scientists” helps them to learn how to
generate hypotheses, gather data, and refine their process. Working on
real problems and projects allows students to make predictions,
experiment, and seek out solutions. Teach meta-cognitive strategies to
encourage self-reflection, analysis, and goal-setting.
Student Motivation & Engagement = Activate the SEEKING System
The essence of natural learning is what biologists call the
“perception/action cycle.” All organisms have to do two basic things in
order to survive: gather information about their environment and
themselves (perception), and based on this information, they have to
manipulate their environment and themselves, in a way that is
advantageous to them (action) (Fuster, 2003). Using metaphors and
analogies helps students to compare elements of the new experience to
aspects that are like previous concepts they have already learned. In
addition to prompting us to enthusiastically search for resources to
meet our basic physical and emotional needs, the SEEKING-EXPECTANCY
system also allows (urges) us to develop strategic thinking and higher
mental processes as we create hypotheses, make predictions, and
fine-tune our expectations.
When the SEEKING System is engaged we feel good while we are doing
tasks – not just upon their completion. The SEEKING System provides us
with continued enthusiasm, interest, and motivation while we are in the
midst of processing incoming information that is important for us.
Sharing this with our students is imperative. Instead of the focus of a
school task being on the completion or the grade, teachers must
continue to point out the joyful feelings that come when we are working
toward the goal. SEEKING answers, investigating, and researching are
all natural instinctual processes in our brains. Providing
opportunities to do REAL things, with REAL stuff, in REAL-WORLD
situations will captivate the SEEKING System and will, in turn,
stimulate motivation and ultimately student engagement.
“I agree that this system, so important for generating feelings of
‘enthusiasm’ as opposed to rewarding ‘pleasure’ needs to be on the
radar of educators. If this system can be captivated by teachers, they
have done half their job.” (Jaak Panksepp, personal communication,
March 22, 2014.)
References and Resources
Fuster, J. (2003). Cortex and mind: Unifying cognition. New York: Oxford University.
Grandin, T., & Johnson, C. (2009). Animals make us human. New York: Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt.
Gregory, G., & Kaufeldt, M. (2015). The motivated brain: Improving student attention, engagement and perseverance. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Gregory, G., & Kaufeldt, M. (2012). Think BIG, start small: How to differentiate instruction in a brain-friendly classroom. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Hallowell, E.M. (2011). SHINE: Using brain science to get the best from your people. Boston: Harvard Business Review.
Hattie, J., & Yates, G. (2014). Visible learning and the science of how we learn. New York: Routledge Academic.
Panksepp, J., & Biven, L. (2012). The archaeology of mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions. New York: W.W. Norton.
Pecina, S., & Berridge, K. (2013). Dopamine or
opioid stimulation of nucleus accumbens similarly amplify cue-triggered
“wanting” for reward. European Journal of Neuroscience.
Pritchard, R., & Ashwood, E. (2008). Managing motivation: A manager’s guide to diagnosing and improving motivation. New York: Routledge Academic.
Wright, J.S., & Panksepp, J. (2012). An
evolutionary framework to understand foraging, wanting and desire: The
neuropsychology of the SEEKING System. Bulletin of the International Neuropsychoanalysis Society
Martha Kaufeldt is a professional development specialist, author, and a
part-time teacher at a public charter school in California. Since 1984,
her specialty has been interpreting and applying educational
neuroscience into classroom practice. She travels internationally
conducting workshops and trainings on curriculum development,
differentiated instruction, school restructuring, natural learning, and
brain-friendly strategies for teachers and parents. Martha has also
been a district staff development specialist and gifted education
program director. She has written several books including Begin With the Brain: Orchestrating the Learner-Centered Classroom, 2nd ed. (Corwin, 1999), Teachers, Change Your Bait! Brain-Compatible Differentiated Instruction (Crown House, 2005), and Think Big, Start Small (with Gayle Gregory, Solution Tree, 2012). Her most recent book, co-authored with Gayle Gregory, is The Motivated Brain: Improving Student Attention, Engagement and Perseverance (ASCD, 2015).
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