Information Age Education
   Issue Number 180
February, 2016   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, six free books based on the newsletters are available: Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

Editor’s note: This article and the next two in this IAE Newsletter series explain the molecular and systems organizations that our brain uses to enhance our body/brain's survival. The articles thus provide useful initial insight into how to make learning more joyful. About a dozen of the articles that will appear later in this IAE Newsletter series will provide examples of activities and programs that activate the feelings of satisfaction and joy that learning enhances.

The Biology of the Joy of Learning

Pat Wolfe
Consultant: The Educational Applications of Brain Research

"Education is discovering the brain and that's about the best news there could be… Anyone who does not have a thorough, holistic grasp of the brain's architecture, purposes, and main ways of operating is as far behind the times as an automobile designer without a full understanding of engines." (Leslie Hart. Human Brain, Human Learning.)

Although our brain is capable of many amazing things, its main purpose is to enhance our survival by rewarding us for doing those things that help to keep our species alive. Understanding how a brain and its reward system functions is thus critical to understanding human learning and behavior.

The Reward System

Sensory input begins a neuronal process that can eventually lead to such behaviors as playing a musical instrument, kicking a soccer ball, solving a difficult problem, or creating stories and artistic expression. Electrical and chemical signals allow such brain cells to continually and rapidly communicate. Simply put, stimulated individual neuronal cells that reach an appropriate response threshold send electrical signals down extended branches (axons). These axons branch at their terminals and release messenger chemicals (neurotransmitters) that then can activate the receiving neuron at a tiny gap called a synapse.

One neuron can communicate with thousands of other neurons. This interconnection results in the formation of large neuronal networks that can store and transmit information.

To learn something results in the development of memory networks that store and use the information. The mechanism for this storage and retrieval is an active but still poorly understood research topic.

The continued ease of the retrieval of resulting memorized information depends on the frequency of a network's use. Some learned behaviors are more likely to be repeated than others. For example, the basic moves in a repeatedly played computer game or in riding a bicycle can become automatic, although they were initially mastered consciously. The neural connections for these automatic behaviors are strong (and are often called “hardwired”). Conversely, the connections for a foreign language learned in high school but seldom used later in life may weaken over time. Our interest in the mastery and the amount of the network's use plays a major role in whether or not a memory network will continue strong.

The Natural Molecular System

Satisfaction and joy also have a molecular basis within our brain's approximately 50 neurotransmitters. Several of these neurotransmitters provide a natural system that creates and strengthens memory connections. The natural molecular systems use such neurotransmitters as glutamate, GABA, acetylcholine, dopamine, histamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and serotonin. This article will focus specifically on dopamine.

The “pleasure center” or “reward pathway" are the terms commonly used to identify innate brain systems that strongly influence learning and behavior (Kringelbach, 2009). The systems exist in the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) and the Nucleus Accumbens (NA) that are located deep within both brain hemispheres. The VTA and NA were both formerly thought to mainly play the central role in reward, pleasure, and addiction, but they may also play a related positive anticipatory role in problem solving. That relationship will be explained in the next IAE Newsletter issue.

The VTA and NA release a natural (or innate) neurotransmitter called dopamine when we engage in a behavior that increases our search for and consequent chance of survival. Dopamine causes us to feel good and so it makes it likely that we'll repeat the current successful behaviors. Recreationally used drugs such as cocaine and heroin also cause (or, in some sense, trick) the reward pathway to release dopamine and so often result in addiction.

In order to survive, the members of a species must carry out such vital functions as eating and reproducing. Pleasant social interactions also appear to be vital as we have a better chance of survival within a group than in living alone (Sylwester, 2015). All these actions result in an increase in the pleasurable sensation created by the release of dopamine and so they increase the chances that they will be repeated. We are thus literally rewarded for carrying out these vital life functions.

The Joy of Learning

So what do the functions of the reward pathway and its release of dopamine have to do with the joy of learning? Our brain's frontal lobes have an abundance of dopamine receptors. These lobes control much of our cognitive functioning, and especially problem solving. It should thus not be a surprise that dopamine is released when students are successful when learning and in their consequent ability to solve problems. Further, students are motivated to continue the behaviors that the good feelings caused. Motivation, learning, and problem solving are survival issues. Throughout evolution, the brains of humans and other animals that were successful in learning and problem solving had an increased chance of survival.

This dopamine release can be easily observed when children take their first steps and a big smile lights up their faces. Teachers are familiar with the same facial expression when a student says, “I figured it out!” or when the puzzle of reading begins to be solved. How happy teachers and parents are when children become excited by learning. I recall my own dopamine release when my ten-year-old grandson informed me he was tired of the rides at the fair and wanted to know if we could go to the library. As parents and educators, that joy of learning is also our challenge and our ultimate goal.

About a dozen of the articles that will appear later in this IAE Newsletter series will provide examples of activities and programs that activate the feelings of satisfaction and joy that learning enhances.

References and Resources

Hart, L. (1983). Human brain, human learning. New York: Longman.

Kringelbach, M. (2009). The pleasure center: Trust your animal instincts. Oxford University.

Sylwester, R. (November, 2015). Non-kin collaborations and complex projectiles. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 12/24/2015 from

Wolfe, P. (2010). Brain matters: Translating research into classroom practice. 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wolfe, P., & Nevills, P. (2009). Building the reading brain, PreK-3. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.


Pat Wolfe is a former teacher of Kindergarten through 12th grade, county office administrator, and adjunct university professor. Over the past 25 years, as an educational consultant, she has conducted workshops, seminars and keynote addresses for thousands of administrators, teachers, boards of education and parents in schools and districts throughout the United States and in over 40 countries internationally. Her major area of expertise is the application of brain research to educational practice. She is an author of the award-winning book, Brain Matters: Translating Research to Classroom Practice. She is co-author with Pamela Nevills of Building the Reading Brain. She has appeared on numerous videotape series, satellite broadcasts, radio shows, and television programs. She presently resides in Napa, California.

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