Information Age Education
   Issue Number 181
March, 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.

Increase Student Engagement by
Activating the Brain's SEEKING System

Martha Kaufeldt
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 motivation.

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 destination.

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 process.

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, 2012).

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 strategies.

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.

Sylwester, R. (September, 2013). Understanding and mastering complexity: The central roles of the varieties of analogy. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 3/6/2016 from http://i-a-

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).

Contact information: Email: Martha@beginwiththebrain. Website: Facebook: Begin With the Brain. Twitter: @MarthaKaufeldt.

Reader Comments

We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and discussions pertaining to this newsletter. To use Disqus, please click the Login link below and sign in. If you have questions about how to use Disqus, please refer to this help page.

Readers may also send comments via email directly to and

About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at, a Website containing free books and articles at, a Blog at, and the free newsletter you are now reading. See all back issues of the Blog at and all back issues of the Newsletter at