Reptilian Brain and Learning.


Fantasy, Portrait, Woman, Girl, Female“There are three kinds of brains: the first one distinguishes by itself, the second one understands what the other two discern, and the third one neither understands nor discerns what the other distinguishes”.

Nicholas Machiavelli.

Have you ever felt afraid, paralyzed, with sweaty palms and blank mind when you have been asked for something even when you know the answer?

This is a typical reaction of the reptilian brain, one of the components of Triune Brain, concept developed by Paul Mc Lean that includes the limbic brain and the neo cortex, three structures that work connected.

The reptilian brain is the most primitive of the three structures. It’s composed by the brain stem and the cerebellum. The brain stem is in charge of the basic functions that guarantee life, such as breathing, digestion and circulation. The cerebellum is the responsible for the balance, movement and coordination.

The reptilian brain is in charge of survival, the general maintenance of our organism and it can save our life in case of upcoming danger. It is also responsible for organizing and processing the functions related to doing and acting. It is mechanic, routine, unconscious, obsessive, compulsive, instinctive, sets patterns, habits and values that guide the behavior; it is change-resistant, acts rapidly and does not learn from mistakes. Its behaviors are automatic and ritualistic. Violence, aggression, anger, territoriality, and social hierarchies are associated to this brain, which is also responsible for the answer related to the fight of flight mechanism. It is the one that decides whether to accept the challenge and fight, or running when feeling threatened and abandoning the challenge.

This brain is not capable of thinking or feeling. Its function is about acting when the state of the body demands it.

In normal circumstances, the blood flow is uniformly distributed in the whole brain; however, when there is danger or threat, blood is concentrated in the brain stem and the cerebellum, setting the fight or flight mechanism which is characterized by accelerated heart rate, sweaty palms as well as the release of adrenaline and cortisol. In these circumstances, cognitive functions, and hence learning, are inhibited.

In order to make the reptilian brain being ready for a learning experience, some conditions are required:

Rituals: knowing what is about to happen, calm the reptilian brain. That’s why it’s important to tell the participants the objectives of the learning experience, the rules of the group, feeding schedule, etc.

Security: the reptilian brain requires spaces where it is not under threat; on the contrary, the fight-run answer is to be activated, with its consequent physical and inhibitory alterations. Games, music, humor, laugh, effective communication and the trust toward the facilitator and the learning partners, encourage security and make the reptilian braing being calmed. We must consider that when the reptilian brain develops routine behaviors, encourage the habits that make us feel secure in our territory, home, school and work. It is important to know what produces security or insecurity in our learning partners and work on that.

Sense of belonging: related to the territoriality of the reptilian brain that requires to feel that it belongs to the group as well as its presence is worthy and accepted by the others.

In order to attend the reptilian brain, it’s useful to design strategies for students to perceive what they are learning as a basic need that would allow them to develop the flexibility required to survive in a constantly changing environment.

The three structures composing the triune brain, have a complementary influence in the learning process. That’s why when designing every learning experience, we must attend all of them in an integrated way.

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