While doing some reading for my Instructional Design Master’s program, I came upon a discussion of the triune brain. This was not a new concept for me as I had taken several biology courses as an undergrad. The triune brain is a model of the evolutionary development of the brain proposed by the neuroscientist Paul MacLean. In MacLean’s model, the innermost and most primitive part of the human brain is responsible for instinctive behavior including the fight or flight mechanism. This part of the brain is known as the reptilian brain, or reptilian complex, because it was first developed in reptiles. As reptiles evolved into mammals the limbic system, or paleomammalian complex, arose. The limbic system is where emotions are processed before they are given meaning in the neo-cortex. The neo-cortex is the part of the human brain responsible for high level thinking (e.g. language, abstraction, planning, and perception).
So you may be asking yourself, what does all this have to do with education and instructional design? Well, for many people, myself included, a new challenge is met with pure unprocessed emotion. When a person like me is confronted with a difficult or complex learning task our limbic systems triggers the fight or flight mechanism in our reptilian brain before our neo-cortex can process the infomation. Our bodies are then flooded with stress hormones the same as if we were being chased by a lion. These excess stress hormones can lead to anxiety and depression which in turn impacts our ability to think and learn. We as educators need to be mindful of how emotions, both positive and negative, impact both children’s and adult’s ability to learn.