The major networks of the brain provide a view into the essential dimensions of cognitive, emotional, and social processing and their developmental interdependence.
Though work on the brain from two to three decades ago sought to identify specific brain regions’ unique contributions to mental processing, many scientists have shifted to a focus on the networks of connectivity between regions that facilitate different activity modes important for thinking and learning.128–129 The basic organization of these networks appears to be present at birth and to develop across the first decades of life,106,130–134 but it is the way the brain is used, including how a person thinks, feels, and relates to others, that strengthens and tunes these dynamic networks over time.135 The growth and balance of these networks depends in part upon a person’s environment, opportunities, and relationships, which together influence the “cross talk” of neurons within the same network and the delicate balance of activity among the networks.136–138
There are three major brain networks that together support a broad range of mental capacities. Through their co-regulation and coordination, each of these networks contributes to social, emotional, and cognitive functioning, allowing a person to operate well in the world and to take advantage of learning opportunities. Extensive research in adults connects the functioning of these networks to intelligence, memory, mental flexibility and creativity, mental health, capacities for emotion regulation and attention, and other essential abilities.139–142 In children, adolescents, and across adulthood, the functioning of these networks correlates with the quality of one’s environment, resources, and relationships2,3,143 and improves with targeted intervention.23,34,144–146 To varying degrees, these networks appear to be malleable across the lifespan.108
The Executive Control Network: The Executive Control Network facilitates attention, allowing people to hold information in mind, shift strategies or approaches as necessary, and focus on the completion of goal-directed tasks.142,147,148 The Executive Control Network is important for ignoring extraneous information and distractions, as well as for regulating emotions, maintaining goals and focus, and controlling impulses.
The Default Mode Network: The Default Mode Network is heavily recruited during all sorts of tasks that involve internally directed, interpretive, and reflective thought, for example when remembering past experiences, imagining hypothetical or future scenarios, or deliberating on inferred, abstract, or morally relevant information, or daydreaming. The Default Mode Network is important for conceptual understanding, reading comprehension, creativity, nonlinear and “out-of-the-box” thinking, feelings of inspiration, social emotions like admiration and compassion, identity development and for “looking in,” or thinking about things that aren’t in the physical “here and now.”
The Salience Network: The Salience Network weighs emotional relevance and perceived importance and urgency of information to facilitate switching between mindsets supported by the inwardly focused, meaning-oriented Default Mode Network and those supported by the outwardly focused, task-oriented Executive Control Network.This switching of mental modes reflects subjective, affective evaluation by the Salience Network of external signals from the environment and internal bodily signals, such as from hunger and anxiety.
Optimal learning environments attend in age-appropriate ways to developing each of the broad capacities supported by the brain’s major networks: this includes sustained, flexible attention and productivity on tasks (roughly speaking, the domain of the Executive Control Network); reflection, memory, and meaning-making (roughly speaking, the domain of the Default Mode Network); and emotional relevance (roughly speaking, the domain of the Salience Network).
Optimal educational activities foster engagement and learning by leveraging opportunities to strengthen, balance, and mutually reinforce these capacities in culturally relevant, meaningful, and productive tasks.128 Productive tasks foster motivation and accomplishment by coupling interest and relevance with accessibility—representing the right level of difficulty, in the “zone of proximal development,”217 just beyond a learner’s current competence—and supports to enable progress. To be willing and able to tackle challenging tasks, students must also learn to perceive themselves as capable of succeeding, which illustrates the connection between cognitive and emotional capacities.89 Learning environments that are structured to be consistent with how the brain develops generally include these features:
They place the learner’s emotional and social experience at the forefront. Productive learning environments attend to learners’ subjective perceptions and help students build scholarly and social identities that incorporate their new skills and knowledge. They help people to feel safe and purposeful, and to believe that their work is important, relevant, and valuable.
Creating an emotionally safe environment requires schools and classrooms where strong, affirming relationships are built among adults and children. Teachers create classroom communities grounded in respect, in which all students are affirmed for their value, with shared norms and responsibilities for all members.218 School structures support personalization, often with teaching teams that share students, advisory systems in which a small group of students are supported by a single advisor over multiple years, and looping, in which students stay with the same teacher for more than one year. Teachers actively help students develop positive academic identities by communicating their interest and belief in the competence of students who may otherwise be threatened by stereotyping and stigma, and by supporting their learning with appropriate scaffolding. Students engage in tasks as scientists, mathematicians, writers, social scientists, and artists, taking on these scholarly roles and identities while learning disciplinary concepts, skills, and modes of inquiry.
They support age-appropriate exploration and discovery. Productive learning environments support age-appropriate exploration and discovery, followed by reflection and discussion for deeper understanding. They support learners in monitoring their own learning, so they can flexibly move between these modes of engagement—knowing when and how to dig in, stop and think, gather more information, or seek help—as they pursue meaningful learning goals.
PHYSIOLOGICAL PRECONDITIONS MUST BE MET FOR OPTIMAL BRAIN DEVELOPMENT AND LEARNING
Environments that support the physiological preconditions for brain development enable learning. For individuals to take full advantage of learning opportunities, certain physiological preconditions must be met.
Among these are:
Both physical and mental health, and the ability to think well, depend on getting an adequate amount of quality sleep.164–166 Sleep is fundamental for neural plasticity and the consolidation of memories,167,168 as well as for removing toxic proteins that build up in the brain over waking hours.169 When people are sleep deprived, their brain networks are not as coherently organized or regulated.170–173 Over time, chronic sleep deprivation leads to impairments in mood, emotion regulation, memory, cognition, creative thinking, and situational awareness.174 Individuals vary in the amount of sleep they need, but sufficient sleep is required for optimal learning.
Nutrition and low exposure to toxins:
Adequate nutrition and absence of toxins are necessary for healthy brain development, especially in children. Deficiencies in nutrients, such as iron,175 and diets rich in refined sugars and high in saturated fats,176–178 have been found to compromise brain development, and can lead to impairments in learning, memory, and cognition. Exposure to environmental toxins as a result of poor water, sanitation, and hygiene conditions,179 air pollution,180–182 and even low levels of lead,183,184 have negative impacts on brain development that can be permanent. Exposure to drugs and alcohol, especially among adolescents, has negative impacts on brain development.185,186
Physical activity, exercise, green space:
Physical activity impacts the physiological regulation underlying social and emotional well-being, cognition, and memory.187,188 The efficiency and organization of neural networks is supported by fitness.189,190 Academic achievement and behavior in children as well as physical and psychosocial well-being and cognition across all ages have been found to improve in the short term and the long term as a result of physical exercise.191–195 Though brain development and learning occur with a sedentary lifestyle, abundant research suggests that physical activity is highly beneficial, and that its beneficial effects are strengthened with the availability of green (natural) space.196,197
Emotional well-being, social relationships, and safety/belonging:
In part via the release of hormones that signal the brain and trigger epigenetic effects, emotional well-being promotes health, brain development, and optimal learning, while chronic and excessive stress and loneliness are toxic to brain development.78,198–200 Stress from threats to emotional safety and feelings of belonging, such as stereotype threat, influences a person’s underlying physiology and neural functioning, robbing a person of working memory resources.201 Such identity-related stress impacts cognitive performance in the short term,202 and in the longer term has been linked to premature aging of the brain and body.203,204
The negative effects of stress can be buffered through supportive parenting, relationships, community, and school programs.203,205,206 Exposure to green spaces has also been found to reduce biomarkers of stress and to increase health and well-being.207–209 Individuals who have experienced trauma, or toxic stress from abuse or neglect, often require extensive supports and targeted interventions strategically integrated throughout their schooling experience.
An extension of emotional well-being, cultural well-being pertains to the broader roles, group affiliations, and identities that situate a person within a group and provide a sense of shared history, values, lifestyle, and purpose.210 However, when individuals from privileged groups stereotype, marginalize, or oppress members of stigmatized groups, this imposes a lifelong burden on those socially identified with the marginalized group. This impacts cognition as well as physiology.202,211 The experience of discrimination—which can pose physical harm, unfair treatment, economic deprivation, stereotype threat, and lack of access to housing, green space, quality food, health care, and other basic needs—is a major source of stress undermining cognition and well-being, with implications for health, brain development, and learning.
Furthermore, if one’s cultural beliefs and values feel at odds with those of the dominant cultural group, the conflict can cause misalignment between a person’s goals and ways of being and the expectations of the setting.212 This perceived invalidation or subordination undermines emotional and social well-being and belonging. Interventions and supports in the home, school, or community that specifically target cultural well-being improve educational, socioeconomic, and health outcomes.213–216[Content protected for subscribers only]
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