Understanding The Brain

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Understanding The Brain


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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What do you understand about cognition, perception and the faculties of the brain?

The mind is just the brain doing its job, (Simon LeVay, 1993)

My journey with memory

Over the last 3 years, I’ve been consciously developing my understanding of memory, building on the knowledge I’ve acquired from learning more about retrieval, spaced and interleaving practice as far back as 2011.

I’d just like to thank The Learning Scientists for that too, who in my opinion, has not only influenced me (from 2016) but the wider impact they have clearly had on many teachers across the profession – and in some respects, English education policy.

I’ve downloaded Understanding The Brain (a 36-lecture course) for my weekend bike rides and dog walks; the types of books I love reading/listening to in my spare time.

After developing a number of resources and webinars to help teachers understand how the brain works, and how this influences teaching and learning, I then started to dabble with ‘parts of the brain’, inspired by David Eagleman’s work.

Today, in my bid to take my understanding to an advanced level, I am undertaking a historical and neurological journey to broaden my knowledge deeper. My goal? To take my understanding of the brain and how this influences the way we can teach in the classroom.

I plan on keeping you updated as I progress through the 36 lectures.

Historical Neuroscience

In chapter one, neuroscientist, Professor Jeanette Norden of Vanderbilt University explains that anyone with an interest in understanding more about the brain can empower themselves. What I hope to do is summarise the things that I have learnt into a concise blog post for teachers (follow this search for all blog posts). Note, the content is about understanding the structure and function of the human brain and is not a medical reference.

In this opening chapter, Norden provides the reader with a historical introduction, reaching back into ancient Egypt – I now know why I should have paid more attention to my son who ‘dressed up as Anubis’ in the school play –  and how the brains of Pharaohs, deemed worthy of embalming, were extracted through the nose and discarded!

There is then a short journey through the Mediterranean to Greece, as well as references to neuroscience developments from India and China, discussing the heart and brain is an organ; how civilisations have developed in the fields of science and philosophy, unpicking where the paradigm of the human soul, or mind reside.

It’s a fascinating overview…

The Pineal Gland

We learn about Rene Descartes (1596–1650) who believed that mind exerted control over the brain via the pineal gland, a small gland in the middle of the head; we now know the pineal produces the hormone melatonin and helps our sleep-cycle “in amounts which vary with the time of day.” Descartes argued the most parts of the body were paired, but that there might be a single place where the human soul interacted.


We also discover English doctor Thomas Willis, (1621-1675) founded neurology, the branch of medicine dealing with disorders of the nervous system. Willis research into the nervous system clarifying patterns of blood flow by injecting coloured dining to vessels.

He is most known for his work, the ‘Anatomy of the Brain’, illustrated by Sir Christopher Wren who rebuilt St Paul’s Cathedral in London after the Great Fire of 1666.

This summary of his work is fascinating and one can get easily lost in reading the details.

Empathy and compassion

We are introduced to areas of the outer part of the brain or cerebral cortex, and importantly discuss phrenology (the shape and size of the skull and any connection to intelligence) and why this thinking today has been debunked (although you would struggle to believe this from some right-wing political thinking today).

Of great importance is how Norden explains how the historical understanding of the brain has evolved to such a degree, that we are now in a position where we understand that the qualities of a person. We know that complex functions, such as empathy and compassion, have sights in the brain which are devoted to those faculties. Today, we could report back to the Egyptians and inform them that we now know that perception and cognition are separate to the soul and more associated with the mind – the brain which is doing its job!

Are you up to speed?

You and I are not the first people to ever want to discuss how we learn how the brain operates. Read this below:

And men ought to know that from nothing else but (from the brain) come joys, delights, laughter and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations. And by this, in an especial manner, we acquire wisdom and knowledge, and see and hear, and know what are foul and what are fair, what are bad and what are good… And by the same organ we become mad and delirious, and fears and terrors assail us… All these things we endure from the brain (Hippocrates, 5th century BC)

Note, records of the pineal gland date back to Greek medical doctor, Galen (ca. 130-ca. 210 CE). So, clearly anything and everything associated with how we learn and discussions about its function have been going on for centuries. The brain is the seat of the mind and the seat of the soul!

The key question is, where are you with your knowledge, your thinking and with your understanding? More importantly, how is this influencing the way that you teach?

I will report back.


  1. Understanding The Brain
  2. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy
  3. Royal College of Physicians


2 thoughts on “Understanding The Brain

  1. Hi Ross
    Tough area to find links between learning and the brain.

    You might want to go further back to Taoist and Tibetans and parts of India. They see the constructs very differently, including the potential of shared mind and cellular memory.

    Our obsession in the west with dissecting and trying to establish causal relationships make findings limited. I was with a neuroscience professor out of the States a couple of years back and his thoughts were that they are a long way from understanding anything enough to be useful to learning.

    Be fascinated to hear more on your journey..BW

    1. I’m through half of my reading so far and will write a blog update soon. Who knew we have 100 trillion synapses, which means we all have 100 trillion possibilities. This tells me that we’ll have millions of constructs also about what we know and don’t yet know about the brain…

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