Mixing Cocktails for Better Learning


I love remixes!  I enjoy juxtaposition.  So what would happen if we applied a drinking metaphor to education?  Hugely inappropriate?  Or cleverly insightful?  You be the judge:

In a never ending quest to connect the dots I have been reading a new book.  “Pitch Anything,” by Oren Klaff is a mix of communication, persuasion, mixed with a bit of brain science.  I’m not necessarily recommending the book here.  It certainly dances around educational concepts and techniques, however its intended audience is really people who sell for a living.  (Although to his point – don’t we all sell ourselves every day?)  I’m not sure all of his methods would work in a classroom, but there is some good stuff here either way!

ItBrainLearning’s always nice to see the intersection and alignment of ideas across multiple areas of study or paradigms.  Mr. Klaff has written a book that dovetails nicely with other books I’ve read by Dan Pink or Jane McGonigal, with communication sentiments like Monroe’s motivated sequence, inoculation theory, and with John Medina’s work in Brain Rules regarding neurotransmitters.

One of the most compelling parts of the book (for me) is the session written about attention.  I like how Mr. Klaff describes hormonal changes in the brain as the creation of a cocktail.  If a cocktail is indeed the mixing together of chemicals then I think this is an apt explanation.  Oren essentially focuses on two neurotransmitters to explain attention, but as attention is only part of the equation for learning I think it is probably important to include a few others.  I think that a fully stocked learning bar that would include a few other chemicals might prove to be important to recipes around learning.  So belly up and let’s go!

Let us start with serotonin.  At first glance serotonin is very difficult to control.  Serotonin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that has been found to be directly related to emotion and mood.  Too little serotonin has been shown to lead to problems with anger, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and even suicide.  Too little may also lead to an increased desire for carbohydrates and trouble sleeping, which can create a loop of depression and other emotional disorders.

While sleep and other serotonin-inducing behaviors may not be in our control, and until policy makers and administrators actually push for changes that encourage student success (like learning experiences based on the time of day people learn best vs slamming everyone into the exact same time constraints, or erasing the notion that time equals learning at all…), try to set yourself up for as much success as possible.  Ideal learning times (for the widest swath of population) are 10:30am – 2pm, based on natural serotonin fluctuations (which can be traced to circadian rhythms, etc).  As well, limit other negative neurotransmitter influences like sugar substitutes, MSG, casein (cheeses), which can spike the system with glutamate, the toxic, neuron killer that inhibits learning and memory.

neurotransmitters2So, I think our bar should include healthy doses of serotonin, while throwing out as much glutamate as possible!

For our second round, I think Mr. Klaff, who was doing exactly what I’m doing here (relating the work of neuroscientists with brain scanning machines, fMRI capabilities, etc), was right.  Dopamine and norepinephrine should be in the mix.  And according to Pitch Anything, when a person is feeling both desire and tension, that person is paying attention – REAL attention.  It comes down to the presence of both neurotransmitters to form our hormonal “cocktail.”

Want to give a dopamine kick and create desire?  Offer a reward.  (Note: Dopamine isn’t the excitement of getting a reward, but of anticipating a reward.)  Want to give a norepinephrine kick and create tension?  Try taking something away, creating a challenge that is hard but obtainable, noting a problem worth fixing, etc.

So how do we get that cocktail into our student’s brains and gain / keep attention?  Novelty.  The human brain is stimulated by surprise because our world is fundamentally unpredictable.  This is why television, gaming, and web surfing is so pleasing.  It is minute after minute of motion based, new, and interesting information.  So, great teachers or presenters create novelty by violating the target’s expectations in a pleasing way.

noveltyNovelty in the form of an unexpected gain gives the brain a blast of dopamine. On the other hand, if a reward you anticipated never happens, then dopamine goes away, and negative feelings begin.  Likewise, novelty in the form of a problem deemed too complex does not produce norepinephrine, but cortisol instead, changing the cocktail from attention to boredom.

I think it’s time to talk about another bad cocktail.  Just like glutamate harms learning, cortisol does the same thing.  It’s like adding lemon juice to a milky drink.  Most of the time you’ll get a curdled, unappealing mess.

Causes of cortisol being released into the system can range from pain to emotional stress, both extreme and mild.  But notably, a trigger for cortisol production is also boredom.  In fact, bored students / audience members / etc. can see a spike in cortisol, saturating blood levels within 7 minutes.

Although boredom is often seen as a trivial and temporary discomfort that can be alleviated by a simple change in circumstances, it can also be a chronic and pervasive stressor that can have significant consequences for both health and learning, inhibiting memory function and connection between points.  Boredom hinders the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that allows a student to reason and hold different facts in working memory.  Disrupting the brain’s executive function gives its emotional center – the amygdala – control, explaining why bored students are more likely to feel tired, anxious, depressed, or even act out.  The bottom line is simple – cortisol is not a good mixer, nor should it ever be the star of a cocktail in the classroom!

boredomFinally, while lectures do not always equate to boredom, there is a reason they consistently appear in the top 10 lists of the most “ultimate boring things.”  Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish (1996) describe research on human attention / retention and suggest long lectures (over 20 minutes) are inappropriate.  After a 1-3 minute “settling in” period, audience members had 10 to 18 minutes of optimal focus.  This was followed by brief spurts of focus interspersed with larger and larger chunks of boredom.  This can be seen in fact recall as well.  Middendorf and Kalish (1985) found that primary information (versus the most recent) information from a 20 minute lecture was recalled best.  By 15 minutes, almost zero recall was identified.  The bottom line is that unless a lecture is a rigorously prepared, TED-esque talk, it is very likely to produce boredom, stress, and a lack of learning.

Which leads to the last flight we’re serving up: the payoff.  Using norepinephrine as the bridge to get to endorphins, we can finish with a smooth, clean, crisp cocktail!  Endorphins (short for “endogenous morphine”) are structurally very similar to opioids (opium, morphine, heroin, etc.) and act similarly.  (Opioid drugs actually work by attaching to endorphin’s receptor sites.)   Endorphins impact pain reduction and pleasure.

But endorphins can be found in cognitive activities as well.  Spikes of endorphin release can be seen when actually getting the reward promised (dopamine), through triumph associated with strenuous physical activity, when a challenge has been overcome, or a puzzle has been assembled.

So, bottoms up!  Cheers!  Here’s looking up your old address!  It sure seems time to implement what we know about the brain in the classroom by mixing up some good cocktails, no?   How?  Let’s make the ‘long island iced tea’ of neurotransmitters and put it altogether.

Classroom presentations and educational experiences should be facilitated puzzles.  Audience centric problems, punctuated by tension building narrative, woven around focus shifting boredom busters should result in audiences assembling the pattern on their own – not by the facilitator – in order to achieve maximum retention, connection, and ultimately, learning.

Good luck and good ‘mixing’ my friends.

Dr. Jeff D Borden
Chief Innovation Officer
Saint Leo University

About Jeff Borden

My title at work is ‘Chief Innovation Officer.’ So I'm trying to transform teaching and learning at scale. How do I do that? Through my "life" jobs. Primarily, I'm a dad and husband. But I'm also a professor, writer, professional speaker, comedian, researcher, lifelong learner, musician, dog-owner, and even a ranked disc golfer... I've spoken to, trained, or consulted with hundreds of thousands of educators at all levels, in numerous countries, K-20, about how to teach and learn effectively in the 21st Century.

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