The reason I’m going to share with you the history of the human brain is because it has practical implications. We can live better and do better in school if we understand this history.
The human brain has some shiny new features, like the executive function skills of the prefrontal cortex, but it also has some older features – survival instincts that take over when we feel threatened. This matters a great deal because when our survival instincts kick in, our capacity for higher-level thinking, learning, and creativity shut down. And our lives don’t have to actually be threatened for this to happen; the threat just has to feel important. This is, to be sure, an oversimplification, but it’s a very helpful model.
This model tells us that if we want to think and act our best–if we want to live up to our human potential–then we need to first address our physical and emotional needs: air, water, food, shelter, safety, comfort, companionship, and love. If we don’t meet these needs, then the older parts of the brain are likely to take over.
Let’s think about some examples. Consider how difficult it is to do a math problem when you really, really have to go to the bathroom. Or consider what you would be able to focus on if you hadn’t eaten for three days: You’d probably be thinking about food and how to get some. Could you comprehend a Shakespearean sonnet while drowning? When your physical needs aren’t met, nearly all your brain power gets devoted to meeting them.
This phenomenon is probably best illustrated by the fight-or-flight response. Danger causes adrenaline to pump through our bodies and brains, preparing us for action, but it also hinders rational thinking and our ability to consciously choose our actions or even see possible options. Danger makes us act on instinct: We prepare to either run or fight for our lives.
Thankfully, the modern classroom isn’t filled with poisonous snakes and man-eating tigers, so students can learn in a relatively safe environment. If that’s the case, then why do so many students suffer from test anxiety? Why are so many students terrified of public speaking? Why are so many students afraid to ask questions in class?
The truth is that these are complicated issues, and there is no single answer to the questions I just asked. Test anxiety and fear of public speaking usually stem from a lack of effective preparation. The fear of asking questions is usually related to having a fixed mindset. But aside from these common sources of nervousness and fear, there are some other, more surprising culprits to be aware of.
Humans have a core set of biological needs that must be met, to one degree or another, in order to function at our best. This wisdom was popularized years ago in Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs:”
When the foundation of this pyramid isn’t well-established, we’re more likely to operate out of a threatened mindset. In fact, when the base of this pyramid is weak, our brain health is generally sub-optimal. This manifests in a number of ways: anxiety, difficulty focusing, trouble remembering information, or reduced self-discipline. None of those effects are academically helpful.
Moving up the pyramid, we see that social needs are also critical. When humans receive no social support or companionship, they become depressed and lose motivation. When we’re embarrassed or ostracized, we struggle to think clearly. Conversely, when people feel a strong sense of love and belonging, they become better at problem-solving, better at dealing with life’s difficulties, and more willing to take necessary risks.
Students have great difficulty focusing on schoolwork when they’re being harassed or bullied. It’s important for students of all ages to feel comfortable at school, so they can focus on learning and feel confident enough to try new things. If your child is struggling academically, it would be smart to check in with him on social issues. Of course, it would also be smart to check in on how he’s studying. Just be aware that talking with your child about school is a delicate balancing act.
When the lower levels of Maslow’s pyramid are strong and solid, we’re much more likely to use the higher functions of the brain: abstract thought, imagination, long-term planning, and morality. Activities such as creative problem solving, focusing on a writing project, paying attention to a lecture, carefully reading instructions during an exam, and time-management all require that our basic needs are met.
The older instincts of the brain are more automatic, unthinking, and emotional. They contain basic animal instincts. We’ve retained those instincts because they’re sometimes helpful. Oftentimes, though, they get in the way of rational plans that we choose during our calmer moments. By taking care of your inner animal, you can keep the thinking part of your brain in the driver’s seat.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
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MacDonald, Matthew. Your Brain: The Missing Manual. O’Reilly Media, 2008.
Navarro, Joe. What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People. William Morrow Paperbacks, 2008.
GreenFlames09. “Brain.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 4.0.
Finkelstein. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” Wikimedia Commons.