What Neuroscience Terms Should Every Teacher Know?

by Judy Willis M.D., M.Ed., radteach.com and Rae Nishi, PhD

As education continues to evolve, adding in new trends, technologies, standards, and 21st-century thinking habits, there is one constant that doesn’t change.

The human brain.

But neuroscience isn’t exactly accessible to most educators, rarely published, and when it is, it’s often full of odd phrasing and intimidating jargon. Worse, there seems to be a disconnect between the dry science of neurology, and the need teachers have for relevant tools, resources, and strategies in the classroom. In regards to the disconnect, we’ll continue to strive to create content that is both expert and accessible, as The Simple Things I Do To Promote Brain-Based Learning In My Classroom

Affective filter

The affective filter an emotional state of stress in children during which they are not responsive to processing, learning, and storing new information. This affective (emotional) filter is in the amygdala, which becomes hyperactive during periods of high stress. In this hyperstimulated state, new information does not pass through the amygdala to reach the higher thinking centers of the brain.


Part of the limbic system in the temporal lobe. The amygdala was first believed to function as a brain center for responding only to anxiety and fear. When the amygdala senses a threat, it becomes activated (high metabolic activity as seen by greatly increased radioactive glucose on positron emission tracing (PET) and oxygen use in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). These neuroimaging findings show that when children feel helpless and anxious, the amygdala is activated; thus, new information coming through the sensory intake areas of the brain cannot pass through the amygdala’s affective filter to gain access to memory circuits.


This is the fiber-like extension of the neuron that connects the cell body to other target cells (neurons, muscles, glands).

Brain mapping

Using electroencephalography (EEG) or functional MRI over time, brain mapping measures electrical activity representing brain activation along neural pathways. These techniques allow scientists to track which parts of the brain are active when a person is processing information at various stages of information intake, patterning, storing, and retrieval. The levels of activation in particular brain regions are associated with the intensity of information processing.

Central Nervous System

This is the portion of the nervous system composed of the spinal cord and brain.


This is a large cauliflower-looking structure on the back of the brainstem under the cerebral cortex. This structure is very important in motor movement and motor-vestibular memory and learning.

Cerebral Cortex

This is the outermost layer of the cerebral hemispheres of the brain. The cortex mediates all conscious activity, including planning, problem-solving, language, and speech. It is also involved in perception, image processing, and voluntary motor activity.


This refers to the mental process by which we become aware of the world and use that information to problem solve and make sense out of the world. It is somewhat oversimplified but cognition refers to thinking and all of the mental processes related to thinking.


Branched protoplasmic extensions that sprout from the cell bodies of neurons. Dendrites receive connections from other neurons and coordinate electrical activity that passes down axons. A single neuron may possess many dendrites. Dendrites in cortical neurons increase in size and number in response to learned skills, experience, and information storage. New dendrites grow as branches from frequently activated neurons. Proteins called growth factors stimulate this dendritic growth.


A neurotransmitter most associated with attention, decision making, executive function, and reward-stimulated learning. Dopamine release from the midbrain has been found to increase in response to rewards and positive experiences. Scans reveal greater activation of dopaminergic areas while subjects are playing, laughing, exercising, and receiving acknowledgment (e.g., praise) for achievement.

Executive Functions

Cognitive processing of information that takes place in the prefrontal cortex that exercise conscious control over one’s emotions and thoughts. This control allows for patterned information to be used for organizing, analyzing, sorting, connecting, planning, prioritizing, sequencing, self-monitoring, self-correcting, assessment, abstractions, problem solving, attention focusing, and linking information to appropriate actions.

Brain Imaging (neuroimaging)

Non-invasive imaging techniques have contributed to our knowledge of the structure, function, or biochemical status of the brain. Structural imaging such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans reveal the overall structure of the brain. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) provides visualization of the processing of neural activity in the brain while a subject is conscious and performing tasks. This processing is visualized directly as areas of the brain that are “lit up” by increased blood flow and oxygenation. Positron-emission tomography (PET) provides information about the quantity of important chemicals in the brain such as neurotransmitters, which are substances used by neurons to communicate with other neurons and end organs.


These are specialized cells that nourish, support, and complement the activity of neurons in the brain. Astrocytes are the most common and play important roles in regulating blood flow to activated areas of the brain, regulating the amount of neurotransmitter in the synapse by taking up excess neurotransmitter, and providing important growth factors for modulating neuronal function. Oligodendrocytes wrap axons in myelin, which acts as an insulator so that nerve activity can be rapidly transmitted from area to area of the brain. Microglia are the “macrophages” of the brain and regulate inflammation in the brain.

Graphic Organizers

Diagrams that are designed to coincide with the brain’s style of patterning. In order for sensory information to be encoded (the initial processing of the information entering from the senses), consolidated, and stored, the information must be patterned into a brain-compatible form. Graphic organizers can promote this patterning in the brain when children participate in creating relevant connections to their existing memory circuitry.

Gray Matter

The gray refers to the darker color of the cerebral cortex and subcortical structures relative to the white matter of axon tracts. The axon tracts appear intensely white because of the myelin surrounding the axons. The myelin contains a very high concentration of lipids and cholesterol, causing a “white” greasy appearance. In contrast to white matter, gray matter contains neurons, dendrites, synapses, and many astrocytes. It is in the gray matter where neural signals are integrated and analyzed.


The hippocampus is a folded structure in the floor of the ventral horn of each lateral ventricle of the brain that consists mainly of gray matter that has a major role in memory processes. The hippocampus takes sensory inputs and integrates them with relational or associational patterns from preexisting memories, thereby binding the information from the new sensory input into storable patterns of relational memories. This is called memory consolidation. The hippocampus also plays an important role in spatial recognition.

Limbic System

This is a group of functionally linked structures in the brain (hippocampal formation, amygdala, septal nuclei, cingulate cortex, entorhinal cortex, perirhinal cortex, and parahippocampal cortex). The limbic system is involved in regulation of emotion, memory, and processing complex socio-emotional communication.

Long-Term Memory

Long-term memory is created when short-term memory is strengthened through review and meaningful association with existing patterns and prior knowledge. This strengthening results in a physical change in the structure of neuronal circuits.


Knowledge about one’s own information processing and strategies that influence one’s learning that can optimize future learning. After a lesson or assessment, when children are prompted to recognize the successful learning strategies they used, that reflection can reinforce the effective strategies.


The fatty substance that covers and protects nerves. Myelin is a layered tissue that sheathes the axons (nerve fibers). This sheath around the axon acts like an insulator in an electrical system, ensuring that messages sent by axons are not lost as they travel to the next neuron. Thus, myelin increases the speed of nerve impulses. 


The formation of the myelin sheath around a nerve fiber.

Neuronal Circuits

Neurons communicate with each other by sending coded messages along electrochemical connections called synapses. When there is repeated stimulation of specific patterns of activity between the same groups of neurons, their synapses change, and the efficiency of communication becomes stronger. This is where practice (repeated stimulation of grouped neuronal connections in neuronal circuits) results in more successful recall.


Specialized cells in the brain and throughout the nervous system that control storage and processing of information to, from, and within the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. Neurons are composed of a cell body that houses the nucleus, a single major axon for outgoing electrical signals, and a varying number of dendrites that receive synapses from other neurons.


This refers to the remarkable capacity of the brain to change its molecular, microarchitectural, and functional organization in response to injury or experience. Dendrite formation and destruction (pruning) alters the number of synapses on neurons and allows the brain to reshape and reorganize the networks of connections in response to increased or decreased use of these pathways.


Molecules that are released by the electrical impulses on one side of the synapse (axonal terminal) and then float across the synaptic gap carrying the information with them to stimulate the nerve ending (dendrite) of the next cell in the pathway. Once the neurotransmitter binds to protein receptors on the dendrite, an electric impulse is generated.

Neurotransmitters in the brain include glutamate, gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA), serotonin, acetylcholine, dopamine, norepinephrine and many others. 


The ability to reason with numbers and other mathematical concepts. Children’s concepts of number and quantity develop with brain maturation and experience.

Occipital Lobes (visual processing areas)

These posterior lobes of the brain process information from the eyes so we recognize objects we see and connect these objects to words, meaning, and action.


Oligodendrocytes are the glia in the brain and spinal cord that specialize to form the myelin sheath around many axons.

Parietal lobes

Parietal lobes on each side of the brain process somatosensory information (sensations of touch, pain, limb movement, and knowledge of where body parts are in space) and integrate it with memory and other functions.


Patterning is the process whereby the brain perceives sensory data and generates patterns by relating new information with previously learned material or chunking material into pattern systems it has used before. Education is about increasing the patterns children can use, recognize, and communicate. As the ability to see and work with patterns expands, the executive functions are enhanced. Whenever new material is presented in such a way that children see relationships, they can generate greater brain cell activity (formation of new neural connections) and achieve more successful patterns for long-term memory storage and retrieval.

Positron Emission Tomography (PET scans)

Radioactive isotopes are injected into the blood attached to molecules of glucose. As a part of the brain is more active, its glucose and oxygen demands increase. The isotopes attached to the glucose give off measurable emissions used to produce maps of areas of brain activity. The higher the radioactivity count, the greater the activity taking place in that portion of the brain.

PET scanning can show blood flow, oxygen, and glucose metabolism in the tissues of the working brain that reflect the amount of brain activity in these regions while the brain is processing sensory input (information). The biggest drawback of PET scanning is that because the radioactivity decays rapidly, it is limited to monitoring short tasks. fMRI technology does not have this same time limitation and has become the preferred functional imaging technique in learning research.


Prediction is what the brain does with the information it patterns. Prediction occurs when the brain has enough information in a patterned memory category that it can find similar patterns in new information and predict what the patterns mean. For example, if you see the number sequence 3,6,9,12…,.. you predict the next number will be 15 because you recognize the pattern of counting by threes.

Through careful observation, the brain learns more and more about our world and is able to make more and more accurate predictions about what will come next. Prediction is often what is measured in intelligence tests. This predicting ability is the basis for successful reading, calculating, test taking, goal-setting, and appropriate social interactions behavior. Successful prediction is one of the best problem-solving strategies the brain has.

Prefrontal Cortex (cortex underlying the frontal lobes)

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is a hub of neural networks with intake and output to almost all other regions of the brain. In the PFC relational, working-memories can be mentally manipulated to become long-term memory and emotions can be consciously evaluated.

Executive functions directed by PFC networks respond to input through the highest levels of cognition. These functions include information evaluation, prediction, conscious decision making, emotional awareness and response, organizing, analyzing, sorting, connecting, planning, prioritizing, sequencing, self-monitoring, self-correcting, assessment, abstraction, deduction, induction, problem solving, attention focusing, and linking information to planning and directing actions.


Neural connections are pruned (destroyed) when they are not used. In a baby, the brain overproduces brain cells (neurons),which are eliminated in the fetus. The remaining neurons make a large number of connections between brain cells (synapses), which are then pruned around the age of three. The second wave of synapse formation occurs just before puberty and is followed by another phase of pruning. Pruning allows the brain to consolidate learning by removing inefficient or little-used synapses, while strengthening remaining synapses. In parallel, myelination speeds neural processing by wrapping more white matter (myelin) around axons that are frequently used.

RAD learning

There are three main brain systems (reticular activating system, amygdala, dopamine (RAD)) that are keys to building better brains. These three systems can also be referred to as Reach and Discover.

Reticular Activating System (RAS) 

This lower part of the posterior brain filters all incoming stimuli and makes the ‘decision’ as to what sensory input is attended to or ignored. The main categories that focus the attention of the RAS include novelty (changes in the environment), surprise, danger, and movement.

Rote Memory

This type of memorization is the most commonly required memory task for children in school. This type of learning involves ‘memorizing,’ facts that are often of little primary interest or emotional value to the child, such as lists of words. Facts that are memorized by rehearsing them over and over, that don’t have obvious or engaging patterns or connections, are rote memories.

Without giving the information context or relationship to children’s lives, these facts are stored in areas of the brain that are more difficult to locate and retrieve because there are fewer nerve pathways leading to these remote storage systems.


A neurotransmitter used to carry messages between neurons. Too little serotonin may be a cause of depression and inattention. Dendritic branching is enhanced by the serotonin secreted by the brain predominantly between the sixth and eighth hour of sleep (non-REM).

Short-Term Memory (working memory)

This memory can hold and manipulate information for use in the immediate future. Information is only held in working memory for about a minute. The working memory span of the mature brain (less in children) is approximately 7-9 chunks of data. You can read more about teaching around the way short and long-term memory work here via the Cognitive Load Theory.


Synapses are functional connections between neurons, typically an axon terminal from one neuron (the presynaptic cell) touching a dendrite of another (the postsynaptic cell). Neurotransmitters in the axon terminal are released by nerve activation of the presynaptic cell and travel across the synapse to bind to receptors on the dendrite of the postsynaptic cell. Once the neurotransmitter is bound to its receptors, it triggers a change in membrane potential that affects the activity of the postsynaptic neuron.  

Venn diagram

A type of graphic organizer used to compare and contrast information. The overlapping areas represent similarities, and the nonoverlapping areas represent differences.