Dynamic, flexible and responsive: How the human brain is wired for resiliency

When we think of resiliency, what comes to mind for many of us is the ability to adapt in response to environmental stressors. However, in light of Brain Awareness Week, let’s consider how the brain itself is wired to favour resiliency.

Research in the last 30 years has demonstrated that the brain is much more dynamic, flexible and responsive than originally thought. Neural Plasticity describes how neural pathways can change – how they strengthen or weaken based on experiences throughout our lives.

Indeed, the old saying, “use it or lose it” is quite appropriate to describe how neural synapses, the junction where one neuron sends a message to another neuron, grow or reduce with experience. Importantly, these changes occur in response to instruction and learning across the lifespan. For example, Draganski and colleagues (2004) found when college students were taught to juggle they exhibited growth in an area of the brain associated with processing complex visual motion. However, once the students no longer practiced juggling, the brain returned to its pre-juggling state. The take-away here is that the learning gained by students changes the structure and function of their brains. 

These types of findings have sparked interest in how research on the brain can inform education. As a teacher, you may have heard about ‘brain-based learning and teaching” where findings from brain research are applied directly to teaching. However, caution should be taken because lessons learned from brain research have some positive outcomes for teachers but may also cause some harmful misconceptions as well. 


An understanding of the brain may:

Help you explain why some teaching approaches might be effective. For example, at the recent Olympics you might have seen athletes visualizing their performances before competing. Research has found that visualizing an action utilizes the same brain areas as actually performing that action, suggesting that visualizing reinforces the neural pathways responsible for the desired behaviour (Munzert, Lorey, & Zentgraf, 2009).  

Help you develop a better understanding of the mechanisms behind why some students are struggling and how instruction can support their growth. In one of my favourite studies by McCandliss et al. (2001), students with word decoding difficulties received an evidence-based reading intervention focusing on phonological awareness. Prior to the intervention, the students exhibited less activation in brain areas associated with reading words. Following training, the activation patterns were more similar to those of their peers suggesting that intensive instruction can engage typical reading circuits, rather than recruiting other brain regions to compensate.     

Help you gain an appreciation for how much learning and resiliency your students are capable of and renew your efforts to support their growth. Dr. Carol Dweck (2006) has championed the idea of growth mindset, where students may not have a skill “yet”, but with effort and persistence, they can achieve it. Indeed, this idea is consistent with the learning principle that acquiring long-term knowledge and skill is largely dependent on practice (Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education, 2015). 

Common misconceptions

Misconceptions about the brain may lead to false beliefs called neuromyths. These neuromyths may undermine effective teaching practices. Here are a couple common neuromyths:

Learning difficulties due to differences in brain function can not be remediated. We saw above that this statement is not true. However, in 2014, Howard-Jones found that approximately 25% of teachers from an international sample believed it to be true. We should be concerned that if teachers believe that ability is fixed, and students cannot learn, then they may fail to support their students’ needs (Jordan, Glenn, & McGhie-Richmond, 2016). 

Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style. In the same group of teachers, 90% agreed with this statement. Howard-Jones (2014) suggests that this myth may have arisen because different areas of the brain are active in response to different sensory inputs. However, this finding is based on group averages; it does not speak to individual strengths. For a teacher who holds this misconception, the potential danger is continuing to use a single teaching style for a student at the expense of offering information in a variety of ways. 

The Future

In my opinion, the benefits of brain research far outweigh the drawbacks. Indeed, researchers have begun to examine how the strengths and needs of individual learners are reflected in the brain. They have also started to examine why certain learners respond to intervention and others do not. Answers to these questions should have important implications for Education. 

However, for research on the brain to have an impact in the classroom, there has to be buy-in from you, the teachers, not only as an end-user but also as someone who generates the questions. If you are interested in forming a collaboration, I know a few cognitive neuroscientists who would love to chat with you. 

Happy Brain Awareness Week!     


American Psychological Association, Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education. (2015). Top 20 principles from psychology for preK–12 teaching and learning. Retrieved from

Draganski, B., Gaser, C., Busch, V., Schuierer, G., Bogdahn, U., & May, A. (2004). Changes in grey matter induced by training. Newly honed juggling skills show up as transient feature on a brain imaging scan. Nature, 427, 311-312.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House. 

Howard-Jones, P.A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: Myths and messages. Nature Reviews, 15, 817-824.  
Jordan, A., Glenn, C., & McGhie-Richmond, D. (2016). The supporting effective teaching (SET) project: The relationship of inclusive teaching practices to teachers’ beliefs about disability and ability, and about their roles as teachers. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26, 259-266. 

McCandliss B.D., Martinez A, Sandak R., et al. 2001. A cognitive intervention for reading impaired children produces increased recruitment of left per-sylvian regions during word reading: an fMRI study. Neuroscience Abstracts 27: 961–964.

Munzert, J., Lorey, B., & Zentgraf, K. (2009). Cognitive motor processes: The role of motor imagery in the study of motor representations. Brain Research Reviews, 60(2), 306-326.