How Can Teachers Trigger Dopamine and Improve Learning?

Posted by Erica Warren on

Wouldn't it be great if a teacher's actions triggered neurotransmitters in the brains of their students that improved attention, motivation, and learning at large?  Many would say that this idea sounds like a science fiction novel, but, in fact,  it's not far from the truth. 

child's brain is activated by dopamine

What Role do Neurotransmitters Have in the Learning Process?

Countless chemical messengers called neurotransmitters are perpetually maintaining our brain's functions and regulating our breath and heartbeat. They even manage our attention and ability to learn. In addition, they also impact a wide variety of emotions including fear, happiness, and boredom. One neurotransmitter, in particular, offers a secret advantage to learning - dopamine.

What is Dopamine and How Does it Impact Schooling?

Dopamine, commonly referred to as the "feel-good brain chemical" is made by our brains.  Dopamine plays a role in feeling satisfaction and joy, and it is vital to our ability to plan and think.  Here are some aspects of cognition that are impacted by dopamine:
  • Motivation: When the brain releases dopamine in large amounts, it creates feelings of pleasure.  This reinforces the action and motivates the repetition of a specific behavior. On the contrary, low levels of dopamine are associated with poor motivation.  Dr. Andrew Huberman from the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine suggests that dopamine "gives you more gas and lets you go further."
  • Working Memory: A new study suggests that dopamine plays an important role in working memory. Dopamine in the prefrontal cortex contributes to working memory by activating brain pathways in line with a task and blocking pathways that divert attention away from a task."  This is important because working memory is often touted to be the number one indicator of academic success.
  • Spatial Learning and Memory: Research suggests that dopamine boosts spatial learning and memory at large.
  • Episodic Memory: A study suggests that dopamine neurons offer a critical role in episodic memory.  This aids in the recollection of past, personal experiences. 

How can Teachers Trigger a Healthy Release of Dopamine in Their Students?

  • Bring Play and Laughter into the Learning Environment:  Dr. Andrew Huberman indicated, "Dopamine is evoked through play and humor.”
  • Conduct Teambuilding Activities: Dr. Huberman also suggests,  “Dopamine is also evoked through teamwork - when you feel like you're supported.” 
  • Help Students Feel as if They are "on the Right Path": Finally, Andrew Huberman argues, "Dopamine is what's released any time an animal or human thinks it’s on the right path.

What are Some Other Ways to Increase Dopamine Levels for Students?

  • Play Games that Exercise Cognition: Research also supports that  family games such as board and card games are a wonderful way to activate a dopamine burst. 
  • Exercise Daily: In one three-month research study, an hour of yoga six days per week offered a significant increase in dopamine levels.
  • Get Enough Sunlight: In a study in the Journal of Neuroscience, healthy adults who got the most sunlight exposure over a 30 day period, had the highest levels of dopamine receptors in the reward and movement parts of their brains.
  • Get Enough Sleep: Research suggests that when people have sleepless nights, dopamine receptors in the brain are significantly reduced the following morning.
  • Listen to Music you Enjoy: Brain imaging studies have found that listening to pleasurable music increases dopamine activity.
  • Meditate: A study found that meditating for one hour triggers a 64 percent increase in dopamine production in the brain.
So the next time you prepare a lesson, consider how you can bring play, laughter, and teamwork into your instruction and be sure to help your learners feel as though they are "on the right path" with guiding words of encouragement.

Fun Games and Activities That Activate Dopamine, Executive Functioning, and Learning:

Here are a number of game options that were created to strengthen cognition while having fun.  They can be used by practitioners, teachers or families.

Cheers, Dr. Erica Warren

Dr. Erica Warren is the author, illustrator, and publisher of multisensory educational materials at Good Sensory Learning. She is also the director of Learning to Learn and Learning Specialist Courses.

2020 Erica Warren LLC. All rights reserved. Dr. Warren does not provide medical advice or diagnoses.

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