science has been advanced, in part, by the advent of non-invasive imaging technologies, such as positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI). These technologies have allowed researchers to observe human learning processes directly.

This chapter reviews key findings from neuroscience and cognitive science that are expanding knowledge of the mechanisms of human learning. Three main points guide the discussion in this chapter:

  1. Learning changes the physical structure of the brain.

  2. These structural changes alter the functional organization of the brain; in other words, learning organizes and reorganizes the brain.

  3. Different parts of the brain may be ready to learn at different times.

We first explain some basic concepts of neuroscience and new knowledge about brain development, including the effects of instruction and learning on the brain. We then look at language in learning as an example of the mind-brain connection. Lastly, we examine research on how memory is represented in the brain and its implications for learning.

From a neuroscience perspective, instruction and learning are very important parts of a child’s brain development and psychological development processes. Brain development and psychological development involve continuous interactions between a child and the external environment—or, more accurately, a hierarchy of environments, extending from the level of the individual body cells to the most obvious boundary of the skin. Greater understanding of the nature of this interactive process renders moot such questions as how much depends on genes and how much on environment. As various developmental researchers have suggested, this question is much like asking which contributes most to the area of a rectangle, its height or its width (Eisenberg, 1995)?


Neuroscientists study the anatomy, physiology, chemistry, and molecular biology of the nervous system, with particular interest in how brain activity relates to behavior and learning. Several crucial questions about early learning particularly intrigue neuroscientists. How does the brain develop? Are there stages of brain development? Are there critical periods when certain things must happen for the brain to develop normally? How is information encoded in the developing and the adult nervous systems? And perhaps most important: How does experience affect the brain?

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