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Neuropsychology of learning

The process of learning is extremely complicated, and why the brain stores some memories and discards others is not yet very clear. However, various decisive factors influencing the learning process are known, such as the hippocampus, the amygdala or hormones such as dopamine. These factors can also be influenced by the learning environment.


Neurogenesis → The physical formation of new nerve cells.

Working memory → Another term for short-term memory, from which important memory content must be transferred to long-term memory.

Short-term memory → Another term for working memory, from which important memory content must be transferred to long-term memory.

Long-term memory → Permanently stores information that is considered important and can be retrieved later.

Sensory system → Includes the sensory organs responsible for receiving and processing sensory perceptions.

Perceptual areas → The areas in the brain that process information from the sensory organs.

Dopamine → A neurotransmitter, also called the happiness hormone, makes our brain particularly receptive to new information.


A key role for learning is played by the hippocampus, which is considered the center of learning and memory. In the hippocampus, the formation of new nerve cells (neurogenesis) continues even in adults. The hippocampus is responsible for transferring memory content from short-term memory (or working memory) to long-term memory. Information from different sensory systems gathers in the hippocampus and is processed there. New impressions are temporarily stored here. If they are deemed worthy of permanent storage, they are transferred to long-term memory in the cortex in a shorter period of time. This happens, among other things, during brain reorganization during deep sleep.

It is still not entirely clear why the brain stores some memories and discards others. Repetition of information plays a role in this process, but so does variation in content. If known processes are simply repeated, the hippocampus is no longer activated. However, if familiar things are slightly varied, either by task or intention or execution, the hippocampus becomes active. This variational activation thus also favors memory performance.

The amygdala also plays a major role in learning. What we receive with our eyes, ears and other sensory organs is transmitted from the perceptual areas of the brain to the amygdala, where it is evaluated in terms of emotion or danger. Fear is an important part of our lives; as soon as danger threatens us, we react out of reflex. Many unconscious memories of emotionally stressful situations are stored in the amygdala and can thus lead to a new experience of fear later in the same situation.

For learning, however, fear is seen as a problem. A positive emotional atmosphere is important for successful learning. Negative emotions, on the other hand, activate the amygdala and thus block learning and creativity. Therefore, learning works best with joy and fun, and fear should be avoided at all costs in a learning situation.

Hormones also play an important role in learning, especially the hormone dopamine . Dopamine is the "hormone of happiness" and is produced in the mesencephalon. Dopamine makes our brains especially receptive to new information, whereas our brains cannot process new information without dopamine. Thus, dopamine acts as a learning stimulator in the brain. This makes information stored particularly well in memory and can also be retrieved particularly well. Variable learning environments increase dopamine levels and thus learning success. So dopamine not only makes you happy, it also makes you smart. If you are exposed to new and interesting images while learning, the learned content can be better retained later. The best learning environment is therefore one where interest and motivation are aroused, as this can stimulate the release of dopamine.

What does this mean for my teaching practice?

The decisive factors influencing the learning process can be influenced by the design of the learning environment. A favorable condition is repetition under conditions of variation, but emotional factors are also important: negative emotions or fear inhibit the learning process. Therefore, enjoyment and fun are important to learning, as are interest and motivation.

Reflection question

A learning environment should not only be rich, but should also respect the neuropsychological underpinnings of learning as much as possible. What can be done to promote joy, fun and motivation in learning?


  1. The hippocampus promotes memory performance during

A) exact repetition
B) slight variation

  1. The hormone dopamine

A) is a direct learning enhancer
B) relaxes during learning


1️⃣ → B) slight variation
2️⃣ → A) is a direct learning enhancer

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