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Not for ourselves alone

Mount Barker High School

Neuroscience and Education

On the first day back at school this term staff enjoyed a presentation from Neuroscientist, Professor Billy O’Connor, a passionate researcher into neuroscience and education.

Billy is the head of Teaching and Research in Physiology at the University of Limerick Graduate Entry Medical School, and was on sabbatical at Flinders University. We were fortunate enough to have him visit us on his last day in Australia.

Billy talked about recent research into the neuroplasticity of the brain and how it is possible to rewire the pathways of the brain through ‘exercise’, much as we exercise any muscle to build its strength.

Research shows that during adolescence the brain is rewiring itself as children become adults. During this process there can be feelings of loss and grief, uncertainty and confusion and excessive emotions. As we all know, adolescents can sometimes be temperamental!

The last part of the brain to develop is the frontal lobe, the section that is to do with higher order thinking skills, responsible decision making and organisation. This can take into the twenties to be fully developed! Something we need to remember when we expect adolescents to be organised and act responsibly.

During the presentation Billy gave us a range of strategies for Optimal Learning. He talked about the importance to learning of taking time to be Mindful, and the power of mindfulness to cope with stress. By giving our brains a chance to rest and focus on the moment we strengthen the frontal lobe and help it to develop. This is important for adolescents, but also for adults and children.

In an experiment in 2012 fifty college students were asked to practice relaxation each day for two months prior to a Maths exam. Twenty-five were asked to practice mindfulness for 12 minutes each day, the other twenty-five were asked to relax each day and chose things like listening to music or going for a walk. Immediately after the exam they had their cortisol levels checked to test their stress levels. Those who had practiced mindfulness had lower cortisol levels and felt more positive about their performance in the exam. Scans also showed that those who had practiced mindfulness had developed a thicker band of neurons in the frontal lobe of the brain!

At the end of his talk Billy gave us some simple exercises to develop mindfulness.

Billy has a fascinating website, on which he publishes the latest research into the brain. Please check out some of his topics!