How Fear Prevents the Brain from Learning

Four embroidery hoops of different colors with brains stitched on different colored backgrounds

Have you ever felt your body freeze up in response to a stressful situation? Perhaps your heart began to race and your breathing became fast and shallow. That’s your autonomic nervous system at work, and it’s warning your body that there’s danger afoot.

Physiological changes such as the ones above are triggered in part by the vagus nerve, which connects the brain stem to your bodily organs. Nerve impulses move along the vagus nerve from the brain to the body, but they also move from the body to brain.

This last point is particularly important. Often it’s our body that controls our response to fear, not our brain. We can be in an objectively safe setting, but if something sensory triggers the autonomic nervous system, we may feel fearful.

A Tale of Two Vagus Strands

The vagus nerve consists of three strands, all of which respond to fear differently. Let’s look at the first two, which are more primitive and reactive.

Mule deer in the road practicing his "deer in headlights" look.The first vagus strand produces a freeze reaction. If you’ve seen a deer in headlights—either the real thing or a motionless, terrified person—you’ve seen the freeze reaction in action. In the classroom, the freeze reaction may manifest itself as a momentary inability to speak or move, perhaps in response to an impending exam or a comment from a teacher or classmate.

The second vagus strand produces a “fight or flight” response. A student caught up in a fight mentality may run out of the classroom at inappropriate times, talk back to the teacher, or bully other students. Alternately, a student caught up in a flight mentality may avoid eye contact or sit away from other students.

Traumatic Residue

As mentioned, the first two vagus strands can trigger a fear response even when there is no objective threat. An extreme example is a student who suffers abuse at home. The student may feel unsafe and act out at school, even though there is no danger of harm.

Mugs with the "Keep Calm" logo that say "Now Panic and Freak Out."What’s really going on when a student reacts in fear for no apparent reason?

According to Stephen Porges, the neuroscientist behind the polyvagal theory, the amygdala stores traumatic memories as a kind of emotional “residue.” This residue makes the sympathetic nervous system hyper alert. It goes into continual overdrive, trying to detect danger. The student’s rational side is no longer in control. The student is now subject to a complex interaction of brain chemicals and hormones.

Our Hero: The Third Vagus Strand

If you’re wondering what happened to the third vagus strand, it hasn’t been forgotten. When functioning properly, the third vagus strand overrides the false warning signals and tells the body that it’s okay to relax.

A teacher stands at the front of the classroom while students eagerly raise their hands.It’s only in this relaxed state that deep learning occurs. Students must feel safe—emotionally, physically, cognitively, and socially—before they can think critically and creatively. They must have a well-trained third vagus strand.

Classroom Application

This raises the question: what can educators do to create a sense of safety and stimulate higher-order thinking?

Here are a few suggestions from Quantum Learning:

  • Honor students’ unique contributions. Every child has a hidden genius, and that genius naturally surfaces when talents are celebrated and accomplishments are acknowledged. Some students may naturally gravitate toward math, while others gravitate toward reading. Whatever a student excels in, those talents need to be recognized and valued.
  • Establish expectations early in the semester. Students will feel more comfortable when they know how the classroom will operate and how to interact with others. The 8 Keys of Excellence help accomplish this by giving students a common language.
  • Acknowledge students’ efforts regardless of the outcome. Create an environment where it is safe to try and fail. When a student completes a task incorrectly, give them a chance to fix the mistake and provide positive feedback on what the student did do well.
  • Outlaw putdowns and negative self-talk. The 8 Keys of Excellence are helpful here as well. Speak with Good Purpose encourages students to speak kindly and thoughtfully about others and themselves.

This is just a handful of ideas. Quantum Learning includes many more suggestions for encouraging safe learning environments, and we’re sure you have some of your own. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Co-authored by Barbara K. Given, Ph.D., Associate Professor Emerita of Special Education, George Mason University; Author Teaching to the Brain’s Natural Learning Systems.

Images from Hey Paul, Blue Moonbeam, Blue Square Thing, and Audio Luci Store.

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