Why Fun Improves Learning: Mood, Senses, Neurons, Arousal, Cognition

There is ample anecdotal evidence that shows listening to a fun lecture or lesson is great for learning. It’s intuitive. Having fun & interactive learning sessions does improve learning on the whole and engender a positive attitude toward learning. It’s one of the reasons why MOOCs are popular.

But why does this happen? Why does having fun, enjoyment, and liveliness improve the learning experience? The results are in and we know a few things.

Now, let us get into the why. I’ve split the answer into 3 sections. One, why mood affects learning. Two, why engaging our senses is better for learning. And three, how do brain resources affect learning.

I’ve also included a list at the end with some ideas on how to make learning enjoyable.

TL;DR

Research shows that having fun while learning avails unique cognitive resources, associates reward and pleasure with information, strengthen and broaden memory networks, and toggle between 2 basic neural modes - oneā€¦


Enhancing our mood makes information pleasurable and the brain flexible

A good mood improves the value of perceived rewards like the gratification of new knowledge, accomplishment, etc. In essence, an improved mood increases the intrinsic reward felt by people while doing an activity. It also helps them go in the flow state – popularly known as “the zone.”

An improved mood-state creates a new emotion-based component for an experience. This component attaches itself to various aspects of learning – thinking, memory, judgments, etc. Because of the attachment, it reinforces the memory and makes it easier to remember. Getting in a similarly good mood can also help you to remember more information associated with that mood

Research also shows that a relaxed mood makes the brain more strategic in using its resources for processing information and paying attention. It does this via electrical activity signaling a neutral network of related ideas (neurons) making people more creative and develop a richer context in learning. In short, it increases cognitive flexibility. Another related reason for flexibility is that there is lesser interference from a pre-occupied emotionally burdened mind which reallocates resources in unexpected ways.

An enhanced mood increases dopamine (associated with reward, satisfaction, motivation, movement, and learning) in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is one of the most advanced regions of the brain which takes care of attention, memory, comprehension, decision, humor, planning, etc. These are called the executive functions; they sit at the helm of our being, pun not intended. When the head is motivated with dopamine, learning feels pleasurable, enjoyable and rewarding. Again, pun not intended.

There is one other specific consequence of having a good mood & fun while learning – when focusing on the big picture, a good mood will increase the quality of a broad focus; when focusing on the small details, a good mood will increase the quality of a narrow focus. In essence, a positive mood enhances your attention wherever you are giving it. A negative mood does the opposite.


Engaging our senses improves the learning experience and learning quality

Our senses don’t function independently. Information from all our senses comes together whether or not it is relevant at that moment. All of that information combines and then we perceive it. It is one of the reasons why our brain & mind is closely tied to the body – all the senses and our mind are thoroughly integrated with each other. When we use just one sense, the other senses are sending in noise. When we utilize more than one sense, we are giving additional meaning to that experience. We remember it better because a)stronger neural connections are formed & b)information from multiple senses is bound together. This is why reading subtitles and listening to the audio on Netflix is easier than just audio. The phenomenon is called cross-modal congruence.

Whenever 2 congruent things are paired, they become easier to digest and learn, resulting in a richer memory. A possible explanation is that congruence reduces the demand on neural resources because congruent things support each other and have a common denominator. Like subtitles and voice; they mean the same, support each other, and have a common language denominator. Congruence is a built-in abstract system that facilitates memory and learning. For example, emphatic gestures and stressing on words promote remembering those words (congruence between gestures and words). Words with a relevant photo & discussing similar things one after the other utilize this congruence to amplify the intensity of information. Congruence also amplifies and enriches your experience of food (via senses) and written information (via fonts).

A stressed-out brain & body keeps our nervous system activated for a fight, flight, or freeze response. This state arouses/excites the nervous system to be “ready” for anything that happens next. There is a sweet spot where our nervous system is aroused just enough to absorb maximum information. Any more and our body goes into pooling in all it’s resources to cope with stress and block out all neutral and unrelated information. Any lesser and the body goes into a passive lethargic mode. A little physical movement and sensory stimulation can excite the nervous system just enough to optimize its resources. It is important to stay relaxed and excited but not too relaxed or too anxious.

Language being context-dependent, deictic references like body movements can help in holistic learning of a language. Such context-dependent elements are best understood in an embodied fashion where the thought, words, and movement are all working together to convey meaning.

Engaging the whole body in an interactive way promotes the creation of mental models and embodied representations. Mental models are how people represent an idea in their mind and embodied representations are how those ideas are related to the environment, context, and the senses. These are stored in the brain with a higher priority and more flexibility.

Humans use a rich network of brain regions for language. They include centers for movement, emotions, and speaking, and comprehension. Engaging them deliberately is a good idea as it reinforces learning by absorbing dense but related information simultaneously.

Using more senses and social interactions while learning creates a deeper encoding of information which is represented by stronger neural connections, larger networks of neurons, more components to a memory (thoughts, contexts, senses), and anchor points which help in grounding that information in what people call “knowledge.”


The Brain has ready resources for optimizing learning based on mood, relevance, emotions, & context

Every new learning forms new connections in the brain or strengthens old connections (plasticity). Repetition, using more senses, giving a context, adding personal meaning, relating information to other ideas, etc. makes the neural circuitry efficient and reliable–that means, better learning, memory, and remembering. This efficiency increases through a process called myelination – deposits of fat on a neuron. This fat allows electrical signals to jump faster along its length (the axon). Another part of this efficiency is a well-networked branching-out of neurons that form a beautiful lattice of connections which serve a dedicated purpose and is flexible enough to help out other brain functions. Plasticity depends on the nature of learning, a richer experience creates a richer network.

Fun and play in classroom learning reduce the rigidity of the curriculum which allows more student-autonomy. It gives a sense of control to the students. People have an innate need for growth (self-determination theory) which comes easily if there is autonomy, relatability, and a sense of competence. Fun and play allow a student to maximize all 3.

Boredom in class is like poison – it deteriorates mental health and learning. Any activity to ward off bored is beneficial because boredom is an unnatural state for the brain (the brain has evolved to be hungry and engaged, boredom is like starving it), and it is analogous to pain.

Active participation in learning (inc. socially) is a part of generative learning where participation itself creates a new layer of reinforcement over and above just “absorbing information”. Discussions, Q&A, making notes, making art, teaching, summarizing, etc. help to “generate” new learning.

Having fun, having social interactions, and sensory engagement while learning promotes plasticity (neural changes) and activates various brain regions to encode an experience with a high amount of detail. This translates into stronger neural connections with many components – memory, past experiences, new experiences, knowledge gaps, emotions, etc. Having these elements makes remembering easier because the experience has more “anchors” in the brain. These anchors function as cues to remember a large network of information. More anchors also embed the information in the brain with more stability. In comparison, just reading or listening to something creates fewer anchors.

Human memory has 3 important layers when it comes to learning from other people. It begins with sensory inputs (touch, sight, hearing, taste, smell, location, movement). These electrochemical signals activate their respective parts of the brain. Then, these parts connect with the speech centers to create a layer of language on top of it which describes the sensory information. Finally, once the experience is put into words, the sensory information and the language description transfers into the episodic memory – the memory of what happened, what you’ve thought, and what you’ve learned. These layers are connected with our attention so we can pay attention and focus on any of those components. Once the layers are made, each layer can again influence the other layers. That is why we can think about what we have learned in the past and re-interpret it in new words. That is how we update our learning. In essence, giving your brain more sensory food, and then giving it a touch of language-based descriptions improves memory.

Discussions on making learning relatable have a unique advantage. The content you learn tethers itself to an already formed memory. That means, the neurons for an old memory interact and link to a new set of neurons in unique ways. This improves the memory for what you’ve already experienced and the new information you are relating it to. Relatability increases motivation, motivation increases thinking (metacognition) and thinking makes learning easier. It also adds emotional significance to specific contexts. For example, handshakes in formal meetings are appropriate but kissing a business prospect isn’t. These nuances are built on experiences and emotional significance because emotions put things in motion (behavior). When students connect learning to their personal lives and non-classroom activities, it becomes a part of their self-concept. Aligning activities with your own self-concept is rewarding and fulfilling, and most importantly, self-sustaining.

Being excited while learning is a good thing. A neurochemical and a hormone called Norepinephrine (noradrenaline) is released as a response to stress or excitation. One of its functions is to increase alertness, concentration, and overall energy. This represents the general arousal and excitation of the brain. Norepinephrine allows us to highlight priority information and discard useless/low-priority information from our awareness. It also creates hotspots in the brain which link to memory and emotions which are particularly ready for change – that means more neural plasticity to learn new information. Inducing arousal promotes memory formation, motivates, and improves concentration.

The brain has an affective filter called the Amygdala. It labels information with emotions and tells the rest of the brain what emotion needs to be associated with that information. Sometimes it labels information with anxiety or stress, sometimes sadness, and at other times, it is boredom or repulsion. The affective filter can block a student’s learning process by emotionally discouraging them automatically. It may prevent new information from entering awareness or higher-processing regions of the brain (PFC, executive functions). Fun and leisure elements (like movies) in a learning session reduce the intensity of this affective filter and students are more likely to take in new information and learn better, especially language skills. An increase in this affective filter prevents information from reaching the frontal cortex because brain resources are redirected toward a fight, flight, or freeze response.

One of the hubs between our senses and the more advanced parts of the brain is the reticular activating system (RAS) located just above the spinal cord. It forms a 2-way channel between the frontal lobe (executive functions like decision making, risk, attention) and the sensory neurons below the spinal cord. This hub sends all sensory information (except smell, which comes from the nose) to emotion centers, language centers, and the frontal cortex. When excited by sensory information, the RAS brings attention to novel, stimulating, and unique changes in the environment. It also directs the frontal cortex to avail more resources to deal with this incoming information.

A special note is needed to highlight the most important players in the game. The glial cells. Everyone speaks of neurons but glial cells are the other brain cells that do all the dirty work. They are like the housekeeping staff, the doctors, the lawyers, the engineers, IT support, the gods, etc. They repair neurons, they signal genes, they clean-up the neural space while you sleep. Glial cells are important for everything to do with the brain. Their activity is largely out of our control but one promising research study suggests that engaging in activities that feel good (by the release of oxytocin) can reduce the influence of glial cells on existing neurons which, in turn, promotes synaptic plasticity. In effect, oxytocin halts housekeeping activities and lets the brain rewire itself; which you now know, is fundamental to learning.

Curiosity and subjectively important information tap into the brain’s salience network. This network engages dopamine-based brain regions involved in emotions, cognition, motivation, and rewards. It also integrates sensory information from the environment as well as imagination (internal voice, images, hypothetical scenarios). This network frees-up attention and memory resources, probably to act toward self-directed goals like achieving, filling the curiosity knowledge-gap, having fun, solving problems, etc. That is why creating a chance to explore one’s curiosity can improve learning with a side effect of feeling good about it – the brain is readily willing to do that.

The Anterior Insula (the seat of the salience network) also enables the switching between 2 other important brain networks that have unique functions. 1) The default mode network – active during daydreaming, mind-wandering, sitting idly, thinking about personal events. 2) The central executive network – mobilizes attention and memory to focus on information. The salience network helps in switching between the two by accounting for motivational signals. When one network is on, the other one is off. They work one after the other to create a deeper understanding because they take-in information from life-experiences, emotions, senses, thoughts, and everything in between.

This is roughly the extent to which we know why fun and enjoyment in learning helps students learn better and teachers, teach better. These insights inform a new pedagogy of teaching called “Brain-based learning” and also explain why students benefit from teaching aids.


How To Make Learning Fun

  1. Use the SHoP rule – Surprise, Humor, and Play
  2. Make the environment conducive to social interactions
  3. Engage in simple physical activities like asking students to do something trivial
  4. Use pop culture references
  5. Connect real-life moments to fictional lecture moments
  6. Exaggerate points, add a dramatic flair
  7. Mix emotions and transition between high intensity, curiosity, neutral, and mike-drop moments. Transitions are important, keeping a single emotion on for too long won’t help much
  8. Use props & games
  9. Develop a persona to play with student and teacher expectations & a unique style to build a familiarity
  10. Use memes
  11. Develop relationships

These are just some ideas to get you started. Let your creativity guide you.


Summary

  1. An enhanced mood increases cognitive flexibility, makes learning pleasurable by default and improves your attention in ways you want it to.
  2. Having fun and being excited about learning increases brain-activity of neurons that use Oxytocin (pleasure hormone), Dopamine (reward, motivation, learning, senses, thinking hormone), and Norepinephrine (energizing, attention hormone) which improve learning and memory.
  3. A stress-free and safe but exciting environment reduces the impact of the amygdala which would otherwise prevent the information from reaching higher brain-regions for detailed processing. Stress and anxiety compromise the capacity to learn by redirecting resources for survival or body-maintenance.
  4. Novel and engaging activities can direct the reticular activating system to avail more resources for processing information.
  5. Tapping into curiosity and relatable experiences engage 3 brain networks which, by default, process information at multiple levels. Without tapping into it, there may be a compromise in the quality of learning.
  6. Long-term memory is built upon sensory information and descriptions using language. Richer sensory and language layers make richer memories which last longer and are easier to remember.
  7. The human sensory system has evolved to mix and work with multiple senses at the same time. Limiting sensory inputs can prevent the potential benefits of holistic learning.
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