6 Ways to Engage the Whole Brain

There has been a lot of buzz lately around the maker movement. Recent brain-based research support the notion that hands-on making, building, and creating not only nurture creativity, but also impact cognition, working memory, and innovative problem solving. While we don’t have to have the working knowledge of neuroscientists, if we’re going to improve our practice of teaching it’s important to understand how the brain learns. And if we want to nurture creativity, it’s important to understand that creative thinking involves communication among brain regions that do not normally interact with one another.

Most brain-based researchers will agree that there is not one single brain area responsible for creativity. Therefore, nurturing creativity requires stimulating multiple parts of the brain.  This has inspired a wide-spread movement to whole-brain instruction in today’s classrooms.

Learning creates neural pathways in the brain that get stronger with practice. The combination of creative thinking and learning results from the generation of ideas (in the frontal lobe) combined with emotions, meaning, and memory (in the temporal lobe) and the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that sends signals to engage other nerve cells in the brain.

Until recently, many psychologists identified creativity as a fixed trait – you were either creative or you weren’t. We now know that creativity is hardwired into our brains – we either tap into it, nurture it, and develop it or we don’t. Ask 25 kindergartners how many of them are artists, and you’ll see 25 hands in the air. While most young children will easily classify themselves as “creative,” that number drops to 50% in fifth grade, and plummets to 10% in high school. The reasons for the dramatic shift are both scientific and emotional.

The biological explanation is that the emotional brain is fully functional by about age 12. But the prefrontal cortex (the region that controls executive functions such as complex cognitive behavior, decision making, and social control) doesn’t fully mature until one has reached his mid-twenties. So, in the early grades, students create with relative freedom. The purple cow is deemed creative and imaginative.

By about the fifth grade, the prefrontal cortex is showing signs of development in the form of inhibitions. Students begin to moderate their behavior based upon judgment from others. By high school, students are very much aware of how others view their work and most of their academic experiences have centered around “the right answer” rather than innovative thinking. Purple cows no longer exist and we begin to associate being “wrong” with a penalty or consequence. Our prefrontal cortex trumps risk-free learning and exploration.

So how do we promote healthy development of the prefrontal cortex without squashing the creativity along the way? Here are six strategies that can help you improve learning with brain-based research in mind:

Provide creative constraints.

When you tell learners of any age to “be creative” without guidelines, you’ll likely see more than a few “deer in the headlights” looks. Too much freedom can actually have the opposite effect. For example, rather than asking students to create an invention, ask them to create an invention that includes three wheels and a pulley. Or write a creative story that includes a boy, a dog, and a kite. A few restrictions or guidelines can often stimulate more ideas and generate better results.

Challenge the brain with divergent thinking.

We’re trained to think about teaching and learning in terms of convergent thinking. Follow a specific set of steps to arrive at a single correct answer. In contrast, divergent thinking is a process used to generate many possible solutions. Divergent thinking processes require the brain to search through the “archives” for as many stored ideas, data points, and related facts that could generate more possible solutions. This kind of thinking actually stimulates more areas of the brain and allows for more neural connections.

Focus on ideas and relationships rather than answers.

The brain builds dendrites from existing dendrites.  In simplest terms, it attaches new information to existing knowledge.  A creative learning environment will allow students to focus on ideas and relationships rather than isolated facts and answers so they can build on prior knowledge. Yes, they need to know certain facts and yes, sometimes there is one right answer. But, when students focus on conceptual relationships, they build their ability to think and process information for further application and synthesis.

Make creativity a habit.

Creative thinking requires generating “out of the box” ideas which is contrary to the brain’s preference for patterns, logic, and meaning. By encouraging creative expression, students will become more and more comfortable thinking of new possibilities rather than rely on established patterns of thinking.

Model risk-free creativity. 

If you want your students to be creative makers, it’s important for them to see it in action. Build, create, paint, and step out of your own box, and demonstrate that creativity doesn’t come with a guide and doesn’t have one right answer. When your students realize that “making” is just one way to transform an idea into something real and tangible, they’ll become more comfortable with the process and learn how to nurture their own ideas.

Move the body; boost the brain.

The connection between mind and body has been explored in depth for over 100 years. But recent brain-based research and advances in technology now enable us to see what happens in the brain when we move the body. As it turns out, gross motor movements spark brain activity. Using fMRI scans, we can see a significant increase in brain activity after just a 20-minute walk.

Even though education has been traditionally a “sit and learn” environment, more and more educators are seeing huge academic gains by incorporating movement in learning experiences. The “movement” about movement began over 100 years ago with Dr. Maria Montessori. She maintained that mental function isn’t just connected with movement, it is dependent upon it. We’ve been proving it with science ever since.


Dr. Melissa Hughes is the founder and principal of The Andrick Group. Our mission is to engage, inspire, and educate people to increase their capacity for learning and creativity. We do this by providing tailored, dynamic workshops that help organizations improve their work by understanding how the brain works and applying that to achieve greater productivity, professional growth, and personal satisfaction.


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