After working 22 years as a French teacher in public schools, Ruth M. Ferree returned to graduate school to study brain processes involved in language acquisition. She currently teaches courses in second language acquisition, language teaching methods, and language proficiency assessment at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education.
Every happy teacher I know talks about watching a student “get it.” We say, “The light came on.” The electrical nature of neurons and the development of neural networks that are the foundation of our thought processes give validity to the light bulb analogy. We have all experienced it.
Given what we know about the brain chemistry of pleasure, it’s reasonable that the moment when we humans learn something or figure out something results in a lovely squirt of dopamine, serotonin or some other pleasurable neurochemical. In short, learning feels good.
One particular group of neurons that is very active in social interactions has been dubbed “mirror neurons” (Rizzolatti, G. and Craighero, L, 2004). When a monkey watches a man eat a banana, the monkey’s brain motor cortex is firing in a similar pattern to the human’s, but somehow mediated through the mirror neurons, since the monkey is not actually eating a banana himself. A comparable brain region in humans seems to function in a similar way. When we watch someone else perform an action, part of our brain is acting it out, too. Vicarious experiences like watching a sporting event have been shown to affect not only mood, but also physiology–for instance a heightened testosterone level when our team wins (Bernhardt, PC, Dabbs, JM Jr and Lutter, CD, 1998).
Watching a documentary on how little teachers are paid left me thinking that maybe I had been a fool to work for so long for so little money. I started wondering why anyone would put so much time and energy into work that was not valued in a monetary way. What’s more, I am not alone. There are millions of us. What’s in it for us?
Eureka. I had a lightbulb moment. As we teach, we experience the joy of learning over and over. Our mirror neurons fire, and our body responds to the successes we observe. Each time we guide a student to experience that moment, we get a burst of those feel good neurochemicals of our own. It’s a vicarious thrill, one that is addicting, in a good way.