Assembly: how to make the most of your brain

The brain is an incredible thing. I’ve learned so much more about how our brains work over the past year through reading books like Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham and learning about the neuroscience behind growth mindset. I’ve blogged about this before in What I know now about how the brain worksNow that I know a bit – a very little bit! –  about neuroscience, I’ve found that I’ve been able to catch my brain when it’s playing tricks on me, and manage myself better. This is what Dweck counsels in Mindset – to catch yourself when you hear a fixed mindset voice and talk back to yourself in a growth mindset voice – and I thought it would be worth sharing this with students in my latest assembly (Prezi here).

Our brains are hardwired to expect the worst

Image credit: Smithsonian Magazine

Image credit: Smithsonian Magazine

Much of our brain’s chemistry is the same as back in caveman times. Back in those days, it made sense to be alert to danger and expect bad things to happen at every turn – it helped us to survive. We can see this with a simple test. What do you read when you see this?


If, like me, you read “opportunity is nowhere” then you are in the majority! Of course, we could read “opportunity is now here” but our brain’s predisposition is to expect the worst. Our brain is notoriously good at showing us things that aren’t really there.

Can you see the circles in between the crosses in this picture? They aren’t really there.

When we expect bad things to happen, sense danger, or feel stress, our brain is flooded with cortisol.

Cortisol molecule (public domain)

Cortisol molecule (public domain)

Cortisol is a self-preservation hormone, which enables us to respond quickly to danger. It’s a sort of caveman boy scout motto: “be prepared.” However, in preparing our fight-or-flight reflex it diverts resources from other parts of our systems by switching off functions which are non-essential in the moment of stress. Like the immune system. And growth. If we experience frequent high stress, we’re more likely to get ill and less likely to grow.

Luckily, if we are conscious of our fight or flight reflex we can control it – force our minds to see “opportunity is now here” and take a more positive track. And, if we do so, the rewards can be great, as this beer commercial shows:

Feel-good neurochemistry part one: the selfish chemicals 

To counteract cortisol, our stress hormone, our brains have several chemicals designed to make us feel good. The first type, endorphins, are designed to mask physical pain. They’re released by exercise. So going for a run, going for a bike ride, anything that gets your heart rate up will release endorphins into your bloodstream. Endorphins mask the damage you’re doing to your body through the exercise, so your legs may well be agony afterwards but it feels brilliant at the time!

Another feel-good chemical is dopamine. We get little shots of dopamine when we get things done; I like to think of it as the “achievement” chemical. It exists in our brains to make sure we achieve our goals. I’m a big “to-do list” person, and that great feeling when you tick something off your to-do list is a little shot of dopamine in your system. The trouble with dopamine is that it doesn’t really differentiate between big jobs and little jobs, so you’ll get a little shot of dopamine if you find that pen you were looking for, even if you don’t start your homework. Dopamine can be tricky – it will reward you for completing smaller, less challenging tasks as well as the big important things, so you need to force yourself to do the hard things first to make sure you have enough brain power and energy to see the job through.

Feel-good neurochemistry part two: reciprocal chemicals

Here’s where we get on to the really good stuff. Firstly, serotonin. I think of serotonin as the “pride” chemical.

Photo 29-09-2014 20 41 46

Serotonin is released when we get recognition from other people for something we’ve done – it feels really, really good. But the great thing about serotonin is that it’s released in other people too. When you get a little dopamine shot from ticking off something important on your list, you feel good. When you achieve something that your teacher, your parents, or your friends think is great, they feel good too. Back in caveman times, serotonin helped members of tribes work and stay together by encouraging them to invest in each other. That’s what’s so great about working in a school. When students do well, I feel proud of them – I feel good. How brilliant is that? So when you’re working on something, make sure you’re proud of it, and think about who you want to feel proud of you too. Your teacher? Parents? Grandparents? Siblings?

The final feel-good chemical is the best one of all – oxytocin. Oxytocin is an amazing chemical, which produces those warm and fuzzy happy feelings that we really treasure. It’s the antidote to cortisol: it boosts our immune systems and encourages growth, which is why happy people live longer. It’s not an instant shot like dopamine, however. It takes time to build up in our systems. I think of it as the “kindness” chemical, because it’s released when we do nice things for other people. Just last week I was carrying a stack of books and folders between the Humanities block and Lower School towards a pull-only door. A student – Year 8 I think – saw the potential for catastrophe and went out of his way to open the door for me. I don’t know him, and I’ve never taught him. But as I said thank you, he smiled. I felt good. He felt good. And the sixth formers who had seen what had happened smiled too. They felt good. Because even witnessing someone do something kind for someone else releases oxytocin. How amazing is that?

Back in Neanderthal times oxytocin was around to ensure that caveman tribes looked out for each other. It’s a selfless chemical and it’s the invisible glue that binds communities together. Whenever you help someone else – give up your time, energy and effort for someone – everybody benefits. The next video demonstrates this perhaps better than any I’ve seen. Get ready for that oxytocin effect:

Tips to get the feel-good chemicals flowing



I’m not a psychologist, and I’m definitely not a neuroscientist. If I’ve got my brain chemistry wrong, please let me know! This assembly was inspired by a Simon Sinek talk suggested by Simon Scarborough (@Leading_in_PE): Why Leaders Eat Last.  It’s 45 minutes long but it’s well worth it! I’d already prepared it before I attended the Growing Excellence in Learning and Teaching conference in London last week, but Bradley Busch’s inspirational session on the teenage brain was responsible for adding some more brilliant ideas. Bradley tweets @Inner_Drive on behalf of his company ( and having seen him in action, he comes personally recommended!

If you can’t see the Prezi embed above, please click this link.


8 thoughts on “Assembly: how to make the most of your brain

  1. I love this Chris, thanks very much for sharing. Have you read Dr. Andrew Curran’s book Little Book about Big Stuff About the Brain-superb and echoes the things you are talking about here.

  2. As a lapsed neuroscientist, and I suppose as a parent, I have an interest in how neuroscience and learning theory relate to one another, and there’s something which bothers me a tiny bit about the subject matter of this post which wasn’t so much the case for your previous one (“What I know now about the brain”). Don’t worry, it’s not your description of the actual science, it’s more that I have issues with the way that the discussion is framed in the world of popular science. In your previous post there was a clearer link between the description of the neuroscience and what that might mean for teaching, but that’s less so here just because of the slightly different topic – if, tomorrow, someone suddenly proved that a different set of chemicals were responsible for some of the things you describe, I doubt it would make a big impact how you did your teaching. That’s important, because it not only means that the neuroscience in your previous post is more interesting from a teaching perspective, but crucially it also means that you as a teacher are in a good position to evaluate the basic plausibility of any claims that someone might make based on the neuroscience in the previous post. Because that isn’t so easy to do here, there’s the danger that people using this sort of neurochemical language might be doing so to provide a veneer of “truthiness” to what might otherwise be not-very-persuasive ideas. Clearly that’s not what I’m accusing you of, it’s more that I think teachers should perhaps be a tiny bit wary of people using neuroscience in this way (particularly commercial organisations punting teaching materials or methods).

    • Yes, I completely agree! The audience for this post is the students – it’s essentially a transcript of the assembly I’m giving – and I’m aware that there’s a risk in simplifying Simon Sinek’s simplified version of neuro-chemistry. I’m very conscious that I am a self-taught layman and it’s exceptionally helpful to have neuroscientists (even lapsed ones!) scrutinising what I’m doing. The commercial organisations are definitely swarming over “Growth Mindset” and anything to do with neuroscience, and popularise the science to the extent that it sometimes loses the plot (here’s an example: Essentially, this is my best stab at “here’s what the science is telling us at the moment about why we should try hard and be nice to each other” in a fifteen minute assembly slot. I hope I’ve achieved that!

      Great to hear from you Richard – please let me know if I’m dropping neuroscience clangers!

      • Ooops! Fair enough, I mistakenly thought it was something aimed at teachers. In that case I’m pretty happy to hear of anything that might possibly interest children in neuroscience really! I mean, there’s a bit of a danger that quite a lot of this stuff might turn out to be untrue – current understanding of neuroscience is a lot less settled than anything one might find in, say, chemistry or physics – but then I’m sure that’s the case with the narratives provided by lots of other academic subjects too.

        Don’t worry, no neuroscience clangers as yet!

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