Brain Bites

Brain Bites

Is Pleasure Making You Unhappy?

by Janet Zadina on 02/07/19

Are you engaging in a practice that causes momentary pleasure but can increase stress or depression? Are you experiencing pleasure at the expense of happiness? They are not the same things.  Pleasure and happiness engage different areas of the brain and cause different chemicals to be increased. These chemicals affect our behavior and emotions differently.

If you are like most people, you are engaging on a daily basis in a practice that provides momentary pleasure, but according to research makes you unhappier.  Can you guess what that is? Technology! Our phones provide an addictive pleasure in the short term but increase unhappiness and stress.

Many people are becoming addicted to their phones. The pathway of addiction in the brain is also called the reward pathway, the pleasure pathway, and the motivation pathway (see Multiple Pathways to the Student Brain).  When you do something that gives you pleasure, the brain releases dopamine.  Dopamine gives you an immediate reward which then motivates you to do it again. You do it repeatedly to get the reward.  This can lead to addiction. Drugs of abuse activate this pathway.

Cell phone usage is a dopamine simulator.  Those alerts that indicate someone has texted or emailed cause a release of dopamine.  But then the brain wants another “hit” and so keeps glancing at the phone. This behavior has become an addiction, especially in our students.  The alerts also increase the release of other chemicals: stress hormones! They can raise anxiety and even increase depression.

Focusing on the phone and getting constant bursts of feel-good dopamine affects engagement with people and experiences. We tend to miss out on the beauty and enjoyment of what is around us.  We do this instead of engaging in behaviors that promote actual happiness, defined as contentment. Instead of constantly wanting more, we are happy and content.

Please note:  dopamine itself is not bad.  When we engage in behaviors that enhance human survival we are rewarded with dopamine and pleasure so that we will continue to do these behaviors.  We can increase the reward pathway with positive behaviors that raise dopamine in the classroom and improve motivation, such as making material novel, emotional, meaningful, or like real-life.  We can create lessons that cause the student to use pattern-detection, such as figuring things out (See Multiple Pathways to the Student Brain).   Dopamine is only bad when it goes from motivation to addiction.  Cell phone usage appears to do that in some individuals.

Activities that promote happiness also reward the brain via a chemical called serotonin.   When your serotonin levels are high, you feel peace, contentment, reduced stress, and enjoyment.  This is a state, not a quick burst. Happier people have higher serotonin. Serotonin decreases anxiety and counteracts depression.  People with depression have low serotonin levels.

Serotonin spreads to many areas of the brain and touches approximately 14 different receptors.  This means that many things can make us happy in different ways.

What kinds of activities raise serotonin?  Giving to others increases it. When we help others or show kindness we get rewarded with feel-good serotonin. Sharing activities with others also raises serotonin, which includes spending time with family, friends, or even pets. Cooperation is another behavior that can increase serotonin.  When we allow students to work with others or to do community service, we are helping them raise their serotonin.

Engage in behaviors that brings you joy. As Marie Kondo says, “Does this spark joy?” I’m guessing that spending time on social media or our devices doesn’t, if you stop and think about it.

As you go through your day, notice what makes you feel content and satisfied.  These things raise serotonin. Ask what makes you feel you always want more and it is never enough.  These might be raising dopamine.

Can you spare 10 minutes to cut failure rate in half?

by Janet Zadina on 01/25/19


Lower income high school freshman biology students improved their success rate and reduced the gap between lower income and higher income students with a 10 minute intervention prior to test-taking.  As reported in a very important journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers Leah Beilock and her team at Barnard College found that strategies to reduce stress prior to an exam reduced the performance gap.

I think educators know that it isn’t just what students know, but also how effectively they can take a test that can affect achievement.  Anxiety, stress, and trauma can affect test-taking performance.  Although all economic groups can have stress, it appears that lower income students may also have performance anxiety in STEM classes that affect their scores.  

The intervention used by these researchers could be adapted to better work with schedules and for other courses.  First, let’s look at what they did. They randomly put 1200 freshmen into one of four groups. Students wrote for 10 minutes prior to the test on one of the following, depending upon group assignment.

  1. Expressive writing:  writing openly about their feelings about the test

  2. Reappraisal:  Students read a brief passage about how stress affects the body (fast heartbeat, sweaty palms, etc) and that it was the body’s way of preparing them for something important.  They wrote a summary of this.

  3. Both of the above

  4. Control group: summarizing a passage instructing them to ignore their stress

For low-income students, any of the tasks 1-4 improved test scores significantly.  But more dramatically, these interventions increased the passing rate for lower income students from 61% to 82%. Researchers conclude that two 10-minute interventions during the year significantly reduced failure rate in low income students in STEM classes.


To adapt this, I think the same effects could be achieved without doing it right before the test.  As a teacher, I know that we don’t always have that amount of time. I think that doing this early in the semester during a class period could have a similar effect.  Then perhaps devote one minute of writing for them to recall key points of what they have learned.

I think this would help in any course, not just STEM.  Many students have performance anxiety on top of other kinds of anxiety.  I am surprised to see that this didn’t help as much with high-income students as research shows they can have even higher levels of performance anxiety.  Perhaps it was the fact that low income students may feel they do not belong in STEM classes, so it applied more to that, whereas the higher income students in STEM classes may have had more confidence.  This needs to be parsed out in future research.

I am currently working on a new workbook for students that would take a few minutes a day (in class or as an assignment) periodically to address anxiety, stress, and trauma and the impact on learning.  I hope to have that ready for fall semester. In the meantime, you can do something similar to this intervention. I suggest doing each of the first 3 maybe two weeks apart as your schedule permits.

Educators need to prioritize emotional factors in school as well as content.  Professional development on the nature and impact of anxiety, stress, and trauma is critical.  Trauma-sensitive classrooms enhance the learning of all students. For more information on this, check out the free resources on my Butterfly Project at .  Additional free resources are available on my web page at .  For professional development on this topic for your faculty check out .  Contact me at or reply to this email for more information.

The first 5 minutes that improve learning, especially in millennials

by Janet Zadina on 10/30/18

Turns out that millennials (ages 18-33) are more stressed than older adults.  In fact, their stress levels are well above the national average. The factors contributing to that stress level are work and finances.  If they are in school, then that would contribute even more to those levels. School shootings are also a factor. To make matters worse, they are stressed about being stressed!  Almost half felt they were not managing their anxiety well.

This article is also relevant for K-12.  Children as young as 4 can have anxiety and depression.  About 8-10% of students ages 13-18 have an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety and stress impair learning.  They use mental resources that could be used for learning.  It is like having a virus scan running on your computer slowing down the other processing.

The worst effect of anxiety and stress is the effect on the frontal lobes. They inhibit the activation of the frontal lobes where higher-order thinking take place.  This would impact the type of thinking that we would want to focus on most in education. It makes it harder to plan, organize, carry out long-term projects, and to engage in metacognition. Critical thinking is impaired.

Furthermore, stress impairs working memory.  Working memory is what you are able to hold “online” in your mind while working with the information.  It is limited to a few seconds. For example, if you ask someone directions and by the time they finish giving them you have no idea where to start, then you have experienced the limitations of working memory.  Working memory is hugely essential to academic success. It is required for working math problems, for reading comprehension, and even for writing. It can hurt students’ test-taking ability because lengthy questions are highly dependent upon working memory.  

Additionally, anxiety and stress affect attention.  They change the focus of attention and make it harder to pay attention when learning.  Attention drives learning! It is attention that creates the plasticity that enables the brain to change.

Finally, anxiety and stress impact the ability to self-regulate and to regulate emotion.  This can lead to behavioral issues in class.

Millennials and older adults feel that health care practitioners are not helping them manage their stress.  You, as faculty, are first responders. There is much that you can do in the classroom without much time away from academics to help students reduce stress in the moment so that they can learn better.  They come in the classroom unavailable to learn. If you spend 2-5 minutes at the beginning of class providing an opportunity to reduce their stress, you are making their brains available to learn for the rest of the class period.  I would say that is a significant return on investment.

You have to set the table before you can eat. Use the first 2-5 minutes to set the table for better learning.  First, as students walk in have appropriate music playing.  The music should be upbeat and positive with a beat-per-minute a little higher than concentration (70-90 bpm) or at concentration levels (60-80, heartbeat rate). Don’t worry too much about that.  Just don’t play anything too slow or too energetic. The recent song Today is Going to Be a Good Day or Three Little Birds or Don’t Worry Be Happy are some options you could start with. You could use the same song every day, like a theme song, or change it up.  I suggest you stay in charge of the music or preview it if they want to bring it because you are creating an arousal level and a mood change and you want that to be optimal for learning, not just for enjoyment. You turn it off when class starts so that is zero class time used.

Secondly, consider the practice of having students keep a gratitude journal in which every day they write down three things they are grateful for that day.  This practice has now been shown through research to improve mood and reduce anxiety because it changes the focus of attention. When someone knows that every day he or she will need to come up with three things, the brain starts looking for positive things and, over time, this changes the brain.  I had them do the gratitude journal while I took roll and/or handed out papers, so it really didn’t take much away from classroom time. Even if you just focused on the gratitude journal, you are looking at about 2 minutes after they initially get the hang of it.

A third measure to reduce stress is to take a few deep breaths. To be brief, slow deep breathing tells the brain that you are safe and relaxed.  By forcing that, you send the message to the brain to turn off the flight or fight chemicals.

Finally, engage in one minute of mindfulness meditation.  Meditation is no longer cutting-edge in schools: it is becoming prevalent as the research is very convincing.  Mindfulness meditation is focused attention. The easiest one is to ask them to think the words “breathe in” and “breathe out” as they pay attention to their breath.  When their mind wanders, and tell them it is normal that it will and to gently bring attention back to the breath. Start with 20 seconds and then 40 and finally, one minute.

Now you have set the table for learning.  They are mentally and physically available to learn!

Find more resources at and


by Janet Zadina on 10/04/18

Faculty stress is contagious to students!  Teachers and students drop out due to stress.  50% of students have enough anxiety, stress, depression, or trauma to impair learning. Let’s do something that benefits both!

Give your faculty

  • Renewed energy

  • Strategies for reducing anxiety and stress in themselves

  • Awareness of stages of burnout and how to prevent it

  • Strategies for creating a trauma-sensitive classroom

  • Strategies for reducing anxiety, stress, and trauma symptoms in students

  • A day to experience numerous methods scientifically shown to reduce anxiety, stress, depression, and trauma so that they can find an ongoing practice

Proposed Agenda

8:30-11:30 Presentation/Workshop by Dr. Janet Zadina on Anxiety, Stress, Trauma, Brain and Learning:  Science and Strategies

Attendees learn the science and the strategies for creating a trauma-sensitive classroom and for reducing stress in themselves and their students.  They learn the process of burnout and how to prevent it.

11:30-12:30 Lunch

12:30-3:30 Exploring Multiple Methods for Reducing Stress In Faculty And Students And Improving Health

Attendees will explore practices such as yoga, tai chi, and varieties of meditation. Attendees will learn how yoga improves their frontal lobes and reduces anxiety, stress & depression.  They will practice simple movements and poses that they can continue with at home and even teach to students on a “brain break”.

Attendees will learn about how tai chi works to increase concentration, reduce stress, and improve health.  Attendees will practice simple movements that they can continue to use.

Attendees will learn about the many varieties of meditation and practice some of them, including mindfulness, dance, drumming, and visualization.  Meditation is almost a “magic bullet” for reducing anxiety, stress, and trauma symptoms. Many schools are incorporating mindfulness meditation in pre-K through college.  Attendees will learn how to use this in the classroom to improve frontal lobe functions and to reduce anxiety, stress, and trauma symptoms.

All instructors are experienced in working with trauma survivors.  The practitioners are all employed by a hospital wellness center. Dr. Zadina is renowned for her work with trauma survivors and with educators in understanding how to raise achievement using brain research findings.

The Surprising Strategy that Gets Students Motivated, Increases Productivity, and Improves Health!

by Janet Zadina on 10/03/18

Do your students put off starting long-term projects, such as writing a paper or reading a book, or doing a research project?  They wait until the last minute usually because they have trouble starting. Starting is the hardest part! Well, this decades-old technique can get them on their way and help you improve your productivity and your health.

In the late 80’s, Francesco Cirillo developed a time management method called the Pomodoro Technique. This technique broke work tasks into intervals separated by brief breaks.  Typically the intervals were 25 minutes in length with a 5 minute break The method has become so popular that timers are available online and there are apps for it. (see below).  

Much more recently, research has shown that after sitting for only 20 minutes, your chemistry changes.  Metabolism can slow down. Thinking can become sluggish, as well. In fact, some studies indicate that it doesn’t even matter how much you exercise; it matters how long you sit! One study said that 60-75 minutes of exercise a day could counteract that but other studies say the sitting is harmful regardless of exercise.  

Being sedentary is bad for your health and your brain.  You need to get the body moving and get blood flow to the brain. I am not saying this method will prevent the effects of sitting so much.  I am saying that it is helpful to get blood flow to the brain and to prevent extended periods of sitting.

In light of the above, I have been using a technique I call 20/10, although it could be 20/5, because the most important fact is that you don’t sit longer than 20 minutes without getting up.  I have found that by setting the “up” length to 10 minutes I can accomplish many tasks a day on my break. However, I work at home, so that is easier. For those in an office, 20/5 may be the best length.  In five minutes you can get water (a good idea!), go to the restroom, walk something to another office, speak with a colleague rather than emailing, or just take a brisk walk around the hallway. For a while, I had an energetic song on my desktop and would dance wildly to it as my break and then get back to work. ?  You may not want to do that in a public office, ha ha. I bought a standing desk and I use it the first 20 minutes of the day and occasionally thereafter, depending upon whether I went to the gym. You might prefer the following method, especially if you have a standing desk. Sit for 20, stand for 8, and move around and stretch for 2 minutes.  

Now you may think that 20 minutes isn’t enough time to get anything done.  Actually, I have found that it dramatically improves my productivity. I have a loud kitchen timer ticking away and so, knowing that I am working in a brief segment, I work much more quickly than before, rushing to get to a good stopping point.  Many times I finish a task and have 5 minutes left. That is great for all those little sedentary tasks like filing, clearing off a desk, making a phone call, or tackling an email. Speaking of email, this strategy also “limits” you to 20 minutes on email because when you return you realize that you need to get started on those big tasks.  And here is where it really helps you and where it links to students.

Since the hardest part is getting started and because you can agree and get students to agree that they can stand anything for 20 minutes.  It’s shorter than being in a dentist’s chair, right? So that big deadline or that long report or complicated project that you never have time to do because it will take a few hours gets started.  You tell yourself you will just work on it for 20 minutes and then do the other things you have to do. Tell students that if all they do is stare at the paper for 20 minutes it is a start! Commit to only 20 minutes!

Watch what happens.  More often than not, once I got started, I would be so engrossed I wouldn’t hear the timer and an hour would go by.  (That’s ok occasionally ?). I had accomplished the hardest part- getting started. Then I can keep working on it in 20-minute intervals.

The same thing is true of students.  When you assign a large task, after a day or so, get students to commit to spending 20 minutes on it before the next class and report back how that went.  See what happens. You can teach them this method and check in with them. Keep asking for those intervals.

Try this method or use the Pomodoro Technique as described on the internet.  You will be surprised at the results. Oops, my timer went off. I finished the entire first draft and will come back to add some resources and proof it. And time flew by! Probably two intervals to finish the newsletter and I will have completed this task that I put off for a couple of months because I didn’t have time.

with Dr. Janet Zadina
Copyright 2013 Janet Zadina, Ph.D. All rights reserved
Janet N. Zadina, Ph.D
Brain Research and Instruction

Science and Strategies
Janet N. Zadina, Ph.D
Brain Research and Instruction
Bridging Neuroscience and Education​

"Science and Strategies"
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