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Understanding How the Brain Works to do Well on Tests

Since your brain is your main tool in achieving test success, let’s identify the various parts and how to use them, as explained in The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. The brain is so complex it takes until the mid-20s to mature. It has around 100 billion neurons, each with an average of 10,000 connections to other neurons. When they fire together they grow new connections that rewire the brain throughout our lives: “Neurons that fire together wire together.” This means repeated experiences imprint the brain and we are able to change it. The ability of the brain to change with new stimuli is called plasticity. The lower brain, called the reptilian brain, acts instinctively to keep us safe from danger and controls basic functions such as heart rate and breathing. It developed first in fish. The amygdala, about the size of an almond, is in the mid-brain mammalian or limbic area that records memories that are responsible for our emotions. It processes emotions, especially anger and fear. If it kicks in during a test, we can lose contact with the thinking neocortex. The neocortex behind the forehead developed in primates and has two large cerebral hemispheres united by the corpus callosum nerve fibers. Only a few million years old, the neocortex allowed for human language and culture and is where we need to focus while studying or during tests.

The right hemisphere sees the big picture and is nonverbal but picks up information and emotions. It allows us to communicate as by noticing facial expressions. The left brain develops when we’re around three-years-old and start asking “why?” It is logical and connects thoughts in a linear way to do math or use language. Test-taking is primarily a left hemisphere activity. Mental health is characterized by balance between the two hemispheres. We want to stay centered when an upset occurs rather than feeling like we’re chaotically out of control or going to the opposite pole of rigid control.

The brain stores “implicit memories” that we may not be conscious of, such as Chris taking a test when he was 12 and started to get sick to his stomach. He may not remember the experience but still associates taking tests with feeling bad and doesn’t know why. The hippocampus pulls images and emotions from different parts of the brain like putting together a puzzle that creates an explicit memory that we can work with consciously. If Chris processes his memories of past unpleasant test experiences and makes them explicit, he can use his left hemisphere to take a positive approach and not be thrown off center by old fears.

We want to take a test from the left hemisphere, not letting the amygdala run the show with fear. If someone has test anxiety, the feelings and memories in the right hemisphere need to be acknowledged and brought into awareness. This can be done by writing about the fears in a journal, painting them, or telling a friend your anxious moments test taking. Telling stories helps integrate the two brain functions as the feelings and memories are right hemisphere, while the words and arranging events are left hemisphere. Naming and understanding a fear can deflate its power. Logic can kick in and say, “Now I have new strategies to use to stay calm and focused. I’m focusing on my deep relaxed breathing rather than my fear. I can use my simple tools as by counting from 10 to 1 and use my senses to look around the exam room, or moving the body.”

If the amgdala’s fear kicks in during a test, know that you can change your focus to the frontal cortex. To move attention away from fear, connect with it by naming it and acknowledging it, then redirect your focus by paying attention to your senses. What do you hear? Notice your breathing and take a drink of water. Touch your forehead to remind it to be the boss. Work on cleaning out old negative memories before you take an important test.


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