What Triune Brain Theory Means For Language Learning

In the 1960's, a neuroscientist named Paul MacLean formulated an idea called the Triune Brain. To tell it in over-simplified terms, the idea describes how the human brain has formed as a result of evolution. Triune Brain Theory describes the brain in three parts: the reptilian brain, the mammal brain, and the human brain.

The reptilian brain — that developed earliest in our evolution — manages repetetive tasks, motor skills, and physical survival. This is the part of the brain that controls heartbeat and breathing. It's obsessive and compulsive, and always active, even during deep sleep. The reptilian brain is the oldest, and deepest-seated part of the brain, and its needs trump all else.

The mammal brain — those parts of the brain resulting from evolution as a mammal — manages emotion, instinct, fight-or-flight, sexual behavior, and long-term memory. All emotion is generated in the mammal brain: happiness, sadness, fear, excitement, loyalty, trust, belief, positivity, negativity.

The human brain — those left and right hemispheres most highly-evolved only in the heads of primates and humans — makes up more than two-thirds of the contents of our head, and provides us with such things as speech, reading, writing, logic, and pattern recognition. All of those higher functions which make us human take place in that giant outer layer of the brain.

Why the science lesson, Randy?

Maybe you're sitting there right now, wondering why I'm talking about all this theoretical neuroscience. Or, perhaps you happen to be a neuroscientist, and right now you're growing more and more frustrated and offended by my gross over-simplification of the names and functions of various parts of the brain. Well, you'll deal with it. This is, after all, a language blog, not a science blog. There is a point.

You see, if you go back and look at those descriptions, you'll notice that all the things that make up language reside there in the neocortex, aka the human brain. But there's one little problem with that... long-term memory is managed in the lymbic system, or mammal brain!

Short-term versus long-term memory

I hate to break this to you, but all factual knowledge is short-term memory. And so is language. All that studying you're doing, all that work you're doing, every time you do a vocabulary lesson, or conjugate a verb, or do a flashcard, you're working in the neocortex where memories just don't last very long. And that's why you're so frustrated with learning.

Look at that description again for the mammal brain: it's completely irrational! It's fully of emotion. Now think about that: if the part of the brain that retains long-term memory is irrational and emotional, why are you trying to use logical methods to remember things?

Emotion = memory

Long-term memories are the result of strong emotion. They are, essentially, emotional imprints on our brains. Think of any moment from your past... chances are, it had a strong emotion tied to it. I mean, does anybody ever remember "the day that nothing happened?"

So I think you can see where this is going. If you want to remember things long-term, you need to generate emotion. But the way that most people learn is by studying tediously ad infinitum until they generate the emotions of boredom, frustration, and disgust. Is it any wonder that language learning has such a low success rate?

Your native language

But that's not how you learned your native language. You have memories. When I say the word "cake", I still remember my fifth birthday. When I say "box" I think of how many times I've packed and moved. And when I say "fall", I think of a 160-foot (50m) drop into a safety net.

These are the natural results of events that happen in life, usually by accident or by chance. But there's no reason they couldn't also happen by design! All you have to do is experience something while using your target language. It might be a fun experience, or a scary situation, or romance, or anger, or heartbreak, or laughter.

The key is to have experiences while using the language. This, more than anything else, is why it's so important to use your language as much as possible. Read stories, watch movies, listen to songs, chat, talk, meet people, have conversations.

It's been said that you must use a new word 20 times before you can remember it, but I guarantee you will remember it well after just one time, if it accompanies an experience. Maybe it's time you stopped studying and started living.


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Author: Yearlyglot
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  • At the moment, I am reading a copy of El País I picked up in a local supermarket. I'm remembering lots of words because the newspaper has things in which affect me, like what is happening in Egypt, has short stories, adverts, reviews etc. Adverts and reviews seem quite good to learn words because they'll be very descriptive and if you like what you are reading about, the chances are you will remember it, unlike if you learnt the same word from a flashcard, where all you get is one word on a blank screen/ piece of paper.I was talking about the triune brain today, funnily enough. I have to admit though that it was because of your book the subject came up! I would never have known about it otherwise.

  • Keşke böyle Türkçe öğrenmeyi başlamadan önce bilseydem

  • Oh, wow, Randy, fantastic. I was already beginning to get totally bored with the blog, and then I see this post. Though it talks about something that's been already said many times before (possibly even here), it is quite interesting. Especially the Triune Brain part - that I guess many people have never heard of.
    Congratulations and keep posts like this coming.

  • Have you read "From the Outside In" by Dr Marvin Brown The Guy behind ALG Thai? I think there is a free download pdf. Even if you don't get along with all of it I am pretty sure you will like some parts. Very heavy on experience.There is a twist to the layering of the brain though, the human part can hook into the other layers, especially by indirection.

  • So true. Emotional ties definitely help make certain memories easier to remember, and it makes sense that the same goes for language.

  • Dude, seriously, what's with all the offensive comments lately?

  • Its a fascinating topic. It also helps you understand why people do things that are obviously not good for them... since the emotional part of the brain takes priority over the logical part.

  • Haven't heard of it. If I get a chance I'll check it out.

  • I'm suggesting that emotion doesn't just make things easier to remember, but that they are in fact necessary for memory.

  • But this one wasn't offensive at all. I was saying that I loved this post. Seriously, the last ones weren't exactly the kind of thing I like, but this one was fantastic. And I thought that is something all bloggers would like to have, feedback telling them what their readers like and what they don't like that much.
    What I was trying to say is that THIS post is extremely enjoyable and is tha kind of thing that makes me say "wow, it was really worth my time".

  • I was already starting to get totally bored with your comments, but... :)

  • It is definitely something I'd like to go into further detail with. If I do have a basic understanding of how the brain works, then it seems I'll also understand the better ways of learning (or absorbing) information. Thanks for introducing me to it!

  • ...but we are fine now, right? (y)

  • I think the model presented above is too simple to draw conclusions from. For example one view is that the brain remembers everything and then processes what to forget. Which turns it upon its head (so I suppose you could say that emotions help the forgetting mechanism make its selections). Brain damaged individuals like Kim Peak and some other savants, find it hard to function normally because they can't forget, there is no emotional prompt that allows them to remember a page of telephone numbers just by reading it once.Whilst the Hippocampus may reside in the mammal brain it is co-opted by the human brain to store declarative memory both episodic and semantic. The human brain is the scratchpad for factual information but it is stored by the mammal brain. Factual information is stored in the mammal brain it is manipulated by the human brain. Semantic memory refers to the memory of meanings, understandings, and other concept-based knowledge unrelated to specific experiences.The model above is too simple to draw conclusions from, I could argue for example the positivity that Benny and yourself are so fond of resides in the mammal brain so you can't logically decide to be positive, you either are or you are not, you might think you decided to be positive but that is just you being positive about your own level of self-control.Experience can help you remember things, we all have experienced that right ;).
    That does not prove that are not other ways to remember or that we can draw valid conclusions from the model above. Evolution has to work with what it has it doesn't get to start from scratch each time. The hippocampus of a cat may be well be capable of storing all the memories required for speaking but the cat has no mechanism to put those memories in or pull them out and speak. The brain already had a long term storage mechanism installed so it re-used it.I am criticizing the conclusions drawn from the model, not saying that experiences don't help remember.

  • Actually this nicely relates to a post that Omniglot just put up on...well, precisely the same thing--have you read it? Anyway, ever heard of Harry Lorayne? His groundbreaking (and, in my opinion, fantastically brilliant) book called "The Memory Book" covers exactly this sort of thing and completely agree with what you're saying and he goes into several various methods to use this phenomenon to memorize large quantities of information in a short period of time.Cheers,
    Andrew

  • Agreed. I can see now how my comment was not exactly in line with my thoughts. Thanks for clarifying, Randy.

  • I'm not really interested in a "short period of time", or "large quantities of information". I'm only interested in learning to speak and understand a foreign language, fluently, in one year. :)

  • I love it when I make a simplification to illustrate a point, and then someone criticizes it as having been too simple.I will completely dismiss your savants as outliers. I shouldn't have to specify that I mean "normal, healthy, functional humans" when I give an example.And since the neocortex is responsible for language, and that's really only developed in a human brain, your cat example is completely incorrect.

  • Your description of the triune brain is not so much a simplification as just outdated - the theory has long been discarded by most neural scientists as being neither an accurate physiological model, nor an accurate behavioural model.Emotions are just a flood of chemicals in your brain and body :-) Whether they are positive or negative probably depends a lot on the circumstances. I can think of plenty of things which should have been positively reinforced by strong, positive emotions and yet I have forgotten the whole event, or important details. How do I know I've forgotten something, if I've forgotten it? That's what my wife is for :-)I think memorisation has more to do with interest, focus and supporting associations. I often remember a word and the circumstances in which I learnt it, even if there was no particularly strong emotional content to the context - it's just an association, and I believe the presence of the associations is what makes things stick. Perhaps this is a strongly emotional event, perhaps it's a meaningless event, and perhaps you've reinforced the memory through repetition. All I'm saying is that emotional content is not a guarantee of memorising the particular details that you want to recall.Not that any of this changes, or is meant to disagree with, the motivational content of your post. When you live the language, talking with friends about topics that interest you, you get everything all at once: interest, focus, association, emotion and repetition. Brilliant!So thanks for reminding me that living the language is what really counts - I'm going to go write to my german friend again and see when he's coming to visit! :-)

  • This is not meant to be an accurate neuroscientific model, it's meant to be an illustration for learners of languages.No matter what you or your wife *think* was important enough that you should have remembered, the fact is that only those things which had a significant impact on you will be imprinted into long-term memory. For most people, that happens when you study something so long and so hard that the painful monotony of the study causes the imprint... but that doesn't have to be the case.It's easy to see why this characteristic survived though evolution, because the emotional imprint of being chased by a tiger, or of watching a loved one die, or of any other similar event... that emotional imprint into long-term memory had a significant effect on a person's future potential for survival. Whether that happened in MacLean's "Triune Brain" or in someone else's more anatomically correct model is irrelevant. The important fact is that it happened... and understanding that gives people an additional facet to understanding how to better learn.

  • Just wanted to add that although my first post seems a bit negative on re-reading, it wasn't really intended that way, and I wanted to emphasise that I think what you're doing with your blog is great. There are a few language bloggers doing the same sort of thing - demonstrating the results of just using the resources that are available in our modern, connected world, and I have to say I really appreciate it. Whenever I wander through the language section of a normal bookstore and see that every book is targeted at absolute beginners (and the level they are trying to achieve by the end of the courses seems lower with every new edition), I think about people like yourself who say "you can do it - just get out there!"Humans have been learning languages off each other for as long as we've been talking, often to fluency, and often becoming polyglots in the process (my latest example of this came from reading https://www.amazon.com/Searc.... And for most of that history of talking to each other in our different tongues, there wasn't even writing, let alone expensive language courses.Thanks again!

  • It's not inaccurate, it's flawed. That's an important difference. You can't build castles on air, and all that...

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