Celebration is Good for the Brain

Did you know that celebration is actually good for your brain?

Your brain LOVES reward!  It’s wired for it. And celebration is an exceptional reward.  When you do something, and you celebrate it, your brain EATS THAT UP!  It fires off feel-good chemicals (dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin), and endorphins, like fireworks! It lowers damaging levels of cortisol, and calms your amygdala.

So, let’s put this into an example. Say you’re helping a student learn to read.  She’s been struggling with the word “then” for quite some time. You’ve taught her all the strategies: you’ve prompted her to use context clues to try to predict what word would fit, you’ve practiced drill & kill sight recognition, she’s written the word a million times, broken it down with magnetic letters, you’ve been over and over the sounds parts “t-h says /th/, e-n says -en.  Say it after me. Put it together. Say it faster…” all the tricks, to no avail. And today, as she is reading, you see that dreaded four-letter word two thirds of the way down the page. You brace yourself for the inevitable. Despite your best efforts to remain optimistic and encouraging, as she approaches and predictably pauses – you feel your face scrunch up. Your shoulders raise. You hold your breath and clench your fists, and just as you are closing your eyes, ….. BOOM!  To your absolute delight and astonishment, you hear the sweetest sound you’ve ever heard. “…th-en then. Then, he went home.” WOO HOOOO!!!! Break out the champagne! – figuratively speaking of course. You stop her right there. Your fists thrust up in the air! You cheer. You jump out of your seat. You laugh. You high-five that student! You tell her “You did it! You used your strategies to figure out that tricky word! You must feel so proud of yourself!” And, obviously, she is visibly elated!  

This might seem like a trivial example, but bear with me, as we break it down on a neurological level. Your brain has one job – to keep you safe.  It does this by seeking connection to others, and avoiding rejection – at all costs. When you think about this evolutionarily, it makes total sense.  Back in our cave-dwelling days, we needed to be part of the group. It was a requirement of survival. More people to help prepare our food and shelter, to keep us warm, more eyes to watch out for predators, find a mate, take care of us when we were sick or wounded, etc.  Being rejected from the group would likely mean death. We would be on our own, and vulnerable to threats of all kinds.

Now, although we have evolved in many many ways, our brain is still fixed here.  While we don’t face death by tiger, when we leave the house anymore, we still seek connection and avoid rejection – in more of an emotional sense.  And, it remains paramount to our survival still. There are ample studies and statistics about feelings of rejection leading to depression, self harm and suicide – for example, there is a significantly elevated rate of suicides and suicide attempts among prison inmates who spend time in solitary confinement, there were high mortality rates reported in infant orphanages where the babies were not cuddled or loved – this is all google-able – you can read up on it, if you care to.  But, it all comes down to the hard wiring of our brain, and its unrelenting determination to keep us safe. We will be getting into plenty more intricacies of our fascinating brain – how to hack it to maximize its potential to optimize our lives and learning – and the lives and learning of the little brains in our own homes and our classrooms. Indeed, this is what Teaching Little Brains is all about. But, I digress. 

 Let’s get back to our example at hand.  Your student successfully read the word “then” for the first time, with little effort. And, you celebrated.  The celebration itself, meaning the physical actions of raised hands, wide smiles, standing, laughing, and especially the elevated mood and connection to a positive feeling (your shared elation and her pride in herself – further reinforced by your words “You must feel so proud of yourself!”) signals to her brain (and yours) that this is something that is good, and safe.  It is something that your brain should pay attention to, remember, and repeat. It loved that celebration, and here’s why.  

I mentioned 3 chemicals earlier – Dopamine, Serotonin and Oxytocin.  Dopamine gets fired when there is a reward sensation – you check something off your to-do list, and/or have positive conversations with others during celebration time. It accompanies a feeling of accomplishment and positivity, and keeps you wanting to push forward.  Without getting too scientific – although it’s hard to resist because I find this stuff so fascinating, plus, this is super cool stuff to teach our kids and students. BUT listen to this word coming up, it is just too fun not to say – Dopamine is released in a system of the brain called the Basal Ganglia. RIGHT?!  So fun. Basal Ganglia. I won’t get deeper than that right now, about the Basal Ganglia, but since learning all this neat stuff, I’ve been sharing it with my 5-year-old daughter, and she is enthralled by it – she loves the funny long complicated terms – and. Remembers everything. Anyway, the benefit of dopamine is that it communicates with various areas of our prefrontal cortex (that’s our conscious, thinking brain, the part that makes us human – the part that allows us to choose our words and actions, think about our thinking – and we are only animal – that we know of – that has this ability – to think about our own thinking. 

So, when dopamine is released, it allows us to pay attention to important tasks, ignore distracting information, and access our working memory during problem-solving tasks – such as solving the tricky word “then”.

Ok, the second chemical released during celebration is Oxytocin – also known as the “bonding hormone”, “cuddle hormone” or “love drug”.  It gives us a sense of closeness, intimacy, well-being and safety. It is released in spades when we engage in physical contact with a loved one. In this case, oxytocin is released because your student felt an emotional connection to you when you made eye contact, flashed your genuine wide-smile, gave a high-five, and shared in her feeling of pride and delight.  This will encourage her to experiment, take risks, and learn to handle new challenges.

The cheering and positive reinforcement boosted your, and your student’s, serotonin levels.  Serotonin helps change your mindset. Amongst other things, it increases motivation and innovation, helps people become more focused and determined to change, and can reduce stress. 

In your teacher training, or past PD sessions, you may have heard the saying “Praise publicly, criticize privately”  I won’t get into the “criticize” part, but the reason we praise publicly, is because it initiates this cascade of positive energy (as just described) through the brain… and body.

Experiencing this state, when coupled with sincere words of praise and/or encouragement – in this case – the descriptive feedback, students will feel more confident, be more likely to take risks, and remain focused moving forward.  

 And here’s the beautiful thing about this:  When we celebrate something, the brain does not know the difference between you celebrating for yourself, or for someone else.  It only experiences the positive chemical reaction, and links it to what you think caused it. For you, in this case, as the teacher, it would be helping a student. And, for the student, it would be using the strategies she’s learned to solve a tricky word. Now both your brains want more of that, so you will be more likely to help and celebrate your students, and your student will be more likely to apply her reading strategies to try to solve new words with increased resilience, confidence and risk-taking. In other words, celebrating with someone else, has brain benefits for you as well as them!  How AWESOME is that!?!?

 So….what are you celebrating today?


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