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Identifying Core Psychological Processes with Neuroimaging Experiments to Improve Education in Practice

27 August 2018

Following my previous post for this blog, in this post I discuss why examining psychological processes related to teaching and learning can provide useful insights about how to improve education. Many educators might think that they have their own tacit knowledge about how to make their classroom activities effective and that their knowledge is well grounded even though they did not conduct any scientific research on their activities. However, when it comes to developing an educational program based on such knowledge suitable for application to wider and/or different contexts, the situation becomes more complicated.If we do not understand the core aspects and mechanisms of a successful educational program developed by a specific educator, then the desirable educational outcomes cannot be reproduced when the program is delivered by different educators, who do not have the same tacit knowledge, in different environments. However, if educators have clear ideas about which aspects and mechanisms of the education program produce significant changes in learning outcomes, the aforementioned issue can be addressed. When educators attempt to deliver the developed educational program in different contexts, they may modify and tweak program components based on knowledge about which processes play a fundamental role while the program is ongoing.


This knowledge about core psychological processes can be acquired by well-designed empirical studies. As I mentioned in my prior post, methods in neuroscience can provide us with useful tools while studying such psychological processes, particularly those at the lower, biological level, which could not be easily investigated in the past. When I was writing my dissertation about effective moral education, I started with neuroimaging studies to identify core psychological processes that will be targeted during my educational intervention experiments following the aforementioned idea. Let me elaborate what I did step by step. I set my hypotheses for my fMRI experiment based on results from previous fMRI studies of moral functioning. More specifically, I performed a quantitative meta-analysis of previous studies to identify which brain regions show common activity while participants were engaging in morality-related tasks. The result of my meta-analysis demonstrated that brain regions associated with self-related processes, such as self-referencing and autobiographical memory, were commonly activated during morality-related task conditions. Previous meta-analyses have also shown similar results. Moreover, non-neuroimaging studies in the field of moral psychology and moral education have also suggested that self and identity play fundamental roles in moral motivation and moral behavior. Based on the finding from my meta-analysis, I hypothesized that activity in self-related brain regions would be significantly involved in moral functioning at the neural level.


Then, I collected functional neuroimaging data from participants while they were solving various types of moral dilemmas, such as the trolley dilemma and footbridge dilemma, in an MRI scanner following Greene et al.’s seminal works. This fMRI experiment was designed to identity neural correlates of moral judgment and decision making. The experimental data was analyzed to examine the interaction between brain activity in regions associated with self-related psychological processes and those associated with moral functioning. The findings from my fMRI analysis demonstrated that the interaction was significant. Given this result, I concluded that self-related psychological processes, including self-referencing and autobiographical memory processing, moderate moral functioning, including moral decision making and moral motivation. It suggests that it is necessary to pay attention to self-related psychological processes while studying moral functioning to develop a way to promote moral motivation and moral behavior, which is a fundamental part in moral education.


In this post, I discussed first, why educators should have knowledge about core psychological processes associated with teaching and learning to improve education in practice. Second, I reviewed my two previous papers: a meta-analysis paper that investigates based on previous studies how to set hypotheses for an fMRI experiment, and fMRI experiment paper that contributes to the identification of psychological processes of interest. Although I discussed the aforementioned topics with concrete examples, my two previous studies, I did not explain how to apply findings from studies in neuroscience and psychology to education in practice. This is the topic of my next post where I discuss my classroom intervention study. In addition, I address how to estimate, by means of a computer simulation, the long-term and large-scale effects of interventions based on data collected from relatively small scale intervention studies, such as my classroom study.

Image of Trolley Problem by By McGeddon – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,