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Applying neuroscience principles to learning and development is vital to ensure that learning sticks. Stella Collins has some practical tips to help L&D professionals’ support brain friendly learning.

Learning is a physical set of changes in your brain that includes synthesising new proteins, releasing neurotransmitters and changing your neurons to generate new connections. Your brain uses lots of power to do this (see below for the science behind this). As you learn to change habits or behaviours you may also have to break down or rewire previous connections. And you do all this whilst you’re still saving some brain power to breathe, to sit up straight and to keep hold of your pen! It’s hard work and it all needs energy. So how can you help your learners conserve their resources and make the best use of what they have?

  • What’s their ‘pain’, and will it get greater if they don’t learn to change?

    Because we’re inherently energy conscious, people don’t want to use up precious resources in making changes in their brain unless they have to. So they’ve really got to be motivated to want to learn something new, either consciously or unconsciously, because otherwise they might waste resources that could be put to better use elsewhere. Increase motivation by tapping into what people will get from the learning but also make sure they know what they’ll lose if they don’t learn: potential loss is often a stronger motivator than perceived gain.

  • Let them eat cake…

    Make sure they’ve got some resources available to them. Your brain consumes about 20% of your energy requirements in a day so keeping people fed and watered is vital. Slow release carbohydrates will keep energy levels more constant but if you’re aware there’s a particularly tricky bit of learning to do it may be appropriate to bring out the sweeties to increase blood sugar levels. The peak of glucose in the bloodstream will happen about 20-30 minutes after eating a banana or sweets so time breaks to coincide with more complex topics. Link snacks directly to the learning as a memory trigger and then you’ve got two reasons to bring them out.

  • Take the air

    Brains also need oxygen so encouraging people to go outside (presuming the air is fresher than in the training room) will help them to work more efficiently. Even just moving around the room pumps blood around our bodies better and increases the oxygen flow to the brain: there’s more and more evidence about the link between moving and improved cognitive performance, so encourage people to move as part of the natural flow of your workshop. If they’re doing virtual learning keep it short and include a final activity that means they have to get up and do something different at the end or just tell them to take an energy break.

  • Don’t try to do too much!

    Avoiding information overload is probably the most important part of not over taxing the brain’s resources. Give people time to digest information rather than buffeting them with large quantities. Share the big picture first so that people have something to link information to – this is easier than processing a completely new piece of information. Link to things that people already know about or are familiar with.

  • Think differently

    Give people time to reflect, daydream and relax so they have time to refresh their brains – constantly working at one task won’t necessarily get it done any quicker. Encourage different levels of thinking – some of it highly conscious and cognitive but follow that up with unconscious processing opportunities. Use methods like visualisations to input information or helpful suggestions whilst people are in a relaxed state.

  • Mix things up

    Mix up your media so you’re not overworking one particular sensory cortex. Whilst we process visual information really well (your visual cortex is the biggest sensory cortex) you can still end up with visual overload. Experiment with letting people close their eyes and listen to some auditory input instead.

  • Keep changing the group dynamics

    Interacting with other people uses all sorts of parts of our brains but particularly those areas responsible for communication. Encourage a mix of large and small group activities but also allow people to work alone and find a quiet space to think without the distractions of external communication.

Perhaps it helps to think of the brain as a muscle: you wouldn’t want to spend all day doing squat thrusts because your muscles would tire, so don’t wear your brain out either.

Stella CollinsStella Collins is Creative Director at Stellar Learning, a brain friendly learning consultancy, and author of Neuroscience for Learning and Development; how to apply neuroscience & psychology for improved learning &training plus the Writing Skills and Webinars Pocketbooks. For more ideas about the practical application of neuroscience to learning and development connect with her on twitter @stellacollins visit Stella’s blog at www.stellarlearning.co.ukcall her on 0118 983 6339 or email stella@stellarlearning.co.uk.
You can also hear from Stella in our webinar taking place at 2pm BST on Thursday 17th September – Book your place here. Can’t make the date? Register and you’ll receive a link to the recording.


The science behind learning

The hippocampus processes memories and is vitally important for learning. It seems to be capable of neurogenesis i.e. creating new neurons, which is definitely hard work and going to require significant resources.
Your frontal cortex does the heavy decision making and mental processing that lets you decide what you want to learn and lets you know you’re learning. If you’re making conscious decisions this is the part of the brain that’s working overtime.
Your sensory cortex and the motor cortex are labouring away when you’re learning new skills or processing any information and the limbic system and particularly the amygdala are helping you with emotional processing whilst you’re learning.
As you pay attention numerous systems and networks in your brain are working hard: key ones you may hear about are the reticular activating system, superior colliculus, parietal cortex and the cingulate gyruswhich all have a part to play.