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Neuroscience and the Learning Professional

Through the use of brain imaging technology, scientists are able to observe a live subject in the process of making decisions, learning new skills, or retrieving memories. As learning professionals, we can apply these emerging insights to our work. In this space, I’m going to share some of this research and applications to the learning profession. Here are a few to get you started.

The brain is constantly learning

A common misconception prior to the development of brain imaging technology was that the adult brain was frozen at around the age of 18. The discovery of neuroplasticity revealed that the brain continues to remake itself every day, forming new neural pathways, pruning out unused pathways, and rerouting existing pathways in response to new experiences and stimuli. We do not choose this behavior; it is as natural and automatic as breathing.

What does this mean to you? We must always be aware of the entire learning experience. Our learners may be forming a different memory than the one we intend. For example, a boring presentation on customer service may actually be “teaching” participants that engaging with customers is boring!

The brain is a survival machine

Our brains have evolved over time through the process of Natural Selection. Individuals who were better at certain skills gained a competitive advantage and survived to pass their genes on to their offspring.

The survival imperative is key to understanding brain function today because even though we face fewer daily threats to our physical survival in normal daily life today, our brains are still hard-wired to protect us and keep us alive. This survival mechanism explains the way we respond to change and stress.

The brain interprets these stimuli as threats to life and triggers all kinds of behaviors that might not be productive in corporate life, but were extremely valuable in keeping our ancestors alive in different times. We’ll talk more about these survival mechanisms in future articles.

The brain is distributed throughout body

Some writers speak of the mind-body connection to explain how our physical well-being affects our ability to think and learn. However, the reality is far deeper than a mere connection. The brain is made up of about100 billion neurons, or brain cells. These neurons are connected to all the other neurons in the nervous system, which tells the brain what is happening inside and outside of our bodies.

A neuron in your hand fires a pain signal to the brain when you prick your finger; that neuron is an extension of the brain, which responds by pulling away from the source. When you think of the brain as being distributed throughout your body, you can see how the conditions of the training room or the ergonomics of the elearning environment will affect the overall learning experience. You may be generating unintended consequences through the design of your e-learning interface or the arrangement of your classroom.

Moving forward

The science of learning is an exciting new frontier for our profession. Over the next few years, we can expect many changes in how we approach our work, as we find more ways to apply the science of learning to our talent development efforts.

Margie Meacham

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