As a woman who proudly owns her more-than-perfect figure, I’ve experienced the disappointment and frustration of trying to wear clothing labelled “one size fits all.” Recently, I’ve been thinking about how all too often we learning professionals inflict the same betrayal on our learners. As any woman who has worn a mumu can attest, one size fits no one particularly well. So what can we do to avoid the trap of “checking all the boxes” and producing nothing of value? Neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence (AI) can give us some help.


The brain is constantly rewiring itself in response to constant changes detected in our environment. This remarkable capability, called neuroplasticity, tells us two very important things:

  • First, behavior change is always possible. In fact, it is nearly unavoidable, given the onslaught of information rushing into our brains through our senses.
  • Second, if you wish to change behavior, you must find a way to alter each individual brain, to change the wiring in a way that will give you the result you seek.

Learners Construct Their Own Learning

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But consider this – Every single behavior, pattern, belief, habit, superstition, bias or preference that contributes to the person you know as you is a result of your unique experience. You have been building your own neural connections since before you were born, and you continue to tinker with your completely unique creation every single minute of your life – even when you are asleep.

The hard truth is that no training program changes behavior. I’ll say that again, because you might not believe me. There is no training program that has ever changed behavior. That’s because we training professionals don’t own the learning process; our learners do. We can set up a situation where people are more likelyto choose to change behavior, but only the learner can actually make the choice to change, and then take the steps to put that change into effect.  So the real question is, “How can we set the stage for behavior change?” Here are a few ideas:

Appeal to the Emotions

Neuroscience has demonstrated that many regions of the brain are involved in learning new behaviors. One of the most important areas may surprise you. The amygdala, which is involved in mediating our emotional response to positive or negative events, plays a key role in forming new memories. Several studies have shown, in fact, that an emotional response occurs whenever learning (or memory formation) is taking place, even if the learner isn’t consciously aware of the connection. These emotions help form the neural pathways that will inspire learners to change, and sustain their efforts long after the formal portion of the earning event is over. As neuroscientist Paul Zak is fond of saying, “all learning is emotional.”

When you want to change behavior, ask yourself how to make an emotional appeal. A powerful narrative story is often an excellent strategy. When someone is engaged in a story, he/she exhibits brain activity that is similar to what we would see if the learner were actually going through the experience in the story. A well-crafted story also allows each learner to construct his or her own meaning, addressing the need for a personalized response to start rewiring those uniquely-formed neural connections.

Provide a clear model of the target behavior

While there is much we still need to learn about mirror neurons, we do know that when we are actively watching someone else perform a task our own brains are active in ways that are very similar to how we would look if we were performing the task ourselves. These neurons signify the beginning of new neural connections that result in behavior change, if nurtured over time. Therefore, one of the best ways to help people learn a new behavior is to give the brain a very specific and complete model, presented in the context that they will use to implement their own behavior change. This model can be presented as a live demonstration, or via recorded video.

Provide Reinforcement and Review and Keep it Up for at Least 31 Days

While he published his famous Forgetting Curve, Ebbinghaus didn’t have the benefit of neuroscience, but he didn’t need it to realize that learning a new behavior actually begins after the formal learning event, as the learner repeats and reviews what he/she has learned. We now know that repetition is what reinforces those tenuous new neural pathways, recruiting additional neurons with each repetition. One way to ensure repetition is to give the learner access to an intelligent chatbot “coach.” The algorithm can deliver review questions, reminder tips and just-in-time performance support, all customized to the specific behavior exhibited by the learner. The application of artificial intelligence (AI) is providing many new opportunities to provide the repetition needed to solidify behavior change, tailored to the needs of each learner by machine learning.

Mahatma Gandhi said “be the change you wish to see in the world.” And it starts with each individual, one unique brain at a time.