Neuroscience is the convergence of multiple scientific disciplines applied to the study of how brains work. While very new as science goes, it’s been around as a term for at least 60 years, since biologist Ralph Waldo Gerard used it in a paper to describe his work with the human nervous system. So, why is it such a hot topic right now? Three factors are helping accelerate interest: technology, social media and hype.

With the invention of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other technologies, we can now observe the brain in action. Rather than guessing about how we form new memories, retrieve information and change behavior, we’re getting closer and closer to truly knowing. In some cases, these discoveries are validating long-held theories drawn from psychology and philosophy. In other cases, they are toppling some long-held beliefs, such as the existence of learning styles, that aren’t supported by the scientific evidence.

Reading a scientific paper can be challenging. How can we be sure that we’ve extracted the most valid, most pertinent conclusions to apply to the classroom? If you’re like most of us, your first step will be to go online and conduct some research, but social media can lead you astray. While it has given us a whole new way to consume information, Nicholas Carr writes in his book “The Shallows” that the internet is changing our brains. It has also shortened our patience for lengthy, nuanced explanations and encouraged us to believe that all opinions are equally valid, as long as we see them on the internet.

In this climate, it can be hard to separate facts from clever marketing schemes or catchy phrases. As learning professionals, we need to ask questions like, “Will this neuroscience of leadership program help my team develop the next generation of leaders, or is it just clever repackaging of classic leadership theory with ‘neuroscience’ added to the title?”

It might be tempting just to opt out altogether and stay with the “tried and true” techniques in your old training books. The challenge with that approach is that you may be missing out on truly revolutionary discoveries – and that means your learners are missing out, too.

The good news is that just a few questions can help you avoid false information and identify a few changes that will help you incorporate neuroscience into your learning practice.

1. What’s the source?

Always try to find the original research and read the abstract. The abstract is a decent indicator that there has been no deliberate attempt to contort the information to meet a hidden agenda.

2. Who’s being paid?

Be cautious of studies and reports by people who are selling something, and be wary of scientific-sounding statements made by people who are selling you something based on those statements. Find third-hand corroboration before you buy that bright and shiny new “neuroscience-based” program.

3. How can I use this research?

There’s been a lot of interesting research that doesn’t have a practical application for the learning professional, at least not yet. Before you change what you’re doing based on something you’ve read, take some time to reflect. Ask yourself how you would use the information in your work as a learning professional. If you can’t find a clear application within a few minutes, file the information under “cool stuff,” but don’t change your current practice with it.

4. Where can I learn more? 

The fact that you’re reading this article means that you’re committed to learning as much as possible about your profession. As you’re reading about the neuroscience of learning, looks for references, resources, links and other suggestions where you can learn more.

Don’t let all the hype and excitement about neuroscience stress you. You don’t have to become a scientist to incorporate learning science into your training practice. Just approach it with an open, inquisitive mind, and use these questions to keep you on the right path.

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