Over the last two and a half decades, we have advanced our understanding of the human brain further than we did in the previous 500 years. Thanks to new technologies, we now are able to look inside the human mind and see how it works while a person is thinking and speaking.
With this new information in hand, we have made tremendous advances in the way we teach and educate people. That said, too many of us have been quick to jump on bandwagons that are poorly understood and still in the process of being developed. This misinformation has resulted in the spread of neuromyths – false information about neuroscience that leads to faulty assumptions and incorrect theories.
To counter these neuromyths, here are four important lessons from brain science that can help to improve workplace learning.
1. Human brains cannot multitask.
As we all know, multitasking (such as texting or talking on the phone) while driving is dangerous. It increases the rate of crashes by 50 percent. If talking on the phone while driving is deadly, how effective is sitting at our computer attempting to learn?
Many training managers will argue that they have no choice in the matter. With the added pressure on employees to do their jobs and still learn, multitasking seems like the best option. Unfortunately, it wastes money and is ineffective.
Training expenditures per learner averaged almost $1,000 per year in 2014. Since one-third of that training is delivered in ways that demand multitasking of employees, corporations may be losing upwards of $10 billion annually. Organizational leaders must understand that offering training while employees are multitasking is a waste of time, money and brain power.
Researchers at Stanford University found that people who are regularly bombarded with multiple forms of communication are really paying attention to only one item at a time. Even people who claim to multitask on a regular basis cannot process multiple forms of information at once. So for the human brain, the best way to receive training is in a facility where learners can give it their undivided attention.
2. Brains only work in conjunction with the bodIES attached to THEM.
In recent years, there has been a trend in health and fitness to include the brain in the process of weight loss, becoming healthy and staying well. Most experts in cognitive science agree this trend is positive. Unfortunately, there isn’t an opposite trend: Educators and trainers do not think about the body enough. While most instructors understand that our brains need a breaks, that our bodies need food and that both need rest, this knowledge really just scratches the surface of the mind-body connection.
Experts have known for years that physical activity correlates positively with learning and cognition. In addition to the obvious essentials such as sleep and food, our brains need our bodies to provide them with oxygen and with chemicals to help them function. Many of these important chemicals are provided in the foods we eat. Yet how many training programs provide “brain food” to their participants?
Researchers at the University of Georgia found that people who exercised for 40 minutes performed better on an executive processing task. This task measured how well participants listened to auditory information, processed that information and made calculations based on it. These findings support the beneficial effects of aerobic exercise on memory and attention.
Trainers should include physical activity, such as taking walks, in training programs. In an ideal world, training would also include healthy “brain foods,” such as nuts, grains, fish, beans, eggs, tea, spinach, berries and even quality dark chocolate.
3. Brains are similar but unique.
One of the benefits of the last 25 years of brain science research is a tremendous increase in our understanding of how human brains function, think, speak, listen and interact. However, because brain research is costly, time-consuming and challenging, most researchers work with relatively small population samples.
In order to discern meaning from this type of research, we must look for patterns of similarities in the brain functions that are studied. However, many researchers subsequently ignore, and sometimes intentionally isolate, the unique differences we all have in our cognitive processing functions. As a result, we have more information about generalizations than about differences.
That doesn’t mean learning facilitators should ignore their learners’ differences and adopt a “one (or two or three) size fits all” model of talent development. We must continue to find better ways of customizing training so we can better accommodate the diversity of our learners. On the other hand, we often take this customization too far by using models of personality type, learning style and leadership with little to no empirical support.
Certainly, there is great utility in any successful attempt to structure and organize the learning process and content development. However, the danger occurs when such organization is treated as the only or the ideal method for designing curricula.
As new research emerges that demonstrates the complexity of human brains, trainers will need to accommodate a myriad of learning styles, many of which may not even be known yet, including an understanding of the learning styles currently classified as learning disabilities.
4. Brain science isn’t guiding us enough.
There are several recent advances in brain science that must be addressed by trainers. The first is the way the brain makes sense of information. Our brains do not distinguish between thought and action or soft skills and hard skills. That’s why you can train a pilot to fly a plane on a computer and a soldier to remain calm under simulated gunfire – and why we can wake from a dream and feel like it was real.
The processes that build neurological connections happen in such an isolated place inside our heads that perception is the only reality. To our brains, there is no hierarchy of learning or learning styles. To paraphrase the immortal words of Yoda, there is only “learn or learn not.”
The second area of recent scientific discovery that trainers should understand is the importance of human emotions to learning and cognition. Many trainers are aware of the importance of this “state of mind” in training sessions and classrooms, but it is not often incorporated into the design of content and curricula. Yet for the last 20 years, substantial research has supported the relationship between learning and emotion, and that connection is now a major component of K-12 educational thinking.
In any learning environment, the processes involved in attention, memory, decision-making, motivation and social functioning are strongly influenced by our emotions. These emotions cause changes in both body and mind that have a significant impact on our ability to learn. Training programs that expect participants to engage in cognitive processes are never truly devoid of some emotional influences.
To remedy this problem, the first step is to teach participants about the role their emotions play in the learning process. Then we can begin to include an emotional component in our training programs. Using humorous media and fun learning activities is a great start, but the key lies in an awareness of the broad spectrum of emotions and their connections to learning.
Cognitive psychologist Jason Williams of California Polytechnic State University has found that when people are anxious, they will rate a speaker as more threatening. What impact does this effect have on workshops that ask people to give speeches, take tests or otherwise step out of their comfort zones?
While the last 25 years have seen significant advances in our understanding of the human brain, workplace learning has struggled to keep pace with the new information. Training departments that do not stay abreast of this innovative knowledge will find it challenging to remain effective. However, those who use this material to their advantage will reap great rewards with the realization of human potential in transformational growth and organizational success.