Science of Learning - Srini Pillay, M.D.

Whenever we learn, our brain changes. One powerful way to change our brains is learning by doing, or experiential learning. This type of learning allows for immediate feedback from our actions through rewards or punishments. As a result, we may decide whether to proceed or choose another path to our goals.

Experiential learning makes our brains emit various signals. In general, they respond to error, and as we integrate information, they predict error.

Optimal experiential learning requires a sensitivity to both response and prediction, with a simultaneous capacity to course-correct when necessary. Our brains become better at prediction and course correction when we learn to update our assumptions. An interconnected network of brain regions executes these various functions.

When engaged in experiential learning, ask yourself the following questions to take advantage of your brain’s capacities: What feedback am I getting? What information do I need to update? How can I course correct? What do I predict will happen? 

Scientific Principles and Practical Application

Experiential learning is often not generalizable. When we teach individuals by using examples or symbolic situations (e.g., learning to skydive to demonstrate how to take more risks at work), it  rarely transfers to the actual situation at work. Various experiments have confirmed that learning is specific to the situation in which it occurs.

Recommendation: When you design a workshop, the experience should be like the actual situation.

Some forms of experiential learning do transfer across domains. Certain video game experiences defy the general rule that training must be specific. When people are trained on a video game, for example, they experience improvements in many aspects of thinking, such as tracking multiple objects at once or filtering out distractions.

Recommendation: Do not assume a video game is generalizable; consult with an expert to see if it is.

Use anxiety and mindfulness judiciously when learning from experience. In the brain, error signals are best managed mindfully so that we can register what we are doing wrong without becoming derailed by judging ourselves. Although a certain amount of anxiety can be helpful, too much will derail you from your goals.

Recommendation: Mindfulness will help unlock learning potential. There are two kinds of helpful mindfulness: meditative mindfulness and socio-cognitive mindfulness. Meditative mindfulness requires anchoring the mind to the present moment with awareness and acceptance by focusing on one’s breathing. In contrast, socio-cognitive mindfulness involves categorizing situations, being aware of the social situation from multiple perspectives, and reflecting on the context of the new learning.

Prepare your prediction networks. This is possible by giving your brain a rest from too much focus. Your brain is constantly calculating the future by forming predictions based on available data. This function is activated when you stimulate the brain by taking your mind off focused tasks. It gives the brain a chance to combine information, make associations, and deduce or infer what might happen.

Recommendation: Build specific periods of un-focus into your day. Whether it is a nap or mind-wandering, un-focusing will allow your brain to become a better prediction machine, and you will feel more self-connected.

Pay attention to subtle body signals. Experiential learning can also be learning from subtle body signals. A “gut feeling” or some undefinable, yet palpable signal, may be important. This is embodied cognition, and it assumes that the body is not separate from the mind, but is a constituent of it.

Recommendation: Pay attention to subtle body signals. Pause, investigate and consider what might be going on. It will help you take advantage of subtle, yet important aspects of experiential learning.

For any experiential learning, first assess whether the learned skills are transferable. Then, make time for mindfulness, un-focusing and assessing body signals to take full advantage of the sense and response, prediction and intuitive capabilities of your brain.