Learn about the brain's natural system for learning, the hippocampus and basal ganglia.
- I think it's imperative that all learning professionals understand the science of how humans learn and grow. This involves neuroscience as well as psychology, biology, and even anthropology. Part of the work I do is to translate the findings from scientific studies into actionable takeaways for those of us who work in talent development and education. I've created a three phase model of professional learning that works with how the brain is wired to learn. The three phases are learn, remember, and do.
The three brain structures involved in learning are the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the basal ganglia. How we learn and how we place that learning into our memory is the hippocampus' responsibility. It's located in the center of our skull and has prongs that extend into both the left and right hemispheres, essentially uniting the brain. The hippocampus works as a data drive, taking in what we learn and moving it into short and then long-term memory. The act of focusing in on something is what turns on the recording, so to speak.
What's interesting is that the hippocampus has a limit of what it can hold before it starts losing some details. It turns out that it's about 20 minutes maximum. So now, I build my learning solutions in 15 minute segments followed by some kind of processing activity. It doesn't take much to move learning into memory. A quick dyad discussion, a moment of self-reflection, an application activity, typically all the activities that you already use. But if you space them every 15 minutes, you'll be amazed how much better your learners understand and retain instruction.
The hippocampus is physically attached to the amygdala, the structure that is most recognized for its role in our survival through the fight, flight, or freeze response. All of our major sensory nerves, optical, oral, olfactory, feed directly into the amygdala. When the amygdala is activated, the hippocampus automatically turns on. This means that we can aid our learners by creating learning events with the right amount of activation, which is slightly positive. There are all kinds of learning activities that do this, working in groups, games, self-reflection and assessments, as well as moments of insight and self-directed learning.
But learning is most powerful and memorable when we attach learning to something the learner already knows. The human brain has a system in place for categorizing what we learn into something like folders. Scientists call these folders schemas, and the essentially are clusters of information. Schemas build up over time through experience and as we add to those folders. Learning professionals can intentionally take advantage of this natural process by attaching new learning to schemas that already exist in the learner's brain.
This not only makes the content more memorable, it can create an insight, or aha moment, where people see the connection to something they already know. Insight is the most powerful form of learning there is because it creates a measurable and permanent change in the brain. So, I always consider how I can set my learners up to have insights. Finally, the basal ganglia is responsible for taking common routinized behaviors and turning them into habits. This is the do phase of the model.
Anything that used to take a lot of effort or focus but is now second nature, for example driving your car or using a smartphone, that's evidence of the basal ganglia's role. I argue that everything we do in learning and development is about changing behavior, so we are all really in the business of habit design. The problem is that we're not necessarily creating our learning events to maximize how the basal ganglia does its job. It turns out that all behavior is a neural pathway, a series of electrical and chemical bursts that drive thoughts and behaviors.
The more we do something, the more the neural pathway gets well-grooved. When we hit a certain number of repetitions, usually around 40, a habit is formed and the basal ganglia can run the routine automatically. The ability of the brain to continually grow and develop new neural pathways is truly impressive. It's called neuroplasticity and it means that learning and development is actually an organization-wide process, not just a department. If you want to deep dive into the neuroscience of learning, watch my other course by that title and pick up my book called Wired to Grow.
I firmly believe that creating real behavior change relies on our understanding of how our bodies are wired to do just that. Once we understand the science of learning we can create better learning solutions that deliver the desired results.
- Identify the six stages of organizational development.
- Describe how to recognize your organization’s L&D stage.
- Explain how to create a culture of learning in an organization.
- Summarize important aspects of adult learning theory.
- Recall the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
- Recognize the importance of assessing your audience prior to training.