Brain based learning insights change everything about learning

Brain based learning
Gosh when I first studied the brain in the 80's we were given research studies from injured Korean and Vietnam war soldiers. Thankfully due to imaging technologies we have probably learned more about how our brains work in the last 10 -15 years than we have in the entire history of medical research.

Related Brain Based Learning Pages

Cognitive Learning
Metacognition, is the awareness of the process of learning, is a critical ingredient to successful adult learning.Knowing how to learn and knowing which strategies work best, are valuable skills that differentiate EXPERT learners from NOVICE adult learners.

Adult Learning Theory
Maslow never did much with what has come to be known as The Four Stages of Learning model (sometimes called the conscious competence model or the four stages of competence) but it has become a popular component of modern adult learning theory.


Those brain based learning insights are creating a revolution in learning theory and motivation and learning which is offering us a chance to learn anything better, faster and more easily than ever before. I have been using some of these principles in my Executive Coaching practice for the last few years and they have made a tremendous difference to my clients learning and achievement.

The bottom line is that our brains can change their structure and function and this is dependant on what we do and what we perceive, sense, think about and imagine. These brain based learning insights have generated a huge interest in brain fitness and lifelong learning as means of reducing the mental effects of the aging process.

If you are running complex projects for example then it is impossible to hold all that detail in you pre-frontal cortex. You are going to need some assistance from ab IT solution such as Outlook Project Managment Software. This will simplify the project into key stages allowing your brain to deal with the detail at the right levels.



"The principal activities of brains are making changes in themselves." --Marvin L. Minsky (from Society of the Mind, 1986)

We used to think that our brains became fixed during childhood but the fact is our brains change continuously throughout our lives. If we do reduce our learning in later years it seems this is more about our mental unwillingness (choice) to try rather than any physical limitation (ability) of our brains.

This ability to change is called neuroplasticity. Horrible word but, what it means for you and me is that we really are designed to be "champion learners" and can keep on learning right through our lives.

Free leadership Double Your Impact as a Leader Video Series Three great free leadership videos plus supporting information to download. See how your leadership mindset impacts on you behaviours? Find out more about cognitive learning here



Brain based learning:A few facts about our amazing brains

A health adult human brain has about 100 billion active nerve cells (sounds a lot but is only 20% of what we start with) By the time we enter adolescence our brain has chosen the nerve cells it will keep through out adult life.The basis of learning in the brain is a development and enrichment of the connections between these cells.
It is a simplification but you can think of our brains has multiple brains in one. Here are some of the most important regions related to learning.

Pre-frontal cortex: working memory, conscious decision making, planning

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Basal Ganglia: Long term thinking, pattern recognition, habits, stored cognitive skills and knowledge
Limbic System: The limbic system, often referred to as the "emotional brain", is found buried within the cerebrum. Like the cerebellum, evolutionarily the structure is rather old. This system contains the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus.
Brain Stem: reflexes and autonomic functions like breathing and heart rate
Cerebellum: Coordination of balance and equilibrium, some physical motor skills

The brain is split into left and right 2 hemispheres which despite popular folklore, are in the most respects symmetrical in terms of function but control different halves of the body. For example, the counterpart of the left-hemisphere motor area controlling the right hand is the right-hemisphere area controlling the left hand. There are, however, several very important exceptions, involving language and spatial cognition. In most people, the left hemisphere is "dominant" for language.

Sorry folks I know it has spawned an industry but the "Creative and rational" brains theories are most likely an exaggerated simplification.

Principles of how our brain learns

Note: Never has the work environment been so challenging for learning. Our brains find it difficult to cope with all the details we feel we must attend to. In these busy time it is hard to justify taking a lot of time off the job for training. After all why go on a course that's just going to put you under more pressure when you get back to work and need to catch up. The internet is really going to revolutionize learning in the future. We predict that Online learning and online techniques are most effective methods to learn quickly in todays work places.

Here are 5 very cool principles of Brain based learning

1. Our brains change based upon our experience.

2. Our brains try and automate many behaviours

3. Learning involves conscious and unconscious processes

4. The Brain searches for meaning and understanding

5. Emotions are critical to learning by the Brain

1. Our brains change based upon our experience.

In the brain, nerve cells, or neurons, grow new connections in fractions of a second which resemble branches on a tree. These branches send and receive signals the more branches there are, the more sites by which a neuron can send and receive information. These branches connect to form complex neuronal networks or maps that store memory and ways of thinking. If we relate that change to learning it means that brain based learning is a physical process of the modification and growth and pruning of these maps of neuron connections.

According to Jeffrey Schwartz “wherever we focus our brains attention that’s where we are making and reinforcing connections”

Cognitive learning theory indicates we love to make new connections that consolidate our existing thinking or fit together different mental maps. Conversely if we have maps that appear to contradict each other for example “I really want to learn how to swim which might be contradicted by I am really afraid of putting my head in the water it creates an irritation or a dilemma that can either stop us learning or might even spur us into action. In my experience these dilemmas can be small and easy to ignore or pretty huge and slightly harder for us to ignore. It is not unusual to carry this dilemmas around for months or even years without resolving them.

2. Our brains try and automate many behaviours

In general terms our brains have in the pre-frontal cortex a short term or “working memory” and in our basal ganglia a long term memory. Working memory is our conscious memory that we use for all new tasks and situations and complex problem solving. Working memory requires a lot of effort (concentration) and has a limited capacity probably about 7 things at once. (No jokes please about men and multi-tasking). The use of working memory can also be associated with feelings of anxiety and nervousness. Think about how it felt when you were first learning to drive?

The prefrontal cortex "crashes" easily because it burns lots of fuel of the high-octane variety: glucose, or blood sugar, which is metabolically expensive for the body to produce. Given the high energy cost of running the prefrontal cortex, the brain prefers to run off its long term memory or “hard drive”, known as the basal ganglia, which have a much larger storage capacity and sips, not gulps fuel. This is the part of the brain that stores the hardwired memories and habits that dominate our daily lives. Long-term memory holds everything we actually know which basically means anything that you don’t need to think about anymore.

It makes you wonder how much are people thinking when they are at work and how much is running hardwired routines?

Our brains are designed to push things down into our long-term memory to keep our working memory fresh.

Once we have learned something however (hard wiring) we don’t have to actively think about it anymore and it becomes easy...

This has huge implications for brain based learning. From a positive perspective, we potentially become more efficient through practice and eventual automation of new tasks and activities, and can build on additional and more complex tasks. From a negative perspective, this hardwiring can reflect habits and ways of thinking and doing, that can get in the way of new learning. The point here is (according to my brain anyway) that the brain based learning approach tells us our brain hardwires everything that we think about a lot - without knowing whether it’s useful or not.



3. Learning involves conscious and unconscious processes

We use our working memory when learning new tasks, and are thereby conscious of what we are doing. Most of what we perceive enters our brain without our conscious awareness and interacts with our unconscious hardwiring without us being aware of it. A person life is subjective and we are easily influenced to change how we see, what we hear and feel, smell and taste. This subjectivity is like a series of filters that we use to see our world which in turn alters our experience and so our perception.

As we change our perceptions of the world we change our experience.

Bamboozled? I think I am trying to say that we make our own worlds with our own rules to live in; and in turn living in our worlds changes our brains.

Contrast the perceptions and experiences of a zoologist with someone who fears spiders when both are presented with a Tarantula in a cage? It is our experiences that change the connections we make in our brains. So we are profoundly influenced by our own hard wiring in ways that we are not always conscious of. From a learning perspective we can use our working memory to think and reflect on our own perceptions and experiences and thereby make new connections and learning.

This is the approach adopted by contemporary brain based learning approaches in coaching, where questioning techniques are used to help people become aware of their own hardwiring and decide if they want to make changes.



4. The Brain searches for meaning and understanding

Our brains continuously look for patterns in order to make sense of new information. We create theories of our worlds and selectively look for information that confirms our world views.

We also tend to resist perceptions that undermine our theories or cannot be connected in some way. This is probably a survival instinct as the brain needs to automatically register the familiar whilst simultaneously searching for and responding to new experiences.

Again from a brain based learning perspective, we don’t usually start as blank canvases, and learning facilitators have to allow for learners different perceptions, and facilitate some working memory active reflection and exploration. This can help people assimilate new information into older patterns. Also, they may resist new information, if it conflicts with an older pattern. Also in complex learning Brains don’t generally get it right the first time instead they create a kind of “rough pattern” of the learning material. If over time the material is thought about and still considered important, the brain will start to upgrade the rough pattern to improve meaning and accuracy.

5. Emotions are critical to learning by the Brain

The Limbic system or as it is sometime called the “Emotional Brain “is superbly evolved for basic survival needs (eat/fight/flight/sex in no particular order). If this part of our brains hadn’t been given the top priority we probably wouldn’t have survived very long as a species. It has given us a highly sensitized threat response where simply thinking about a threat situation from the comfort of an armchair can be enough to release the hormones that generate the physical symptoms of fear, anxiety, heart racing, nausea etc... We are threatened by situations that are ambiguous, that might impact upon our social status and relationships with others, or offend our personal notions of fair treatment. Any or all of these possibilities, will lead to some sort of slight or significant stress response from our Limbic system. How is that related to learning? Well once the limbic system is activated it starts to assume priority status in our brains, and our thinking and reasoning functions are literally switched off for a time.

In other words learning is blocked.

The converse is true if we are in a relaxed active state we maximise the conditions for our learning. So as I guess you knew, our motivation and learning are intimately connected.


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