Your Brain on Learning

To design experiences where information isn’t just transferred but inspires transformation, learning leaders should have a basic understanding of how the brain works.

When the brain learns, it acquires information through a person’s various senses, and this information travels along the synapses to the short-term memory. After the information has been processed in working memory, it is carried to the brain’s core where it is compared with things we know or have experienced, and then stored in long-term memory.

This process is certain. But using an understanding of it to drive change in adult learners is not. Corporate learning and development is only in the early days of understanding the science behind learning, said Britt Andreatta, a learning and leadership development consultant and speaker, and an author for LinkedIn Learning courses.

“The Neuroscience of Learning” author said growing interest in neuroscience — the study of the brain and nervous system that draws on disciplines like psychology — coincides with the increasing popularity of the positive psychology movement in the early 2000s, as well as continuing advances in MRI technology that offer greater detail about the human brain and body. But only in roughly the past decade have conversations on how the brain learns appeared in talent management circles.

Gradually, vendors have begun developing learning products backed by this science, and companies have been paying attention, tapping into key principles to boost corporate learning initiatives’ impact. But there’s a great distance learning organizations can and should travel regarding what is known about the brain and adult learning, Andreatta said. “Right now, it’s still a little hodgepodgey. It should be the core of your entire learning strategy, not just one little cool product that you buy.”

She said professional learning can be broken into three key phases: learn, remember and do. Sitting down to learn, getting information into learners’ memory and then applying that information in practice, ultimately changes behavior.

Learning leaders must spend more time on that “do” phase if they want learning and development experiences to stick and fuel change. Andreatta said she’s gone into company management trainings countless times where content might be taught around skill development — coaching, for instance — and a discussion on the skill is facilitated. But there is no skills practice. Participants often return to work without so much as a demonstration.

“Most trainings fall down because we leave it up to the employee to go back and change their behavior when they go back to an environment that’s already rigged to have them execute the old habit,” she explained. “If they don’t have some intentionality, some chances to develop repetitions of doing it correctly, all the best intentions in the world will fall down.”

She said it takes on average 40 to 50 repetitions of a behavior to form a habit. An instructor may not have time to ensure a learner struggling with a skill practices it a few dozen times before the end of a learning engagement, but they do the learner and the organization a disservice to overlook at least some supervised skills practice before turning a learner loose.

In the University of Arizona’s Eller Executive Education program, the initiatives and programs designed to help corporate leaders address pressing business problems are created with an eye toward how the brain works, said Joe Carella, the program’s assistant dean. For instance, the school developed an Advanced Leadership Development Program, a one-time engagement for corporate client DP World. The program for senior managers tapped for future senior leadership ran over a period of 18 months in 2015-16; it had multiple in-person modules shaped by neurobiological insights about the brain and corresponding with leadership behaviors.

The program included an in-market experience where leaders weren’t just taken to other countries and exposed to executives at other organizations, they were forced to navigate their way through new and unfamiliar terrain by way of activities like a pathfinding scavenger hunt meant to stimulate both discomfort and discovery. The program also had simulations where leaders were set up for what Carella called “empathetic failure.” Executives were placed in situations similar to those they would encounter in their role; “We’d get them to fail so they can see the limitation of their current ways of doing things to prime them for change,” he said.

These exercises are empathetic because they’re done in safe, caring environments that do not shame leaders or force them to lose face. In this learning environment, failure is recognized and acknowledged, and so are the contributing factors that lead to failure. This enables leaders to rebuild with less resistance to change, Carella explained. “We encourage them to fail several times — neurobiology tells us that repeated and purposeful attention to what we do leads to long lasting change.”

He described the program as a transformational journey, one that wouldn’t have been nearly as impactful without help from coaches who use neurobiological insights to support executives in thinking through their perspectives and actions, helping them to better understand themselves, and even reframe past experiences.

With coaching, there is no limit to how much better we can become, Carella said. Further, researchers have said this type of developmental activity has neurobiological benefits. “Working with a coach allows us to have somebody else to hold the mirror,” he said. “When somebody else holds that mirror, they might tweak it and move it in different positions and different ways that we with our own arms and capabilities are not necessarily able to do.”

That type of mindfulness is critical for companies that want to meaningfully build up their talent. Poring over all the scientific information available can be exhausting. But learning leaders have to be willing to dig into how the brain works if they want to work with it, and deliver learning experiences that change it. Andreatta recommended learning executives find a few trusted resources to help them navigate and distill neuroscience studies, and make an investment in this type of learning to drive their work. Also, she said it would be beneficial to attend some brain science workshops.

“Understanding human biology and how we work as humans is the key to any industry’s success. Neuroscience will shape a lot of industries in the future, and certainly learning is one of them.” There’s no getting around the brain’s impact on learning, she said. “It really is the heart of everything.”

By drawing on what we know about how the brain works — to fine-tune learning and development products and initiatives — learning leaders can transform workforce development by highlighting principles around exposure, impact and novelty in adult learning.


When developing or mastering skills, the amount of learning exposure and skills rehearsal employees receive is crucial to knowledge retention, said Kim Ruyle, president of Inventive Talent, a Miami-based talent management and organizational consulting firm. The former vice president of research and development for executive search firm Korn Ferry said a lack of rehearsal and memorization in learning today is an unfortunate byproduct of technology like the internet.

With an unquantifiable amount of information at a person’s fingertips, tools like Google are undermining the discipline of people physically searching out information and not relying on external mechanisms to search for them. “We learn primarily by rehearsal, and that’s memorization,” Ruyle said. “That’s a very important thing that exercises our brain.”

But who needs memory when Google is readily available? Consider how a person completes a task. After completing the task, a neural pathway or likely pathway specific to that action is run. The more it’s run, the stronger it becomes; The less it runs, the weaker that connection gets, found researchers at University of California Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.

Simply put: “You always have to strengthen the things you want,” said Andreatta, who offered a few tips learning organizations can build into programming to improve retention, and help workers form new habits.

Processing: Information overload is real. The hippocampus part of the brain needs to process about every 15 minutes, Andreatta said. Talk to people for an hour nonstop, and they’re only going to retain about 25 percent of what was covered. This is why she intentionally breaks up her training. She may be with a class for two hours, but she isn’t talking to them for more than 15 minutes before she leads learners in a processing activity. Having students talk in a dyad, take a quick assessment, or reflect over the material helps the brain process the content introduced.

Retrieval: Andreatta said instructors can help learners retain information in their long-term memory in a number of ways, including helping them make connections between what they know already and new content. Take learners through memories of an experience to a moment of insight, or use social learning.


People remember what they can connect personal meaning and strong emotions to for good reason. “Emotion is an on/off switch for learning,” wrote learning science author and researcher Priscilla Vail in the GreatSchools.org article, “The Role of Emotions in Learning.” “The emotional brain, the limbic system, has the power to open or close access to learning, memory and the ability to make connections.”

For sensory information to get to the cortex — where decisions are made and other executive function tasks are carried out — it must go through the limbic system, where people’s responses to threats and rewards are generated, Ruyle said. But whether that data makes it to the cortical area depends on how the limbic system interprets it, based on things like past experience and memories, and whether it’s positive, neutral or negative. Vail wrote if the information is interpreted as negative, entry to the cortex isn’t granted. The opposite is true if the information is interpreted as positive. Subsequent access to the cortex facilitates thinking and learning.

Ruyle said the cortex and limbic system operate like a seesaw. When one is in control or active, the other tends to be inhibited. That’s why it’s difficult to make sound decisions when experiencing extreme emotions and subsequently why making judgment calls while in the throes of emotion is discouraged. A facilitator’s plans to deliver well-crafted content to a group may fail if people aren’t in an emotional state conducive to learning.

Emotions are powerful, able to sabotage learning engagements or to enhance them. Emotions strengthen memories, researchers at Duke University reported in a 2004 study, “Interaction between the amygdala and the medial temporal lobe memory system predicts better memory for emotional events.” Participants were more likely to remember pictures shown to them that evoked an emotional response than they were to remember images that did not strike an emotional chord.

It’s also worth mentioning that when it comes to static things like the brain, in comparison with, say, employee engagement, which changes year to year, older studies are not less influential. Research like that previously mentioned provides the groundwork for researchers to delve into other areas without duplicating their efforts so that neuroscience can continue to advance.

Want to defuse an emotional situation that could inhibit learning? Activate positive emotions in learners by doing things like establishing trust, incorporating choice into engagements, and removing threats. Or, if things go off track because of bad feelings, Ruyle said ask learners to meet a negative emotion with a thoughtful question that requires a thoughtful response to reengage their thinking cortex.


If all else fails, employ a little novelty. What is unusual is often attractive. Psychologists have long asserted that when people experience something novel in the midst of what is familiar, they are more likely to commit the experience to memory. Why? Novel stimuli tend to activate the brain’s hippocampus — which is involved in memory formation, organization and storing — more than familiar stimuli.

When the hippocampus compares incoming sensory information with stored knowledge and the two match, the University of Michigan’s Biopsychology Program found the brain kicks out the new memory as duplicative. On the other hand, if the new information differs from what is stored, the brain works hard to explain the discrepancy, ultimately storing the memory if it could be useful later.

In a report published in Nature in September 2016, a team of researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and the University of Edinburgh found the reward-seeking chemical dopamine released from a specific region of the brain may be responsible for the boost novelty gives to memory retention. The discovery helped approaches to improve learning and memory forward.

In the short term, learning leaders have an expanding vista of insight into the brain at their disposal to enhance their strategy to reach and transform their workforce. The literature may be voluminous, but one needn’t try to embrace all of neuroscience’s principles at once, Eller’s Carella said. “From a certain perspective, it’s impossible to unravel all of this in one learning journey. The first step is truly awareness.”

Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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