Perspective: The neuroscience of learning

Written by
Alan Watkins, CEO & Founder, Complete

17 Jun 2020

17 Jun 2020 • by Alan Watkins, CEO & Founder, Complete

Do we really only use 10% of our brain? Dr Alan Watkins elucidates on some misconceptions about how we learn, and how neuroscience can lend insight into better learning practices.

It may not surprise you to know that only 7% of CEOs are happy with learning and development (L&D) programmes run by their own organisations. They are probably right to be critical given the number and volume of neuromyths that underpin such programmes. Most programmes are created internally by well-intentioned individuals, but those who are not trained in neuroscience, human behaviour, complexity, consciousness, neuropsychology, medicine, cultural anthropology or adult development. 

In order to create exceptional L&D programmes you need a basic understanding of most of these fields, and more importantly you need to be able to integrate the key insights of these fields in a way that is accessible and can step change outcomes in organisations. This requires a breadth of training in how the human mind works, learns, develops and remembers and a way of integrating disparate fields that is rare in the business world, so it should not be surprising that most programmes don’t deliver.

The top ten neuromyths about learning are:

  1. We only use 10% of our brain. This is nonsense, as we use pretty much all of our brain all of the time. This myth may have arisen because most people are only using about 10% of their mind’s potential.   
  2. Some people are “hyperrational left brainers”, some are “creative right brainer”. This is utter nonsense. We all use both hemispheres all the time. Some people lateralise certain capabilities early in life such as fine motor movements, which control speech, to the left hemisphere (men are more lateralised than women). Creativity involves the whole brain not just the right hemisphere. Professional musicians have been shown to use the left 'analytical' side of the brain more than the right 'creative' side of the brain when composing music. 
  3. Practice makes perfect so to be world class you need to invest 10,000 hours over ten years. It is the right type of practice that makes you world class. To do the right type of practice you need to be able to deconstruct very complex issues into small bite-sized elements, understand each piece and its relationship to all the other pieces. If you can do this ‘practice with precision’ it will not take you anywhere near 10,000 hours to become world class. 
  4. Putting more hours in will aid learning. No, there is very clear evidence across many fields that 'cross-training', i.e. training in unrelated disciplines, improves your performance in your chosen discipline. We all need to learn to become more polymathic.
  5. We are not visual or auditory learners we are all multi-sensory learners. You may have a preference, but the more senses you recruit the better you learn.
  6. There are windows of learning where we are sponges, particularly when we are young. This is not true. It is possible to cultivate your ability to learn throughout your life; development doesn’t have to stop.
  7. Under pressure our reptilian brain kicks in or we are overtaken by our ‘inner chimp’. This is nonsense. There are no reptiles or chimps, there is just complex biology and it is the chaos that is induced in your biology that impairs your pre-frontal cortex, switching off your smart thinking and inducing a ‘DIY lobotomy’. Fortunately, you can learn to stop this happening.
  8. Stress impairs learning. This is only partially true and untrue. Different people have different levels of stress tolerance. Some stress enhances learning. Too much definitely impairs learning. But the more you wrestle to understand an issue if you keep going you will remember it for much longer. 
  9. The human mind does not think ‘fast’ or ‘slow’. Reducing the beauty and complexity of the human mind and thought in particular to such a binary position means we have lost a great deal on the journey. Rational analysis clearly takes longer that intuitive or instinctive processes, but they are not separate systems. Rationality doesn’t exist absent of emotion and our minds are much more subtle, nuanced and perceptive than has been suggested.
  10. Memories are stored in our brain. No, they are distributed through our neural network in our whole body and then when we remember something they are reassembled in the moment. There is not a memory filing cabinet.

If we want to build a killer L&D programme what are the top ten insights from neuroscience that are useful for step changing learning at work? 

  1. The mind stores data holographically using the world’s best data compression system. 
  2. The mind’s core operating principle is pattern recognition and our neural networks store the links between things rather than the things themselves. So, we need to focus on relationships and how things are connected if we want to enhance learning at work. 
  3. Patterns create meaning and meaning facilitates learning. Helping people to understand the way meaning is created can massively accelerate learning.
  4. Learning massively leapt forward once mankind developed representational symbology 8,000 years ago because it provided a shorthand for patterns.
  5. We should not worry too much about whether it is the hippocampus, anterior cingulate cortex, insula or any part of the brain that lights up when we learn. Such scientific ‘facts’ change over time. 
  6. The brain is very plastic and can co-opt many pathways to enable learning.
  7. It is key to cultivate curiosity and a desire to learn for learning to be effective. This is what underpins the ‘growth’ rather than ‘fixed’ mindset.
  8. Structure follows function. So, if you practice with precision and reinforce the right patterns your abilities become hard-wired into your neural network.
  9. In L&D programme learning is only delivers 20% of the value, development delivers 80%. Development is the application of learning to create a new level of performance.
  10. If we build ‘deliberately developmental organisations (DDOs) is may be possible to convert learning into development, establish developmental habits and drive behavioral change. And CHROs need to become the Chief Development Office (CDO) leading the DDO agenda.

Dr Alan Watkins is the CEO and co-founder of Complete a leadership consultancy that works globally with CEOs, HR leaders, and executive boards in multiple markets helping them to step change their business.

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