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Becky Norman


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Six neuroscientific insights that can help improve learning performance


Dr Daniel Glaser, Neuroscientist and Director of the Science Gallery at King’s College London, shed light on the inner workings of our learning brains at the CIPD Learning and Development Show on the 25 April 2018 in London.

Using just a small sprinkling of his neuroscientific research and understanding, Glaser captivated the L&D audience with facts about the brain that can improve learners’ performance.

With this treasure trove of knowledge laid bare, learning professionals had a lot to take away with them and put into practice. Below are some of the top insights that Glaser shared...

1. Your belief about the brain changes how you learn

Glaser referred to a study by Carol Dweck that taught high school students different facts about the brain.

One group was told that humans have no new brain cell growth after about 3-4 years and that there is not much you can do to change your brain patterns (which is true). A second group was told that there is new evidence of neuroplasticity, and that brain structure can change all the time (which is also true).

Later in the year, the students took their end of year exams - and lo and behold, the second group performed better.

“It’s important to understand that beliefs about the brain can change your attitude to learning and how you learn, which can, in consequence, change your performance,” highlighted Glaser.

2. Changing your context helps learning

Glaser spoke at the start of the session about his healthy work-life balance and how important it is for happiness. But he also mentioned later on that time out will help to enhance your brain’s performance: “Changing your context is really important for re-evaluating and seeing things differently,” Glaser said.

3. Rich emotional engagement makes things stick

Glaser highlighted the importance of our cultural experiences as adolescents. Referred to as ‘the reminiscence hump’, these experiences stay with you throughout your life.

We all have songs that we associate with big changes in our lives, and this is especially so in our teenage years: first relationships, first relationship break ups, first days at university and so on.

Glaser pointed out that: “we don’t recall those memories because the music was better back then... it’s that we were living life differently at the time.”

4. Direction of attention impacts what you remember

“Your memory cannot distinguish between what’s important and unimportant,” Glaser highlighted, so full attention on what you need to learn is critical.

This is because our eyes can only see well in the centre of our vision. We don’t have colour vision in the periphery and can only read words that are in the very centre of our vision - the reason we don’t see black and white in our periphery vision is because our brain ‘fills in the blanks’, so to speak, but our attention is not focused here.

“Direction of attention is really important for learning as information comes in only through the centre,” Glaser stated.

5. Mental practice helps performance

When we play out different scenarios in our head before they happen, we perform better when they actually happen, Glaser highlighted, adding that sleep is a crucial time for doing this. 

A really useful point that Glaser made about mental practice was that our working lives are often very unpredictable: new challenges arise all the time that we cannot foresee. This cannot be changed, but we can bear in mind when training people, or handing over a task or project to them, that predictability will allow them to do a better job.

6. Distracting your brain allows it to get on with the crucial stuff

Techniques such as mindfulness help to distract you from the constant unhelpful nattering in your brain, so that we can perform subconscious tasks better. “If we distract ourselves, it allows our bits of the brain that are doing the actual work to get on with what they’re doing,” says Glaser.

These are just a few of the many neuroscience-backed tips and tricks that Glaser offered to help us all learn better ourselves and create more effective training for other learners. It was a fascinating session!


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Becky Norman

Managing Editor

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