McKinsey recently coined the term ’Neuromyths’ to describe old-fashioned ways of thinking that may have become entrenched, and damaging to the way organisations are thinking about their professional development programmes. In the last twenty years, neuroscience research has allowed us to understand the function of the brain as never before, and it’s time that some of these neuromyths are banished from our thinking.
Brains can develop throughout our lives
Take the received wisdom that the brain’s development takes place mostly during childhood. This is a dangerous misconception, as it leads to an assumption that adult learning and development is ’difficult’ and encourages negative attitudes that themselves block development. The truth is that the brain develops throughout our lives, as a result of our exposure to different things and new knowledge. Experience changes the brain’s physical structure – a phenomenon called neuroplasticity.
Ruby Wax has done much to bring neuroplasticity into the public domain. In her book, ’Sane New World’ she uses herself as an example. She says “I remind you that I got into Oxford [university] in my 50s. The brain is like a pliable piece of play dough; you can re-sculpt it by breaking old mental habits, and creating new, more flexible ways of thinking.” Every new experience we undertake creates new connections between the neurons in our brains, and changes us. This is why, after an experiential training course, we come away feeling stronger, more confident and new – regardless of the ’knowledge’ we may or may not be able to remember.
Creating new connections helps us learn new skills
It used to be thought that certain tasks only used specific areas of the brain. Not so. Whatever we are doing, it seems our whole brains are active – although each part may be used to a different degree. Learning comes when we create stronger connections between neurons; not when we magically reactivate a stagnant part of our brain. This has particular relevance when it comes to multi-tasking. To really learn and embed new information, the whole brain needs to be free – available for making those new connections. If we use some parts of the brain to check social media, or emails while we are in the middle of a training session, then our ability to memorise the information and ’learn’ is reduced.
Engaging multiple senses improves the experience
Are you more dominantly left brained (analytical) or right brained (creative)? You probably have a fair idea, as this notion has been around a long time. But, this black and white view of the brain’s function has been disproved and can lead to an unhealthy focus on a particular learning style. Turns out we learn best when all our senses are involved in the learning process – so we may be looking at a slide presentation, but if we are listening as well and perhaps doing something tactile and practical too, then our learning experience will be improved.
Whether we’re planning organisation-wide development programmes, or arranging training courses for ourselves or our team, we need to consider the insights into learning that neuroscience has given us, so that we release the full potential of any professional development we undertake.