Applying neuroscience to learning and development


The field of neuroscience – the study of the brain and nervous system – has seen some significant advancement over the last 20 years, largely thanks to new technology such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a tool that enables brain activity to be more accurately monitored. This has led to rapid growth in the exploration of cognitive and behavioural neuroscience within the context of workplace learning.

Historically, L&D practice has been largely informed by behavioural or psychological research, rather than actually looking at the physiological changes in the brain during the learning process. That is not to say those other types of research are any less valid, but the research behind neuroscience and learning hinges predominantly on the ‘plasticity’ of the human brain – essentially the idea that the function, connectivity and structure of your brain can be altered by learning. This idea of ‘plasticity’ contrasts with the old notion that your brain limits what you can achieve. Instead, it puts forward the idea that, with the right guidance and learning, we can actually alter the construction of our own brains (or the brains of others, in the case of L&D professionals) to increase our abilities.

experimentImportant discoveries

In 2014 Ruth Stuart, of the CIPD, authored the CIPD report titled, ‘Neuroscience in action.’ The report was based on research conducted by the CIPD into how findings from neuroscience are influencing the HR and L&D professions. They also included several case studies where high-profile organisations had used neuroscience research to inform their L&D strategy, with some really powerful results.

“Some of the key takeaways from the research, in terms of how to apply it to L&D, and particularly classroom training, were things like giving time for reflection, providing regular breaks, delivering information in short bursts, giving people the chance to work things out for themselves and use their brains to sort through information, and ultimately doing anything that engages the brain and makes it think for itself rather than just listening to a speaker,” she says. “One helpful question to ask is: ‘are we training people, or are we helping them learn?’ If you haven’t already asked that question, now is the time to do it.”

Another interesting suggestion was incorporating physical activity or exercise into learning activities, and there were also some very useful findings when it comes to developing managers and leaders, as Stuart explains:

“The brain reacts in a similar way whether it is experiencing emotional or physical pain,” she says. “If a manager or leader gets frustrated with somebody and insults or shouts at them, it can have as much of an impact on that individual’s brain as if they had been physically attacked, which could then cause them to shut off and react in a negative way. This is due to their prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for complex decision-making – shutting down, and a more emotional response kicking in. Using this information, we can help leaders understand how their actions might affect their team members.

“Another element is how the brain physically reacts to change,” she adds. “L&D professionals could be at the forefront of any change plans or initiatives, using their knowledge of how the brain reacts in order to help people through that process.”                                                                                             

Proving what we already know?

Of course, the fact that people react badly to being shouted at is hardly breaking news. So what is the benefit in using neuroscience to inform learning, as opposed to other types of research? One organisation that has been doing a great deal of work into the field is the university-led Centre for Educational Neuroscience (CEN). The centre’s director, Professor Michael Thomas, explains the thinking behind it.

“There are certain things that we know, through experience, are effective teaching or training methods, such as standing while presenting rather than sitting passively,” he says. “Part of what CEN does is try to understand the mechanisms that make these things work. If you can understand those mechanisms, you can use that knowledge to create better interventions.”

Stuart believes that there are three key ways in which the L&D field can benefit from the evidence neuroscience research provides:

“Firstly, being able to explain why you’re doing something enhances credibility, which means you are more likely to get investment or business buy-in,” she says. “Secondly, it can significantly enhance learner engagement. The principles of neuroscience can be applied to how learning is embedded to make brain connections as strong as possible in order to retain information. Finally, by gaining a greater understanding of how the brain works, how we feel and behave, we can transform the way we approach anything from work, to relationships, to our own development.”

myths vs factsBeware the neuromyths

With so many people talking about neuroscience, and an increasing number of ‘experts’ wanting to capitalise on its rise in popularity, there is a real risk of inaccurate information being shared as truth. In the field of neuroscience, these are known as ‘neuromyths.’

“Neuromyths are essentially false facts about the brain that get spread rapidly,” says Stuart. “They are particularly prevalent on TV or in films. If you ask people what they know about the brain, for instance, the first thing they usually say is that we only use 10% of it, even though that has been proved to be completely false. The problem is that once these myths are out there it is quite difficult to remove them.”

Thomas certainly agrees with that sentiment, describing neuromyths as “a big part of neuroscience” that reflect people’s enthusiasm for learning about the human brain.

“There are a number of methods that maybe have a seed of truth in their approach, but are not actually created or tested by scientists,” he says. “Left brain VS right brain, for example, or learning styles – these concepts may sound plausible, but scientifically they do not hold water. Take learning styles as an example – people consistently rate themselves in terms of which learning style they prefer. When you evaluate the difference between the effectiveness of teaching according to each style, however, there is actually very little disparity in learning outcomes when tuition is matched to the learner’s preferred style versus when it is not.”

Clearly this is a danger for non-scientific HR or L&D managers undertaking research into the field, because there is a potential to inform learning design or strategy based on falsehoods. But the answer to avoiding this lies in being thorough with your research, as Stuart explains:

“It comes down to critical thinking,” she says. “If you read something online or in the news, stop and ask: What is the source of this information? Which study has it been conducted in? Dig deep into the facts. The reality, of course, is that many people are pushed for time, but one organisation we spoke to said that simply letting people debate the veracity of supposed neuroscience ‘facts’ was very beneficial as a process of getting people to think about their brains.”

As Thomas explains, the process of properly assessing evidence is essential if you want to avoid falling foul of false information.

“One thing missing from the education sector is an appreciation of what it is to collect evidence and see if things are true or not,” he says. “Trying to seek out an evidence base should always be encouraged. The Education Endowment Foundation’s Toolkit has collated evidence of ‘what works’ in terms of neuroscience-inspired methods in education – ultimately, one would want a similar resource for L&D professionals.”

brainA growing field

Clearly, even just in the last few years, there have been some amazing discoveries in the field of neuroscience in relation to the way we learn, but there is still a long way to go, with some really exciting potential developments for L&D professionals in the years to come.

“I think we are likely to see neuroscience grow in importance over next five to ten years,” says Stuart. “It has only been in the last five years that neuroscientists have been explaining their research to businesses. The discipline is growing rapidly, and in future it is likely that there will be increased certainty in the findings. As an L&D professional, if you’re not engaging with this stuff then you are missing a trick. If you want to ensure your people are developed in the most effective way, the best way to do that is to find out, from a scientific point of view, how they actually learn.

“One of the real untapped areas is how all this applies to learning technology,” adds Stuart. “A lot of the translation of neuroscience research to L&D is based on face-to-face learning, without much focus on how it connects to e-learning or mobile learning. That is the next step – researching how people learn with technology from a neuroscience perspective.”


This article was orignally featured in Issue 4 of Enhance Magazine.