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Surya Prakash Mohapatra, currently the Global Head- Talent Transformation at Wipro BPS, has over 20 years of experience in various leadership roles in several leading IT and ITES organizations. Prior to Wipro, he worked in Hewlett Packard, Microland, FirstRing, Computer Garage and a few other organizations.

This is the second article in a series of articles I am currently writing on the subject of ‘Learning’. In my first article titled ‘Born to lead’, I had shared some practical tips on how to inculcate the habit of life-long learning. In this article, I have chosen yet another aspect of learning, i.e., the neuroscience of learning.

Learning happens in the brain. It is impossible to understand how we learn without understanding how our brain works. Our brain is the most important organ of our body. It guides our sensory responses and centrally controls the functioning of the other organs in our body. Every day our brain undergoes changes through experience, as we learn facts and build new connections and form memories.

How is our Brain organized?

Before we understand how learning happens in the brain, let’s spend a few minutes understanding how our brain is organized. The brain consists of primarily three parts – stem, cerebellum and cerebrum. Out of these three parts, the cerebrum is the most important in learning. It is because this is where higher-ordered functions like memory and reasoning occur. Each area of the cerebrum specializes in a function – sight, hearing, speech, touch etc. Our brain acts as a dense network of pathways consisting of approximately 100 billion brain cells. These brain cells are called neurons.

How does our Brain learn?

Neurons grow dendrites when we receive or listen to information, write or talk about/practice something. In order to learn, neurons in the brain need to grow dendrites. Dendrites can grow only from a dendrite that is already there. Like twigs on a tree can grow from a twig or branch which is already there, dendrites can grow only from a dendrite that is already there. This means new learning is an extension of something the learner already knows. The way twigs grow higher and wider on a tree, learning grows higher and wider inside the brain. So essentially, learning means growth of dendrites.

When two dendrites grow close together, a contact point is formed. A small gap at the contact point is called the synapse. Messages are sent from one neuron to another as electrical signals travel across the synapses. As we learn, specific dendrites grow from specific neurons and connect at specific synapses to create large and more complex networks. There can be as many as 10,000 connections (synapses) per neuron. Some synapses are strong, and some are weak – so weak they don’t even send a signal.

When we practice something, the dendrites grow thicker with a fatty coating. The thicker the dendrites, the faster the signals travel. The coating also reduces interference. Faster and stronger connections last a very long time. We remember what we learned! Researchers found that when two neurons frequently interact, they form a bond that allows them to transmit more easily and accurately. This leads to more complete memories and easier recall. Conversely, when two neurons rarely interacted, the transmission was often incomplete, leading to either a faulty memory or no memory at all.

Brain creates two types of memory

  • Short-term memory
    Short-term memory helps us keep information in the mind for a very short period of time, such as remembering a phone number long enough until we are able to dial it on our phones. The short-term memory usually lasts within seconds to a few minutes then dissipates if effort is not made to retain the information for long-term use. It is commonly believed that on an average, human beings are able to hold about seven random and unrelated objects simultaneously in the short-term memory.
  • Long-term Memory
    Important information is gradually transferred from short-term memory into long-term memory. The more the information is repeated or used, the more likely it is to eventually move to ong-term memory, or to be “retained.” That’s why practicing mathematics sums helps students to perform better on the mathematics tests. Unlike short-term memory, which are limited and decay rapidly, long-term memory can store unlimited amounts of information indefinitely.

Conditions/Actions to Facilitate Effective Learning by Brain

Knowing how our brain learns is a huge advantage. This knowledge is going to help us take appropriate actions and create best conditions for the brain to learn effectively.

1. Create a Stress-free Environment

When learners feel nervous, anxious or stressed, certain chemicals flow into the synapses to shut them down. When this happens, learners mistakenly think that they have a poor memory, but it is their emotions that are sabotaging them. When learners feel confident and relaxed, different chemicals flow into the synapses that make them work quickly and well. Feelings and emotions always affect reasoning and memory, either in a positive way or a negative way. Feelings can help us remember and can also make us forget. For effective learning, an ambience which is stress free and joyful but providing sufficient challenge to learn something new is a pre-requisite.

2. Stretch your Brain
Stretching is a great tool to stimulate the brain or adult minds ‘Stretching’ helps us in getting out of our comfort zone and doing different things or doing things differently. The key is to treat your brain like any other physical organ of your body that requires stretching in the gym. So how can we create opportunities where our brain is adequately stretched? Well, take up a new challenging assignment at work, try learning a new language, pick up a new hobby or even do small things like taking a different route to work. All these activities will create opportunities for your brain to be stretched. Our brains are programmed to focus on new and unusual inputs We should tap into our own natural curiosity and intrinsic motivation.

3. Engage Emotions

Emotions are fundamental to learning. Plato said this more than 2,000 years ago, “All learning has an emotional base.” Motivation in the brain is driven by emotions. Individuals are motivated to engage in situations linked with positive emotions and avoid those linked with negative emotions. Research findings indicate that different aspects of memory are activated in different emotional contexts, and that demonstrates there are links between emotion and cognition. L&D professionals can design learning sessions that tap into the emotions of the learners. For example, ask learners to share their success stories in life or work experiences which have been difficult for them.

4. Use Reinforcement

Reinforcement is one of the greatest memory enhancers in the brain. It is powerful at increasing dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical released by neurons to send signals to other nerve cells.The dopamine naturally produced by your brain makes you feel good and have self-confidence. Asking questions, guiding towards right answers, restating and highlighting the correct responses, rewarding efforts etc. build the reinforcement cycle and allow for greater retention in memory. The use of questioning techniques to provoke reflections, facilitating or guiding learners towards answers and most importantly complimenting them after for success is how reinforcement works in action.

5. Wear the Teacher’s hat

All of us know the famous quote from William Glasser:
“We learn:
10% of what we read
20% of what we hear
30% of what we see
50% of what we see and hear
70% of what we discuss
80% of what we experience and
95% of what we teach others”
Teaching is an extremely powerful tool for the brain. Through teaching, we can deepen our own understanding and enhance our learning.

6. Avoid Multi-tasking

Multi-tasking is a myth.The truth is, effective multitasking is an oxymoron. Our brains are not wired for multitasking because most of us can apply our complete attention only to one activity/thought at a time. While at times, we may be able to perform a few low-order tasks simultaneously, we cannot perform multiple high-order tasks at the same time. For example, you may be able to sip a cup of coffee and have a light conversation with your spouse at the same time. But you cannot read a book and run a meeting at the same time.

Our working memory is the part of the brain that allows us to focus our attention on a task, like reading, listening etc. Working memory also interacts with our long-term memory where we retrieve and store specific information. If we try to conduct two tasks at the same time, we must switch between the different tasks and an overload results between our working memory and long-term memory, which leads to loss of time and energy.

7. Sleep away to glory!!

Never undermine the importance of sleeping. While you’re asleep, your brain is busy forming new memories, consolidating older ones, and linking more recent with earlier memories, during both REM and non-REM sleep. During REM sleep the brain transfers short-term memories stored in the motor cortex to the temporal lobe, where they become long-term memories. This process can be particularly helpful for storing information related to motor tasks, like riding a bike, playing a musical instrument or swinging a badminton racquet, so that these tasks become automatic. Secondly, sleeping can help the brain in decision making as well. Brain processes information and prepare for actions during sleep, effectively making decisions while unconscious. Thirdly, sleep can be a powerful creativity-booster as well. The mind in an unconscious resting state can make surprising new connections that it perhaps wouldn’t have made in a waking state. Famous scientists, Einstein and Edison have claimed that some of their “new thoughts” came out of their Sleeping state.
These 7 measures can go a long a long way in helping you explore the wonderful world of your brain. Are you ready start the exploration?

  • Ravichandran

    Surya, good one…

  • Surya Prakash Mohapatra

    Thank you, Ravi.

  • Hi Surya Prakash Mohapatra,

    Thank you for your article My company is focuced on learning and the brain for more than 20 years now. Please check out our website. I wuold appreciate to have call with you to tell more. We have a partner in India called Siksha, that delivers Brain Training in India with certified trainers.
    I hope you can find the time to schedule a call with me.
    Best Regards, Gerard Hellwig, ceo of BrainStudio International

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