Neuroplasticity and Learning Best Practice
  • Behaviour

Neuroplasticity and Learning Best Practice

Why the best way to facilitate learning is to interrupt forgetting and boost memory retrieval

Thursday 22 December 2016


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In this new ‘post-truth’ age it is important that our information has a robust and verifiable provenance. Whilst ‘post-truth’ is essentially directed at the increasing incidence of politicians making claims about economic and social situations that are often perceived, but not in fact accurate – it is equally endemic in the world of neuroscience, where pseudo-neuroscientists are wont to lay claim to huge new insights and knowledge advances based upon spurious or erroneous reasoning.

It was therefore hugely refreshing to listen to Shane O’Mara, Professor of Experimental Brain Research at Trinity College Dublin, speaking at a recent Benchmark for Business conference in London. Professor O’Mara has a down-to-earth delivery that can unpack complex neuroscience into easily understood application for the business world.

In two 70-minute sessions O’Mara took the audience on a journey that started with how shaking hands is actually a primal assessment, where we unwittingly are sensing tell-tale odours from each other. It is called chemo-signalling, and illustrates just how much of our behaviour is unconscious and still quite basic. Don’t believe it?  here is the research to back it up:

Whether we gain anything from chemo-signalling probably has little application in a business context, but understanding that we are, to a large extent, prisoners of our neurochemicals and the structure of our brain, is hugely important in building and implementing successful organizations and projects.

The key revelation of neuroscience of the last decade has been the extent to which the brain keeps evolving and changing throughout an individual’s life. Until recently it was thought that after around one’s early 20s the brain’s shape and neural connections were largely static before going into gentle decline. However modern advances in neuro-research have shown that we continuously are re-shaping our brains, not so much in terms of physical growth of lobes (though this can happen in certain areas of the brain), but in the ever-changing wiring between cells. It is this re-wiring that is at the core of the idea of ‘neuroplasticity’ – and that enables us to retain new memories, and lose or forget, older ones; and that allows us to make sense of new situations and complexities. That is all nice to know, but what are we actually able to do about it?

Understanding how the brain absorbs and retains information is critically important for improving learning. The ability to learn effectively is ever more important for knowledge workers, and for those seeking to improve their performance whether that be in learning how to manage teams most effectively, or work across multiple cultures, or handle ambiguous or partial information when decision-making. O’Mara highlighted the work of various prominent researchers in this area, not least that of Stanford’s Carol Dweck on “Growth and Fixed Mindsets” (an area also explored by author and journalist Matthew Syed in the afternoon session that followed), and Alan Baddeley’s research around working memory. Based on this and other research O’Mara explained that “the best way to facilitate learning is to interrupt forgetting”. This is done by strengthening your ‘retrieval memory’, through asking yourself retrieval questions at intervals after you first encounter the new information.

It is not sufficient to complete questions on a new piece of information immediately on learning it, or as you finish reading about it. O’Mara advises that the best gap is a short one though, say 10-15 minutes after first encountering the new information, to re-explain the knowledge in your own words. As Einstein noted ‘if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’. This process should be repeated at extended intervals until the information becomes second nature, and fully embedded in the brain. It is the process of memory retrieval that creates the neural pathways in the brain and that allows for sustainable and enduring knowledge retention – so fostering new habits and behaviours.

O’Mara’s breadth of knowledge on the subject was an impressive feat of memory in itself, sharing insights into how and why the stress hormone, cortisol, can impact memory, emotions and intentions; and how reduced sleep can massively effect the brain’s cognitive functioning. While stimulants such as caffeine might improve wakefulness, it has no impact on the sense-making abilities of the brain. The difference between feeling alert and making sense of the information in front of you is significant in the tired – a lesson still to be learnt by most organizations that demand long or stressful working days.

Shane O’Mara’s book ‘A Brain for Business’ will be published by Palgrave, in Summer of 2017

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