Using neuroscience in learning

Barry Johnson, Mandy Geal and Jacqy Munro look at the neuroscience of memory and its importance in learning.

Stories are great for learning because they have pattern, engagement, relationships, emotion and meaning. Photo credit: Fotolia 

You probably recognise that number. Your teacher in Junior School told you it was the date of the Battle of Hastings when Duke William II of Normandy landed, which was the beginning of the Norman Conquest of England.

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How on earth do you remember things like that yet forget to, well what did you forget today? Your job is to help your trainees learn. Understanding how memory works will help you help them learn more effectively. 

This article will cover different types of memory, the impact of emotion on memory retention, how language and stories aid learning, the process of neuroplasticity, and creating the right environment and motivation to learn.

When we forget where we left the car keys we still remember how to drive. We now know that memory relies on many regions of the brain and experience can restructure those memories. We also know, due to neuroscience research, that there are two main types of memory, declarative and non-declarative. Declarative is about the ability to recall facts and events, such as London is the capital of England.

Non-declarative memory is about events in your life, and operational skills such as playing the piano. Memory is not a single phenomenon. It involves many components in different regions of the brain and many are linked. These linked threads make up the fabric of memory in all its forms. The brains of the learners in your care have many forms of information storage and each form of storage uses slightly different brain regions.
Another element of memory is emotion, experienced through our fear system and reward system, both of which are vital to decision making. We can tap into our memories, we can analyse the situation we are in and the options we have, but all decisions are emotional. Research has shown that the reward system is key to reinforcing learning and the creation of new habits, whereas fear blocks this.

So when training you have to consider the emotional climate if you want your learners to create and act on their declarative and non-declarative memories.

Memories are collections of information residing as a pattern of activity and structures in the brain. Thinking and planning are systematic transformations of these patterns.

Your brain receives information through your senses that transduce physical energy into data structures in your brain about the discrepancy between the goal and the current state, and execute operations to reduce the difference.

The medium many of us use in training is language. It is a media used by the brain for storing and manipulating information. Working memory, often referred to as your ‘mind’, makes use of a ‘phonological loop’; a silent articulation of words or numbers that persist for a few seconds and can be sensed by the mind’s ear. The loop acts as a ‘slave system’ at the service of a ‘central executive.’

By describing things to ourselves using snatches of language we can temporarily store the results of mental computation or retrieve chunks of data stored as verbal expressions. This is enhanced by engaging the elements already stored in the brain.

That is why the Socratic approach of using questions to build information, which engage what is already stored, is more effective for your learners than a presentation of information.

It is important to recognise that language is serving as a slave of the executive not a medium of thought. Our vast storehouse of knowledge is not couched in the words and sentences in which we learnt the facts.

What did you read in the article before this one? We bet you can give a reasonable answer. Now try to say or write the actual words you read on those pages. Chances are you know what they said but can’t recall a single sentence.

What you remember is the gist of the passages – their content, meaning or sense, not the language itself. Many experiments on human memory have confirmed what we remember over the longer term is the content, not the wording.

Stories are great for learning because they have pattern, engagement, relationships, emotion and meaning. Words just convey those important elements. What is in your brain is a web of propositions, images, motor programmes, strings of sounds connected to one another and similar patterns that were there before. What was there has been changed and added to; this enables a memory that your learners’ brains can store.

The brain filters stimuli according to our experience and expectations, sometimes even altering memories as they are recalled, reproduced and restored in their altered state. Despite imperfections our many memory systems are suited to their original functions of helping us to survive and predict the future.

The main regions involved in learning are, the hippocampus, the amygdala (fear system), ventral striatum (reward system) and neocortex. The hippocampus deals with how to get around the environment, and remembering where we are. It is also involved in storing memories. The neocortex occupies three quarters of the brain and generalises factual information storing it in a distributive way.

The Greeks and Romans used a trick called memory palaces to remember a large complex body of information. This involves our brain’s tendency to navigate complex special environments where the landmarks help us get through a path that we are trying to learn.

Sometimes when involved in training we run into beliefs that are not true and those remembered beliefs block learning of genuine information. The unblocking process is to consider the opposite. We have run into this type of belief during various interpersonal skills training.

For example, we had a very intelligent, knowledgeable man in his mid-forties who was always silent in meetings. He was great on the job, he had followers, was an effective manager but in formal meetings – silence. Why? His mother had told him it was rude to interrupt or to disagree. That memory had some validity and dictated his behaviour, but it had to be challenged – by him.

It is amazing how advanced the Greeks were in recognising that ideas build. In around 350 BC Aristotle proposed the idea that as we recall an experience, one thought has another that succeeds it in a regular order.

In 1908, William James proposed the law of neural habit, the idea that a pattern of brain activity leads to another like wearing a footpath in the brain. In 1949, Donald Hebb, a founder of neuroscience, proposed cell assembly as a mechanism for memory storage, the idea that neurons that have fired together because of an experience are more likely to activate together during recall of similar experience. That is, ‘cells that fire together, wire together.’

The cornerstone of modern ideas on learning is neuroplasticity. That is that neural change underlies learning, by creating more connections between neurons and increasing the speed at which electrical signals in the brain are transferred.

Research has shown new synapses can form (as a result of glutamate release) and create connections between neurons over a period of two hours of repetition, either by doing an activity, thinking about doing it, or giving and receiving feedback on what has been done. 

The greater the repetition, the thicker the myelin sheath that insulates the axon along which signals are transferred and the quicker the speed of transfer. We refer to this as unconscious competence.

Short-term and long-term memory are different, with different properties. Long-term memory separates facts and events from their context and stores them in a more general way. The transfer of short-term memories to long-term system in the neocortex is called memory consolidation and is an aspect of learning. This is a process of transferring information over time, and by repetition, into long-term storage.

It has been shown that emotional arousal following a learning event (positive or negative) influences the strength of the subsequent memory for that event, and the retention of that event. Consolidation requires time between learning sessions. Information that seems to be permanently stored undergoes constant change as memories are reprocessed and consolidated. Memories are more fluid than commonly thought. That is why two four-hour study sessions are more productive than one eight-hour session.

Consolidation requires sleep. Sleep involves changes in the pattern of brain activity. During sleep short-term memories are transferred to long-term memory in the hippocampus, which acts like an indexing system. Sleep also has a restorative or repairing value. A lack of sleep disrupts or derails consolidation of memory. Undisturbed reflection acts in a similar way to sleep.

The phenomenon of priming is one form of learning in which learners can be exposed to information without forming an explicate representation of it. We don’t remember the information but can use it. For example, potential learners given test questions about the material they haven’t covered are ‘primed’ to pay attention to information in a later learning session.

In an effort to remember, the learner may consider a way of thinking about an item of information in an effort to remember it, alternatively the learner may think about the item in a context determined by requirements external to the classroom. So here we have self-driven remembering or environmental driven remembering. It may be difficult to know the main driver for any individual learner.

However, this may to some extent be driven by what has occurred before a learning event through the work environment, and the interaction of the manager with the learner in terms of motivation and disparagement.
We have trained people who are highly motivated to put learning into practice and some whose environment has been manifestly negative towards the content of the learning event. It is within the responsibility of the trainer to explore the drivers and blockers that the learners have and to create a motivational climate.

We have met with the training function distractors. For example, a company employed a professor to train some of its leading graduate trainees. The technology involved was new and complex and was to be applied in the construction of a radically new approach to a product.

The technology had been successfully applied in a very different context. The professor told the young and impressionable graduates that this technology would not work in the intended context. Imagine the impact on the graduates. Members of the research and design divisions knew it would work because they had done it in the laboratory and in prototype tests. But it was secret so only they knew. The professor had no knowledge of the industrial situation and failed in his responsibility to both the company and the trainees.

The core of helping adults learn is declarative and non-declarative memory. We believe it is the trainer’s behaviours, lesson structure and methods that engage the adult learners.

As adults mature they move from a dependent personality toward a self-directed human being, accumulating a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.

Adults’ readiness to learn becomes increasingly oriented to the developmental tasks of their social roles, their time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and accordingly their orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject-centeredness to problem centeredness. The motivation to learn is internal.

In an adult class the learners’ experience counts for as much as the trainer’s knowledge, and the authority is the group.


About the author

Barry Johnson is the non-executive director of Learning Partners. Mandy Geal and Jacqy Munro are directors. Mandy and Jacqy hold a post-graduate certificate in neuroscience. Contact via info@learning


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