Improve learning by brain optimisation

Natalia Ramsden looks at neuroscience research and provides her view of the best science that supports improved brain function and learning 

Learning at work is still based on competency and skill acquisition and sometimes behaviour change. It seems that despite our now relatively detailed understanding of how we learn, professional development in organisations overlooks the neuroscience. There may be some very real practical limitations; competency framework models are easy to implement and leadership development programmes easy to scale but there is a massive opportunity to embed the latest innovations in brain science into the training world. Ongoing research into cognitive decline has demonstrated just how much brain optimisation techniques can make a difference and they could make a huge impact to how we learn. There is an ever-expanding list of brain optimisation techniques that promise to evolve the way we learn. 
Until recently (on the scientific timeline) the accepted view was that the brain was static and that post-early-adulthood, when much development had already occurred, the brain did not change except for the decay that occurs as part of the natural aging process. In the early 1950’s scientists began talking about “neuroplasticity” and it has been an area that has captured interest ever since. In 2007 Norman Doidge wrote The Brain that Changes Itself, and three years later John B Arden published Rewire Your Brain not to mention the massive body of academic research papers detailing how the brain changes. Sharon Maguire’s black cab study1 was a wonderful expose on how the brain responds to its environment with the experimental group showing larger hippocampi and grey matter volume difference as a result of studying the numerous London streets. Seemingly irrelevant to the professional world, its significance is paramount when devising learning solutions in the workplace as we move away from archaic learning practices to adopt cutting edge innovations that have a great impact and boast a greater return in investment. 
In the early 1950’s scientists began talking about “neuroplasticity” and it has been an area that has captured interest ever since
Neurofeedback is one of these innovations2 developed by Simon Hanslmayr and his team. It is an application where individuals are connected to a system and electrodes placed across the skull, it allows stimulation of brain waves across different parts of the brain and has been linked to an increase in cognitive performance. Specifically, the researchers found that through this brain wave training method they were able to increase upper alpha waves, a pattern of waves associated with an increased the ability to absorb new information, improve focus and enhance creativity. It isn’t difficult to see how this could be of huge benefit to a working professional in a learning context especially when there are little to no documented long term negative side effects. A growing number of executives and professional athletes are reporting positive experiences with neurofeedback and incorporating this into their professional development plans. 
Another area gaining a lot of attention are nootropics. Nootropics are natural or synthetic supplements that improve cognitive function including memory, mental alertness, and concentration. Again, an area that is growing rapidly, there is a need to be discerning about the various products available and what they claim to do, but when appropriately chosen there are some very positive results that open up huge opportunities for enhancing memory, learning and cognitive performance more broadly. One such supplement is Alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine (Alpha GPC). Alpha GPC is a natural choline compound found in the brain and has been the subject of research for it potential as one of many treatments of Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia. Beyond its rehabilitation benefits, it shows potential in improving mental and physical performance3. It is incredible to think what a small addition to an executive’s daily supplements could do for learning in the short term and memory preservation over the long term. Investigations into substances like Alpha GPC are ongoing and much analysis is still needed to conclude just how beneficial it is. 
Neuroplasticity has driven a paradigm shift challenging so much about what we once thought about the brain and how it learns and remembers. Healthcare, rehabilitation services and medicine are evolving in response to our growing awareness of how the brain changes. There is an opportunity for the working world to leverage scientific discoveries meaning that organisations can afford to be innovative in their development solutions to target a new way of learning. 
1. Maguire, E. A., Woollett, K., Spiers, H. (2005). London taxi drivers and bus drivers: a structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis. Hippocampus, 16(12)
2. Hanslmayr, S., Sauseng, P., Doppelmayr, M., Schabus, M., & Klimesch, W. (2005) Increasing Individual Upper Alpha Power by Neurofeedback Improves Cognitive Performance in Human Subjects. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 30(1)
3. Parker, A.G., Byars, A., Purpura, M., & Jager, R. (2015). The effects of alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine, caffeine or placebo on markers of mood, cognitive function, power, speed and agility. Journal of the International Society of Sport Nutrition, 12. 
Natalia Ramsden is the founder of SOFOS Associates

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