Applying neuroscience

Written by Ruth Stuart on 1 April 2014 in Features
Features

Ruth Stuart has some practical tips for using the latest scientific findings in an L&D setting

Neuroscience is a hot topic in our profession at the moment. But how do you really use the findings in practice without bringing a brain scanner into work? Here I’ll outline the tips and techniques for how you can really make use of insights from neuroscience in your organisation.

Accessing information

Interpreting findings from primary neuroscience research can feel a little like wading through treacle. Scientific journals are often difficult to access, and may contain numerous statistical techniques that can be difficult for the untrained eye to interpret. How do you know what’s valid and helpful, or could just as easily be discredited next week?

Thankfully, many researchers are keen to demonstrate the real application of their work. Matthew Lieberman has been a leader in this field through his influential book Social.1 David Rock has also had considerable success through his interpretation of neuroscience research and publication of books such as Your Brain at Work.2 Recent research that we have done at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development3 has also focused on summarising neuroscience findings in a digestible format.

It’s becoming increasingly easy to get access to relevant information.

Fad, fact or neuromyth?

While there are many proponents of neuroscience, there are also many sceptics. Some believe that interest in applying brain science to the workplace is merely a passing fad. Others worry that it’s too easy for ‘neuromyths’ to spread and difficult to know what to believe.

The application of neuroscience to the field of learning and development is new and, unfortunately, misinformation has spread (such as the belief that we only use 10 per cent of our brain, which has now been widely discredited). With this in mind, it is certainly right to take a critical eye and gather different perspectives, just as we would with any new aspect of L&D. Then make up your own mind.

Curious minds

L&D professionals are known for their curiosity about people and the learning process. We are therefore ideally placed to start engaging with this new and exciting field. However, uptake of findings from neuroscience and other areas of behavioural science has been relatively slow in the workplace. The CIPD 2012 Learning and Development Survey report4 found that only approximately 10 per cent of participants were aware of key insights in these emerging fields, let alone actually incorporating them into practice. Instead organisations are still relying on tried-and-tested models of learning analysis, such as the use of Honey and Mumford’s learning styles.

Interestingly, many of these highly respected diagnostic methods are being challenged by neuroscientists. It is clear that there is a gap between the plethora of material on brain and cognition science, and genuine workplace application. There is therefore a real opportunity for the L&D community to use our innate curiosity and take advantage of the insights on offer to plug this gap.

The following ten tips provide a starting point for considering how you could use the findings in practice. Keep in mind that you don’t need to be an expert in neuroscience to apply some of them successfully. A little knowledge and willingness to try something new is all that’s required. Many of the research studies mentioned are described in more detail in the CIPD’s 2014 Fresh Thinking in Learning and Development series.

  • put yourself first! In the drive to constantly deliver for your organisation or client it can be difficult to find the time to focus on your own self-development. But, to fully embrace new ideas and research, you need to focus on yourself first. Be clear with your manager and team that you want to develop your knowledge of, and expertise in, new and emerging insight and set clear goals. You might find that others are keen to be involved too, or that you can negotiate some extra time to develop your knowledge
  • brain plasticity One of the most interesting findings from neuroscience is the idea that our brains are ‘plastic’ and have the ability to change and adapt throughout our lives. This means that learning can be acquired at any time. A famous study found that London taxi drivers’ posterior hippocampus (the area of the brain associated with visual-spatial memory) increased in size depending on their number of years in the job5. This has implications for learner beliefs. For example, just having an awareness of this concept can improve learner self-belief and could be introduced before the learning experience begins
  • time for a run If you suggest going for a run in the middle of a training session, you might be met with dismayed faces. However, research is showing that exercise can actually improve learning retention. This is one area that has definitely gained traction in organisations. However, neuroscientists are suggesting that not all exercise is equal. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise (designed to raise the heart rate) is most effective6. If you organise residential programmes (and have willing participants!), perhaps try incorporating exercise during the day. If your time is more limited, a quick burst of activity can also boost some brain functions
  • gamification The gamification of learning is another hot topic at the moment. Proponents suggest that the use of games can significantly increase learning transfer. Neuroscientists have found that this may be related to the way in which games present uncertain rewards7. This uncertainty stimulates the reward centre of the brain and can be helpful in encouraging learning. Connections have also been made between the use of computer games and brain plasticity. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to invest significant amounts in developing bespoke digital gaming. It’s more an opportunity to consider whether you could take the principles associated with gaming, such as uncertain rewards, and translate them to the learning environment
  • the value of a good night’s sleep It’s common sense that a good night’s sleep can be effective in keeping us alert and awake the following day. However, neuroscience is starting to demonstrate that getting regular and good-quality sleep is critical for the brain to learn efficiently8. Connecting your learning strategy to the wider organisational health and wellbeing strategy is therefore vital in ensuring that learners are well rested and ready to learn. Sleep can also help retain learning from the previous day, so logistics such as location and start time can have a significant impact
  • idea incubation Have you ever considered why it is that, after spending hours of searching for your lost keys, you suddenly remember the mystery location hours after you had stopped looking? Research into the processes associated with innovation suggests that this could be due to idea incubation9. Effectively, our unconscious mind mulls over the problem until it reaches a solution, and the ‘Eureka’ moment occurs. Often this process can be helped along by switching one’s attention to something else, or by engaging with an activity that requires an element of concentration (such as juggling). This idea could be incorporated into a training environment, to encourage participants to analyse the scenarios in which their best ideas or solutions occur
  • creativity in numbers Research into the cognitive processes associated with innovation and creativity has identified the circumstances that best promote idea generation and have found demonstrable value in group working10. Often, if individuals attempt to come up with new ideas by themselves, they will fixate on a few immediately obvious ones. However, when doing the same in a group scenario, they are able to avoid this problem and are subsequently able to access a much broader range of possible ideas and solutions. In the workplace, these findings can be translated into team-building activities. They can also be worth considering when approaching workplace design or during organisational restructures
  • building numeracy Recent research has shown that 78 per cent of adults have numeracy skills below the equivalent of Level 2 (GCSE A*-C)11, and yet these skills are critical to a huge variety of roles in nearly every organisation. Neuroscientists have found that a critical aspect of mathematical development is ‘number sense’, which is associated with a particular region of the brain. While this is often developed at primary school, problems can occur that present themselves later in life. Having an awareness of how basic skills are developed can be effective in helping organisations understand the challenges learners face. This will help you to put in place more effective interventions
  • once upon a time... Story telling has been hailed as an effective tool in leadership, communication and engagement. Neuroscientists are now suggesting that it can also help support the creative process. A study has demonstrated that the process of developing a story from a series of unrelated words can increase the brain activity associated with creativity12. Proponents suggest that this technique can actually increase creative ability over a long-term period. If you’re seeking to foster greater innovation in your organisation, this is one very simple, free idea
  • neurofeedback If you want to engage much more directly with neuroscience in your organisation, you might want to look into neurofeedback. New technology can now be used by learners to monitor their own brain activity. Experiments in education with music students have shown that users are able to increase their performance by actively trying to influence their own neural signals13. The idea of using such techniques in organisations might seem like a radical idea, and practically impossible, but, if you have a passion for the topic and a willing organisation, you could be a pioneer in this field. Perhaps in ten years’ time, the use of such techniques will be commonplace!

Landing change

As with any new technique or intervention, one of the common challenges to successful implementation is getting buy-in from the organisation. How can you persuade the powers-that-be to try something new? One option could be to start to trickle in new ideas and techniques associated with neuroscience, and test whether you can see tangible business benefits. Another opportunity is to start with the leadership team. Build their excitement by increasing their awareness of neuroscience, and translate it to their own development. Find out who already has an interest in the topic and ask them to sponsor a new programme.

From there, you can start to develop a clear business case for the rest of the organisation. A good place to start is by considering the effectiveness of your current learning interventions by analysing the evidence on which they are based. If you can demonstrate that introducing changes can lead to greater learning transfer and improved performance, gaining traction will be much easier.

You might also wish to work with a partner specialising in the application of neuroscience to workplace learning, to increase your capability.

What’s next?

If this article has sparked your interest in the topic, why not find out more? The concepts and techniques I’ve described are just the tip of a very large iceberg. The implications of neuroscience are now being considered across all aspects of L&D, along with other disciplines such as reward and employee relations.

It is worth keeping in mind that findings from neuroscience do not provide all of the answers for challenges in L&D. Instead, they offer specific insight into how the brain functions that can be helpful for understanding how and why people learn, behave and act. Not everything will be applicable to your organisation; your skill is in selecting the relevant information and perhaps lighting up tried and tested methods with new sparks of knowledge.

A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request. 

About the author

Ruth Stuart is research adviser, L&D, at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. She can be contacted via www.cipd.co.uk/neuroscience

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