Shift happens. That’s what the neuroscientists are saying. The nature versus nurture debate seems a little simplistic these days. The more we know about the brain (that inimitable control centre forever envied by Apple and Google), the more the known unknowns. Learning raises more questions. Which is great for each of us because our learning never stops. How can understanding how your brain works help you learn better?

I learned something today. So did you. And neither of us noticed. We change imperceptibly every day we experience the world.Heraclitus

Capturing your important insights and understanding to inform your actions takes a more conscious effort. An ‘aha’ moment does not mean experience. It can disappear as quickly as your dreams upon waking.

Scientists used to think that we couldn’t create new neurons after we were born. They have discovered that new neurons can develop when we exercise. Consistent physical activity helps build our neural pathways, so it’s an aid to learning. Sleep contributes to the brain recharging figuratively speaking. Eating the right foods in moderation gives us the energy we need. We know these things intuitively and the science is now there to back it up.

PinballOur brains work in a complex interplay between being focused and diffuse when we learn something new. Scientists at the University of California use the metaphor of a pinball machine to explain.

The ball (what we are trying to learn or the problem we are exploring) bounces around only a small part of the pinball machine (our brain) in a tightly knit pattern. We are focusing our attention on something very specific.

The ball pings around more randomly over a wider area of the machine when we are trying to make sense of something. We are tapping into the other memory banks and creative parts of our brain. We piece them together to make meaning in our current context.

3 implications for your learning

  • Give focused attention to what you want to learn or a problem to resolve in short bursts. Rest by doing something else briefly and then return to it. It’s like when you rack your brains to answer a crossword clue but it just won’t come. You give it up for a while before returning and you get it in an instant.
  • Step back to look at the context and wider picture to see where your learning fits in. Involve other people if you struggle to make sense of things. Everyone’s brain is unique and multiple different perspectives can make shifts happen. There is also increasing scientific evidence that the female brain is wired differently from the male one with implications for team effectiveness.
  • Once you have given something proper focused attention and understood it well, practice and repeat consistently over several months. Short and often rather than cramming in one go. That way you embed your learning and it becomes a habit, something you can do without thinking like how you got to work this morning.

Eat, sleep and play if you want to build and sustain your learning capability!