Five Brain Facts that Influence How People Learn

by Ben Nesvig | Marketing Manager at Dashe & Thompson

If you want to create powerful learning experiences, it's very helpful to get an understanding of how the brain works. While technology changes at an incredible rate, the brain evolves slowly. The following "brain facts" will help provide a more thorough understanding of the mysterious muscle that is the brain.

1. The unconscious mind rules the conscious mind

There is an experiment that shows what happens when the conscious and unconscious battle it out. While seated in a chair, extend your dominant leg and make small clockwise circles with the foot. While continuing to perform this motion, with your dominant hand, draw the number 6 in the air with your index finger.

Quickly try the experiment before reading further. You can send this to your coworkers if they give you confused looks.

What happened when you tried to draw the number 6? For most people, either their foot freezes or reverses directions while the hand is able to complete the task. Why the confusion? Drawing the number 6 is a learned behavior that you can do automatically while making circles with your foot requires conscious thought and energy. This explains why it's often difficult to pick up a new habit or learn a new behavior. Until the behavior can become automatic, it requires a lot more mental energy. The way to make a behavior automatic is through practice and repetition.

When designing learning, it is effective to use repetition to hardwire the answers into the mind of the learner, shifting the conscious act to the unconscious. This can be accomplished by designing multiple questions that test around the same concepts. This satisfies the dueling desire of the brain to stay with the familiar while also seeking out the new.

2. The brain is wired to find patterns

It deosn't mttaer in waht oredr all the ltteers in a wrod are. You can stlil raed it wouthit a porbelm bcuseae the huamn mnid wroks by a porecss of ptatern rceigontion. It dtemrines maennig bfoere porecssnig dteails. Amzanig huh? - John Medina, Brain Rules

The brain is constantly on the hunt for patterns. It's how we make sense of the world around us. We form narratives and look for patterns to make sense of chaos. One way to get attention is to interrupt a pattern. This is why confusion is a powerful way to learn. While the brain looks for patterns, it is also aware of when those patterns are interrupted. Interrupting a pattern is a way to cause confusion and thus one of the first steps toward learning.

What often separates experts from novices is that experts are extremely proficient in recognizing patterns related to their job, though they aren't always aware of this. The task of instructional designers is to uncover the critical patterns experts use and convert that into training for novices.

An example of this comes from the book Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, by Gary Klein. The author tells the story of firefighters responding to the call at a one-story house. The lieutenant leads his hose crew in the house toward the kitchen to spray the fire, but instead of quieting, the fire roared back. They sprayed again with the same results. The lieutenant found this odd so he had his crew take a few steps back. Suddenly, he had a gut feeling that something wasn't right. He ordered his crew out of the house and as soon as they left the building, the floor where they had been standing just moments earlier collapsed.

Although the lieutenant originally thought his desire to exit the house was intuition, later analysis revealed that the fire violated his unconscious pattern matching process. The fire was very quiet, which was unusual, especially for a fire with so much heat. The living room was also hotter than he would have expected for a small kitchen fire. When his unconscious patterns were interrupted, his brain released the stress hormone cortisol, which prompted him and his crew to leave the house, saving their lives.

3. Confusion is good for learning

When possible, the brain will operate on autopilot. This is because although the brain weighs only about 3 pounds, it uses 20 percent of all the body's energy. It would be exhausting to apply conscious thought to all activity you engage in during the course of a day.

In order to really learn something, you need to consciously think about it. A feeling that pushes us to learn is confusion, which is a necessary part of learning. When the brain becomes confused, it receives a hit of dopamine and a sense of bewilderment that forces the brain to pay close attention.

If you ever wonder why courses have a tendency to become an information dump, the desire to make the learning process as smooth as possible has something to do with it. By providing as much information as possible, instructional designers feel that it will keep learners happy by providing everything they need to know. It turns out that confusion is good for the learning process. Obviously this can be taken too far, but some struggle is good for learning.

4. Mirror neurons allow us to learn from others

One of the best ways to learn something is by watching others engage in the process. This explains why when looking to fix any appliance in my house, I visit YouTube instead of Google.

The reason that learning by watching others is effective is because of mirror neurons. When we read a story or see someone go through an experience, our brain activates in the same region as the person undergoing the act. Mirror neurons provide a key to understanding the behavior of others.

"We are exquisitely social creatures. Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions, and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking." - Giacomo Rizzolatti, neurophysiologist

This explains why storytelling is such a powerful way to learn. Through story, we are able to project and simulate ourselves into situations without having to actually experience them.

5. Feelings drive behavior

The feeling brain is the driver of our actions while the thinking brain is more of a backseat observer.

"An emotion consists of a very well-orchestrated set of alterations in the body. Its purpose is to make life more survivable by taking care of a danger or taking advantage of an opportunity." - Antonio Damasio, behavioral neurobiologist

An insight into how the brain handles dessert:

"Have you ever struggled with a decision in which part of you felt one way and another part of you felt another? Perhaps you have experienced the powerful urge to indulge in a decadent slice of the aptly named devil's food cake with sinfully rich cream filling. You were experiencing the competing conflicts of your three-part brain: the physical brain, which loves food because it knows that you can't live without it; the emotional brain, which has learned so many past pleasurable emotions and memories involving cake; and lastly, the rational brain, which has its reasons for resisting but often succumbs to the urges and feelings of the other parts of the mind.

"Even though the rational brain understands the facts of the choice—that too much sugar, fat, and calories are unhealthy— all that matters is that eating cake is the quickest way to feel really good. Feeling trumps logic. Two out of your three brains have overruled your rational one." - Douglas Van Praet, Unconscious Branding.

To create better learning experiences, recognize that people are largely being driven by their emotions. For example, when doing instructor-led training, understand that some people are going to be uncomfortable doing demonstrations in front of the group. To combat the fight or flight emotions, set the proper expectations to quiet the "lizard brain" and start by having people practice in small groups.

This is also a good reminder why understanding learner motivation is critical to the success of a learning initiative. A readiness assessment before training begins can inform you if learners have the proper motivation for the course and if not, what gaps you will need to close.
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