Inside the Learning Brain: Cognitive Neuroscience Will Shape the Future of Corporate Learning Practices

By Van Dam, Nick | Talent Development, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Inside the Learning Brain: Cognitive Neuroscience Will Shape the Future of Corporate Learning Practices


Van Dam, Nick, Talent Development


Sophisticated brain-imaging tools allow researchers to study the brain and revolutionize the understanding of how we learn. As a result, today we know more about learning than ever before, which provides great opportunities for training and development professionals to harness new insights and apply this new knowledge to advance the field.

The emerging field of neuroeducation

This year, I celebrate 25 years in the field of training and development. Over the years, it always has intrigued me that during the same learning experience people learn differently, and learning outcomes for individuals can differ significantly. I have become increasingly more interested in creating training initiatives that embrace and enhance these differences in learning to gain more competitive advantage for individuals and for the organization.

In training and development until now, our field of study has had its roots in pedagogy, didactics, and instructional design focused on individual education and learning. The field of developmental psychology provides us with additional important insights on the integration of the mind and behaviors.

Cognitive neuroscience is the study of mental brain processes and its underlying neural systems. This includes thinking and behavior and is underpinned by the learning brain. Therefore, cognitive neuroscience looks at how the brain learns, stores, and uses the information it acquires. It is through learning that the brain enables us to adapt to our ever-changing environment.

The area of overlap between different disciplines, including cognitive neuroscience and education, has been identified as a transdisciplinary field of study called educational neuroscience or neuroeducation (see figure on page 34). According to The Royal Society February 2011 report, The Brain Waves Module 2: Neuroscience: Implications for Education and Lifelong Learning, this field investigates basic biological processes involved in becoming literate and numerate, and explores learning to learn, cognitive control, flexibility, and motivation, as well as social and emotional experiences.

Our brain and learning

Learning is a physical process in which new knowledge is represented by new brain cell connections. The strength and formation of these connections are facilitated by chemicals in the brain called growth factors.

We now know from neuroscience that the availability of these growth factors can be enhanced. For example, specific exercise routines, optimal sleep structure, and silencing the mind can all enhance the availability of these growth factors. Nature and nurture affect the learning brain. People have different genetic predispositions, but experience continuously shapes our brain structure and modifies behavior.

During the past decade numerous peer-reviewed publications have connected the fields of neuroscience with education and learning. Several studies report structural and functional changes in the brain related to training. A working understanding of how the brain learns and performs is an invaluable new skill. It is essential for the future success of individual employees and their organizations.

What follows are evidence-based results that have an impact on how companies should design and deploy training initiatives.

Increasing knowledge of people is key to innovation

We intuitively understand the knowledge worker's need to acquire new knowledge that optimizes the value of his unique contribution to the business. What is less obvious, but of great importance, is that creative and innovative thinking processes in our brains are built on the foundation of knowledge.

Our brains continuously draw on this knowledge base to create simple solutions to complex problems. Knowledge provides the building blocks for innovation, which is the number one priority for many enterprises.

For this reason alone, employees wanting to be more innovative (and, thereby, increasing the value of their contribution to the business) should explore every opportunity to add to their knowledge base. …

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