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Neuroscience for Online Learning

Neuroscience is the study of the brain…

Or more technically the nervous system including the brain and spinal cord – so it’s like learning how people really work.

In 2016 when neuroscience research became more prolific and accessible, we gained insights that could tell us why certain approaches to learning were working and why other things were simply not effective.

Since then, we’ve had a chance to try out plenty of different approaches, and so here we share with you what works and why. There are great insights from psychology and neuroscience that translate across both face-to-face and online learning environments, but in this video we’ll explore specifically how to use the tips in online sessions.

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Threat vs Reward

Is it a carrot?  Is it a stick?

At the forefront of every good organisation’s thinking is how to maximise the value of its (usually) most costly asset: its people.

One of the most effective ways of maximising our people’s potential is to create an environment which is conducive to optimal performance. Thankfully for us neuroscience sheds a significant amount of light on this issue. Which is what we’ll explore now.

But first, a little neuroscience 101.  The primary role of our brain is to help us navigate our environment; this distinguishes us from plants, for whom the only way is up.

On a very basic level our brain does this by avoiding threats and seeking rewards. While this instinctive orientation is brilliant for finding food and avoiding becoming it, it does generate problems for us in 21st century life.

Firstly, we have an incredibly strong natural response to threat that is instant and long-lasting.

When we were being chased by tigers this was brilliant, in flight or fight mode our brain’s responses cause a rise in heart rate and blood pressure, our pupils dilate to take in as much light as possible, which helps to trigger brain cortisol production (stress hormone) and decrease dopamine (pleasure hormone).  Rest assured you will not be distracted by tempting pleasures whilst running for your life!

Cortisol makes us see things in black or white, yes or no and leads us to over-assess the level of threat in front of us.  From an evolutionary viewpoint, those ancestors that thought “better safe than sorry” presumably lasted a little bit longer.

However, all of this is rather unhelpful as a response to a strongly-worded email from your boss.  Herein lies the issue: our brains respond to social threat in much the same way as they respond to physical threats.

As a result of this perceived threat (even though it’s just an email), the blood vessels to our muscles dilate in preparation for action and blood flows away from our Prefrontal Cortex – the part of our brain which manages planning, complex cognitive behaviour, decision-making and our emotions.  Otherwise known as the rational part of our brain.

If we threaten someone or put them in a threatening work environment (even by just writing an email they respond negatively to), we are literally reducing their capacity to think rationally.  So when you’re upset with someone for being behind on a deadline or being unhelpful in some way, the very email you might send to get them to focus and do better, will probably only make things worse.

Blood moves to this area of the brain when under threat...

Neurologically speaking this should be great news, because surely there is something we can do about it?  We know that our brains are mouldable like plastic, so whenever we find out something about our brains that is not ideal, we can consider ways to respond and encourage our brains to react differently.

Is reward the solution? The effects of reward, although less strong, do put us in a better state of mind for operating in the modern working world.  Reward stimulates parts of the brain that are responsible for optimism, concentration, collaboration and innovation.

However, it is surprising to some that the conventional business understanding of reward i.e. money, is perhaps not as significant for creating a reward state of mind as was once thought.

Research has shown when we are given a choice between money and social connection we are more motivated by social rewards than by monetary ones.  The research suggests this is because our brains experience physical pleasure during socially rewarding experiences.

For instance, having people collaborate with us, perceiving ourselves to have a good reputation, receiving recognition or giving help to someone all trigger a pleasurable reward response.

So by extension, creating an environment which offers rewards and minimises threat does not necessarily mean financial incentivising.  What the research suggests is that we need to create an environment where we each build genuine relationships with one another.

What could you do with this information?  How might you contribute in your office and your team to a working environment where strong relationship-building is the expectation?

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Craving Certainty

Whether you like it or not your brain is full of hidden agendas…

We’ve had the pleasure of a little Neuroscience research recently, let’s give you a quick summary of our work…

Regardless of our philosophical beliefs about free will, neuroscience tells us that our brains are determinist. That is, everything that we do is determined, not by our conscious self making choices, but by our unconscious self, based on all our previous experiences and our natural impulses.

We’ll prepare ourselves for the inevitable barrage of emails on that point.

From producing chemicals that make you want that doughnut to watching another episode on Netflix (when you should be writing that important email), the brain’s inbuilt objectives are often very different from the goals we set ourselves in our most rational and motivated moments.

If we were able to recognise the things our brain naturally wants, we would put ourselves in a better position for understanding our decisions.

One of these innate desires that our brains has is for certainty.

The brain craves certainty in virtually the same way as it craves food, sleep and sex.  You get a kick out of getting information that makes you more certain, and alternatively have a strong threat response to uncertainty about what will happen in the future.

Consider the stress you feel when you show up for a meeting just to find that no one is there.  Your first response might be to check the time, then your emails to see if you got it right, ask if this is the right room, call someone who is meant to be at the meeting…

Throughout the ordeal you will probably be on edge and uncomfortable as your brain scrambles for ways of getting the information it lacks.

In the same way, the first thing people will do when they get to the airport is look for their departure time and gate on the information screens.  This is because your brain is a prediction machine.  It collects patterns from its environment, then it stockpiles these memories and uses them to make predictions.

It does this by transferring the things it has seen before and applying it to an event taking place.  In order to do this the brain draws on data from all of our senses. According to his book The Biology of Belief,  Dr. Bruce Lipton says there are about 40 environmental cues you can consciously pay attention to at any time, but when you include the subconscious – this number is over two-million!

Many accounting and consulting companies charge huge sums to executives in exchange for reassuring information through theories, strategies, data, and projections.  But the future is inherently uncertain and there is no crystal ball (as Brexit has shown us).

From our brain’s perspective, the ability to predict the future well is the difference between life and death and we take this subconsciously to work with us.

Companies need to be aware that uncertainty is unsettling for everyone involved and this can lead to indecisiveness and a loss of focus.

Giving people information is incredibly important for them to feel comfortable in the workplace, but the next step of our research suggests that we can train our minds to resist the effects of uncertainty.  Something we suspected a little while ago.

Watch this space as we’ll be publishing here all of our latest findings as we get to grips with the new insights coming out from the labs of neuroscientists.  You can sign up to our Pow Wow list to be kept informed.

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What is Neuroscience?

Neuroscience1 TotemWhat is neuroscience and what impact could it possibly have on our industry?

It might seem like one of those fad terms as it’s everywhere at the moment, but neuroscience has a lot to offer the discerning L&D professional, people manager and leader.

Neuroscience is the study of the brain – or more technically the nervous system including the brain and spinal cord – so it’s like learning how people really work.  Let’s take a closer look at some of the ways this relatively new science is quite literally changing the way think about work.

Click on the image and magic will happen!






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Understanding Great Feedback

Totem-FeedbackAnd no, great feedback doesn’t come in a sandwich

Most of us have heard the classic idea of the feedback sandwich: Wedging what you really need to say between two compliments.  But why isn’t that helpful?

Is there anything else out there that can show us how to not only give great feedback but also to receive it well too?  Well this little download aims to do just that, we’ve collected an overview of some of the more interesting theories and models on giving and receiving feedback – specifically ones that you can apply in your day-to-day job with your direct reports and as a learning professional.

Click the image below and the magic will happen.


And if you fancy having a little bit of fun with this, we’ve created a little quiz for you to take that will show you your preferred feedback style here.

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