Neuroscience research has identified four key principles that when attended to increase retention of new learning resulting in better memory. This is significant for individuals and organizations where learning is critical to success, growth, and development.
The four principles are Attention, Generation, Emotion and Spacing.
1. Twenty minutes! Our brains have a limit of roughly 20 minutes to focus upon and absorb new material before needing a refresher. This flies in the face of everything we’ve learned and experienced in schools, colleges, learning seminars and corporate retreats. Packing large amounts of data into day-long sessions with minimal breaks all in the name of efficiency and cost savings, works against long term memory retention. Whatever is learned will not stick. To reiterate, the brain loses focus and attention must be recaptured ever 20 minutes.
2. Multitasking is the enemy of learning. Period. The scientific data is jarringly at odds with conventional wisdom and our daily behavior. Multitasking involves a rapid switching in our brains between two or more actions. Attempting to do multiple things while simultaneously taking in new material divides attention into parallel tasks, resulting in attention loss, which negatively affects our ability to retrieve critical information.
Perhaps the most painful lesson regarding multitasking is that those who think they are good at it consistently score the lowest when tested. Multitasking is one area where practice does not make perfect, it makes things worse. People who spend time multitasking across various media, such as computers, tablets, phones, etc., train their brains to struggle and will have a difficult time focusing and embedding new learning.
To learn well and deeply we must concentrate and focus.
Generation is the act of creating and sharing with others your connections to new ideas. What matters most is the generative act itself, the talking about and the verbal reflecting upon your ideas and what you’ve learned - not whether the ideas themselves are brilliant. Telling stories that connect new information with others creates a rich network of associations that enhance brain activity in areas involved in memory. This is generation in action building neural memories and creating insight.
Thinking about oneself in the context of social, work, cultural, historical or family environments also makes a difference in memory retention. As social animals we are wired to thrive in community and the brain networks activated in social situations link easily to new content. This makes group learning powerful.
If you want to learn something, teach it, an obvious statement for most of us. Thinking about how you will share something with others and then doing so enhances your memory. The act of preparing to teach another requires our brains to learn the material differently, again deepening retention. Learning is deepened through one to one coaching and mentoring and in small group sessions with rotating “teaching” responsibilities.
The “aha” moment when our unconscious solves a problem or devises a solution is the most valuable outcome of generation. Insights often occur when we are walking in the woods, taking a shower, talking to a friend, or falling asleep. Insights are self-generated neural connections, the result of wide-scale reorganization of the elements of a problem into a new and previously not obvious solution. Insights can be energizing and may move us to mobilize energy for action.
Aha moments activate the amygdala, that part of the brain that reacts to emotionally arousing stimuli. This emotional arousal promotes long-term retention, critical to making learning stick.
Few of us however, have the luxury of waiting for insight to strike. We need to structure and create good process to foster such outcomes. Gather people in small groups (or one to one), and raise awareness of what challenges and opportunities are present. Have them describe the current situation, the “what is.” Ask . . . How they are now and How they have been thinking about the existing situation. Ask . . . What do they think is possible, What ideas do they have, and What solutions come to mind? Facilitate a rich discussion then break for quiet time for reflection. Reflective time will cause generation and insight.
Emotions, positive and negative, play a huge role in learning and memory. The hippocampus region in our brains activates neural circuitry upon receiving signals triggered during high emotional arousal. Emotions both positive and negative have deep and long lasting impact on our memories but not to equal degrees.
Those signals when tied to positive events such as falling in love, getting a new job, being accepted to a special program, team, or college, or the birth of a child, deepen that memory and enable crystal clear recall. Likewise memories of the loss of a family member, or of a tragic event like September 11, 2011, or, for those of my generation, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy are equally embedded.
Positive emotions are most important as they support creative thinking, expand perception, and lead to insight, all of which are vital for learning. This is true for individuals and teams and it underlines the importance of creating affirmative workplace cultures.
Too much negative emotion upends the equation. It can cause over arousal of the hippocampus which triggers a mental melt-down, interfering with attention and inhibiting learning. Strong negative emotions distract and cause us to lose focus, rendering us unable to take in and assimilate content.
Emotions, positive and negative play an important role in learning, retention, and memory. Positive workplace environments will enhance overall creativity among individuals and teams. The good news is that those environments are ours to create.
Of the four learning principles Spacing is the most counter-intuitive and likely the most difficult to incorporate in workplace culture. Stated simply, having time, usually a day or more in between learning sessions, is scientifically shown to deepen memory and improve retention and learning.
Here’s the short of it. The amount of time between initial and subsequent learning is critical. Memories are not like documents that we keep in computers or file folders. We don’t just make them once and store them, instead we grow them. For humans to learn neural connections have to change and this takes time. Once neural changes have occurred, i.e. we’ve learned something new or have had an insight, our brains embed and deepen the learning by talking about, by practicing and by using, that information. This process, a bit like mental digestion, strengthens, alters, and deepens neural interconnectivity and learning.
And for new learning to stick and stay with us, time in between matters with sleep the most important component. The best strategy when introducing new learning is to spread it over a few days. The more challenging the material, the more important a good night’s sleep. Sleep works wonders for long-term retention as it provides optimal conditions for processes that integrate newly encoded memories into long term storage. Sleep transforms new memories into stable ones while simultaneously eliminating irrelevant information.
Allowing for time in between learning sessions, especially time involving sleep, runs against the high tempo work pace that we are addicted to. The science however is clear. Allowing our brains to process, to “chew” on new information, and returning to that material on the order of days, weeks, months promotes greater learning.
There is a font of research regarding optimal spacing time between learning sessions, but what’s most important is to acknowledge that so many of our assumptions about learning are incorrect. For humans to learn neural connections have to change, this takes time and sleep makes it happen most effectively.
Recent neuroscience research has turned previously held assumptions about our brains upside down. Neuroplasticity, or our brains ability to learn, adapt, change, and morph into old age has changed how we think about learning and human development. We understand the power of emotions in decision-making. We know that the emotional wiring in our brains forged when our ancestors lived in caves often trumps our 21st Century rational minds. We understand that we are acutely attuned to threats and that our threat response can both save our lives and get us in big trouble. Most importantly, we know how very little we truly understand about the big processing unit that sits atop our necks.
The AGES model is a window into how we learn, into how we build and retain knowledge and create memories. Modern life asks us to keep pace with impossibly complex technology and digest incredulous amounts of information. Yet we still operate with the same physical structure and equipment as our ancestors.
To summarize, focus, pay exquisite attention, talk to others about what you’re learning, create positive cultures and affirmative learning environments, tap into positive emotions, and by all means, get some sleep. Happy learning.
This paper is adapted from the NeuroLeadership Journal (Volume 5, August 2014).
Josh Davis – NeuroLeadership Institute
Maite Balda – Columbia University, Department of Psychology
David Rock – NeuroLeadership Institute
Paul McGinnis – NeuroLeadership Institute
Lila Davachi – New York University, Center for Neural Science