The brain is wider than the sky

Wanna know some stuff about the brain? Ok cool:

  • It’s about 75% water.

  • It weighs 3lbs (that’s right, Ray from Jerry McGuire didn’t fact check) and uses about 25% of your energy supplies.

  • It has mirror neurons. So when you see someone hurt themselves, the same pain area lights up in your brain causing you to flinch.

  • It doesn’t have pain receptors. So if I removed the top of your skull, I could poke at it all day and you wouldn’t feel a thing.

How rocked is your world? Incredible stuff huh, and for learning type people who should know a bit about how the brain works… absolutely useless. Luckily I’m not your only source of facts on the old noodle, for something a bit more practical I suggest you take a run at ‘Brain Rules’ by John Medina. John’s a really clever dude with a knack for explaining complex ideas in a way that numpties like me can understand and – more importantly – use.

John’s book has 12 rules on ‘how the brain works’. Below are my fave’s plus a few humble thoughts on how they can be applied.

Brains don’t store boring things

So next time you’re creating learning, ask yourself:

How will I grab their attention? Our memory of an event is stored in the same places that are initially used to perceive the event. The greater the initial perception, the more places it is stored, and the more likely it will be remembered.

So, your ability to create a kick-arse introduction becomes a critical factor in the effectiveness of your learning (movie directors have three minutes to grab their audience, public speakers have 30 seconds). So make sure it has plenty of punch. We often start by telling the story of why the learner should care – what’s in it for them. More on how we present this later.

How am I going to get them…um…fully aroused? The more attention the brain pays to a given stimulus the more elaborately it will be encoded and retained.

We use stories to create events that are rich with emotion…everyone loves a story. Or create intrinsic alertness by surprising the learner with something unexpected – maybe set them a task that they’re likely to fail, bet that gets them thinking (and storing).

How can I stop them checking out? The brain tends to switch off within 10 minutes unless someone or something grabs it back.

We keep our learning as short and sharp as possible by focusing on what’s really, really, really important. In each 10-minute segment, we introduce one core concept and then spend the next 9 minutes getting the learner doing stuff that embeds it, you can throw in a bit of detail as you go – but think referenced based. We make sure the link between the core concept and the details is super clear. Then we start the next 10 minutes by getting them (um) aroused again (see above).

Brains bloody love what they see

What we see trumps all other senses to the point where it dominates our perception of the world. We think in pictures and as a result are much more likely to remember and learn from a picture than words.

Our brain can’t get enough of colour, orientation and size, and don’t get it started on movement. So if you’re taking it online, think about delivering your message through animations and pictures wherever possible. You don’t need to compete with Stan Lee, simple is great – in fact the more lifelike you get, the more likely you are to distract.

If you’re using PowerPoint, keep them really short and full of pictures not words.

Brains keep it real

What we pay attention to is influence by memory – we use our experiences to predict whether we should pay attention.  So the more we keep it real (realistic and relevant), the more likely the learner is to link it to their own memories, pay attention and remember.

We pepper our learning with real world examples that are embedded in the information and constantly link the learning to meaningful experiences. Using examples makes information more elaborative and encoded and therefore better learned. Don’t forget about relevancy too – it’s important that the learner can say “That could happen to me.” – this helps them to care and remember.

Brains are nosey parkers

We are all born with a deep desire to understand the world. This creates an incessant curiosity to aggressively explore – it’s a natural drive (like hunger or thirst) so encourage it with your learning.

We get the learner to do lots of stuff, we set them challenges and make them…challenging (if the answer is obvious then what’s the point). We put them in situations and get them to make decisions, then we show them the consequences of those. As we’re doing this we introduce the key things they need to know/do/be – no passive learning here.

Right – that’ll do for now, hopefully some of this found a place in your brain. Even if you haven’t learnt anything new, it’s always helpful to back up your approach with a bit of science.  And do yourself a favour and check out John’s book (Brain Rules) – definitely worth a read.

Written by: Hugh Denton

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Categories: Blog | Brain Rules

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