Neurons are the basis of all learning. It is the electrical firings and chemical messages (neurotransmitters) that run between neurons, the neural pathways, which produce our thoughts, feelings and interactions with our world.
Hebb's rule: The neurons that fire together wire together
Named after pioneering Canadian neurologist, Donald O. Hebb – one of the founding fathers of neuroscience, Hebb’s rule states that when two neurons fire together regularly or fire once with significant intensity, their connection is strengthened and they are more likely to fire together in future to the detriment of connections with other neurons.
This action forms the basis of learning.
We learn through repetition and recognition. Repetition creates well developed brain patterns (connections between neurons). Learning to drive a car is often used as a way of explaining learning in terms of moving from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence. That transition from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence is about the building of new neural pathways and the more you practice the easier driving a car becomes until you don't have to think about it when you're doing it.
Some quick facts about neurons
How many neurons make a human brain? Billions fewer than we thought
Turns out we still don't really know. Interesting that the generally accepted number is 100 billion however this article refutes that. And in the video below, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young states we have 200 billion. I think the most important point for learning and development practitioners, is just to appreciate the enormity and complexity of the neurone numbers involved.
How We Learn – Synapses and Neural Pathways
The best explanation I have found about the physicality of how the brain learns comes from Lord Robert Winston, Professor of Science and Society and Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College London:
When we learn, we are rewiring our brains: creating new neural pathways, reinforcing existing pathways and pruning others.
The brains ability to change in response to our experiences, its ability to learn.
The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: Barbara Arrowsmith-Young at TEDxToronto:
How do you want your learners to feel?
Engaged? Enthusiastic? Energised? Confident? Willing to have a go?
When our learners come to our learning and development programs we want them to learn.
This sounds like I’m stating the obvious and I have seen many trainers and facilitators focus on the content too much and assume that the learners are in the right emotional state for learning, they’re ready to go. So they launch head first in to the content via a fairly standard opening eg these are the objectives, this is the agenda, here are the ground rules…now lets get started.
But creating a true learning environment is not as simple as that. People are emotional beings. They lead busy lives and are usually juggling multiple competing priorities.
We want to get to: the learner’s executive brain, their prefrontal cortex
Our emotional brain, the limbic system.
Our emotional brain, the limbic system, is an ancient part of the human brain.
It supports a variety of functions including emotion, behavior, motivation, long-term memory and olfaction.
Some basics about the Limbic system:
To give learning a chance you need to make sure your learners feel safe.
They need to feel that they can admit to what they don’t know, share what they do know (be valued), be able to have their thinking challenged, feel uncomfortable some of the time (without wanting to run away) and know that they can take the risks they need to be able to learn.
Our Lizard Brain
This is the oldest part of the human brain, our most primal brain.
Controls the body’s vital functions eg heart rate, breathing, body temperatuve and balance.
It includes the main structures found in a reptiles brain: the brainstem and the cerebellum.
Our lizard brain protects us from threat and seeks reward - it helps us to decide what is significant at any point in time.
Take care of your learners lizard brain.