A little bit more neuroscience in learning – Part 4

AhaI love to be creative and even though the third paper in the CIPD series, is entitled “Insight and Intuition”, it does a lot to help explain what creativity is about. It looks at how insight leads to ideation and in turn innovation, whilst considering how both skills can boost creativity and problem solving. It also considers what can block creativity and which tools can help. All in all a helpful paper so lets get stuck into the meaty bits…..

So some definitions….. “Insight is about how we come to understand things and intuition is, in essence, about how we think, reflect and act.”

Key points:

  • Apparently bad moods can impede both thinking and insight.
  • There seems to be a correlation between a good mood and creativity (Teresa Amble of Harvard Business School)
  • Before you can “join the dots” to get that “aha” moment, there is a certain amount of expertise you need to have, so you have some dots to join in the first place
  • There are specific ways that you can create the correct conditions for ideation through insight: take mental time out from the problem, be in the right mood, challenge conventional wisdom, do some non-conscious processing of information (thinking-without-thinking), gain a little bit of expertise in the area
  • There may be as many as 4 different types of intuition; expert, social, moral and creative
  • There are no substantial differences between men and women in using intuition, other than in the area of social intuition (where women score better)

Some real nuggets here …. but I always have to think about “so what does this mean?” So the things I will take away from this are:

  • People can learn to use their intuition to fuel their creativity, given the right conditions, which include a positive environment, so when trying to encourage creativity, leaders REALLY need to know this! They need to foster positive environments.
  • Not everyone is intuitive in the same way, so make use of the different ways to be intuitive.
  • Sometimes people need time to not think in order to begin the process of ideation – again in our busy world, leaders need to set some time when we are not so busy so that we get into the right state to be creative.

What do you think about insight, intuition and creativity?

From “Fresh Thinking in L&D Part 3 Insight & Intuition CIPD Feb 2014

Decisions…decisions…decisions…..CIPD research part 3

Decisions There are some days that I find it very easy to make decisions. My brain seems to be in the right gear and it feels quite natural which way I should go. Other days there seems to be a fog of questions and I feel like making a decision is like wading through treacle. Some people also strike me as being very decisive, whilst others tend to do more dithering than deciding. So how can we help others to make decision making, easier? In this series of blogs, I have been looking over the latest research from the CIPD on neuroscience and looking at how I can apply this practically to what I do as a trainer. I have in the past run workshops on decision making, which this, I might add would have been really useful for! In the paper on Cognition, decisions and expertise (1) it discusses two types of thinkers:

  • System 1 – the intuitive type thinkers
  • System 2 – the analytical type thinkers

In reality people flit between the two modes, but the real interest lies in those who are experts in their field. How do they make decisions so quickly? The research suggests that experts do very little thinking, they just recognise familiar patterns. Pennington and Hastie suggest that people create stories. One of their examples looked at jurors and found that they looked at evidence and facts and then filled in the stories with their own assumptions. Interestingly though, Simon and Chase(1973) proposed that it took 10 years to become an expert in anything, whereas Ericsson et al(1993) suggested it took 10,000 hours. There are some things, which can help people to come to decisions more quickly:

  • Use tools such as PESTLE, SWOT and fishbone analysis in your own and group decision making. This will help make decisions more deliberate and thoughtful
  • Do your thinking out loud with a someone. Hearing what you are thinking helps the process.
  • Write things down, so that you can easily reflect on it. This creates a different dynamic in our brains.

1) Fresh thinking in L&D Part 2 of 3 Cognition, decision and expertise CIPD Feb 2014

Some great stuff about the brain for trainers from the CIPD – part 2

IMG_1054Well the plot thickens…….. this gaming lark I mentioned in my last blog….. why it works…….it is all about synaptic plasticity …..so the researchers think!

The brain can keep growing… I knew that snippet from some research done on London cabbies (1) and linguistic experts. The research shows that for London cabbies the posterior hippocampus grows as the cabbies learn more routes. This is a part of the brain associated with visual-spatial memory apparently. As new neural connections are made, the brain grows and changes, hence the term “neuroplasticity”. Previously it was not thought possible that the brain could develop in later life.

Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, is an umbrella term that encompasses both synaptic plasticity and non-synaptic plasticity—it refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behaviour, environment, neural processes, thinking, emotions, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury.

Researchers have particularly been looking at the use of video gaming and the effects on the brain. They seem to think that it could be “a promising method to ‘take the brakes off adult plasticity’ (Bavelier et al 2010)” (2) They are not sure how it works but it has something to do with the uptake of dopamine to the midbrain.

For those of you who do not know, dopamine is the happy hormone that is released when we think we are going to get a reward (or when we are eating chocolate!!!) (3) With the right amount of dopamine, learners are engaged and wanting to participate. Too much dopamine and the learners get a bit giddy and do not really remember much about what they have learned, but love the experience.

So back to what we were talking about …synaptic plasticity….this is the process of changing connection strengths between neutrons, which is also considered the basis of learning (Shohamy and Adcock 2010) (2). Video games are thought to be such an immersive activity and hence they heighten learning by stimulating the reward centres of the brain.

So my question, as always is “So what?”. Let me put into a nutshell, what I think we need to do, to incorporate some of this brain stuff into the learning experiences we design and deliver:

  • Find out what the learners want to get out of it – their reward for attending!
  • Make the experience immersive and involve the learners, but make sure they are not over stimulated!
  • Add a competitive element to the learning, with the rewards being uncertain
  • Add some games – be child-like but not childish
  • Make your learners aware that learning does not need to diminish with age


  1. From steady state to ready state CIPD Sept 2012
  2. Fresh thinking in L&D Part 1 of 3 Neuroscience and learning
  3. “Your Brain at Work” David Rock

Some great stuff about the brain for trainers from the CIPD – part 1

IMG_1051Everyone is talking about it…. neuroscience….and if you are not why not? Does it seem like the latest in a long line of fads? Or just a bit too geeky? I am never afraid of being labelled an “anorak”and so will admit that I have been reading the CIPD’s papers on Neuroscience (references at the end) to see what useful stuff I can use …. and share….

One comment that stood out for me and this may seem like I am about to contradict myself here… is from Stella Collins (my colleague in all things brain friendly):

“If you’ve done something and it really works, you’ve implemented some kind of piece of learning, piece of training, you’ve helped people in some way and it works and you can’t find the piece of neuroscience that backs it up, that might not matter. I don’t think everything has to be backed up by neuroscience because they just may not have discovered it yet.”(1)

As a pragmatist, I love stuff that works and science that backs up stuff that works for me, so I can tell others why they should do it!

My most recent venture has been the Learning Loop, a game for training trainers, whatever their experience. It has been going down a storm and participants have been really engaged with the whole format. It takes the focus away from me as a facilitator and focusses on what the learners already know, building upon it and sharing with others. So why does this work so well?

“Research at Bristol University confirmed children’s preference for uncertain reward in a learning task and, in a study with adults, demonstrated how it increased the emotional response to learning (Howard-Jones and Demetriou 2009).” (2)

During the game, the participants seem sooooo excited about winning up to 5 wooden beads for answering a question….. it is down to me how many beads they are awarded, depending on how full (in my opinion) an answer they give. Other teams are allowed to “steal” extra points and they do so with much enthusiasm. I thought it would work, but now there is research, that shows the use of uncertain rewards can increase the emotional response it helps me to understand why.

I have known (and observed) for a long time that competition in training works well and adds an element of fun as well as focus, but it is great to hear that there is research that backs up what for a long tine has been for me “just a feeling”. Which brings me back to Stella’s point …. if it works… keep using it……

  1. Neuroscience in Action CIPD Nov 2014
  2. Fresh Thinking in L&D Part 1 of 3 Neuroscience and Learning Feb 2014

Visuals in Learning

BFLGffJohn Medina, in his 10 Brain Rules states “Vision trumps all other senses” and he quotes studies that show that recognition doubles for a picture compared with text.

So why does PowerPoint take such a prominent position in training, especially slides, which contain predominantly words? Too many times trainers use the PowerPoint slides not as a visual aid, but as a prompt for their presentations.

Moving away from a presentation style and making learning more interactive, allows us to use visuals much more to enhance the learning experience. By using activities and making training learner-centred as in accelerated learning sessions, we make it more memorable.

As a starting point, we can add relevant pictures to the PowerPoint slides – sometimes using quirky and humorous pictures can make the learning stand out more and make it stick. A PowerPoint slide presentation, though very portable and flexible, is fleeting. The slide appears and then the next one comes along. They also only cover one part of one wall. To make your training room look appealing , inviting and exciting, using flip charts and posters on the wall can provide an extra dimension to the learning.



Because we are drawn to pictures, even whilst doing other activities, we will take in what is on the walls.  We can use part of the wall space by means of an introduction as in the photo to the right. We can also use the walls during the initial coffee time to get people to write down what they would like to get out of the session.

At the last Brain Friendly Learning Group in Leeds, I ran a session called “Flipchart Frenzy” where we spent two hours learning how to:

  • Draw a simple cartoon character
  • Use facial expressions on a simple face to convey emotion
  • Draw some simple frames for flipcharts
  • Draw some simple but useful symbols
  • Develop their own simple font
  • Put it all together to make a visual out of a well used learning model

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uYzHCfhSHrk]
The flip chart below shows the feedback from the session. (WWW stands for “what went well” and EBI stands for “Even Better IF”)




3 Tools to boost the EI of your learners at the BFLG

IMG_0079What a pleasure it was to have Larry Reynolds at the Brain Friendly Learning Group on Friday in Leeds. The title of his learning session was “3 tools to boost the emotional intelligence of your learners”. I was not entirely sure what to expect, but we were expertly led by Larry to firstly explore the #microskills involved in storytelling.

IMG_2745 The received wisdom in training is to firstly outline general principles and then drill down into the skills, which will underpin these. Larry challenged us to start with microskills and as we struggled to define these, we began a journey cleverly crafted and expertly facilitated.

Asking us 6 questions about a challenging time in our lives helped us to frame the story and allow us to share this story in a focussed, yet authentic way with a partner.

David Marsh from Blue Water Partnership bravely shared his challenging story with the group and we were invited to give him #feedback on his performance. The feedback was the second tool, which then carefully adjusted the microskills he had acquired to improve his performance in the future. Using the E2C2 feedback framework adjusted our feedback skills.

IMG_2755The final tool we discussed was around creating #habits. I often feel that we are like memory foam and no matter how compelling the need to change our behaviour, met with some resistance, we often spring back to the familiar. So this final part of the session saw us discuss how we ensure that the new learning becomes a habit:

  • Declaration – telling others what you will do or making an action plan helps to draw a line in the sand and introduce a new habit
  • Prompt – this can be done in many ways; a give away, peers, line manager – all help to imbed the learning and make it a habit
  • Repetition – repeating something can help put it into long term memory, repeating something can help put it into long term memory, repeating…….ok I will stop now….

UIMG_2752nfortunately the squirrel of destiny nibbled away at the nuts of time and this fantastic session by Larry came to an end….. thanks Larry it was fab!

After a short break we moved on to the Learning Clinic, where Teresa, Peter and David shared their tough L&D problems with the experts in the room and came away with a flipchart each full of solutions!

Carry on the conversation in the Brain Friendly Learning Linkedin group

If you would like to be part of a vibrant and varied group of L&D professionals in Leeds, where you can learn and get your tough problems solved, then come along to the next Brain Friendly Learning Group meeting on the 23rd of October


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