Neuroscience for learning – don’t believe the neuro-hype

Guess how many scientific articles have already been cited this year with the word ‘Neuroscience’ in them?

You can satisfy your curiosity immediately by skipping to the end of this post, or you can keep your dopamine levels up by hanging on to that sense of curiosity a little bit longer.

There’s a vast amount of information available right now about neuroscience in the world of learning and training with new articles on the subject published every day. As trainers, coaches and development specialists, we’re all excited by how it might apply to us, but differentiating the ‘neuromyths’ and ‘neuro-hype’ from valuable information can be hard.

You may well have been to a session marketed as ‘neuroscience’ which has turned out to be disappointingly similar to something you’ve seen before but with brain-related words and pictures thrown in. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that – brains seem to get us all excited, and if you’ve never thought about the brain’s role in learning, that’s probably useful. But it’s not helpful when poor science is given a platform and used to validate what we do regardless of whether there’s any real evidence.

Recently I was at a session about ‘the neuroscience of values and culture at work’ which turned out to be based on dodgy facts. The well-meaning facilitators had discovered some ‘evidence’ for the neuroscience underpinning the contentious Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test. The data from an MBTI evangelist who had recorded some of his clients’ brain activity had, unsurprisingly, found what he was looking for. There was no scientific rigour or design in his ‘experiments’ and the ‘researcher’ had sought to prove rather than disprove his own hypotheses, as well as cherry-picking the data. The facilitators were effectively hoodwinked by this ‘researcher’ into thinking this looked like real science and real evidence.

How to use neuroscience

As trainers, facilitators, coaches we don’t need to be neuroscientists ourselves because mostly we’re already professionals and good at what we do. But we need to be able to identify what makes good science and what doesn’t, so we can use good evidence-based research to validate our practice. We don’t need to keep up with every last tiny development in neuroscience, but it does help us when we have a good understanding of the neuroscience mechanisms and important concepts of learning such as motivation, attention and memory.  This helps us design and develop practical learning solutions that work with the ‘groove of the brain’.

Check out the evidence when you come across it – look for possible disproofs of theories as well as proofs. Be aware of your own cognitive biases to look for supporting evidence and resist them. Remember that neuroscience is usually research done at the granular level – it’s rarely directly applicable in the real world. Don’t expect to find single ‘magic bullets’ that change everything.

There are valuable evidence-based concepts, models, and theories that can shape our methodologies and way of looking at learning – so don’t throw the baby out with the bath water and dismiss everything you hear as neuro-hype. Instead, learn to recognise good science, get to know the models that are validated and get interested in what we know about how brains work because you’ll get better results with your learners and for your organisations.

Neuroscience articles

Here’s the answer to the question at the beginning – can you feel that dopamine washing around your brain as your curiosity is about to be satisfied? According to Pubmed, which lists most scientific publications, there had already been 13,887 articles cited by 7th April 2017.

Learn more – join Stella’s workshop

Join a practical exploration of some of the neuroscience of learning that you can use to inform what you do. If you’ve already read Stella Collins’ book Neuroscience for Learning and Development then you’ll find it a great way to bring it to life and if you haven’t read it, here’s a great way to start your journey.

Neuroscience for Learning and Development Masterclass.

Friday 12th May, 9am-3pm at Henshall Centre.

Call 0118 983 6339 for more information.