Brains: Our Learning Tool in Action

Trainer-teacher-learners seem to explore almost every aspect of the learning process imaginable. And yet there’s a basic tool we all too often overlook: the brain itself. Which is a terribly embarrassing oversight since we are, without it, literally nothing.

Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself offers a great starting place for those of us interested in plugging that gap in our knowledge. It is firmly rooted in the physiological basics of how brains learn and adapt—literally changing, as our experiences change, through the process known as neuroplasticity.

Those willing to take the time to read the entire book will follow Doidge’s explorations documenting how a variety of terribly challenged people have overcome tremendous physical and psychological disabilities far beyond the day-to-day issues confronted in our training-teaching-learning efforts. There are, for example, case studies showing nearly miraculous recoveries by a woman who felt as if she were perpetually falling, a man with severe stroke-induced impediments, a woman who had been written off as “retarded,” and a woman who literally grew up with half a brain.

Trainer-teacher-learners with less time to spare can move right to the heart of Doidge’s writings on the physiology of learning by diving into the third chapter, “Redesigning the Brain”—a fascinating and game-changing exploration of the work on neuroplasticity completed by University of California, San Francisco professor emeritus Michael Merzenich.

In one particularly dense yet well-synthesized passage, Doidge helps us understand how neuroplasticity and learning come together in the work that trainer-teacher-learners facilitate: “…Merzenich invoked the ideas of Donald O. Hebb, a Canadian behavioral psychologist who had worked with [Wilder] Penfield. In 1949 Hebb proposed that learning linked neurons in new ways. He proposed that when two neurons fire at the same time repeatedly (or when one fires, causing another to fire), chemical changes occur in both, so that the two tend to connect more strongly. Hebb’s concept—actually proposed by Freud sixty years before—was neatly summarized by neuroscientist Carla Shatz: Neurons that fire together wire together” (p. 63)—which, to bring this all home, simply means that when neurons fire together during the learning process, our brain creates connections that turn ephemeral potential learning experiences into the long-term behavioral changes that effective learning is meant to produce.

The converse, Doidge notes, is also true: “…Neurons that fire apart wire apart—or neurons out of sync fail to link” (p. 64).

Understanding the basics of neuroplasticity helps us understand the challenges our learners face. There are, for example, times in our lives—early childhood being one that is easily and commonly recognized—when learning appears to be easier for us: “Language development…has a critical period that begins in infancy and ends between eight years and puberty. After this critical period closes, a person’s ability to learn a second language without an accent is limited. In fact, second languages learned after the critical period are not processed in the same part of the brain as is the native tongue,” Doidge notes (p. 52). But this is far from an excuse for those who believe they simply are too old to learn new tricks—or more substantial lessons; the more we and our learners remain open to new experiences, the easier it is for us, physiologically, to maintain our brain’s plasticity—which translates into an ability to continue learning.

“Merzenich thinks our neglect of intensive learning as we age leads the systems in the brain that modulate, regulate, and control plasticity to waste away,” Doidge writes. “In response he has developed brain exercise for age-related cognitive decline—the common decline of memory, thinking and, processing speed” and his efforts are producing noteworthy results (p. 85).

The conclusions for those of us involved in workplace learning and performance or any other educational endeavor are obvious. If we want to help our learners, we have to make them aware of what it takes to expedite learning. And in a wonderfully circular way, we have the documentary proof here that the more we continue to learn, the easier the learning process remains. Which is great news in a world where the need for learning is continual and those who either are unwilling or unable to continue learning are at a distinct and potentially life- and career-threatening disadvantage.

“Just doing the dances you learned years ago won’t help your brain’s motor cortex stay in shape,” Doidge suggests. “To keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus. That is what will allow you to both lay down new memories and have a system that can easily access and preserve the older ones” (p. 88).

“Plasticity,” he assures us, “ is a normal phenomenon, and brain maps are constantly changing” (p. 61). It’s clear that one of our many roles as trainer-teacher-learners is to do all we can to make learners aware of this situation so they take advantage of the possibilities it offers.

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