Bruce Wexler’s Brain and Culture, Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change, like Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself, literally opens our minds. A highly detailed research-based view of how our brain works, Wexler’s book is essential reading for those of us immersed in training-teaching-learning.
“People selectively perceive and more highly value sensory input that is consistent with their internal values and organizing schemata,” he tells us early in his wonderful research-based book (p. 4). “People selectively affiliate with like-minded individuals, and forget and discredit views and information inconsistent with their existing beliefs”—an idea that goes a long way in helping us understand why we sometimes encounter intense resistance while trying to produce training-teaching-learning experiences that have long-term positive results.
It’s as much about how we’re wired as anything else, Wexler and Doidge seem to agree. And there’s nothing simple about any of this. Wexler’s experiments suggest that our emotional reactions can change the physical connections within our brains—an idea that reminds us of the importance of fostering emotional reactions within our learning opportunities instead of relying solely on a rational fill-‘em-with-information approach. An experiment involving subjects’ reactions to videotapes of “an actress smiling and talking about happy things” not only made the subjects happy, but created “functional links among regions in their brains” that were “very different than when they watched videotapes of an actress crying and talking about sad things and felt sad themselves,” Wexler reports (p. 34).
And there’s more. His comments about the importance of providing environments that are stimulating rather than sterile, documented through what he calls “enriched-environment experiments,” tell us that animals “raised in relatively impoverished environments have smaller brains, with the reduction greatest in the cerebral cortex and unrelated to differences in body weight. There is less protein synthesis in multiple regions of the cortex, decreased area of synaptic contact among neurons, and decreased numbers of the axonal and dendritic branches that functionally connect neurons” (p. 51). What this might suggest is that we’re on the wrong track with many of sterile learning labs and drab workshop settings that remain prevalent in training-teaching-learning today. It also makes some of us long for those wonderfully colorful kindergarten classrooms where we were surrounded by images and displays of our classmates’—as well as our own—work. Creating more of the interactive media labs where so much innovative learning seems to be taking place today may help us prove in visceral terms what Wexler describes in his book.
He further builds a case for paying more attention to our actual learning environments when he reports that studies “in both cats and monkeys have found that animals raised in enriched environments perform much better on tests of frontal lobe function than animals raised in less stimulating environments” (p. 52).
Those still relying on lectures as a primary way to help learners acquire knowledge might want to reconsider their approach in light of Wexler’s comments on how imitation (suggesting interactivity as opposed to passive intake of information) “has such great developmental impact because it is consistently operative throughout the moment-to-moment unfolding of everyday life” (p. 115). “Imitation is a primary developmental process, and is evident when children imitate animals during play as well as when they imitate and acquire silly idiosyncrasies of those near to them…” (p. 117).
Play, he continues, “appears to affect cognitive development, even in rats and even when the play is primarily motoric. The role of play in human cognitive development may be greater because it lasts for years rather than days, is highly varied in nature, and includes activities that are primarily cognitive and essentially social. Here then is another avenue for social and cultural influence on important aspects of brain development” (pp. 132-133). None of which is news to successful workplace learning and performance (staff training) professionals. But it does help us to better understand the physiological underpinnings for what our guts have been telling us for so long in our roles as trainer-teacher-learners. In biological terms, he suggests, “the whole of formal education is perhaps most appropriately seen as a human extension of play” (p. 66). And I suspect our learners will be grateful and more successful than they already are if this is a reminder that we take to heart.