You have unconscious superpowers

Dive into the mysterious and powerful aspects of the human brain and how it affects our learning experience.

Helen Marshall

Helen Marshall Chief Learning Officer

A person cleaning a building dressed as Captain America

How spaced learning and user generated content can contribute to better learning

Our brains have around 86 billion neurons, woven together by an estimated 100 trillion connections. Scientists still don’t know all the different cell types that make up these connections, and they don’t yet understand how all these components work together. But miraculously, they do. It’s safe to say: the brain is a magical, albeit wrinkly, thing.

Even whilst you sleep your brain is still whirring, processing all the information you’ve been exposed to during the day. That’s why sleep is so important. You have unconscious superpowers. What goes on in our unconscious brain is the reason why spaced learning is so effective. If you’re given, or give yourself, time and space between learning activities, your brain continues to process information in the background. The time you give yourself to pause and reflect, (also known as ‘a tea break’) is actually when your brain gets to work on the good stuff so when you return (after a biscuit…) you continue to strengthen your neural pathways.

Lightbulb moments in the shower?

Allowing yourself time to take stuff in gives your brain a chance to piece things together. This is also the reason why your best ideas might come to you whilst you’re doing something completely disconnected from the task at hand, like having a shower or going for a run. How many times have you had to write down a note on your phone at 3am because you’ve woken up and had an epiphany? Thank your brain chemistry for that one.

This also feeds into the fact that learning new things isn’t a one-stop-shop. It’s a continual process that takes time, and above all effort. Changing our behaviour is also very hard to do and is closely tied to habit formation. Did you know it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a new habit (or behaviour)? That’s an average of 66 days. It’s not quick, and as anyone who has ever set a New Years resolution will attest to, it’s not easy. This suggests that if you’re looking to make knowledge building a bigger part of your life you’re going to have to work pretty hard at it.

Translating this into a workplace situation means that for those organisations who want to enhance a ‘learning culture’ the challenge is real. What is pretty obvious though is that delivering content all at once is definitely a no-go. It needs to be drip-fed, searchable and relevant in a particular moment. Using approaches like campaigns, where content delivery is staggered and purposeful, plays on the fact that our attention is being pulled in numerous different directions at once and allows focus to be pulled in a certain direction. 

User-generated oxytocin 

Since much of the world shifted online the way we learn at work also shifted. Social learning is harder to achieve, and because you aren’t physically with people the collaboration and release of dopamine, endorphins and all that other good stuff that comes from it are lessened. That’s why platforms that encourage social sharing, whether that’s related to personal or professional learning, are so important now. 

It’s also why we’ve seen a huge increase in the uptake of user generated content. It not only offers some sort of replacement for face to face experiences but it can also enhance the sense of community felt by employees if it’s done properly. One of the criticisms of social media is that endlessly scrolling has become a habit, and whilst I totally agree that picking up your phone to look at “stuff” without even realising you’re doing it, is not ideal, I think the opportunity this habit offers us is actually quite unique if you capitalise on this habit in a purposeful way.

Additionally, if social sharing is done properly it can also trigger the same chemical reaction experienced in a social learning situation. The funny thing is that oxytocin - the hormone usually associated with physical contact particularly at birth - has actually been proven to be triggered via social media, or more specifically online interactions. This is pretty nuts but also explains why people can be easily motivated by likes, shares, comments, and generally feeling part of a larger community. 

The feeling of “belonging” is something scientists have studied for a long time. And it’s been bought into much closer attention with the onslaught of social media apps and sites that beg for our attention. Ignoring the dark side of social media, there are actually real, tangible benefits to being present online - and we can learn a lot about the way people interact on there. Of course, it doesn’t replace the connectivity felt by being in-person (and in the wake of the pandemic we know this more than ever) but an online presence is still hugely valuable. 

Aim for a balanced learning diet

Like our diets, our learning worlds should have a little bit of everything in moderation. If we only ate cheese (which, many of you know I could easily do) our bodies would start behaving very differently than if we had a healthy, balanced diet. So why would we expect our brains to be any different when it comes to the type of content we consume? One thing is clear, and that’s content that is created and consumed by people in a collaborative manner is more easily embedded as learning rather than stored as a memory. The focus on memorisation is something education, particularly in the UK, faces scrutiny for - and this approach to ‘training’ carries over into a lot of digital courses, which deliver content with an assessment. Sure this tests someone’s ability to memorise key facts, but it doesn’t lead to the acquisition of skills or knowledge that lead to behaviour change. Ultimately, that’s why learning in an organisation is so hard to pin-point: because it is so diverse and involved in so many aspects of people’s everyday lives. We need to embrace people’s unconscious super powers and create a melting pot of social interaction, knowledge sharing, reinforcement and content delivery. 

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