Tip #749: Brain Facts That Influence Learning

I like nonsense. It wakes up the brain.” Dr. Seuss

I save articles that catch my attention and this one, by Ben Nesvig, certainly did. In his article he identifies “5 Brain Facts That Influence How People Learn.” He posits that awareness of these five brain facts will enable instructional designers to create more effective learning programs.

Let’s look at each in turn.

  1. The unconscious mind rules the conscious mind.

Nesvig demonstrates this with an experiment. “While seated in a chair, extend your dominant leg and make small clockwise circles with the foot. While continuing to perform this motion, with your dominant hand, draw the number 6 in the air with your index finger.” If you’re like me, your leg will immediately start circling counterclockwise.

This is because writing the number 6 is a learned behavior we can do automatically without thinking, but it takes conscious thought and energy to make circles with our foot.

The note for instructional designers is to make a behavior automatic through practice and repetition.

  1. The brain is wired to find patterns.

That is why we have no trouble reading:

“It deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr all the ltteers in a wrod are. You can stlil raed it wouthit a porbelm bcuseae the huanm mnid wroks by a porecss of ptatern rceigontion. It dtemrines maennig bfoere porecssnig dteails. Amzanig huh?”-  John Medina, in Brain Rules.

According to Nesvig, “Interrupting a pattern is a way to cause confusion and thus one of the first steps toward learning.”

The note for instructional designers is to incorporate the critical patterns that experts recognize and use into training for novices.

  1. Confusion is good for learning.

The brain operates as much as possible on autopilot because it uses 20% of all the body’s energy and it would be exhausting to have to consciously think about everything we do during the day.

In order to learn, we need to consciously think about and pay attention to it. When the brain becomes confused, dopamine is released, creating a “sense of bewilderment that forces the brain to pay close attention.”

The note for instructional designers is to break patterns of thinking and generate some amount of confusion so the learners have to struggle (to some extent) to understand something.

  1. Mirror neurons allow us to learn from others.

When we want to learn how to do something, many of us opt to watch a Youtube how-to video rather than read what to do. This is because when we are watching, our brain activates in the same region as the person who is demonstrating what to do. This is also true when listening to well-crafted stories.

“We are exquisitely social creatures. Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking.” -Giacomo Rizzolatti

The note for instructional designers is that demonstrations and stories allow learners to “project and simulate themselves into situations without having to actually experience them.”

  1. Feelings drive behavior.

Let’s say, for example, that you have an urge to eat a chocolate bar, but you’re trying to resist that urge. Your physical brain loves food for its survival benefits. Your emotional brain has had many pleasurable moments eating chocolate. Your rational brain understands that it’s not a healthy choice. But feeling will trump logic and you will likely succumb to your urge. (That explains it!)

The note for instructional designers is to recognize that learners are driven by their emotions and use learning methods that will allow them to feel safe.

So, to summarize, as instructional designers, we should: create automaticity; incorporate the patterns that experts follow; break patterns to cause some confusion; use demonstrations and stories to simulate an experience for the learners; and help learners feel safe in the classroom. All in a day’s work…

There is a wonderful infographic that lays out these facts beautifully:


May your learning be sweet.


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