With neuroscience so frequently in the news it’s tempting to think that all the breakthroughs we have learned about the brain have happened in recent years; but over the past 25 years there have been consistent findings that have added to our knowledge of how the brain works.
While it would be foolish to believe that we know more than a fraction of what there is to know about the brain, here are ten of the most interesting findings over the years, in no particular order.
The Brain is Plastic
The brain was once considered to be more or less fixed – you had to make the most of what you had, as you couldn’t change the fundamental form of the brain. It is now known that it is “plastic” and can change shape. New neural pathways can be created that “grow” the brain as we learn new things and develop new habits – and this can happen at any age. So neural decline and dementia should not be seen as a “given” that we must accept as we age.
Nature and Nurture Matter
Your ability to learn new things and develop new skills is not dependent upon your genetic makeup. This was a very important finding in the “nature vesus nurture” debate. It has been found that your genes can be “switched on” or “off” by environmental factors such as social interaction, diet and exposure to toxins for example.
The Brain Craves Reward and Challenge
The brain is stimulated by reward and challenge; this affects how people approach many facets of personal and professional life: leadership, relationships, teamwork, education and so on. Many teachers have found game-based learning provides better results than traditional learning because of the element of reward built in to it, for instance.
The Brain Responds Primitively to Threat
In a threat situation the brain relies more on its primitive response mechanisms, which produce a “fight or flight” reaction; this is often a state of mind that we want to avoid, especially when encouraging learning, as we revert to entrenched behaviours when stressed. Understanding how threat triggers are activated, and managing situations so that they are more reward-based rather than threat-based, can help get better results.
The Brain can Self-Regulate
Self control and self-regulation is an important skill in many areas of life. Neuroscience has helped us understand some of the mechanisms that underlie self-control, and thereby help us design strategies to lessen the instances of antisocial behaviour or disciplinary breakdowns that can create problems in different environments.
We Learn from the Periphery as Well as the Centre
We learn a lot from our peripheral surroundings as well as the subject of our focus; this means that the environment we choose for a learning experience is often as important as what is being taught. A combination of focused attention and a stimulating environment is therefore often the best medium to communicate learning messages.
Association is Powerful
“Associative learning” happens when cells in different parts of the brain are activated simultaneously, leading to pronounced increases in synaptic strength between those cells. This is known to enhance learning and can be built in to training and development programs for better results.
There are More Than Two Different Types of Memory
Most people think of the two types of memory as “short term” and “long term.” Neuroscience likes to call short term memory “working memory”. But we also have what neuroscience calls “declarative memory” which memorises facts, and “procedural memory”, which memorises automatic processes; these are known to function quite differently.
Emotion is a Big Part of Thinking & Decision-Making
It should be no surprise to anyone that emotion plays a critical role in our thought processes and decision-making; trying to remove emotion from workplace decisions, or pretending it doesn’t exist, can be dangerous. The average human brain cannot separate emotion from cognition and it interacts without our knowing; brain researchers go as far as saying that there can be no memory without emotion.
The Brain Affects the Body
The process of learning and keeping the brain active affects the whole body and can help maintain health and fitness. The connection between physical health and amount of sleep, diet and physical activity is one that is often made – but all of these factors affect the brain too. They are more connected than people realise.
The team at NeuroPower is at the forefront of introducing new approaches to organisational development through the findings of neuroscience. We apply them to all types of businesses, developing high performing teams and enhancing leadership. Find out more at our website: http://www.neuropowergroup.com.