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Learning How the Brain Learns

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Learning How the Brain Learns Does a meeting organizer really need to understand neuroscience to produce a good event? It would certainly be helpful, says Dr. Richard Ackley, a professor of business psychology at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

"The way material is presented at conferences caters primarily to the left brain (which processes facts), sometimes to the exclusion of the right brain (responsible for intuition and emotion)," Ackley said.

The overall learning process is stunted when this happens.

Brains Interacting
There are 100 billion cells, called neurons, in the brain. Neurons circulate through the left and right brain and act as on/off switches that are either busy firing information at another neuron or at rest. The mating of neurons is how the brain learns. It takes two pieces of previously unrelated data and draws connections between them.

The left brain processes information based on predetermined algorithms and models. By comparison, the right brain is more intuitive and emotional.

Neurons that travel throughout the brain are similar to thousands of meeting attendees milling around the lobby of a busy convention center. One neuron (or attendee), Michelle, might see her friend, Tim, standing across the room. As Michelle and Tim navigate through the crowd to see each other, billions of other (non-threatening) sensory stimuli (such as people, colors, sounds and smells) will try to find their way to the conscious brain but will be stopped by the RAS (see sidebar). When they meet, Michelle and Tim exchange warm pleasantries and engage in some light and friendly chitchat. This type of interaction and transference of information appeals to the right brain.

Later in the conversation, Michelle might ask Tim, "Which breakout sessions are you planning to attend?" or

"Will you be sitting in on Tuesday’s keynote address?" This type of information (fact driven) is more geared to the left brain. As the discussion flows between intuition, emotion and facts, both sides of the brain become engaged so, in the end, Michelle and Tim walk away with more overall knowledge about each other.

The Art of Learning
The objective for all meetings is to communicate information and elicit some form of behavioral change. Meeting organizers, speakers and event staff members communicate with attendees in many ways and send thousands of messages, some overt and others subliminal. An event’s look, feel and branding; logistical layout; agenda topics; and even the style of PowerPoint slides are all messages received by attendees, and it’s the aggregation of these bits of information that shape the overall event experience.

But before an attendee can understand the information or change behavior, data must be organized and contextualized for processing within the brain. Ackley describes the process of organizing and contextualizing as building models and filling buckets. Think of a model like the picture on the outside of a puzzle box. A bucket is similar to when you separate the puzzle pieces into two piles—borders and middle pieces. Models and buckets help people see the big picture, organize facts, evaluate the options, focus on details and then embark on a process to complete the task.

Driving a car is an example of a model with buckets. Experienced drivers can climb behind the wheel and navigate without much conscious thought because they rely on previous experiences (the model) to guide them. Young drivers need to exert more effort when driving because they don’t have as much experience to sift through the details nor do they have the same intuition as an experienced driver.

A more academic example of a model is Dr. Sigmund Freud’s description of human behavior. Freud believed all human behavior could be explained in terms of the id, ego and superego. He believed that the id controls instinctual urges and things that the conscious mind doesn’t remember. The ego satisfies the id’s needs, and a super ego acts as the brain’s overall conscience. The id might think, "I’m hungry." The ego might respond, "There’s food over there," but the super ego would regulate the behavior by recognizing that the food you see isn’t yours. In this example, the model is Freudian behavior and the buckets are the id, ego and superego.

When meeting organizers are planning an event they need to ask themselves, "What do we want the attendees to take away from this event? What behavioral changes do we want to make? Will our attendees already have the models and buckets needed to understand the subjects or do we have to provide context for them?"

There are many ways to provide context for an event. Lynn Randall, managing director of consulting services at Maritz Travel, asks people who attend her events to help design the meetings. She uses crowd sourcing, which is similar to polling, to come up with keynote and breakout session topics, speaker selection and strategies for information dissemination to attendees prior to the event. By having input into the event design, attendees are able to create a mental model of the conference before they arrive. Having access to presentation content ahead of time enables the brain to construct a model for what they’re going to hear. Think of pre-releasing conference and speech information like distributing a syllabus on the first day of class. By reading the syllabus, student knows the schedule of events—the chapters that need to be read, when the midterms are scheduled and when term papers are due. The syllabus provides the students with a model for how the class will be run and contextualizes the course’s goals, objectives and expectations.

Professor Ackley says that helping attendees to create a model prior to an event can significantly boost long-term recall.

"Many times, when you go to a conference you get so many things thrown at you the best questions tend to happen three days later because you’re trying to digest the material," Ackley said. "Due to brain capacity limitations, we have to edit, process and collate…and that’s why it’s difficult to process information in real-time. The more information that conference organizers can share with attendees ahead of time, the better the overall event experience is likely to be."

Another tactic that Randall uses to engage her attendees is to organize breakout sessions on the fly. Once an event has started, she’ll ask attendees, "What sessions do you want added to the agenda?" By asking for real-time input, attendees become part of the planning process and the models and buckets are already established.

Jamie Nast, author of Idea Mapping: How to Access Your Hidden Brain Power, Learn Faster, Remember More, and Achieve Success in Business, emphasizes the right brain when trying to engage her audiences. She employs the use of toys and games to break through learning barriers. She has attendees dress up Mr. Potato Head dolls with Play-Doh, draw self-portraits, create something on an Etch A Sketch and even learn to juggle.

"I want to put people in a learning situation where they don’t believe they can do something. I want them to come face-to-face with their disbelief," Nast said. "Then, by applying a sequence and a process to learning, they break through those barriers."

It’s All About the Content
Change is hard, and meeting planners have been organizing events the same way for years. Most of the event planning process is spent mananging logistics. Too often, meeting planners think that as long as no one complains about the coffee or accommodations the event is a success. But let’s face it: no one attends a conference because of the pastries and fluffy pillows.

One simple (OK, maybe not so simple) modification that can be made immediately is changing the way content is delivered. Conference organizers need to take the time to meet with each speaker and breakout session participant to educate them on the overall theme of their conference and what they (the organizers) want the attendees to take away from the experience. The goal for this discussion is to shape how the content will be delivered. By investing the time to understand how the presenters plan to deliver information, meeting planners can suggest modifications to ensure that the audience is given information that feeds both the left and right brain and meets the business objectives of the event. It could also avert an endless series of "Death by PowerPoint" presentations.

Nowadays speakers use PowerPoint as a crutch instead of a tool. Slides typically overload the brain with an endless array of overlapping circles, triangles, charts and industry jargon. Sometimes a speaker unknowingly loads up the slides with detail to establish himself or herself as a credible source with the audience. The subliminal message that a speaker with over-baked slides is sending to the audience is, "I must know what I’m talking about. Look at all of this data that I have." What they don’t realize is that the excessive amount of data causes the brain anxiety and stress, and as a result, the RAS pushes the information to the subconscious and the audience shuts down.

At one time, PowerPoint was a tool to summarize data, and it’s evolved into a way to make bullet points. Over the years, it has become a projected script with presenters talking to the slides (or worse, reading them) rather than talking to the audience.

To address this problem, many speakers and meeting planners have adopted a new presentation methodology called Presentation Zen, which is a philosophy that encourages speakers to eliminate data points, become more fluid with delivery and tell a story. The Presentation Zen philosophy encourages speakers to follow three basic rules—restraint, simplicity and naturalness.

Restraint involves resisting the urge to cram too much information onto slides or deliver a speech with too many facts. Simplicity, which can sometimes be misunderstood as "dumbing things down," encourages speakers to only talk about what’s important to make the listening experience easier. Naturalness refers to presentation style. Those who subscribe to the Presentation Zen philosophy suggest that speakers have an interactive conversation with their audience rather than simply reading off of slides.

The Apple Model
Conferences hosted by computer company Apple are a prime example of how to produce a well-choreographed event and make information the focal point of the show. Every attendee knows exactly what to expect from an Apple event—sparse staging, a black backdrop and CEO Steve Jobs wearing a black turtleneck, blue jeans and running shoes. Every event is the same. This consistency enables the brain to relax, recognize and contextualize the information that is being delivered and to block out unnecessary distractions.

The flow of Jobs’ speeches also helps communicate the Apple message. The brain can’t absorb detail for more than seven-to-10 minutes before it starts to lose interest. Jobs overcomes this by weaving stories and demos into his presentation to give the brain time to rest before re-engaging in details. Jobs keeps his slides simple to avoid overloading the audience with too much detail and stressing out the RAS.

"We pay attention to those things that don’t stress us," Ackley said. "We pay attention to things that are safe."

So why do event organizers devote so much time and effort on logistics and not enough time learning how the brain learns? Because that’s the way it’s always been done.

"As meeting professionals, I think we have fallen into [that] trap," Randall said. "Meeting professionals aren’t asking the question, ’Why? Why do we need to do it that way?’"

What meeting planners are missing, she adds, is not a better way to manage logistics, but finding creative ways to present information to connect the left and right brain. It’s the delivery of content that tends not to align with the needs of the audience, how they learn or what they remember.

"What tends to get overlooked by event planners, probably because it’s not easily understood, is how to unlock the power of the right brain to generate new ideas, synthesize concepts and break away from conventional thought patterns," Randall said.

Making wholesale changes to the way conferences are planned and organized isn’t easy. People have preset ideas (dare we say models?) of what to expect and how things "should" be run. It will take some time and effort to break down those barriers, but the end result will be a much more effective learning experience for attendees.

Before you plan your next meeting, take a step back and ask yourself what you’re trying to teach, what action or response you’re trying to elicit and what information you want the attendees to take way.

It’s likely the answers will already reside in both sides of your mind. One+

Office Space
Think of the brain as a three-person office, occupied by the hindbrain, midbrain and forebrain. Each section has a unique role and area of responsibility. All three parts must work as a team for the brain to learn and remember.

The Hindbrain
The hindbrain is made up the brain stem, the reticular activating system (RAS) and amygdala. The hindbrain functions much like an office admin and decides how incoming information should be disseminated. The process the admin uses to decide where information should go is similar to how the RAS functions.

Billions of bits of information bombard the brain each second, but it isn’t capable of processing that much data so it relies on the RAS to filter through all of the colors, sights and sounds that surround us. Once the process of elimination is complete, only the most important 2,000 bits of data are allowed access to the higher functioning and conscious part of the brain.

The hindbrain’s filtering decisions are based primarily on whether or not the data is critical for survival. If the RAS detects a threat or recognizes information as new or different, it is prioritized and moved to the head of the line where it is evaluated and pushed immediately to the forebrain for analysis. All other information is diverted to the unconscious brain where it is stored for future use.

Midbrain and Forebrain
The midbrain is similar to a company salesperson. It sits between the hindbrain and forebrain and is responsible for stimulating the muscles that control vision.

The forebrain is similar to a CEO, who analyzes facts and data, and together with intuition makes high-level, strategic decisions for the company. The forebrain’s outer layer, the cerebrum, is the most visually recognizable part of the brain. The cerebrum is made up of two hemispheres, the left and right brain. The hemispheres are connected by the corpus callosum, which acts as a translator between the two.

The left brain controls logic, deductive reasoning and memory. It analyzes information. The right brain is responsible for intuition, emotions, language, facial recognition and artistic abilities. It deals more with visual activities and plays a role in pulling bits of information together.

Comments

This is an excellent article and fits in with what I tell everyone. I write a blog on listening (http://xtho.com/blog/) and have developed an instrument that assesses someone’s listening habits. When planner are aware of the styles of their audiences and intentionally address them throughout an event, retention and engagement soar. That’s just what the article said. Thanks so much for writing with intelligence about the subject. (Marian Thier, ExpandingThought, Inc., 24 May 2011)
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