The Neuroscience of Learning in the Workplace

In his TED Talk viewed over 17 million times, Daniel Pink gained fame when he said, “There’s a gap between what science knows and what business does.”

As someone who transitioned from the medical field into the business world, this connection rings true, with business often forgetting about the data uncovered from science, and the potential applications lost in most business practices.

Workplace learning is an emerging topic where science knows more, and business needs to catch up Click To Tweet

Areas such as neuroscience invest resources into understanding how the brain works — hence uncovering things that baffle business leaders. Much has been written about human motivation, for example. Today, learning is an emerging topic where science knows more and business needs to catch up.

Before we uncover what neuroscience knows about learning, let’s define what learning is, scientifically speaking.

Learning is the process of encoding and recalling of memory in loop – we learn new things, we store (encode) and then later, if we learned it successfully, we recall or retrieve that data (learned knowledge). Neuroscientists have separated memory into two main types: declarative and non-declarative. Declarative memory is “knowing what” and non-declarative memory is “knowing how.” What is fascinating to social scientists, though, is not just the process of absorbing and deploying information, but the factors that can hinder or help the process.

Your Environment

People are animals, containing an emotional and logical aspect of their neurophysiology. Meaning, our brains still act in a primal manner to certain noises, visual cues and even behavioral triggers.

For example, someone at work yells at another employee nearby, you can overhear their conversation. Logically, you can deduce that they are yelling at someone else; they are not yelling at you. But your autonomic nervous system triggers your amygdala, an area of the brain that is credited for emotional processing, which in turn signals the hypothalamus, thus triggering your body’s fight or flight response, increasing your heart rate and respiratory rate (the autonomic nervous system loop, if you will).

Your emotional processing overtakes the logical side, making learning, concentration, and cognitive load to plummet.

When this occurs, your emotional processing overtakes the logical side, making learning, concentration, and cognitive load to plummet. The eminent researchers Christine Porath and Amir Erez describe the emotional and cognitive impacts of witnessing incivility at work.

When a person witnesses a negative interaction, the individual begins to feel negative emotions such as anger, sadness, and hopelessness. When humans process negative emotions, their cognitive ability is negatively impacted, which hinders their ability to learn or perform cognitively. Hence, bad behavior is not merely a large distraction, it actually damages others ability to learn well, if at all.

Your Workspace

Other environmental factors that impact learning include quality of light, open offices spaces, and decor – all of which can trigger certain neurological responses that can either hinder or help learning.

Open offices, for example, have shown to have negative impact on people’s ability to learn, because of decline in cognitive performance. The variable psychologists have pinned as the culprit is noise. It deteriorates cognitive performance by quick insults to deep concentration – the most needed processes for creative and analytic thought.

Open offices are shown to have negative impact on people’s ability to learn.

The New Yorker also wrote on this subject: “In a study by Cornell University psychologists Gary Evans and Dana Johnson, clerical workers who were exposed to open-office noise for three hours had increased levels of epinephrine — a hormone that we often call adrenaline, associated with the so-called fight-or-flight response … the subjects subsequently attempted to solve fewer puzzles than they had after working in a quiet environment; in other words, they became less motivated and less creative.”

Understanding what and how stimuli impacts learning helps us understand how to influence these stimuli in order to create better strategies that help the root issue: our ability to hold and use information.

So, how do we increase learning at work?

The Fix: Space Shifting

While open office spaces get a bad rap for productivity, this may be because it is often the only place employees can go to in order to get work done. However, science journalist Benedict Carey extensively explains in his book, “How We Learn,” that people need to change their environment when they work.

Collaborative projects are fitting for open office spaces, but solo work and complex tasks might need alone space – cubbies or booths. Interestingly, Carey found that coffee shops provide a white noise that most people prefer, creating a calming effect for people who want to get work done.

People tend to absorb more information when their context changes.

People tend to absorb more information when their context changes, which furthers the idea that people should change their context when at work – moving from their desk, to the local cafe, to a cubby or even their home.

Office Etiquette

It is normative in most workplaces to expect that people should be “seen” at all times when they are not in meetings – meaning at their desks.

But research suggests that people do well in various environments and allowing that freedom to roam may get them into their “flow,” a term coined by psychologist Mihály Csikszentmihalyi, to describe a state when people typically experience deep engagement and creativity. It is a cognitively absorptive state, where people not only enjoy their work, but distractions of emotional fluctuations or physical noise are absent.

In an ideal world, flow is a state that every employee works in.

Non-Traditional Work Days

People are unique, so why do we cram them in the same room and expect great results across the board? While it is important to build trust through recognition, it is also key to promote a culture and environment that heightens learning.

Organizations should encourage breaks, distractions and working wherever an employee believes is best. Now, this isn’t just a suggestion to promote a more “fun” environment – this is backed by neuroscience. Cognitive load theory explains that the brain can only absorb so much information in a certain amount of time, in a given day. Meaning, cramming information doesn’t work, neither does overworking employees.

Cognitive load theory explains that the brain can only absorb so much information in a certain amount of time.

In the book “How We Learn,” the author Benedict Carey highlights the strategy for increased learning: “Daydreaming and distraction are good ways to generate creative solutions to difficult problems … and mixing up your environment, by trying a new cafe or new music on your earphones, works better than serving time in a library carrel.”

People remember things most vividly from environmental cues, such as a sound, smell or color, so by subtly changing where we work, with breaks in between we can increase our brains context of where something was learned. Therefore, promoting a learning environments means promoting impromptu conversations, daydreaming at desks, going on walks, drawing or doodling and a judgement free zone where people can hone their cognitive load for generating amazing ideas – not just staring at a screen in hopes the idea will come to them.

Great Managers and Great Behavior

In order to fight and combat cognitive distractions – required for learning, we need to try to get employees into their flow. Unsurprisingly, positive behaviors embodied by people you work with can do just that.

Positive psychologists, who study the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive, have proven that good behavior can increase the mind’s ability to learn and perform. Research by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and Ed Diener in 2005 explained that when employees are surrounded by positive managers and leaders, they are able to be more creative, collaborative, and inventive, which improves employee resourcefulness and innovation — factors that are crucial to workplace learning and knowledge transfer.

When employees are surrounded by positive managers and leaders, they are able to be more creative, collaborative, and inventive.

Other researchers support this notion, explaining that creativity and innovation stem from playful and positive environments, which stimulate one’s ability to think openly and without fear.

Through research, we can deduce that when managers promote playful, open, and safe environments, employees’ ability to think and use their mind they are primed for learning as much as they can. It becomes clear that management must behave in a way that fosters an environment where people want to learn – a positive one.

We now know that two major things impact our ability to learn: the behavior of people we learn from and the environment in which we learn. So, investing in managerial training, freedom at work without judgement, and positive behavioral practices are much more than siloed business strategies, but a unified plan to promote the neuroscience of learning.

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