Sophisticated brain-imaging tools allow researchers to study the brain and revolutionise the understanding of how we learn. So today we know more about learning than ever before, which provides great opportunities for training and development professionals to harness new insights and apply this new knowledge to advance the field.

The emerging field of neuroeducation
Learning is a physical process in which new knowledge is represented by new brain cell connections. Chemicals in the brain called growth factors facilitate the strength and formation of these connections. We now know from neuroscience that the availability of these growth factors can be enhanced. For example, specific exercise routines, optimal sleep structure, and silencing the mind can all enhance the availability of these growth factors. Nature and nurture affect the learning brain. People have different genetic predispositions, but experience continuously shapes our brain structure and modifies behaviour. Several studies report structural and functional changes in the brain related to training. A working understanding of how the brain learns and performs is an invaluable new skill. It is essential for the future success of individual employees and their organisations.

Active engagement is necessary for learning
Changes in neural connections, which are fundamental for learning to take place in the brain, do not seem to occur when learning experiences are not active. Many research studies suggest that active engagement is a prerequisite for changes in the brain.

Not surprisingly, just listening to a presentation or lecture will not lead to learning. Powerful training initiatives that stimulate active engagement include facilitation, simulation, games, and role-play.

All learning has an emotional base
Neuroscientists believe that emotions are fundamental to learning. One of the earlier advocates of this was Plato, who mentioned more than 2,000 years ago “All learning has an emotional base.”

Motivation in the brain is driven by emotion. Individuals are motivated to engage in situations with an emotionally positive valence and avoid those with an emotionally negative valence. Research findings indicate that different aspects of memory are activated in different emotional contexts, and that demonstrates there are links between emotion and cognition.

Training professionals can design learning sessions that tap into the emotions. For example, use real case studies that reflect work experiences that have been difficult and challenging for the participants.

Use it or lose it
The adult brain changes following the acquisition of new skills. However, the changes in the brain reverse when people do not have the opportunity to use the skills they have developed.

Unfortunately, many training initiatives are less effective because people can’t apply their learning in the workplace after completion of training. This is one of the benefits of digital learning. It provides on-demand learning and knowledge that can be reviewed at any time and any place.

Challenges and opportunities
Cognitive neuroscience is a promising field of study and has exciting potential discoveries ahead. Medical professionals often are trained in molecular biology and organic chemistry, knowledge that indirectly affects the future practice of physicians.

Similarly, training professionals should have a fundamental knowledge about the brain and apply cognitive neuroscience evidence to their practice of developing people. In the 21st century, companies will put much more emphasis on individual and organisational learning to innovate and compete successfully in a global knowledge economy.