Businesses must embrace brain-friendly learning, says neuroleadership expert

Incorporating neuroscience into L&D practice could raise productivity and even reduce bias, conference is told

Paying closer attention to neuroscientific knowledge could transform the way learning takes place inside organisations, remove stress and reduce bias, a leading brain expert has told HR and L&D professionals. 

At the MERIT Always-On Learning Summit in Portugal, Andy Habermacher, neuroleadership expert and founder of the Leading Brains Academy, explained how a refined evolutionary model of the brain could improve how people learned. 

When neuroscientists talk about learning at work, they are describing synaptic growth and ‘end of neuron’ synapses – the parts of the brain that forge connections between different thoughts and areas of the brain – Habermacher explained.

Learning, or synaptic growth, is driven by several key factors: activation or stimulation of the brain, repetition, exercise and sleep, delegates heard. 

This, said Habermacher, should affect how we structure learning. The famous ‘10,000 hour rule’, which derived from psychologist K Anders Ericsson’s research into how people become experts in their fields, suggested that with sufficient practice anyone can become highly accomplished. “But if you work too much you strike yourself down,” Habermacher warned, explaining that the reality was more nuanced. If workers take part in “short blocks” of learning and work, they may learn more, he suggested. 

“Most synaptic growth happens when you sleep,” said Habermacher. Accelerated learning from the brain’s perspective means sleeping in the evening and afternoon, he added – which could lead to the rise of radically different working patterns to those most businesses enjoy today. 

The brain is most active in the largest number of areas when people are not doing anything in particular: “When you act, you limit brain activity,” the neurolearning expert said. “Focus is good for doing a specific task, but you are most integrated when you are not acting on a specific task.” 

By contrast, persistent stress of any kind changes brain architecture, which causes disruptions to neurogrowth, Habermacher said. His solution was a model that embraced four key ingredients in healthy brain function: self-esteem, control, orientation – which he described as knowing what to do and when to do it – and pleasure. 

Google’s research into its own most successful teams found very similar factors were also the key drivers for success in its workplace.

When these ingredients are not in place, the result is often “toxic stress”, Habermacher said. High-functioning brains need the right conditions in the workplace to function, and violating them can lead to interruption in the learning function, he argued. 

The brain’s need for control and emotional connections can extend to understanding how work and even political decisions are made. Using Britain’s June 2016 referendum on leaving the EU as an example, Habermacher said the “battle” for minds was won through an emotional argument regarding control and the question of who has it. 

Applying a more emotional and neuroscientifically attuned model of learning at work could even have positive benefits when combating unconscious bias, said Habermacher: “Our brains have executive, motivational, reflexive modes. We have learned certain reflexes, but we can learn new reflexes and instincts to replace those we already have,” he said. 

Unconscious bias “takes a long time to change”, said Habermacher. But it is also important to make businesses and workplaces more diverse. Recent studies have shown how unconscious bias can negatively affect diversity in business and career progression.