How does the brain decide what’s worth remembering?

by on October 30, 2013 · 4 Comments POSTED IN: Rapid Learning Insights
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Some things we learn once and remember forever. Other stuff we learn and remember for a while. But most of what we experience doesn’t result in any learning, neuroscientists say – because it never enters our memory at all.

So what can you do be sure your training doesn’t fall into that deadly third category?

More than a camera
Research has shown that our brains are not cameras that just record everything that our senses experience.

It’s quite the opposite. Faced with a constant flood of sensory input, it’s constantly making decisions about what to keep and what to throw away.

Researchers call this process “meaningful encoding.” Think of it as the bouncer at an exclusive club. It decides whether the information is important enough to get past the velvet rope.

But sometimes it makes mistakes – deciding something is “meaningful” for purposes of encoding when it really isn’t (think of that song stuck in your head).

Even worse for trainers, the “bouncer” sometimes turns away information that should have gotten through.

For example, it’s extremely important that workers remember the right way to lock out equipment before they service it. If they do it wrong, they could be maimed, killed or electrocuted.

But when the brain is processing this information in the moment, it may not consider it meaningful enough to encode.

All about the cues
That’s because the “meaningful encoding” process, like a bouncer, has to use shortcuts and rules of thumb to quickly decide who or what makes the cut.

A bouncer might consider what people wear or who they’re with. In a similar fashion, the brain looks for certain cues that tell it what’s worth remembering and what isn’t.

If your training lack these cues, there’s a good chance it won’t get encoded – no matter how important it actually is.

The good news: You can design cues into your training, making it more likely to get the V.I.P. treatment.

Brain scientists are still sorting out all the cues the brain uses for this task. But in a major “state of the science” book chapter, three major researchers identified cues that seem to be especially powerful:

It has a social context
Humans are deeply social creatures, so the brain gives a lot of weight to social context: If other people seem to consider the information meaningful, it must be meaningful.

That’s why activities like role plays, group discussions and collaboration with others are valuable. Learning that happens in a social context sticks.

It’s active
The brain privileges doing over simply knowing. So active learning gets higher priority than passive work.

So, for example, if you want to send a cue that lockout procedures are important, get people to go through the process with a real piece of equipment,
instead of just memorizing a list of steps.

It connects to what’s already there
Information that can be connected to existing knowledge is likely to be considered worth remembering.

It’s as if the brain tells itself, “I’ve stored similar information that turned out to be important, so this is is likely to be meaningful too.”

So, for example, a presentation that contains lots of unfamiliar concepts or vocabulary isn’t very sticky. Chances are, it will be forgotten quickly. Present the same ideas using familiar language and well-known concepts.

Or show how the new concept or technique can be applied to a common scenario your learners will recognize.

Other ways to connect new learning to pre-existing knowledge:

• Review information from previous training sessions.

• Elaborate on ideas that have been previously introduced.

• Challenge pre-existing assumptions.

It keeps coming up
We’ve written often about the power of repetition to lock in learning. The concept of meaningful encoding suggests one reason why it might be so effective: because information that keeps coming up is encoded as important. (That’s how that song got into your head.)

Or think of the phone numbers you know by heart: They’re the ones you dial the most, because they belong to people important in your life: family, the boss, key customers and so on.

Sources
Bjork, Robert A., Dunlosky, J., Kornell, N. (2013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques and illusions. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 64:417-444.

Prince, M., Does active learning work? (2004). A review. J. Engr. Education, 93(3):223-31

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4 Comments on This Post

  1. Helen
    November 5, 2013 - 11:31 am

    This really struck a chord with me. When I think about how I learn, it’s within social context, what’s relevant to me and connects to what I already know.
    I really like the “it keeps coming up” point. As an instructor, I need to keep in mind that if I feel that a point is important, I need to involve some kind of repetition in my instruction so that my learners not only remember it, but understand it as well.

  2. Sonia L
    November 6, 2013 - 9:35 pm

    This makes so much sense to me. It is a great reminder how important the instructional design process is and what instructional designers can do to maximize learning.

  3. Helen
    November 7, 2013 - 9:44 pm

    This really struck a chord with me. When I think about how I learn, it’s within social context, what’s relevant to me and connects to what I already know.
    I really like the “it keeps coming up” point. As an instructor, I need to keep in mind that if I feel that a point is important, I need to involve some kind of repetition in my instruction so that my learners not only remember it, but understand it as well.

  4. Sonia L
    November 8, 2013 - 11:32 pm

    I am a graduate student at Roosevelt University and in my final semester. I found this post very helpful. I am fascinated how the brain is able to remember so much. When reading the four cues (social context, active, connects to what’s already there, and it keeps coming up) it all came together for me. It also reminds me of what good customer experience looks like. I will definitely use this in my next project.
    http://rutraining.org/

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