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How does your brain think?

8 April 2016

How does your brain think?

Nicki Rowland considers how cognitive neuroscience relates to CPD.

Perhaps you missed it but in March there was Brain Awareness Week. I was unable to attend any of the public events at the University of Oxford but my attention was drawn to neuroscience – the study of how the brain works. It seems neuroscience has many aspects: ‘from ion channels to whole animal behaviour to neuroscience applications in the clinic’, according to the website of the British Neuroscience Association (whose patrons include comedian, Ruby Wax).

Anyway, it seems cognitive neuroscience is the aspect most likely to interest us as (according to the University of York Department of Psychology) it: ‘aims to explain cognitive processes and behaviour in terms of their underlying brain mechanisms.’ Cognitive neuroscience is about understanding mental functions such as memory, language, emotion, perception, attention and consciousness – all key to successful dentistry, surely?

In this short article, I want to focus on the possibilities of cognitive neuroscience in relation to training, personal development and CPD. I am by no means breaking new ground here, although it’s clearly at the early stages of development. In 2009, an article entitled Opportunities in Neuroscience for Future Army Applications published by National Academies Press (US) stated: ‘…neuroscience offers new ways to assess how well current training paradigms and accepted assumptions about learning achieve their objectives. Neuropsychological indicators can help to assess how well an individual trainee has assimilated missions-critical knowledge and skills.’

Brain science and learning

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Uta Frith discussed in The learning brain: Lessons for education in 2005 how neuroscience is providing evidence for learning. They wrote: ‘Visual imagery involves ‘seeing with the mind’s eye’. How many pictures are hanging up in your living room? To answer this question most people close their eyes and visualize the room inside their heads, scan this mental image, and count the pictures. Visual imagery, or visualization, is powerful – most people can actually control their mind’s eye and use it to have a look around the corners of their living room to count the pictures in their head.’

In a study entitled The effects of learning and intention on the neural network involved in the perception of meaningless actions, Grezes, Costes and Decety, found that activity in the brain’s motor regions is increased if the observer watches someone else’s actions with the intention of imitating them later. In other words, learning by observation is usually easier than learning from spoken descriptions. There has even been research showing that the brain regions involved in learning the day before are reactivated during sleep.

Violation of expectations

Chris Forsythe, of the Human Factors organization at Sandia Laboratories, spoke at Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference 2014 about how findings from neuroscience can apply directly to military training. The one I’m most intrigued by is:

‘Trainers should use "violation of expectations" to prevent complacency among trainees. The brain is strongly sensitive to violations of expectations, disrupting those is a way of getting people's attention back on track.’

Researching further, I learned that the communication theory of how people respond to unanticipated violations of expectations is called Expectancy Violations Theory (EVT).

One example of EVT would be walking into a room and seeing your spouse – what would you expect them to do? Now what if you saw your best friend instead, what you expect them to do? Then what about your mother, your dentist or a stranger – what would your expectations be? EVT deals with people dealing with deviations from what is expected.

Let the simulated patient die

Dr Itiel Dror is a Senior Cognitive Neuroscience Researcher at University College London, in the Brain Sciences faculty. He was interviewed recently for CIPD for his views on learning, he said: ‘During a course, the brain may be paying attention to the wrong thing – to a nice animated graphic, or the attractive presenter on the screen – and not to the actual information you want the person to acquire.

‘It comes down to this idea of “cognitive load” and “cognitive attention”: how much the brain can process and what it pays attention to. You might have to teach someone a whole bunch of stuff, but the brain can’t take it. Make it easier by breaking the information into small pieces and putting them together in a brain-friendly way – to help the brain pick up the critical things and easily encode them.

‘A big part of that is creating a memorable learning experience. An emotional element helps. Which exam question will you always remember? The one you got wrong. Which date will you remember? The one that went really badly. I call it the “terror of error”.

‘Take medical training, for instance. One place I worked with did simulations and, if the learner made a mistake, nothing bad happened to the patient. I said: “Let the simulated patient die. Then they will remember it and will be less likely to make the same mistake again.”

‘The key is to focus on getting the brain to learn, and on making the learning brain-friendly.’

Why brain science should influence CPD

With the emphasis on outcomes based CPD and dental teams having so much to learn as (ever changing) compliance requirements become more complex, it clearly makes sense that learning should be as efficient and effective as possible.

In the CIPD publication, Neuroscience in action Applying insight to L&D practice, which looks at case studies from a number of organisations, Hugh Hood of BT is quoted as follows: ‘Neuroscience is powerful in considering how we structure learning. There are lessons in how long you can make it (especially if you’re looking for behaviour change), what the reinforcement has to look like and how you set people up to be receptive. Some of it feels like common sense, but some of it’s a bit surprising. I think it reinforces a lot of good practice.’

However, I’ve decided all this EVT stuff is a load of tosh and I’ll be ignoring it (there, you didn’t expect that did you? It’s a fib, by the way).

About the author

Nicki Rowland, a multiple award winner as a practice manager, now runs Practices Made Perfect dental consultancy and training organisation. She shares her extensive knowledge to help practices survive and grow.

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