From a recruitment and development view point, the contemporary research on neuroplasticity brings opportunities and hope for us all. The first time I got excited about neuroplasticity was when I read the book “the brain that changes itself”, if you haven’t read it, it’s an enlightening read. The book likens our brains to plastic, in that it can reshape itself, if needed. To illustrate the point, Doidge uses the example of blind people whose part of the brain reserved to control sight is not required for use, so the brain rewires itself to use this brain space for something else, such as for hearing or touch. This explains why blind people often develop great hearing and sensitivity. It proves the brain is capable of more than we were led to believe in the past.
The discovery of this is fantastic not only for learning and development but also for the power of our mind. Positive thinking itself can create new neural pathways. Doidge gives an amazing example of two groups who sought to learn how to play the piano. One group practiced each day for 5 weeks, the other simply imagined playing. The first group improved in skill level by approximately 50% as you would expect. The second group however also improved by as much as 35%! Further to this, after 2 hours of real training the second group was at the proficiency level of the first group. Upon brain scans both groups showed similar brain map changes. This has fundamental implications for rehearsal and visualisations helping us in all types of business and leadership situations. Scientists have shown that experiences change the brain, whether these experiences are real or imagined. I believe this is amazing and has broad implications for learning and development.
When it comes to learning things, paying close attention is essential to long term plastic change. In numerous experiments it was found that lasting change occurred only with close attention. At work, we often praise “the ability to multitask” however whilst you can learn when you divide your attention, divided attention doesn’t lead to abiding change in your brain maps. This means the learning doesn’t stick.
The tortoise and the hare effect help us understand what we must do to truly master new skills. After a brief period of practice, as when we cram for a test, it is relatively easy to improve because we are likely to strengthen existing synaptic connections. But we quickly forget what we’ve crammed – because these are easy come, easy go neuronal connections and are rapidly reversed. Maintaining improvement and making skills permanent requires the slow steady work that forms new lasting neural connections. This is so important to remember when teaching people new skills.
Another amazing fact is that in order to keep the brain fit; we must learn something new rather than simply replaying already mastered skills. This has implications for us all but especially for our older employees who are in repetitive jobs and whose employment we now require longer in the workplace.
Did you know that at 90, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim Museum and Benjamin Franklin invented bifocal spectacles at 78? Both these guys were exercising their brains and learning new things all the time, therefore keeping their brains fit.
The book is fascinating and well worth a read.