The brilliantly malleable mind – neuroscience and the new paradigm of learning

By Colleen Lightbody, MD Neuroleadership group Africa.  Owner of Brainwise coaching and learning.

I invite you to meet your mind in a way that you have never before thought conceivable. In a sentence: ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!

Elderly relatives tend to shake their heads mournfully when a discussion arises about what I do for a living. They are wont to say: “I don’t know why you do what you do, Colleen. A leopard never changes its spots.”

On the contrary – I have seen remarkable transformation in people – young and old. I have seen students change their IQ scores by 10 points – after a weekend of learning to use their brain effectively. I have coached a woman in her 50s who took up a complex musical instrument. People in their 60s and 70s begin a degree; learn a new language; become meditators; learn yoga; climb mountains; move out of toxic relationships; create new powerful resources for themselves; change jobs; shift from pessimistic to optimistic. Anything is possible.

But there is a caveat… You have to want to!

One of my favorite stories is a participant from one of my coaching classes – Viiveck. He had never cooked in his life. But he learnt how to do it within a fortnight and went on to win a prestigious 5-star cooking event while travelling the country as he advanced through the levels – eliminating the competition – often-professional chefs – along the way! My own father could not boil an egg when he divorced at age 50 – and his legacy has been the most mouthwateringly delicious fudge recipe that he himself invented.

All of this is because of a miraculous ability of the brain to transform itself – an ability known as BRAIN PLASTICITY. Hold a fresh brain in your hands (one of my lifelong ambitions) and you are literally able to dig your thumbs into its mozzarella-textured structure. The size of a cabbage – your brain has the capacity to change shape and density – even color through the way you use it. And while we are expanding on the gastronomic theme – this beautiful pliable brain of ours is as fragile as an egg – be careful how you treat it.

How we learn – the neuroscience way

An oft-quoted law of neural functioning explains how we learn. Hebb’s Law: Neurons that fire together, wire together – describes the process whereby every thought we have is a result of the neural activity that causes our brain to resemble an electrical thunderstorm, even when we are asleep, when viewed under an fMRI scanner. When you think, a message is passed though the electrical action of the dendrites and axons from neuron to neuron until a ‘map’ of connections is created which represents learning. The more often you travel down this neural pathway, the more hardwired the pathway becomes until it is an almostpermanent conduit of knowing. Why almost? Because with ignorance or non-use, this pathway may degrade until it becomes almost impossible to retrieve. So one of the first rules of learning is repetition.

Do you want to learn?

Engage your pre-frontal cortex gear in order to drive your neural vehicle. Attention is critical for learning to take place. So when your hilarious teenage daughter tries to learn vicariously by placing a tape recording of her history textbook under her pillow – I fall off my parental chair laughing with brain-knowledge hilarity; or when the participant on a training course attends to his emails while I am imparting my brain-brilliance – I despair at the waste of the organisations/personal money and time. Multi-tasking is a myth – biologically, we are designed to attend to one cavewoman/man conversation at a time!

Memory is an interesting construct. As a biological structure – the hippocampus; the seat of long term memory lurks deep inside your emotional brain. As a psychological phenomena – you are more likely to access information when something is important to you- you find it personally relevant and interesting/fun/unusual/weird/creepy/funny/disgusting or titillating. As a social construct – we learn much better when we learn in positive collaboration with others.

Lastly, leverage the herbivore in you! Glycogen, the key substance that fuels brain function comes from Carbohydrates – another mark on the vegetarian scorecard! But don’t forget your Omegas – they are well thought of by brain-training pundits. Don’t forget to add water to the critical brain nutrition list. Your brain is made up of 75 percent water – dehydration becomes disintegration.

Implication to the learning organisation

Let’s talk VUCA – Volatility; Uncertainty; Complexity and Ambiguity. The military –turned-managerial acronym that really means “Holy *%#@#, we are in trouble…”

I now turn to the pre-frontal cortex’s counterpart – the limbic system. When we sense VUCA danger – our limbic system does what the brain does best – it kicks into evolutionary hijack and helps us survive. Learning (a 21st century privilege) simply does not take place.

A critical skill for crafting a learning organisation is to manage the antediluvian mozzarella. Relationship, relationship, relationship. Should we say it again? Relationship. The brain experiences the affective part of physical pain in exactly the same way as social pain. When your colleagues ignore you, your boss micro-manages you or your new Facebook profile picture doesn’t get one ‘like’ – your brain will arm itself with adrenaline ammunition and rush to your defense. Unfortunately, this has a poor prognosis for learning – it simply does not happen

To create a splendid learning environment – we need to follow these simple rules:

  1. Create a desire for change
  2. Use it or lose it
  3. One task at a time
  4. Repetition
  5. Attention
  6. Glycogen
  7. Omegas
  8. Water
  9. Manage relationships


It is imperative that in order to manage change; to support growth, development, and engagement and to optimise performance, the organisation of the 21st century needs to become brain-friendly and brain-literate.

Join Colleen Lightbody at the Neuroscience the Brain for Business Success Seminar taking place on the 23 February 2016 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Johannesburg. Colleen will be speaking on the latest neuroscience research and implications on the world of work. Click here for more information.



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