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Train your Brain

Monday, July 20th, 2009


brain training
We’ve learned more about the brain in the last 20 years than everything we knew about it before that time. The declaration that the 1990s would be the ‘Decade of the Brain’ unleashed such a burst of activity in the field of neuroscience that, by the end of those 10 years, scientists had literally turned our knowledge of the brain on its head.


And now, almost another full decade later, we’re continuing to add to that now very impressive bank of knowledge. On an almost daily basis, we’re learning more and more about the brain, and it’s important that we delve as deeply as possible into the implications of what all this research is telling us.

In a practical business sense, we especially need to know how we can improve the way we use our brains to think, learn, communicate, solve problems, market our services and work with others. Certainly, understanding the way our brains operate can give us plenty of ideas about improving pretty much every aspect of our lives. After all, the way we use our heads has everything to do with everything we do.

First of all, it’s essential that we’re aware of why information doesn’t always “stick” easily in brains. Basically, there are three reasons: no interest, no attention and no effort.

No Interest

This is a HUGE problem. The fact is that much of the information most of us deal with isn’t, on its own, the most fascinating stuff we’ve ever thought about. And, unfortunately, this causes our brains to tune out. Like it or not, our brains aren’t especially interested in dull, dry facts –– and that’s a major problem, particularly when those facts are important components of our work.

It’s really too bad that we call the brain “gray matter,” gray being pretty well the dullest color imaginable. We need to realize that our brains are, figuratively speaking, interesting and colorful and adventurous. They love having a good time! So, to get their attention, we’d be wise to “dress up” information in any way we can, and that can be done in various ways.

For instance, the way we use language has a great impact on whether our message gets across powerfully. The overuse of clichés and buzzwords can easily cause our listeners and readers to simply stop paying attention to what it is we’re saying or writing. Their brains more or less go on automatic pilot when words are presented to them in such a banal way, so we need to put a great deal of thought into the way we express ourselves. After all, there’s nothing that brains like better than something new and different.

Another way to create interest is to pay heed to the visual style of the information we present to others. In a sense, given their ability to put data so strongly into so many brains, those in the advertising industry are the biggest “brain trainers” in the world –– and they’re well aware of the potency of shape, color and design. So we should always be aware of how we can create visual impact through the way we present information to others, even when we’re forced to deal with just words and numbers in black and white. After all, even something as dry as a résumé can have a significant effect if designed in a way that takes advantage of features such as font choice, paragraph style and white space.

No Attention

Another reason that information doesn’t always “stick” to brains is that it tends to enter the brain at a much slower rate than what is considered the brain’s slowest operating speed. Neuroscientists believe that brains process data at between 1,000 and 25,000 words per minute (WPM).

Now, compare the minimum rate of 1,000 WPM to the average adult reading rate of 250 words per minute, and you can easily see why we often read material and then almost immediately forget what we just read. The problem is that, in most cases, at least 75% of our brain activity wasn’t actually reading; it was, instead, thinking about all sorts of other things. Remember: our brains like to have fun and will always attend the most to what is personally interesting to us.

The act of listening is an even bigger issue. The average speaking rate of most individuals is barely over 100 WPM, suggesting that, when we think we’re listening to someone, the truth is that probably over 90% of our brain activity isn’t listening at all; instead, it’s enjoying itself at that brain party inside our heads!

No Effort

Most of us, unfortunately, believe in “the magic wand” of learning. In other words, we mistakenly think that we can read or listen and somehow retain information without using any kind of technique. We attend meetings and hope that, when we walk out the door, we’ll somehow remember all the important information that was shared. We read reports and believe that, when we finish the last page, we’ll be able to recall all the details that we read. All without any kind of help. It’s as if we wave an imaginary magic wand and hope for the best.

Well, our brains don’t actually work that way. They need help to retain information, and that assistance can take the form of many conscious decisions we should make, especially when engaging in passive learning activities such as reading and listening. Taking notes, asking questions, working in groups, discussing material with others who are involved in the same task –– these are the kinds of strategies that will help our brains understand and remember better. The rule of thumb is that any type of active learning strategy will lead to more success than trying to learn in a passive way.

Many recent studies have suggested that the most important skill we can develop to be successful in the 21st century, in a world that’s constantly changing at a faster and faster pace, is knowing how to learn. In his best-selling book, The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman obviously agrees as he says that “being adaptable in a flat world, knowing how to ‘learn how to learn,’ will be one of the most important assets any worker can have.”


brain map
So, to address this need to develop learning skills as a prerequisite to fostering success, I offer you the following list of what I like to call...


The Seven Principles of Brain Training

  1. Motivation –– This is a tough one. It’s difficult enough to motivate ourselves to do things we don’t really want to do so, obviously, motivating others to do things they’re not terribly interested in can be a daunting task. But it’s a challenge that has to be confronted because, if someone doesn’t have a personal desire to do something, it’s very unlikely that they’ll perform their jobs well. Without motivation, brains just don’t work very hard.
  2. Practice –– We’ve been told over and over again that “practice makes perfect.” The truth is, though, that brains can be easily overwhelmed when faced with an overload of material, so reading and re-reading (and re-reading) pages and pages of information is probably not a particularly wise use of our time. Rather, we should spend more time condensing the material as we read through it the first time –– by highlighting, underlining, making notes in the margins, etc. Once the most essential information has been cut down in this way, we can then incorporate practice by using repetition as a way to strengthen recall for later on.
  3. Emotion –– We remember experiences that make us happy, sad, exhilarated, angry –– and that’s because anything that has some kind of emotional hook tends to be remembered by our brains. It’s almost like our brains and our hearts are connected in some way. This explains, for instance, why elderly people often will forget something mundane that just happened minutes ago, but can recount a sentimental incident that occurred many years (even decades) ago. So adding an emotional element to information, especially material that’s dull and dry, will go a long way towards making it more memorable.
  4. Association –– For some reason, the human mind recalls a number of individual items that are connected to each other much better than those same items when they’re presented one at a time. Strange but true! That’s why lists of separate facts are usually so quickly forgotten, but stories that include a series of facts are often remembered for quite some time. So, if we can figure out a way to join facts together, our brains will thank us for the help.
  5. Meaning –– Unfortunately, many of our school experiences taught us the bad habit of just stuffing new information into our heads without actually understanding it in the first place. And the net result of that practice was that those facts weren’t remembered for long. To improve the way we store information, then, we should spend much more time making sense of the material at the outset so that we can recall it more easily later on. Again, active learning techniques such as questioning and working in teams will make the processes of both learning and remembering much more effective.
  6. Visualization –– “A picture is worth...” A thousand words? Well, probably even more than that, really. Brains, don’t forget, are attracted by visual effects –– so adding any kind of graphic appeal to written material should instantly improve the potential for the success of a learning experience. Obviously, we can’t always add bold, colourful pictures to our business documents and presentations, but using charts, diagrams and illustrations is one way we can quite dramatically capture the attention of other people’s brains in a way that black-on-white text simply can’t compete with.
  7. Chunking –– The main problem with trying to learn a large amount of information all at once is that the experience can be far too overwhelming. It’s just not a good idea to attempt to force 30-odd pages of material into our brains en masse! A better idea would be to first break it down into smaller parts, or “chunks”, giving our brains the opportunity to absorb just one bit at a time. That’s why, for instance, reports that make use of several sections, introduced by headings and sub-headings, seem more readable than others.

So those are the basic principles that help our brains work better. Most of us might use a few of them at any particular time, but it’s those of us who manage to use all seven of them at once who will achieve the greatest success. And, lastly, there’s one more thing to keep in mind when looking for ways to enhance the way we use our heads, and that’s to understand that the two sides of the brain have very different responsibilities. We’ve often been told that the left side is the logical one. As a result, we’re big fans of left-brainers because we know that successful individuals, in most professions, absolutely need to have strong analytical abilities in order to do their jobs well. And that’s certainly true.

But we’ve been so enamoured of these left-brain skills that we’ve, regrettably, underestimated the tremendous value of what the other side of the brain, the creative side, can offer. Perhaps we’ve too quickly jumped to the conclusion that the left brain is “school and work” and the right side is “the weekend and the vacation.” In fact, it sometimes seems like we’ve decided that the two sides are so different that they’re practically enemies who are fighting with each other.

However, what brain researchers are now telling us is that the left side actually depends on the co-operation of the right side to work effectively, that it’s the power of the right side that makes the left side perform much, much better. So, if we truly want to achieve the maximum potential of our brains, here’s a concept we should definitely embrace: Encourage both sides of the brain to work together as a team.


Most of what we know today about how the human brain functions has been learned very recently. In just the past few years, the amount of brain research in the world has increased tremendously. The sheer numbers of neuroscientists now devoting their time, energy and resources to the study of the inner workings of the brain is remarkable.

These ongoing studies and remarkable technological advances in the field have led to startling discoveries, turning conventional wisdom about how we use our heads practically upside down. It’s time for us now to take this new-found knowledge and apply it to how we think, learn and communicate. Just as we know what kinds of foods and exercise can help us perform better physically, we also now know what kinds of ideas and principles we need to help us perform better mentally.

This a book about the way we use our brains –– or, at least, the way we should use our brains –– to face and manage issues we deal with daily. By combining much of what we know from the disciplines of brain research, learning theory and the communication field, Brian Thwaits offers innovative yet practical suggestions that will give those three-pound organs inside our heads an adjustment that will not just invigorate and revitalize them, but will actually change how we think, remember and share information with each other.

After reading The Big Learn, you will have made the happy discovery that your brain is capable of much, much more than you ever thought possible.

THE BIG LEARN: Smart Ways To Use Your Brain

is available through Trafford Publishing ––

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