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.
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.
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!
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.”
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.
is available through Trafford Publishing –– www.trafford.com/06-0976
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