6 minutes reading time (1280 words)

Learning the Brain–Friendly Way

Our organisations have the potential to be fields of continual learning. Learning that is crucial if they are to thrive and grow. Learning is essential to enable organisations to;

  • Change at pace
  • Innovate; create new products, services, methods and delivery models
  • Manage the complexity of relationships; matrix structures, partnerships and collaboration, multi-cultural and virtual teams, remote and flexible working
  • Motivate and engage our people

Learning happens within people; we do not make it happen, but we can create a learning-conducive environment.

It’s Time to Relearn How We Learn

Recent developments in neuroscience are helping us to understand how the brain really learns. This knowledge calls into question many of the traditional models of learning and development design. At the Performance Collective, we have been studying these new paradigms for some years, and using them to design more “brain-friendly” programmes for leadership and personal development.

In this article we summarise the latest research, using a simple model for thinking about the learning environment.

The Role of the Hippocampus

Neuroscientists have established that the level of activation of the brain region called the hippocampus is significant in maximising retention, replay and recall of learning. They have also been able to identify four specific conditions for optimal hippocampus activity;

  • Attention
  • Generation
  • Emotion
  • Spacing

The Neuroleadership Institute has developed these into AGES; a practical model outlining these conditions for brain-friendly learning.

The Neuroleadership Institute AGES Model

AGES ModelIf we design learning experiences with the right amount of......





.....we create the conditions for learners to intensely activate their hippocampus.




When attention is divided, the hippocampus is not engaged and the likelihood of sustainable learning is low. Furthermore, when we are dealing with multiple tasks or information sources, our neurons decrease their firing and retention dips to between 55 and 70%.

Attention is maximised when we focus our attention on one thing and when it is new and relevant to us. In this state, the brain produces dopamine generating feelings of reward. Because our brains seek to maximise reward, dopamine is a driver of motivation. It also indices a state of openness, curiosity and goal/ gain focus. Attention is also known to release other neurochemicals that stimulate alertness, mental arousal and focus.

So, to create the conditions for optimum attention:

  • Focus learners on one concept at a time and build
  • Create relevance by using the learners’ own, real challenges as examples – “real play” rather than role-play or case-studies
  • Allow learners to define their own “reward” through dialogue; they have to know the personal value they will derive from the learning
  • Create novelty by varying the learning techniques every twenty minutes and introducing new experiences eg the use of directed action using Actor-Coaches
  • Have some “performance pressure” created with deadlines, competition or teaching other learners


We used to believe that long-term memory was created by repetition, but this has only very limited effect. The hippocampus is a huge web of inter-related memories rather than a “hard drive” of discrete data. The web is created by associations; the more associations, the easier it is to recall a memory. The hippocampus activates when we create multiple associations.

The neuroscience shows us that the creation of multiple associations is facilitated by the learner’s motivation to understand and apply new information in their own way, to their real world. This happens through metacognition; the process of thinking about our own thinking. We process what we are seeing, thinking, noticing, wondering and feeling about the new information. We make connections between the new information and what we already know. 

The deepest and most enduring generation takes place when the learner experiences an insight – or “Aha!” moment.  Deep insight creates a new set of connections with the power to change behaviour with immediate effect;

  • A new insight connects to our real world, activating the hippocampus
  • We identify a potential reward from applying what we are learning to our reality, releasing dopamine
  • A connection forms between the new learning/ behaviour and the reward (dopamine), so we generalise the connection to maximise reward
  • The new behaviour is embedded; a systemic change happens

For a learning environment supporting optimum generation consider:

  • Use models as “hypotheses” to be challenged and developed, rather than as “truths”. Use multiple and even conflicting models to stimulate curiosity and inquiry
  • Give opportunities to try out new behaviours and techniques
  • Make learning more self-directed and give opportunities to confidentially self-test
  • Make the learning relevant by using the learners own, real challenges as examples – “real play”
  • Use peer dialogue to support metacognition; small group discussions, story-telling, practice groups and peer coaching


We have our most vivid memories of situations where our emotions were most highly engaged. This is explained in two ways. First, emotional engagement creates high levels of attention. Second, emotional engagement activates the part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is adjacent to, and stimulates the hippocampus with a powerful “you must remember this” message.

The potential downside of this effect is that human brains are hard-wired to assume that new situations will contain threats. Too much negative emotion will interfere with attention and deter learning. On the other-hand we are also pre-disposed to maximise reward and minimise threat. So attention to creating a positive, rewarding environment where people make deep personal connections with others in the group are essential to brain-friendly design.

Learning with optimum positive emotion is mostly down to the coach or facilitator’s style and energy:

  • Create a positive and supportive emotional climate; using praise, encouragement and non-judgemental dialogue. Remember to give positive feedback for effort and not just for results
  • Design activities that are effective, but also entertaining and fun
  • Make learning events aspirational and offering a sense of enhanced status
  • Include enough social activities early on to deepen the inter-personal bonds in groups
  • Maximise the opportunities for autonomy over what learners work on, who with, when and how
  • Use a coaching style and avoid “right/wrong” scenarios


Learning is not made, it is grown. Our neurons need time to make connections and this activity continues to take place between the “active” parts of the learning experience. Spacing allows our brains to digest and make sense of new content, even when we are not consciously thinking about it. The cramming of learning leads to short term performance improvement. Spacing, the distribution of learning over time, leads to better retrieval rates and longer term recall.

Provide learners with short and extended spacing in the learning experience:

  • Use posters rather than Powerpoint, so that all materials are displayed and revisitied  throughout the programme
  • Consider shorter sessions (half-days) over a longer period
  • Ask participants to “teach” a concept from the previous session at the next
  • Revisit previous content regularly
  • Set up peer-coaching between group events
  • Give access to short on-line materials and activities to be completed in the learners’ own time
  • Design-in periodic “down-time” within sessions and avoid working breaks and evening work

Our team at The Performance Collective has been using these principles for several years and they have transformed the way support leaders to develop. Our results clients report consistent excellent results and increased application of learning in the field. There is no doubt that brain-friendly learning delivers a higher return on their investment in people development.

If this short article has raised questions for you, if you have ideas and suggestions to share or if you would like to know more about brain-friendly development - do get in touch or use the comments box.

With thanks to the Neuroleadership Institute and their research (Learning That Lasts Through AGES – Dr Lila Davachi, Dr Tobias Kiefer, Dr David Rock and Lisa Rock – Neuroleadership Journal)

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