29 FEBRUARY 2016


In our previous ILP article, I explained the science behind human development. In this article, we will take a deeper dive into the brain and in particular, how an understanding of neurology fundamentals can help facilitate superior learning outcomes for staff.


The region of the brain called the pre frontal cortex [or PFC] is responsible for learning, memory, decision making and problem solving.  Therefore, if we are to learn complex concepts or tasks and then effectively translate this learning into job performance, we need our PFC to be at its best.

Regardless of our experience or intelligence, a common barrier that we face is that our PFC tires quickly. In fact, we only have around 2-3 hours of maximum PFC capacity per day. This is important to understand if we are going to get the most out of our brain on a daily basis.

One way to achieve this is to split learning activities into the three cognitive levels of work. These are Level 1 [easy]; Level 2 [medium]; and Level 3 [complex and difficult]. While it’s the Level 3 tasks that often create the most value in the workplace, when we manage our day we have a tendency to warm up with a few level 1 activities first. From a neurological point of view however we are actually wasting our best resources because we tap out our PFC with the low level tasks and when we really need it, it’s not there for us.

Have you ever tried to teach or learn something complex at 4pm in the afternoon? If so, you will know what this feels like.

Therefore, one thing you can do to be more effective is to develop the most complex and difficult elements early in the day, when the PFC is at maximum capacity. Leave the lower level elements to the afternoon when participants don’t need as much of their PFC.


2)            BE A DOPAMINE PUSHER

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that acts like a narcotic and is associated with motivation, reward and pleasure. From a learning perspective, Dr Martha Burns calls dopamine the brain’s “save button”; because when it’s released, we remember what we learn.

Strong managers are regular pushers of this drug by using praise and positive reinforcement with their staff. Learning professionals can also harness the power of dopamine by creating stimulating learning environments that wire their delegates for knowledge acquisition, problem solving and creative thinking.

On the other side of this equation, when we feel threatened either through fear, uncertainty, loss of control or intimidation; the brain goes into ‘fight or flight mode’.  This significantly reduces our ability to learn, solve complex problems or come up with new creative ideas.

So as a learning professional, your task is to create an environment which is safe, positive, predictable and rewarding.

The reward and threat triggers for each individual will differ, so it’s important to take the time to understand these triggers and tailor their learning toward elements that will stimulate a dopamine response and avoid a threat response.  Examples include gamification, clear learning outcomes, hands on activities that engage staff and immediate application of learning on the job.


3)            BUILT FOR MOTION

The human body is built for motion, however most corporate learning is done sitting still. We are actually not designed to sit in one place for more than 45mins at a time and in the 46th minute our brains start to slow down and our bodies start to shut down.

Contemporary workplaces understand this as evidenced by the spike in flexible desks, walking meetings and a warning light on your desktop that reminds you to get moving every 45 mins.

The modern development practitioner also understands this and either delivers learning in shorter bursts or breaks training up into separate components with movement in between.



  • Understand what rewards people and what threatens them;
  • Tailor learning so that it is safe, rewarding and pleasurable;
  • Schedule difficult learning for early in the day;
  • Deliver learning in 45mins bursts.

You don’t need to be a neurologist however by understanding neurology fundamentals, you can structure your development activities differently to get the most out of the brain’s formidable power and facilitate greater application of learning on the job.


Author: Christopher Paterson


Christopher Paterson is the Managing Director of ALCHEMY Career Management, a firm of coaches and business psychologists who support the career success of individuals, assist companies adapting to organisational change and deliver Wellness@Work™ programs for any organisation wanting to help staff to be at their best. For more information, please see