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January – June 2018

The neuroscience of learning: What leaders, lecturers and learners should know

  • Prof Renata Schoeman
  • MAY 2018
  • Tags Insights, Leadership
13 minutes to read


Article written by Prof Renata Schoeman

It is a no-brainer that soft skills (often phrased as actions, or seen as interpersonal or people skills) such as emotional and social intelligence are as important as, or even more important than (depending on the context), hard skills (often phrased as nouns, or described as technical skills, outputs or deliverables). However, learning soft skills is difficult! The encouraging thing is that our brains are ‘wired’ for these skills. If we adopt the correct mindset, understand neuroplasticity and maximise the learning experience, we can master soft skills. This is how we can do this:


Step 1: Adopt a growth mindset

The process starts by adopting a growth mindset. A growth mindset sees mistakes as valuable opportunities to learn – for example, mistakes encourage us to innovate in new directions and view change as a welcome challenge. We compare our results with our own previous achievements. Small successes reinforce self-belief which inspires us to continue to improve.

In contrast to the growth mindset there is the fixed mindset. If we have a fixed mindset, we will avoid mistakes at all costs, see change as a major threat and rather remain stuck in our old ways of doing things. With a fixed mindset we compare our achievements with those of others, i.e. we ask ourselves if they are better or worse, rather than improving or having a ‘setback’ or ‘learning opportunity’, as with the growth mindset.

Another important principle is the adoption of system-setting as opposed to goal-setting. Although goals are important – and provide ‘direction indicators’ along the route to achieving our vision and mission – you can remain in a constant state of temporary or permanent failure. For example, if you have to write paper of 3 000 words, you will constantly fail until the paper is complete. However, if you have a growth mindset and have embraced system-setting, you will commit to writing for 30 minutes every day. Every day brings a small achievement and every day is an opportunity for improvement. Success breeds success.

Now that we understand the importance of the growth mindset, we can look at the ‘arboretum’ in our brain. Each neuron in our brain has thousands of ‘branches’ (dendrites) that are connected to other neurons. We can enhance these connections or ‘prune’ those we do not need. This neuroplasticity is the potential of the brain to reorganise and adapt by creating new neural pathways and connections in response to requirements or experiences. There are two types of neuroplasticity: functional neuroplasticity, which refers to the ability to move functions from a damaged area to an undamaged area, and structural plasticity, which refers to the ability to change physical structure as a result of learning. We are therefore able to teach an old brain new tricks!

Neuroplasticity is the potential of the brain to reorganise and adapt by creating new neural pathways and connections in response to requirements or experiences.

In order to utilise neuroplasticity to ‘re-wire’ our brains, we need to be exposed to a particular stimulus in an accurate and deliberate way, with enough intensity and repetition. Nothing is more effective than practice – we need to put in the effort. The more we struggle, the better!

Another important innate attribute we have in our brain is visuospatial neurons, which are essentially programmed to assist us with human social interactions. There are two mirror neuron networks in our brain: the social brain network which helps us to experience emotion, and the cognitive group which helps us to understand intellectually what another person is experiencing. These mirror neurons are stimulated both when we do something and when we observe the same action performed by someone else. For example, we experience pain when we fall, but we also cringe when someone else has fallen. We can therefore learn through experience, but also through observation and mental rehearsal.

‘Nothing is more effective than practice – we need to put in the effort. The more we struggle, the better!’

Although we often hear ‘Do not take an emotional decision!’ or the contrary ‘He is so unemotional!’, it is a fallacy that we are able to divide decision making artificially into ‘emotional’ and ‘rational’ or ‘cognitive’ decisions. Elizabeth Phelps highlighted this in her 2006 study (Emotion and cognition: insights from studies of the human amygdala. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 27-53), saying:


Investigations into the neural systems underlying human behaviour demonstrate that the mechanisms of emotion and cognition are intertwined from early perception to reasoning. These findings suggest that the classic division between the study of emotion and cognition may be unrealistic and that an understanding of human cognition requires the consideration of emotion.


Although certain stimuli may be prone to soliciting an emotional reaction, how those stimuli are processed and interpreted can have a profound impact on both internal states and expressed behaviours and actions. Through conscious strategies and practice, we can change our interpretation of specific stimuli, enabling us to alter our own and other people’s emotional reactions. Changing emotional responses through reasoning and strategies emphasises the impact of cognition on emotion. This is good news, as it provides another useful ingredient for optimal learning.

So how can we integrate these innate abilities to learn the hard and soft skills we need in order to be successful students, lecturers and leaders? The first step is to pay attention: we must be deliberate in our endeavours. Do not mindlessly read or listen. Be curious. Avoid distractions. Do not multi-task.


Step 2: Generate questions

The second step is to generate questions. We have an innate value system in our ventral striatum and medial prefrontal cortex, which helps us to find value in new things and thoughts. But we can enhance this value system by priming our brain for the learning experience. We need to be able to find personal or social relevance in information. Is this worthwhile doing? What do we want to learn or gain from this? What are the implications (the ‘so what?’) of this? Even more important, is it worthwhile sharing? In other words, is this sufficiently valuable or interesting that we would want to tell someone about it (in person or on social media)?


Step 3: Tap into emotions

The third step in optimising learning is to tap into emotions. A bit of stress (such as a deadline or upcoming evaluation) can aid learning because of the increase in dopamine and noradrenaline which helps us to pay attention and to concentrate. We can also enhance this ability by introducing a reward system (work incentives or a self-reward like ‘earning’ a coffee break or dinner) or by avoiding punishment (like failing a test or experiencing social rejection). However, too much stress can paralyse us and have the opposite effect. How can we manage our stress levels? The basic principles of self-care (sleeping, exercising, pursuing educational opportunities, maintaining a healthy and balanced diet, and socialising) are crucial for optimising our mental health and enabling our brain to learn optimally.


Step 4: Repetition

The fourth and final important step is repetition: the spacing of our learning experiences over a period of time. Being exposed to information only once simply activates a circuit of reverberating neurons in our brain; when the flow of electricity stops, the information ‘disappears’ (this is what happens when we look up a telephone number, dial it … and five minutes later we have no idea what the number was). However, if we repeat the learning experience we activate neurotransmitters in our brain which produce longer-term chemical changes. This enables us to keep information in our heads for days to weeks. But we often want structural change – learning that facilitates long-term memory over a period of months or years – for which we need even more repetition. As a rule of thumb, if we want to remember something for a week, we should repeat it within days; if we want to remember it for months, repeat it within weeks, and if we want it to last for a lifetime, repeat it within months.

Investigations into the neural systems underlying human behaviour demonstrate that the mechanisms of emotion and cognition are intertwined from early perception to reasoning.

To be successful in life, we need to harbour (and continuously improve) hard and soft skills. Soft skills are more difficult to learn, but our brains are ‘wired’ for cognitive, emotional and social intelligence and learning. Yet we can only truly learn and improve the learning experience of others if we have a sincere desire to do so and are prepared to put in a concerted effort, including the requisite amount of practice.

Prof Renata Schoeman is an associate professor in Personal Authentic Leadership and Leadership Development at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. Her research interests include the neuroscience of leadership and learning, and ADHD. She is also a registered psychiatrist.

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