Archive for February, 2011

Entertainment + education: are both really possible at the same time?

February 24th, 2011 Kevin No comments


Our bodies treat entertainment differently than education and mingling both together at once might just reduce our chances of learning by encouraging our unconscious to decide the pressure of learning is off.


Entertaining and educating are not a great pair. When both are present we tend to treat them both far more as entertainment and far less as education. Then, the opportunity to learn goes way down.

Say some more?

I sense that different brain waves, mental states, focus, value and resolve occur during educational moments compared with entertaining moments. And, we like to be entertained way more than educated.


So if we are involved in a training designed to be educational and entertaining, it may be that our bodies by default decide to chill out, be entertained, and stop paying close attention or retaining much at all.

So what?

Well: a popular approach to corporate training relies on entertainment during the educational process. With all that entertainment, what if we decide it’s all entertainment with little or no education value at all?

What’s your point?

My point is that we may need a challenge, a little anxiety, for learning to stick and that if we intermingle entertainment, we might be reducing the challenge, stress, and corresponding stickiness of the learning.


Separate the two out more. Acknowledge that training and learning require a form of attention, focus, and resolve that gets dampened down by entertainment. Focus on learning tactics more than entertaining moments. Make the rewards for learning less immediate (entertaining) with bigger, longer lasting pay offs (increased retention, efficiency, and mastery). Accept that intense moments of learning surely deserve a break and that those breaks in between the learning ought to be entertaining. They simply should not have entertainment stuck in the middle because that throws our unconscious brain off. Acknowledge that adult learning deserves sincere dedication to the task at hand without too much laughter, theatrics, or need for a soothing, “challenge free” calm. While entertainment affords solace for our weary corporate bones, this post simply encourages that the place for entertainment might not be smack dab in the middle of an important learning moment.

Are you taking away our right to be entertained during corporate training sessions?

No, I hope. I’m just thinking about how we might reframe the issue of entertainment in education. If we want to increase learning, is our simultaneous need to be entertained getting in the way?


The idea that entertainment and education don’t mingle well is a mere hunch. Who knows, perhaps entertainment is essential to learning? Let’s explore it some. Stay tuned.

Categories: Brain power, Learning Tags:

The Back 98™: Learning and the Brain

February 15th, 2011 Kevin No comments

Learning and the Brain

This post is part of The Back 98™ series where I share information about sections of our brains we don’t often manage directly. The big idea: you may wish to control more of The Back 98 than you currently do.

What are three things I need to focus on about learning and the Back 98 part of my brain?

1) Use all your senses: brains dedicate tons of cells to senses and we learn best when we maximize them

The point: as you learn, consciously use as many senses as you can for best learning results

Example: talk with others about your learning, write about it, read what you learn out loud if you can

2) Get emotional: the emotion-related parts of the brain are highly influential and really make things stick

The point: back your learning with conscious emotion when you can to guarantee you learn things well

Example: connect a past passion with your new learning, or revel emotionally when you achieve an insight

3) Space learning out in small chunks: memory overloads fast, so spread out learning by time and in parts

The point: know when you hit overload, before then, break up your learning into smaller parts

Example: stop reading this when you’ve had enough; return later and reflect on what you read while away

Below I underline several learning tactics. It’s a starter list and the tactics appear at the end of this post.

What areas of The Back 98 do you specifically discuss?

Your sensory sections come up, as do the parts of your brain that integrate your senses. The emotional brain (which includes parts dedicated to memory) plays a huge role in learning. I also touch on short term memory, which is more of a front of the brain thing (by referencing that you get overloaded with new learning). Long term memory is implied and not directly addressed (we remember what we rehearse and several tactics address rehearsal of new learning). Generally, I speak to the formation of neuronal pathways all over the brain that fire together. I also spend some time discussing imagination. The “imagination” system of your brain involves the visual cortex as well as a bunch of other parts.

That’s a lot of sections of The Back 98!

Yes, learning ultimately is a “whole brain” event. Still, it can be helpful to understand the various parts involved in how we learn. For the record, I try not to get too technical in the early posts in the series. You can expect that I will use specific terms, like hippocampus, as we move further along in the series.

That’s a lot of Back 98 territory, don’t you think?

Yes; this post scampers about the brain. The entire Back 98 is fair real estate when it comes to learning. The more you use of The Back 98, the better your learning will stick and mean something for you.

Why so much focus on learning, I’ve been out of school for a while?

Business continues to move from production of things to production of thoughts. People who learn faster and apply their learning effectively create competitive advantages and prosper in these changing times.

Any other reasons?

Constant learning improves the chance the new brain cells we create daily will stay alive (they die with no purpose). It also ensures growth of connection between brain cells. Learning brains are healthy brains.

Any other benefits of constant learning?

Brains crave novelty. Rewards happen (releasing chemicals like dopamine) when we gain insights. Learning helps predict things and helps us navigate change. Surprise yourself: it’s good for your brain.

Are you saying if I control the nonconscious sections of my brain I’ll learn better?

Yes. I’ll share with you helpful tactics that will improve how you learn and also offer tidbits about how your brain prefers to learn. Take your time to work on the points I share at your leisure, when it suits you.

You don’t know my brain! How can you tell me what it’ll prefer?

In this series I offer what science is uncovering about the brain generally. Researchers are susceptible to mupping (”making stuff up,” just like we all do). Much they offer will prove right, some will get revised.

“Researchers?” What researchers?

Here are a few of my favorites, use their name and “brain” in your Internet search to find out more about them: James Zull; Eric Jensen; Rita Carter; Louann Brizendine; Stephen Pinker; Daniel Goleman; Jonah Lehrer; David Rock; Antonio Damasio; Sharon Begley; Michael Gazzaniga; Joseph LeDoux; John Medina; V.S. Ramachandran; Daniel Schacter. I credit each of these folks and many more including good friends with the things I pass along to you in this blog. A thank you to each and every one who has helped me.

Long list!

Yes. That’s why this blog series is happening. I hope it provides you with some short cuts into this amazing area of ongoing, exciting research. How cool to learn what, quite literally, makes us tick.

Can you share some tactics for improving how I learn already, thanks!

Okay, and first: who learns the most in a class room? Usually, it’s the teacher! Teachers move, talk, hear, touch, and gesture more than most students, which helps. We learn best when we use all of our senses.

So what’s the tactic?

Tactic one: use as many senses as you can when you learn to help make your learning stick better. Our brains have different sections for hearing, seeing, etc.; neurons help us learn better that fire together.

What do you mean by “fire together?”

Fire together refers to the way brain cells, called neurons, communicate. When they fire together they share energy and chemicals all at once. We learn better when more cells link together at the same time.

Encouraging neurons to fire together helps us learn better?

Yes: because when neurons fire together as we learn it makes it more likely we will be able to call back up the learning later. The brain is able to recall more information if we involve more senses as we learn.

Come again? Not sure I get that… do you have an analogy for this point?

When you leave several post-its around to remind yourself of something (the mirror, fridge, on the front door), chances that you will remember the thing go way up. For the brain more connections are better.

You mentioned gesturing; does gesturing help me learn more too?



Scientists aren’t sure. Their studies just show that people who gesture as they learn retain more and do better on tests. Maybe it’s because gesturing and language are closely linked: language is key to learning.

Your first tactics are about sensory experiences and movement, is that right?

Yes. The first tactic speaks to using more senses when you learn. The second deals with movement that accompanies speech usually. Tactic two: gesture as you learn to help you learn better.

I have heard that blind people gesture to other blind people when they talk, is that true?

Yes. We all need to gesture as we speak. Try not gesturing and see what happens. It’s painful when a speaker forgets to gesture at a podium, isn’t it? Gesturing naturally accompanies language and learning.

Do you have additional tactics related to using our senses more?

You betcha. Tactics three through six: read out loud (that’s what Lincoln used to do), write notes in books that you read, talk in study groups, and imagine presenting your learning to an audience.

Are you saying we should use our imagination as we learn?

Yes. The brain treats imagined events and actual events about the same. Imagining something that involves new learning is just like using it. The more we “use” a new learning the better we learn it.

Practice makes perfect?

With learning: absolutely.

What other tactics relate to learning and The Back 98?

Tactic seven: get emotional when you learn. Large sections of the brain are dedicated to produce and assess emotions. Emotional backing is key. Get emotional to learn way more than you think you can.

If I don’t like something (tax filings/Microsoft upgrades), how can I back it emotionally?

Simple: relax. Let the final benefits drive your passion for it. Focus on solutions and not problems. Do whatever it takes to emote your way through the learning. Discipline is remembering what you want.

Are you saying the ability to relax is another learning tactic?

Yes. Tactic eight: relax, take deep breaths from your belly, and get as much oxygen to your brain as possible. Ever do poorly on a test where you were out of breath and got anxious? Relax to learn more.

You haven’t mentioned repetition yet: is repetition important for learning?

Repetition is the mother of learning. I did mention practice. In the absence of emotions, repetition is critical: it helps neuronal pathways get stronger. Tactic nine: repeat things to improve your brain’s wiring.

If there is a mother of learning, is there a father?

Beats me. There is this: if you connect a new learning to things you already know the chances of it sticking around go way up. Tactic ten: connect a new learning to what you already know.

Got any more tactics?

Yes and we just hit ten tactics. This is a great time and place in this post for you to remove yourself from the blog for a bit. Come back later, your action will most likely help you learn  better in the end anyway.

Okay… I’m back. More tactics please.

Sure. Before I do, a fun fact: a jigsaw puzzle without the top is 10 times harder to solve than with it.

So what? Is that another tactic?

Yes. Tactic eleven: understand the overall point of the learning first, then tackle the details. We do better with our learning when we can understand the big picture of why we are learning first before the specifics.

That seems like common sense; how is it a brain thing?

Parts of the cerebral cortex (cortex means “bark”) help integrate our senses together. One part integrates the big picture and another organizes details. The brain tends to want to see the whole before the details.

How do you know that?

Several researchers speak to this and in particular, consider the work of James Zull in his excellent book, The Art of Changing the Brain, pages 154-162. He explains “the back integrative cortex” and what it does.

What does the back integrative cortex do?

According to Zull, the back integrative cortex brings present senses together with prior senses to help make meaning of what’s happening. It’s like the way we move jigsaw pieces around to see if they fit.

So getting a handle on the big picture first makes the most sense?

For most of us, yes. Meaning is found in patterns that we can predict and not necessarily details we list. Memory without meaning is a hollow promise. Our ability to make meaning first is critical for learning.

Does my ability to predict things help me learn?

How predictive of you! Learning is mostly a function of prediction, in fact. We are pattern making machines and love to figure out patterns that predict the future. The Back 98 rewards smart predictions.

What kind of rewards?

The chemical kind, like the release of dopamine or endorphin. Also social rewards, which is a topic for another post in this blog series: the brain wires toward social interaction, social needs, and social rewards.

What kind of predictions are you talking about: short term; mid-term; or long term?

Short term. Change is hard for us because the longer the term, the harder it is to predict outcomes. This is one reason lifetime learning is key. Constant learning helps us maintain accurate short term predictions.

You mean we humans are not so good at mid term and long term predictions?

Exactly (as a general rule; there are exceptions).

Is this why some “experts” get it wrong when they predict market failure, war, etc.?

Yes. The farther out we ask experts to predict things the more predictions will amount to near guesswork.

Is there a learning tactic related to predicting?

Yes. Tactic twelve: your learning improves when you see how the learning predicts your successful future. We remember a learning that helps predict things accurately (fear throws this off, more in a later post).

That sounds a whole lot like WIIFM (”what’s in it for me”); do you agree?

Yes. WIIFM is a powerful motivator for learning; it is directly tied to the need to provide emotional backing behind what we learn. We learn best when we create patterns that help us predict the future.

What else about learning must I know?

Learn to reflect (similar to rehearsal). Reflection helps cement our learning. When it comes to learning this is an essential part. Reflection helps the brain process our learning and gives it perspective too.

So what’s the tactic?

Tactic thirteen: reflect on what you learn to improve your ability to retain and use the new learning. Do so by sharing your learning, reviewing the learning as it happens, and imagining how the learning helps you.

Isn’t reflection the same thing as repetition?

It’s different. Repetition is wrote and relies on fewer brain sections. Reflection can be a whole brain process, a more comprehensive approach. It helps you take advantage of the strengths of your brain.

Say some more?

Some parts of The Back 98 work better for you than others (you may be more visual, more tuned to your hearing, etc.). Those parts will fire up more during reflection. Reflection works to your brain’s strengths.

What state of mind should I have as I reflect?

Great question! Try wonder and trust. Wonder, as in “the mind of a child,” is a great motivator. Wonder encourages puzzlement, and we humans love to figure out puzzles. This is true even without the box top!

And trust… can trust be a state of mind?

Of course it can. When a great old friend calls, what happens? Instantly, we recall multiple things about him or her and get right back up to speed. Tactic fourteen: your brain learns better on trust and wonder.

Do states of mind affect learning?


Are you saying I should walk around in a state of wonder and trust all the time?

Not a bad idea at all. That is the spirit of tactic fourteen.

What haven’t you covered?

We’ve covered a lot. Fourteen tactics in all with lots of insights about brain preferences. That’s enough for now. There will be additional references to learning later in the series. Learning is key to living well.

Conclusion: Fourteen Tactics for Learning and the Brain

As promised, here are all the tactics listed. I provide an example after each one as well:

Tactic one: use as many senses as you can when you learn to help make your learning stick better.

Example: teach what you learn to whoever will listen to maximize your sensory experience.

Tactic two: gesture as you learn to help you learn better.

Example: move hands, lips and eyebrows when you read, even if it looks like you are talking to yourself!

Tactics three: read out loud.

Example: speak the notes you take during a learning out loud during your review of them later.

Tactic four: write notes in books that you read.

Example: pretend you are in a conversation with the author and write out questions you might ask her.

Tactic five: talk in study groups.

Example: talk about the learning with others who are also learning the same things as much as you can.

Tactic six: imagine presenting your learning to an audience.

Example: turn a chair backwards and pretend it is your podium; have at it because practice makes perfect!

Tactic seven: get emotional when you learn.

Example: psych yourself up before a learning and jump up and down like a football player before a game.

Tactic eight: relax, take deep breaths from your belly, and get as much oxygen to your brain as possible.

Example: try faking a yawn; it might bring about the real thing and it will get lots of oxygen to the brain.

Tactic nine: repeat things to improve your brain’s wiring.

Example: in your mind, review the learning and if you can, rewrite notes later in the day.

Tactic ten: connect a new learning to what you already know.

Example: no matter how weak the link force yourself to compare a new learning to something you know.

Tactic eleven: understand the overall point of the learning first, then tackle the details.

Example: spend more time figuring out the reasons you are learning something first before diving in to it.

Tactic twelve: your learning improves when you see how the learning predicts your successful future.

Example: modify your body language and predict better relations with it; pay attention to the gains made.

Tactic thirteen: reflect on what you learn to improve your ability to retain and use the new learning.

Example: make a habit to consciously reflect on what you learned by day’s end to make it stick better.

Tactic fourteen: your brain learns better on trust and wonder.

Example: believe in what you learn and consciously wonder how you will use it to your advantage.

There. That concludes the post on Learning and the Brain in The Back 98 blog series.

Stay tuned for more,

Kevin Leahy

Knowledge Advocate, LLC

Categories: Brain power, Learning Tags:

Good question to ask: how do you handle being puzzled?

February 10th, 2011 Kevin No comments

Here is a fun, out-of-the-box question. Try it first on yourself and then with others. The question is:

How do you handle being puzzled?

What’s the point of the question?

“Being puzzled” means different things for different people. Once you sort through those differences, the essence of being puzzled, its gist, is an uncertainty about something. How we handle that is interesting.

Say some more?

How we handle “being puzzled” demonstrates how we face and master change, shows how we connect things we already know together, and indicates how we deal with brand new, never-experienced stuff.

Can you summarize the point of this post for me?

Sure: ask folks how they handle being puzzled, it will clue you in on how they learn stuff and manage change. The answer will come in real handy if you need them to learn new things and take on change any time soon.

Good luck!

Categories: Brain power, Questioning Tags:

The Back 98™: A Blog Series about Your Nonconscious Brain

February 4th, 2011 Kevin No comments

Welcome to a blog series I call: The Back 98.™

What does that phrase refer to?

The phrase refers to the nonconscious parts of your brain. It is your fantastic, untapped resource at work. I’ll offer a series of posts on how to use parts of The Back 98 to improve your performance at work.

Why do you call it “The Back 98″?

Folk lore says we consciously control about two percent (2%) of our brain neurons, compared with the 98% that we do not control. Exactly how much of the brain fires due to our conscious effort is in dispute.

Why 98? Are you sure 2% of our brain supports consciousness: did you just make that up?

Again: folk lore and not much science hint that consciousness takes up about 2% of our brain; leaving 98% as nonconscious. Whether 98%, 90% or 0%: we might as well start somewhere. I choose 98%.

What’s the point if you don’t know the right number?

We can agree we don’t control our entire brain (good news for most of what happens, true?). Still, can you actively control parts of your nonconscious brain? Should you? I’ll explore those questions in this series.

Have at it: are there specific parts of the back 98 I should control?

Yes. That question highlights the point of this series. Breakthroughs in neuropsychology and business management hint at how we can better manage our brains. Better brains mean better results at work.

Why manage my brain; isn’t the problem managing and leading other people?

You’re not suggesting another book about leadership! Compelling evidence mounts: manage yourself better and you will manage and lead others better. The ancient advice still rings true: know thyself.

Aren’t you just describing emotional intelligence, mindfulness, 5th level leadership?

Yes: all of those apply. Stephen Covey’s book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People does too, as do insights from Deming, Drucker and other management gurus. Jung and fellow psychologists explored these truths and of course, millions are guided by spiritual leaders including Jesus Christ, Lao Tzu, Buddha and others. The focus of much brain research for the moment is on the self. This is good news, as brain science continues to describe in ever more precise detail what happens when we think and feel and do things.

You mean focus on self never left our cultural conscious: it’s an ancient preoccupation?


It’s just different now because of breakthroughs in brain science?

Quite right.

And you’ll discuss how to manage my brain to improve my work efforts?


Who else recommends a brain-focused approach for the workplace?

I am not alone in this effort: coaches, facilitators, and psychologists are joining forces to get the word out. This blog series will simply offer you my highlights: my 2¢. I intend for you to enjoy the experience.

What parts of The Back 98 do you have in mind to talk about?

Here is a starter list. I will consider these areas in this series:

1. Learning and the Brain;

2. The Brain and Change;

3. The Amygdala and Our Threat Response;

4. Ego: Shrink Wrap for Our Selves;

5. Brains in the Zone;

6. Social Brains, Social Needs;

7. Decisions and the Brain;

8. “Whole Brain,” Whole Effort, Whole Benefit;

9. Catch the Fever: Goal Setting with the Brain in Mind;

10. Placebo for the Workplace: Leadership and Management Pills.

Are you going to say more?

Yes, and not right now. I look forward to sharing this exciting area of brain-focused and work-related information with you. Let’s claim some of that precious real estate waiting for us in The Back 98.

It’s worth it!

Kevin Leahy, Founder

Knowledge Advocate, LLC

Categories: Brain power, People Tags:

“Who do you help the most?”

February 3rd, 2011 Kevin No comments

Great questioners ask hard questions: the ones we don’t hear too often and the ones that place us a distance between safety (haven’t thought of this question before) and challenge (I’m feeling anxious now).

“Who do you help the most?”: great for cocktail parties, plane trips, and job interviews.

The question invokes our social brain (we are wired to need each other) as well as a WIIFM (what’s in it for me) approach to life. Helping others often helps us so it is a nice equation to explore: how do you help?

For what reasons is the question both challenging and safe too?

The focus on “who” helps with that. We form stories around people and love to reflect on what we do for them and why it matters to them and us. Beginning with who gets our social neurons fired up right away.

What about the “you,” why is that valuable?

Bringing you and who together so quickly hints at a relationship and a need between people. The person hearing the question senses they must call up a person or group to connect with his or her own efforts.

Speak more about “efforts,” how do you know they are anticipating a question about effort?

Intuitively, we know the rules of grammar and the next thing to follow after “you” will almost always be a verb. Because we love to predict what comes next, we will start to predict what verb may come next.

And “help,” seems like a soft verb without much definition: help with what, when and why?

Asking about help is the true beauty of the question. Open ended, “help” calls up a flurry of brain activity as the person scours experiences for times they helped others or how they helped, before answering.

Finally, you include “the most,” is such a distinction possible?

Who knows until you ask, right? And the fact that you ask and make it categorical at the end ratchets up the challenge, doesn’t it? Use of the category makes them respond with feeling as well as rational thought.

You really think this question is a great one?

Yes, one of the all time best. When you ask it, do it with your best, most wonderful body-language and non-verbal cues. Soften your tone, raise eyebrows in an arc, breathe slowly, give the right personal space.

Good luck!

Categories: Questioning Tags: