It's All In Your Head: The Neuroscience Of Learning And Performance

As ambitious and engaged professionals, we would like to become better at what we do, deepen and widen our expertise, enhance our efficiency, and boost our performances. Neuroscience provides us with a few helpful pointers for growing as a professional.

The connection between learning and performance

As neuroscientist Dr. Geoff Bird states, "The better you've learnt, the better you perform". This may sound self-explanatory at first glance, but the implications of this statement are far-reaching: If you know how to learn efficiently, you will, at the same time, know how to be more productive.

The three-hour rule of reflection

So how do you learn efficiently? The neurological process of learning involves neurons getting activated together repeatedly. With each repetition the connection (called "synapse") between two neurons becomes stronger: Learning takes place. This is why reflection on something you have learned is crucial for sustainable learning.

If you mentally revisit a new piece of information or insight, view it at different angles, and consider possible implications, the matrix of synapses around this knowledge will become stronger and more inter-connected. As a rule of thumb, is it generally recommended that you review, practice, and refine newly acquired knowledge within three hours.

The efficiency of slowness

There are factors that can foster or inhibit the learning process described above. As you may have guessed, stress, a noisy environment, and time pressure are not helpful for efficient learning. Still, for most people it's counter-intuitive at first that if you want to make the most of the time at your disposal, you need to take time and slow down. Only in a calm, quiet, and stress-free environment will you be able to learn efficiently.

The magic of goals

When you feel elated because you've been successful at something or when you feel you are "in the flow" of a productive work process, neuroscience has an explanation for this feeling: It means that a neurotransmitter called "dopamine" has been dumped in your brain and stimulated it. Scientific studies show that working towards meaningful and achievable goals is one of the major causes of a dopamine dump. In other words: If you know what you want to achieve, why you want to achieve it, and that you are able to achieve it, your brain will light up like a Christmas tree.

The reward of the journey

The saying "The journey is the reward." is actually backed up by neurological evidence. Successful people constantly strive towards mastery. Achievements and rewards alone are not necessarily beneficial for learning processes, it's the way towards a desired outcome which makes all the difference. This phenomenon actually brings us back the very first point of this article: Learning and performance are two parts of the same whole.

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