In my last post, I touched on the brain’s ability to adapt based on an individual’s experiences. Daniel Coyle, the author of The Talent Code, believes that talent—from skateboarding to music—is not inherent or “born” into a person; it is created. He describes the importance to the body of myelin, an insulator that surrounds nerve fibers. In all types of learning, including training and professional development, the more a person practices and fails, then corrects and tries again, the more myelin is built up on neural pathways and the faster the brain receives messages along the neural paths. The increase in myelin causes the learning messages to “stick.” Talent, therefore, as Coyle views it, can be developed by repeated practice.
In the same way, employees can practice their thinking skills to build newer and better neural pathways throughout the leadership development process. When these pathways are established, employees can leverage them to generate thoughts in new and changing situations.
The primary actors in the human brain are 100 billion nerve cells, called neurons. All of our functions—conscious and unconscious, physical and mental—happen as a result of impulses traveling along pathways of coordinated neurons.
It’s helpful to take a look at how the brain is structured when examining how neurons play a role in training and professional development. The brain operates as a whole, but general landmarks can be attributed to the four lobes of the brain.
- The occipital lobe, located at the back of the brain, primarily processes vision.
- The parietal lobe, in the back portion of the upper brain, takes in sensations from all senses but smell.
- The temporal lobe, located on the sides of the brain, is mostly responsible for hearing, emotion, and storing memory.
- The frontal lobe, directly behind the eyes, rules social behavior and personal characteristics, including curiosity, foresight, and capacity to foresee outcomes.
The prefrontal cortex within the frontal lobe is responsible for a person’s ability to understand and process appropriate actions and consequences of decisions. Interestingly, people do not fully develop this portion of the brain until the late stages of adolescence. As we age, we begin to use the prefrontal cortex more, tapping into a greater well of experience and logic. Through experience, we establish new neural pathways, which equate to new or evolved mental models and habits.
Neural pathways are like trails through the woods. If one person walks on a path one time, the trail will barely be defined and will vanish quickly. But if many people walk the trail, there will be a well-defined path that is easy to see. These defined neural pathways become a comfort zone, a mental model. We tend to fit many situations into these networks and, as a result, we often only explore options that fit our mental model and require little course change from our well-traversed paths. It becomes difficult to veer away from the established practices—even if they no longer apply. This is how habits are formed.
As we all know too well, there are bad habits and there are good habits. They allow us to fall into a “daily routine” and easily manage the massive amounts of stimuli we face every day. However, an unintended consequence of habits is that because they are performed without depth of thought, we miss critical information. We do not pay attention to the minor details of the habits we use.
When an organizational initiative doesn’t work out as planned, companies blame inadequate processes, tools, or staff. But perhaps the real issue is that the organization applied an old habitual strategy to a new situation that hinders the goal of transforming business. An approach that worked in one situation will not always work in the next. Using the same patterns of thinking means people repeatedly come to the same conclusions. Overall, most people’s reasoning works fine and gets them by, but it may fail when they are challenged in unique situations. During our leadership and development programs, we noted time and again that many participants, even after going through hours of workshops, ended up reverting to old patterns, doing the very things they were told not to do.
In training and professional development, adults have the aptitude, to adapt or change the structural and functional organization of their brains. Simply put, we all have the capacity to replace old habits and create new mental models. In my next post, I’ll discuss the process through which we obtain new information, which is another key concept to take into consideration when developing learning.
Michael Vaughan is the CEO of The Regis Company, a global provider of custom business simulations and experiential learning programs. Michael is the author of the books The Thinking Effect: Rethinking Thinking to Create Great Leaders and the New Value Worker and The End of Training: How Business Simulations Are Reshaping Business.