Engage The Brain

Neuroscience and psychology may be the keys to successful training and organizational success.

When we remember a lesson learned or find ourselves transfixed by a particular message, the person delivering the message can be credited, but there may be something else at work that goes beyond the talent of the presenter—neuroscience. The way the brain works, and the ability of Learning professionals to understand and use the tendencies of the brain, can make the difference between powerful training and training that falls short.

Three Learning professionals inside companies and six experts in the field share insights for using brain science and psychology to help your employees learn better.

Opening Pathways in the Brain

Creating successful learning programs can depend on a company’s ability to tap into neural pathways. At Training Top 125er Walmart, Training uses knowledge of these pathways to create lessons that resonate with learners. Many of the company’s Learning professionals have studied the science of the brain and use their knowledge to deliver effective training, says Content Manager Joshua Rowell, Walmart’s resident technology and gamification expert.

For example, the game, Spark City, utilizes both practice and emotional channels to help rapidly establish mental pathways and external processes of being successful as a department manager. “This allows an exploratory safeto- fail approach to better understand the behaviors of successful action in the real world,” says Rowell.

Similarly, he says the company uses psychology to optimize virtual reality in its learning programs. “Our approach to virtual reality training incorporates psychological safety. Examples of this include both our Empathy and Active Shooter programs,” he says. “In both, an emotional experience is presented for our associates, but the design ensures that long-lasting negative psychological impact is avoided. Utilization of the realistic physiological and emotional reactions is key to making the learning objectives easier to encode to memory, and more importantly, establish the paths for rapid retrieval.”

Along with tapping into the brain’s pathways, effective training doesn’t conflict with how the brain works. That means finding ways to make the training important personally to the learner. “Does the content explain the ‘why’ and/or the ‘what’s in it for me?’ This drives engagement by getting past the first psychological filter of the brain that is driven by personal context,” Rowell explains.

It’s also important to engage the brain in multiple ways. “Review and ensure the learning experience includes multimodal and inclusive content without overloading the learner,” Rowell recommends.

Tell a Story to Put Learning Into Context

Another key to creating compelling training is to present it in a powerful way. One of the strongest ways to do that is through storytelling, says Heide Abelli, customer market leader and general manager, Leadership and Business, at Skillsoft. “The treatment and design of video training material influences the learner’s level of engagement. Simply delivering an instructor/expert lecture on camera, interspersed with bulleted concepts, is the least engaging way to present critical leadership and higher-order soft skills content,” she says. “Our neuroscience research findings suggest that learners crave a storyline; a narrative; and some degree of self-directed, progressive disclosure of the concepts.”

This finding informs design considerations for Skillsoft’s leadership development content. Abelli explains that, based on research results, Skillsoft has ensured that the learning effectiveness of its leadership and business content is optimized through:

  • Powerful imagery—important to recall and apply on the job
  • Balance of narration, visuals, and text—critical to solidify the learning and minimize distractions
  • Conveyance of meaning—not just rote information transfer
  • Conversational style—in line with how we naturally learn
  • Outstanding production quality with good content pacing

Encouraging a Growth Mindset

Training Top 125er Paychex focuses on creating the best mindset for learning. “We know that having a growth mindset maximizes learning,” says Learning Designer Sarah Carlson. “We are in the process of reviewing and rewriting ‘smile sheets’ to focus learners on self-reflecting on the growth they made. The brain has incredible plasticity, so during the learning, it’s important to give learners the opportunity to reflect on their growth throughout the training, not just after it.”

Carlson also notes that in order to learn according to brain-based science, “we have to turn our attention to ‘focus, which turns on the hippocampus in the brain. That is our data drive that stores things into our memory. It is attached to the amygdala that regulates our emotion based on sensory input and tells our hippocampus to ‘pay attention.’ We know that the capacity of our hippocampus to focus is a maximum of 20 minutes, therefore, we keep our e-learning modules to no longer than 20 minutes.”

Since “effort” also is said to make a difference to learning, Paychex gives learners opportunities to take notes in a lightbox slide in one of the authoring tools it uses, Articulate Storyline.

Creating the right cues to trigger learning can be another way to put the brain in the right mindset. “We know for behavior to change and become habit, we need to have clear cues (especially powerful is connecting a previous habit to the new habit); break the routine into baby steps so they can’t fail; do those steps repetitively; and have a reward,” she says. “In e-learning, social response is a great reward, and can be used post-learning through activities done with a learner’s team or through social media applications for learning.”

Another tactic is to avoid creating “training” at all, and to focus instead on having conversations, says Richard D. Glaser, Ph.D., of the CreatingWe Institute. “Through Conversational Intelligence, a methodology based on neuroscience, we offer participants an effective way to create trust within their team, organization, or corporation. As my wife [Judith Glaser] wrote, ‘To get to the next level of greatness depends on the quality of the relationships, which depends on the quality of the conversations. Everything happens through conversations,’” Glaser says.

Simulations can be effective, he notes, if there is a facilitator managing debriefings through conversation. “We have used simulations where two participants discuss a problem with each other, and behind them, each has a team of five peers. The simulation is stopped periodically to allow the team to discuss what went right and what went wrong.”

Begin with the Brain

To fully use brain science to create better training, it’s best to consider how the brain works from the moment you begin to design a learning program, says Ann Herrmann-Nehdi, chairman of the board and chief thought leader of Herrmann Inc., creator of Whole Brain Thinking and the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI). “It is always easiest when you start by designing a program with the brain in mind from the beginning—which we always use in our organization unless we are redesigning an existing program,” she says. “Many programs reflect the learning preferences of the designer—not the learners. Based on our research, our approach is to design programs that will appeal to all learners using Whole Brain Design principles that will allow each learner to effectively engage, as well as structuring them using what we know about brain-based learning such as staggering learning over time, which significantly improves retention.”

Herrmann-Nehdi points out that “the oversimplified notion of ‘learning styles’ is not what we mean here—our approach, which is focused on all learners, assumes diversity of cognitive preference in everyone. Thus, a design that addresses that diversity is critical.”

Keys to optimizing brain science in learning include doing the following, Herrmann-Nehdi says:

  • Ensuring you always start with providing context at the beginning, as that is the first place the brain goes to determine if this is new or not as it tries to link it to previous learning.
  • Managing attention—in today’s world, attention is the new currency, which places a heavier burden on learning designers to create compelling, relevant, and timely learning and delivery mechanisms that are well suited. For example, a reinforcement “nudge” needs to occur in a seamless and relevant format so the learner can connect and apply it immediately.
  • Challenging learners’ brains enough to be engaged—but not so much as to shut down learning due to excessive stress. This means making learners somewhat uncomfortable—which can be a sign of learning. Gaming often uses this effectively.
  • Making sure learners actively engage with the content vs. statically taking it to help build ownership. For example, if you ask learners to create a metaphor of what they are learning, that engages the brain and creates a personal understanding.

Ensuring the Learning Sticks

A well-delivered training program is only the first half of the story; the second is making sure participants actually learned what you intended, and that those lessons will stick. A careful plan for how the training is delivered is important to achieving those goals, says Deb DeNure, chief learning officer of DB Associates of WI, LLC. “Mapping out the delivery plan will contribute to the experience and transfer knowledge quicker. Implementing a skill with simulations during a session is the best retention activity to shift performance. Skill practice that pushes critical thinking and professional presence is a benchmark for retaining the sessions’ intent,” she says.

In addition, DeNure says Learning professionals must be diligent in post-course evaluations. “Measuring the success of the session is key. Assigning a measurement indicator and using a valid psychometric assessment will establish evaluation guidelines and effectiveness indicators for the learning opportunity. For example, the Learning professional would create an interactive PowerPoint on a topic, delivered via WebEx. That topic would be designed for left and right brain thinkers (words on the left and pictures on the right). Using the annotation tools and polling features would engage the learners’ unique thinking habits to help them understand the content. Extracting the data from the WebEx and post-survey results would provide an engagement insight, which may impact the future design,” she explains.

Don’t Forget, We Are Emotional Beings

All the carefully delivered and assessed learning won’t be worth much if employees throw the lessons out the window when under stress. How a person’s emotions impact brain function also should be considered, says Bill Benjamin, a partner at the Institute of Health and Human Potential.

“What we know from neuroscience is that people go to their deeply ingrained default behaviors when they are under pressure. Typically, if training is not ‘sticking,’ it’s because it’s not addressing how people can change those default behaviors, especially when there is tension, conflict, and pressure,” he says. “The emotional part of the brain—the amygdala— doesn’t know the difference between a real and perceived threat. By simulating emotionally triggering experiences in a training program, you can help people learn to manage those triggers and experiences more effectively. As you can imagine, it’s crucial to be very cautious with how you create ‘triggering or threatening’ experiences for people, so we recommend working with experts for these types of simulations.”

Sometimes training unintentionally puts learners into a defensive mode, says Donna M. Volpitta, Ed.D., author of “The Resilience Formula” and “Neuroworld” and founder of Pathways to Empower, which is launching Pathways to Health, a comprehensive, brain-based framework for teaching mental health literacy. “Our brains are particularly sensitive to threats, both physical and social, and often training programs are designed in ways that might provide social threats. Our brains work best when we are given processing time and opportunities to connect current learning with past experiences. Often training programs do not allow for that,” she says.

Volpitta notes that the next frontier of training may be taking what we know about the brain and its interaction with emotions to focus on the well-being of employees. After all, if an employee isn’t psychologically well, what chance is there that he or she will be able to effectively apply the lessons learned? “One of the trends I am seeing within the workplace is a focus on mental health and well-being,” says Volpitta. “In addition to helping to share training workshops, neuroscience and psychology can inform ways we can actively contribute to the well-being of our employees.”

Training Top 125er DaVita also understands that people learn better when they are able to recognize and manage their emotional reactions. “We start our leaders on this journey by looking at their emotional reactivity. We use the model that came out of transaction analysis that was conceived by Stephen Karpman. It originally was called Karpman’s Triangle, and has become more popularly known as the Drama Triangle,” says Senior Director, Wisdom team, Doug Miller. “This gives participants in our programs the ability to observe themselves more effectively by being able to name the reactions they are having. This is what Robert Kegan refers to as making a subject object move. When our participants cannot see their emotional reactivity, it is subjectively a part of their experience. Karpman’s Triangle helps them name and, thus, start to see their reactivity, and only then does it becomes objective. This is the science behind the pop psychology phrase, ‘If you can name it, you can tame it.’”


  • Open neural pathways. Use simulations and virtual reality to open pathways in the brain that help establish thought habits conducive to success in specific job roles.
  • Remember that effective training doesn’t conflict with how the brain works. That means finding ways to make the training important personally to the learner.
  • Review the learning experience and ensure it includes multimodal and inclusive content without overloading the learner. Engaging the average person via multimodality ensures you trigger the start of the learning process.
  • Provide learners with a storyline; a narrative; and some degree of self-directed, progressive disclosure of the concepts.
  • Keep e-learning modules to 20 minutes or less as that’s the maximum focus capacity of our hippocampus.
  • Make sure training addresses how people can change default behaviors, especially when there is tension, conflict, and pressure.
Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.