Uncovering the secrets of the brain and the science of learning
Prepare to have your mind blown over why it’s OK that you can barely remember what you did yesterday, the best tools and environments for learning and how our brains will cope with in-person events again.
Dr Jared Cooney Horvath has spent a life steeped in learning. The award-winning cognitive neuroscientist studied at Harvard and the universities of Southern California and Melbourne, and has dedicated his career to teaching teachers and students the art and science of learning. He also works in conjunction with the epilepsy clinic at St Vincent’s Hospital on brain stimulation research.
Ahead of his talk at HR + L&D Innovation & Tech Fest, he pulled back the curtain on modern day matters of the brain.
How does one become a neuroscientist? Is that what you wanted to be when you grew up?
Dr Jared Cooney Horvath: Actually, I wanted to be a teacher ... well, before that I wanted to be a filmmaker, I think as every kid does, but then I got into teaching. Back then everyone was talking about brain-based learning. It was all really interesting, but no one really had any understanding of what was going on - like it was this buzzword with no real depth. I went back to school with the intention of minoring in educational neuroscience for one year so I could study the brain and bring it back to schools. But as so happens when you get into university, one year turns into two turns into ten turns into fifteen. When you get passionate about something, you’ve just got to chase the next question, and now I’m stuck loving the brain.
Is brain science like the bottom of the ocean - for all we know about it, there is still so much to explore and understand?
Yes, it is. We talk a very big game because we know more about the brain than we've ever known before, which is awesome. Learning, as far as I'm concerned, hasn't changed in 150,000 years and we've got that pretty much locked down, but when you talk about the actual mechanisms - what's actually happening in the brain to allow these patterns to occur - we're not even close to getting it.
When it comes to speaking to an audience, you seem to have a magical ability to take this complex subject and explain it, so it is easy and fun to understand. How do you do that?
I teach the way I would have liked to have been taught. I don't care if the subject is the brain, artificial intelligence, filmmaking or whatever, as soon as you get behind the curtain, it's like the Wizard of Oz - you pull back the curtain and there are just a couple of levers making this big show. You see a lot of people like scientists trying to wow whoever they’re teaching, and they will get bogged down in details that are irrelevant. Cut to the chase. It’s about figuring out what people really want to know about the brain and just focus on those bits.
What are the barriers to learning and is it the internet’s fault that I can’t retain information as well as I once could?
A lot of things come into play. Your memory is no different now than when you were a kid. Our memory has not changed - and the next generation’s memory is no different than ours. What is changing is the way we're choosing to use it. One of the ways we're choosing to use it is with technology that allows us to offload memory and then re-access it later. We still form memories, but we form memories for where information is - like I know what folder on my desktop has that answer. I know which PDF has that answer. That's still a memory. And now we have a brain chock full of memory for where stuff is rather than what stuff is, so if you stopped using computers, you would still use the same memory.
Understand that all the brain wants to do is survive in the easiest possible way. It's biology, it doesn’t like to struggle. It just likes to coast. As we get older, the entire purpose of the brain is to help us make better predictions to make survival easier. Once we get older, we have already figured out how to make predictions for how the world is going to work and what we need to do to survive, so we just don't care as much. We know what's going on around us and that's enough to keep going. We think less - we try and remember last night and sometimes we can't and it's because we don't really need to.
Are some formats better for retaining information than others?
If you go to the very base level so long as something is narrative, you're going to encode it better than something that's non narrative. Whether it's a podcast, a book, a video, or a film, so long as there's a narrative to it, you're automatically going to remember that better than something that's just hit or miss. That's why textbooks tend to suck because it's just information. There’s nothing technically better or worse about any one format, it's just how we choose to use them. For example, we tend to skim digital versus hard copy, so almost everyone will remember more from hard copy.
What about learning via virtual reality or augmented reality?
About 90 to 95% of virtual reality is horrible for learning because they're trying to teach you things that are irrelevant to virtual reality and it becomes a distraction. It works well with tasks that allow you to practice in realistic scenarios and are very challenging to perform in real life like racecar driving, flying planes or difficult surgeries.
A good rule of thumb for digital technology and learning is you have to be able to explicitly explain why that tool will deliver something that you can't get anywhere else. Why will it be better than learning another way? If you can’t find that better somewhere else, then go for it.
Coming back to in-person events after so long in isolation, will our brains have to adjust to being in conference mode again?
In terms of learning, no, it will feel natural. The brain is conservative. It doesn't ditch anything. We've spent decades doing it live and two years digital. As soon as we go back to live, it's like riding a bike. We may have lost a little of the socialisation aspects of live conferences but from a pure learning perspective we learn up to 30% more being in the same room than even watching on a screen from the next room. There’s something about being in the same rooms as human beings - we don't know if we're subtly reading body cues or if there are passages of electromagnetic fields responsible, but there is some sort of communicated passage of information that you get in person that you don’t get digitally.
Don’t miss Jared’s talk Ignite Your Learning: Using Brain Science to Get the Most from Today and Future Learning Opportunities at HR + L&D Innovation Tech Fest.