"You and Your Plastic Brain"

How neuroplasticity affects your training programs

I studied sociology and cognitive psychology at university, so all things psychology, brain and how our brain affects the world around is fascinating to me. I recently watched Dr. Lara Boyd’s TEDx talk on YouTube, “After watching this, your brain will not be the same.” I highly recommend taking a look when you’ve got a moment.

The concept of neuroplasticity is directly related to the effectiveness of your training programs. First, we’ll look at what neuroplasticity is, then we’ll look at how you can incorporate some of Dr. Lara Boyd’s research into your training design.

What is neuroplasticity?

We’ve all heard the phrase: you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Is this true? For many years, it was commonly believed that after puberty, the only changes to the brain were negative: such as the loss of brain cells due to aging or drug use, or damage to the brain due to accident or stroke. But recent research has shown that this is absolutely not true. After puberty, the brain continues to change, and it’s not always for the worse.

The concept of the brain changing is known as neuroplasticity. Just like plastic can be molded into many different shapes and functions, our brains can actually structurally change shape and function as well.

How the brain can change

Dr. Lara Boyd brought out in her TEDx talk that the brain changes in three ways:

  1. Increased Chemicals: our brain can increase the amount of chemicals it produces to signal between neurons. This happens very quickly and is what’s happening during short term learning. Right now, your brain is increasing the amount of chemicals to signal connections between neurons so you can understand this new concept!

  2. Altered Structure: over time, that increase of chemical production signaled between neurons can actually alter the connections between neurons. The actual structure of your brain is being physically altered. This takes time, and is how long term learning is achieved.

  3. Altered Function: the more you use specific connections between neurons, those regions of your brain become more easily excitable. It becomes easier to access those areas in your brain. Entire brain networks are shifting and changing.

Neuroplasticity and your training programs

When it comes to training programs, we want to get out of just increased chemicals in our brains and short term learning, and move into altered structures of our brains and long term memory, ultimately altering the function of our brain. How can we do this? Dr. Lara Boyd highlighted three key areas of her research that give us some ideas.

Research shows: The best driver of neuroplasticity is your behavior. Nothing is more effective than practice.

Learning strategy: Ensure that your training programs include opportunity for your learners to practice and apply what they’ve learned. This can be through activities such as role play, scenarios, or on the job practice sessions.

Research shows: There is no one size fits all approach to learning. Some learners take longer than others and need more practice.

Learning strategy: Incorporate a blended approach to learning, with follow up exercises and practice sessions to recall and apply what was learned. This might include pre-work before the actual learning event, group discussions after the event to discuss how the learning has been applied, or short refresher courses or job aids to reference after the learning event.

Research shows: Each individual requires a unique type of learning intervention and a personalized learning approach.

Learning strategy: In addition to a blended approach, ensure that your training programs include a variety of type of learning activities. Offer learners curated content that they can refer to and access as needed if they need additional help or want to look further into a specific topic. Recognize that some learners may need to take advantage of these additional resources to fully reach the intended objectives of the program. Having coaches or mentors to reach out to for help can also provide needed support.

What else do you find fascinating about neuroplasticity? Have you altered your training strategies because of it? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!