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Shanida Nataraja explains some concepts around how people learn, which can help in the design of
effective and memorable training programmes that will nurture talent.
Our brains are biosupercomputers. We are hardwired to be able to constantly refine our behaviour
and thinking, change the way in which we perceive and react to our experiences, and regulate our
I am passionate about the cognitive science behind learning and memory, and strive to design
training programmes that use cognitive insights to make the learning experience more impactful,
memorable and efficient. Whether this involves applying an understanding of adult learning styles to
designing agendas, or using specific exercises to activate specific cognitive processes, this approach
delivers results and promotes participant engagement throughout the training event.
This article identifies three core concepts that shed some light on how we learn new things and how,
therefore, training programmes should be designed to optimise their impact.
In 1890, the renowned psychologist William James described humans as ‘mere bundles of habits’. He
suggested that all humans acquire behavioural habits through learning in early life, and that these
habits automate behaviour in adulthood. This means that the majority of the tasks of daily living –
from making a cup of coffee to driving to work – are done ‘without thinking’. So how do we learn
The brain has been designed to encode our behaviour as if it were ‘set in stone’ – once we learn as a
child to ride a bike, we never forget. However, it has also been designed to erase this information
and replace it with new behaviour when necessary. Our brain is composed of groups of
interconnected brain cells or networks; each network is involved in planning and executing a
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particular task. Connections between our brain cells can be strengthened or weakened, much like
the way the volume on a sound system can be turned up or down by moving the volume dial.
Within each network, when brain cells frequently communicate with each other, the connections
between them become strengthened. It usually takes very few repetitions of a task before we start
to do the task ‘without thinking’. The connections become stronger, so that not only do we complete
the task more quickly, but we also do so with minimal thought or effort. The wiring of our brain
takes on an imprint of the task. Should a new method be used to perform the same task, new brain
cells will be recruited and old brain cells decommissioned, the old imprint erased and a new imprint
This flexible, malleable quality of the brain is referred to as neural or brain plasticity. Every new
experience, every incoming stimulus, brings about a change in our brain’s configuration – our
hardwiring. The plasticity underlies learning and memory, and is a key to unravelling some of the
mysteries of human behaviour.
“We can continue to learn new things and adapt our behaviour,
perceptions and emotions even up to the day we die”
The myth that a new habit can be created in 21 days has been debunked, and evidence from
researchers at University College London suggests that it can take between 2 and 8 months to
embed a new habit; however, the upshot of neural plasticity is that we can continue to learn new
things and adapt our behaviour, perceptions and emotions even up to the day we die.
Impact on how training should be delivered: repetition, repetition, repetition is the key to effective
training. Not only should key concepts be presented repeatedly in training sessions, in slightly
different ways, but it is also important to give participants the opportunity to put into practice what
they have learned, so they can fully embed the new behaviour.
The cognitive operators
In the early 21st century, the neuroscientists Eugene D’Aquili and Andrew Newberg put forward the
theory that the human mind was composed of seven processing units, called cognitive operators.
Each of these represents a specific function of the mind and, collectively, they allow us to interpret
and assign emotional significance to our experiences.
The holistic operator produces the ‘big picture’, the ability to see how objects or experiences fit into
a wider context, such as the architectural theme of a building. The reductionist operator allows us to
dissect problems or objects into their component pieces, and analyse them in a rational, logical and
sequential fashion. The causal operator identifies the cause of a particular experience or series of
events, and is responsible, at least in part, for our drive to understand why things happen.
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The abstractive operator generates abstract concepts, such as ‘an orange and a pineapple are both
fruit’, and allows us to suggest a way in which two pieces of information are related, assembling
these pieces of information into a complete theory that explains their relationship. The binary
operator allows us to make sense of our world by dividing it into pairs of opposing concepts, such as
light/dark, good/evil and inside/outside. The quantitative operator, as the name suggests, allows us
to define objects in terms of their quantity. The emotional value operator assigns emotional
significance to a particular event.
Most of us have all seven of these cognitive operators, and there is evidence that at least some of
them are pre‐programmed into the circuitry of the developing brain: humans are thus hardwired to
perform these particular cognitive functions and thus derive meaning from our experiences within
“Training should be designed to trigger the appropriate cognitive
Impact on how training should be delivered: training should be designed to trigger the appropriate
cognitive operators; the learner should be:
‐ Given information to help them understand the big picture of what they are trying to achieve
‐ Presented with a process that breaks down the task at hand into easy‐to‐digest chunks
‐ Provided with an explanation of why they are at the training in the first place and why a
presented process or tool works
‐ Shown how separate concepts or tools can be abstractly categorised to aid retention, such as a
mnemonic device to remember a series of process steps
‐ Given lists that detail positive and negative attributes, dos and don’ts, things to remember and
things to avoid
‐ Provided with the means of measuring or quantifying performance, impact of training and
successful implementation of tools and strategies
‐ And, most importantly, emotionally engaged in the training process and having fun, as you are
more likely to remember training that you have enjoyed.
The power of intention and attention
Intention is the conscious will to behave in a particular way and attention is the conscious focusing
of awareness in order to perform the intended behaviour.
The fundamental principle of any training is that the person receiving the training must want to be
there, and must recognise that there is a need for them to work on specific skills or expand their
knowledge base on a particular topic. This is easy if the training is voluntary, of course, but in many
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cases individuals may have been encouraged to attend training by their managers or other work
colleagues and therefore may not intrinsically see the need.
This can be addressed in two main ways: first, it is recommended that participants are asked to think
about what they are hoping to gain from the training before the session, so that personal learning
objectives can be developed; second, each element of a training session should be clearly linked
with specific learning objectives, so participants are clear when their personal learning needs are
going to be addressed.
Attention and awareness can be considered to be tightly linked: one is aware of what one is
attentive to. Brain cells in an area of the brain called the thalamus are thought to focus our
attention, in much the same way as we might use a searchlight on a dark night. As we shine the
beam of light on one object or another, we become aware of each of these objects in turn. If
attention is combined with intention, this scan of the environment might prompt us to walk over
and examine one of the objects or, during a training session, it leads to sustained attention, even in
the presence of distractions. Sustaining attention is dependent on a number of different factors,
Mixing plenaries with breakout group sessions of a more practical nature, such as Q&A sessions with
key speakers, discussion forums in which to share knowledge and best practices, and interactive
features – such as electronic voting or talking‐head videos – is recommended. Not only do these
different formats help embed learning into individuals with different adult learning styles, but it also
means that participants remain engaged, and contribute to the learning process, instead of merely
being a receptacle for ‘push’ communications.
Taking a break
On average, people can sustain attention effectively for 20 minutes, after which they become
distracted or restless. Although it is often tempting to pack a lot of content into a training agenda,
this is counterproductive. Encouraging attendees to get up and network with other participants over
a coffee will mean they approach the next session with increased focus and enthusiasm.
Impact on how training should be delivered: don’t assume that just because someone is in a
training session, they want to be there or they see the value of the training; tailoring content to
meet a participant’s individual learning objectives, as assessed through a pre‐training survey,
grabbing attention from the outset and holding that attention by delivering content through
different formats, is essential for an impactful training session.