Category Archives: Brain Science


My professional interest is shifting to helping knowledge workers learn and flourish without training. There are millions of harried people out there who don’t appreciate that learning is a skill that you can get better at. It’s the underground passageway to success. I’d rather work with them directly.

Thinking about learning from the learner’s point of view is different from looking on it as a learning executive or instructional designer. Well, most knowledge workers don’t know they have an CLO and certainly never heard of instructional design.

Anyway, I am on the lookout for useful metaphors to propel the new book on DIY learning and intelligence.

Experiential learning is the biggest lever in the learning toolbox, so let’s start there.


Picture two territories, FamilarLand, where you already know everything and the Unfamiliar Territory which is loaded with people doing things you don’t know how to do.

The Unfamiliar Territory is where you can grow. Staying in FamilarLand all the time is stagnating. There’s no excitement when there are no surprises.

Since you have all your predetermined opinions, ways of doing things, and beliefs along for the ride, you’re happy when lazing around FamiliarLand. Many will be stuck in place there, non-learners who couldn’t keep up with the flow. They are slouches; we’ve got to hang out with the others.

Go-getters will continuously rewire their brains with dashing adventures in the Unknown Territory. With perseverance, they will grow into the roles they’re shooting for.

Increasing border crossings will boost organizational knowledge.

Is the metaphor of a journey from FamilarLand to the Unknown Territories and back a useful way to look at things?


brainRemembering is vital. In fact, remembering is as important as learning itself.

There’s no point in learning something if you forget it before you can put it to use. Yet research finds that people forget the majority of what they learn in workshops and classrooms. Typically, only 15% of what’s covered in a workshop ever shows up on the job!

Many L&D departments act as if their work is Continue reading

The Tale of Two Cultures

Effectiveness, Chief Learning Officer magazine, June 2013. This is the article as submitted; the printed version may vary.

Most columnists in CLO magazine advocate something they’re sure of. This column is different: it’s about an issue I’m not at all sure of but I think it important and would enjoy getting your opinion.  

In 1959, British scientist/novelist C.P. Snow wrote an essay describing the “two cultures,  whose thesis was that ‘the intellectual life of the whole of western society’ was split into two cultures — namely the sciences and the humanities — and that this was a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems. Snow contended that scientists did not understand the humanities and humanists did not understand science. As the world grew more complex, the two groups grew further apart.” (Wikipedia)

Half a century later, the world grows more complex everyday and the two cultures have grow further apart. It’s worth a revisit because the growing divide will shake the training industry to its roots. I am going to use the concept to describe two different sorts of knowledge and the different way we learn them. #1 is intuitive knowledge and #2 is logical knowledge. They are different as night and day.

Intuitive knowledge

Intuitive knowledge is what Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes in Thinking Fast and Slow as System 1. It’s the province of the emotional brain. Intuitive knowledge works with patterns; it knows no words. In other words, it is tacit. Since the emotional brain is much older and works faster than the logical brain, intuitive knowledge is the first to come to mind; the rational brain uses logic to weigh whether or not an intuitive response is valid or must be tempered. Intuitive knowledge is also known as muscle memory.

Intuitive knowledge is complex and hence unpredictable, inductive, volatile, and emergent. It’s the realm of imagination. It deals with people’s interpretations. It lives in the minds of the people who pull it together.

Examples of intuitive knowledge: how to dance and to sell. Training departments can’t do much with the increasingly important Intuitive skills. Intuitive things are learned by doing: experientially. People “get” the skills of dealing with complexity: critical thinking, prioritizing, working with people, design thinking, and so forth — by doing them.

“I do things I do not know how to do by doing them.” Picasso

Experience can be supplemented with stories (someone else’s experience), simulations (fake experience), trial and error (the school of hard knocks), and mimicry (copied experience).

Rational knowledge

Rational knowledge is the opposite of Intuitive knowledge. It’s the province of the rational brain. It works with logic. It is explicit and can be explained with words.

Rational knowledge is straightforward (or complicated, which is several simples mushed together.) It’s Newtonian clockwork, an equal and opposite reaction for every action. It is formulaic, yes or no, and reductionist. It deals with facts. It’s true no matter who is looking. Training departments help people learn the Rational. Workshops, programmed instruction, and Kahn Academy can teach Rational Knowledge. Example of rational knowledge: programming PERL, the states and their capitals, multiplication.

The Explicit and the Tacit

As the world becomes more complex, people need to rely more on the interpretive power of Intuitive knowledge. So what does this have to do with a CLO? (The editor here gets on my case if I don’t relate topics to the needs of chief learning officers.) Well, here’s the punch line: people learn Rational knowledge and absorb Intuitive knowledge by different means.

The basic difference is that you get to know Rational Knowledge. Intuitive Knowledge, on the other hand, transforms your identity. For example, I can know a lot about plumbing but until I have Intuitive Knowledge, I can’t call myself a plumber. It’s learning to know vs. learning to be.

While different parts of the brain deal with Intuitive and Rational knowledge, these are not the old (and discredited) left/right brain theories. This is more about the conscious and subconscious minds.

Dave Snowden, a oracular figure in interpreting complexity for business ends, says the greatest danger is confusing a complex situation for a merely complicated one.

If you are concerned only with helping people learn rational knowledge, you’re abandoning a vital facet of learning. Facts are impotent until coupled with feelings. Feelings without facts are mute. A successful learning organization is bi-cultural; it melds the intuitive with the rational

Bi-culturalism melds two originally distinct cultures into a holistic co-existence.

Ask yourself: is your learning  bi-cultural?

The Divided Mind on RSA

The last three minutes of this RSA Animate on using your whole brain rather than favoring one hemisphere is sheer poetry. One inspiration after another, staccato, overloaded by circuits. My mental movie was nodding in agreement. Yes, yes, yes, right, right on, of course, yes, yes, right, yes.

Start here and then go back to the beginning.

I’d been trying to reconcile Dan Pink’s bi-cameralism and other’s put-downs. The Divided Mind clarifies it.

gift and servant





Use Your Brain

brainAt Online Educa, I chaired a session on neuroscience and learning, Here’s a synopsis from Online Educa’s News Portal.

“Use Your Brain!” – Neuroscience and Education

Neuroscientists are progressing rapidly in their research into areas highly relevant to education. Educators are eager to learn about their discoveries. Numerous teachers already use “brain-based” programmes in order to enhance learning. But can neuroscience really help to improve teaching? Experts at OEB 2009 called for caution.

By Andrea Marshall

Hauke Heekeren, Professor of Affective Neuroscience and Psychology of Emotions at the Freie Universität Berlin and Max-Planck-Institute for Human Development, gave a brief summary of the function of the brain and the basic methods of neuroimaging. “We must be very careful interpreting the results of brain imaging,” he warned. “What we are measuring might be far removed from what we are actually looking for.”

To illustrate this point, Heekeren suggested an analogy: “It is like trying to investigate how a car works – but you examine it with a sensor that is mounted on a geo-satellite.”

“Neuromyths” and “Edumyths”

Quite a few myths have spread from misleading interpretations of neuroscientific data, Heekeren explained. A famous one is “the left side of the brain is responsible for language and the right side for abstract thinking”. However, it is far too simplistic to ascribe one specific function to one clearly defined ‘centre’ in the brain, Heekeren pointed out. “It is a popular myth that there are all these ‘centres’ in the brain. There is even supposed to be a shopping centre,” he smiled.

So how does the human brain work? According to Heekeren, different brain regions form dynamic networks. In other words: Several regions “cooperate” when carrying out certain cognitive tasks. The complexity of the system is one of the reasons that makes it difficult to apply neuroscientific results directly in the classroom. “From a neuroscientific point of view, it is not possible to conclude that – for example – online education works better than other forms of education.”

For more information on Hauke Heekeren, please refer to

Some “Brain Experts” Sell “Snake Oil”

Daniel T. Willingham, Cognitive Scientist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, was connected to the ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN audience via the Internet. He holds a slightly different view. In his book Why Don’t Students Like School? he explains the biological and cognitive basis of learning – with clear applications for teachers. However, he also made the point that it is difficult to ‘translate’ neuroscientific data to behavioural analysis. His main argument: There is often a mismatch in the levels of analysis that neuroscientists and education researchers work with (see below).

Willingham gave a “note of caution” to teachers: “So-called brain experts take ordinary findings, throw in a few ‘brain things’ and sell it as revolutionary in education,” he said, likening the ‘experts’ to quack doctors selling “snake oil”.

The suggestions of these ‘experts’ are often banal: “They explain how a low glucose level in the brain metabolism affects learning. But everyone knows anyway that children who are hungry don’t learn well,” Willingham said.

Neuroscience Can Describe – Not Prescribe “What Works”

What can neuroscience do for education then? At OEB, both experts pointed out that neuroimaging studies are descriptive but not prescriptive. For example, they can pinpoint the neural systems responsible for reading, writing or arithmetic. But they do not tell teachers “what works” in the classroom. It is not possible, for example, to advise teachers on certain strategies for so-called visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners. Brain research has not found any evidence that these learning styles exist.

Different Levels of Analysis
“The upper-most level employed by neuroscientists concerns the mapping of brain structure and activity to cognitive functions (e.g., memory, attention) or function interactions (e.g., the impact of emotion on learning).

Neuroscientists study these cognitive functions in isolation for the sake of simplicity. They do not study the entire nervous system (…).

For educators, the mind of a single child is the lowest level of analysis with any payoff. Higher levels include the classroom, school, neighbourhood and country.

The information that education researchers most often try to import from neuroscience concerns a single cognitive process in isolation, but the interactions with other systems will be part of the educational context. For example, we know that repetition benefits memory, but a teacher cannot ask students to repeat work without considering the impact on motivation.

Neuroscientists usually cannot characterise these interactions.”

Daniel T. Willingham (2009)

Related posts:

Brains are Applesauce
Brain Rules
What Do Brains Have to Do With It?
Who’s in Charge Here?
The No-One-in-Charge World
Learning Takes Brains
Brain Fitness
Random Learning
Managing with the Brain in Mind
…and finally, from The Onion, Parents of Nasal Learners Demand Odor-Based Curriculum

cartoon brain