Try saying the color of every word, NOT the actual word, you see in the image above. (Source)

How’d you do?  When I first tried this I thought I was doing pretty good until I realized I wasn’t doing it right.  The second time required a conscious effort to follow the directions and do it right.

According to a neuroscience study by Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz and David Rock, cited in chapter 8 of Michael Allen’s Designing Successful E-Learning, our brains try to “hardwire” as much as possible to preserve working memory, which is limited.  Hardwiring preserves this precious resource and enables us to be more efficient when performing common or repetitive tasks.

The problem arises when we are asked to change hardwired behavior.

Schwartz and Rock say that insight is the key to changing hardwired behavior.  To gain insight and individual must first be aware of a new behavior and reflect on it.  In the reflection stage an individual shuts out external stimuli and focuses on internal processes.  Through this process of reflection the brain actually is rewiring itself.  When the rewiring is complete, adrenaline-like substances are released bringing on a euphoric feeling.  Have you ever had an “a-ha” moment?  This is the reason why it is so satisfying.

According to Schwartz and Rock, the role of leadership is to help others develop the most useful hardwiring.  Michael Allen is concerned with the actual process of rewiring.  In Dr. Allen’s words,

change or even just the prospect of change engages area of the brain that consume high levels of energy.  Instead of running idle, letting lower brain centers work in familiar patterns, change alerts and excites the prefrontal cortex.  This can be pleasant and constructive.  Working at optimum levels, the prefrontal cortex teams with the amygdala, the center of the brain that’s important for visual learning and memory, so that learning and effective decision making can occur.

But the prefrontal cortex is easily stressed and overloaded.  When the circuit breaker pops from too much excitement or concern, the prefrontal cortex again enlists aid from the amygdala, which is also (here’s the kicker) associated with feelings of fear and aggression.  Now in a defensive mode, the brain works to escape unfamiliar circumstances, return to easy running, and cool off.  Even if the escape is to old familiar behaviors that are known to be undesirable, the brain has protected itself, relaxed, and cast off the pain of the unfamiliar. (emphasis mine)

This brings us back to the introductory exercise.  I don’t know about you but it felt like I was consuming high levels of brain energy during that exercise.  I am not anxious to do it again.  Is that how learners feel when we participate in our e-learning or other events?  How can we create an environment that is conducive to effective learning?  That is the subject for another post.