Learning mind – Rivers of Tea and Psychic Denial

A Zen master was sitting down to tea and quiet reflection as the sun started its decent over the horizon, when a stranger arrived.
“Excuse me” the stranger asked with polite urgency, “I have been told that a Zen master of the highest order lives on this slope”. The master looked at the stranger with kind eyes which the stranger took as a cue to continue; “I am from the new philosophy department at the university”, he stood a little straighter, catching his breath, “and I am here to see what you can teach me”.
The master unfurled aged fingers to indicate a place on the other side of the small, low table “Would you like some tea?”cupsmall
The stranger nodded and continued “I have studied with masters of more than a dozen philosophical and religious disciplines and have written many books on Buddhism”. The master, having poured his own tea, turned his attention to the stranger’s cup whilst continuing to give audience. “And I have heard that you are one of the wisest men in these parts and so have come to hear what you have to …” the stranger leapt up narrowly avoiding a small river of boiling liquid cascading over his already full cup, the master kept pouring with a slight sigh. “My cup is already full!” the stranger spat his words as though they still contained his unfinished sentence.
The master stopped pouring and spoke with the gentle smile he had never lost; “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Whilst this story has many versions, one of which was a Brice Lee favourite (no doubt he encountered many of his own cup-full students) it exemplifies something that I am coming across more and more in the modern age.

I have, for most of my professional life, been a trainer. Sometimes management training, sometimes personal effectiveness, sometimes team and culture change programmes, and whether explicitly or implicitly the only thing I have ever asked for, and required to be successful, is empty cups. Or at least half-empty. Don’t get me wrong this isn’t about not being able to convince, I have also made successes of sessions where people have turned up arms folded with a firm belief that they have more knowledge than anyone in the room. But in an ideal world you don’t want a battle of knowledge and will and it is the capacity to accept incoming information without a significant ‘filter’ (so less gets through) that I value the most. Once you have ‘received’ the information you can do what you like with it.

So a subtler, and perhaps more pervasive version of ‘full cups’ is ‘Already always listening’ (AAL) derived from the ideas of Werner Erhard and the EST programme. AAL is the sum total of all of your experiences and the things you ‘know’ to be ‘true’ – which my experience are a heuristics your brain uses for things you ‘think’ are ‘likely’ as they may rarely stand up to even self-originated scrutiny.

Whilst your particular filter is unique to you it is sometimes selective in its application for example:
“What can someone younger than me teach me”
“This person always talks non-sense”
“Urgh its one of those feminists/macho men”
“I’m too busy and this isn’t worthy of my time”

As judgemental as the above might sound they may well be running all the time. That’s why I call them subtle. They may well be things you don’t wish to admit to, but they may well kick in before you have time to really observe them. Another argument for mindful listening, which goes far beyond the ‘active listening’ training that featured heavily in my early training career.

We shouldn’t be too tough on our AALs though. They protect us from ‘wasted’ time, ‘toxic’ experiences and situations that could deplete our daily decision making capacity. However, like all habits they need reviewing on a regular basis to determine their usefulness. This is easier said than done since they may not always be entirely compatible with our self-image.

One of my least palatable AALs, as someone who prides themselves on being an ‘open-minded critic’, relates to my mum. She is an advocate of spiritual healing and all things psychic, concepts which I am open to. But on the basis of current scientific enquiry I have formed the belief that there is a lot more opportunity for exploitation than there is for life enhancing experiences (for which there are plenty of non-psychic interventions). The initial feeling is laudable – I want to protect my family. Out outcome is less so – a sort of internal call screening which says ‘Press 1 for psychic evangelism’ and promptly cuts the caller off. I’m winning the war against this defence mechanism, but not all the battles …

What are your AALs? When do they serve you and when do they remove an opportunity to be pleasantly surprised?

Training and Teaching with the Brain in Mind

Don’t be the training equivalent of the boring man with interesting socks

Many myths perpetuate in the field of learning and education and in many ways this isn’t surprising. Firstly consider that not only is pop psychology an incredibly powerful force but nowadays so is pop neuroscience. You know the sort of thing: ‘they have found a part of the brain that likes blondes’ or something. This is compounded by the fact that not only does the science move extremely quickly, theories being proven or disproven seemingly on a weekly basis (yay for the human race) but very few people involved in training and education a have actually undertaken serious study of the brain and how it works and so rely on the self-perpetuating trickle of Chinese-whisper-like facts that reach the frontline of the profession. For me this came to a head with the following post Engage the brain in the way you train on a site called TrainingZone. This site has numerous guest bloggers and contributors often with a lot to say, much of it thought-provoking and occasionally evidence based. This isn’t meant to be derogatory as it doesn’t set out to be anything else. Anyway, occasionally some of these myths get through but this post struck me as an attempt at a summary of ‘brain friendly’ approaches and in this I feel it failed.

Overall I think that these ‘brain friendly’ approaches are completely right in their intent. When investing sometimes substantial amounts in learning we should definitely look at the most cost-effective way of doing so and, look to build our investment with, for example and extra 5% cost for extra 10% retention. We can and should be continually trying news ways to maximise costs and prove the value of any training function. However I believe (and have found) that we are often talking small percentage points, for this reason it is extremely important that we only invest extra effort in those areas that are proven to enhance learning, or where we are making a conscious effort to experiment ourselves. Therefore below are soem misconceptions I would like to clarify:

Hydrating the Brain

The body is made up of 70% water (in fact probably higher and depends on age). But this fact in itself tell us nothing except we need water to survive. The truth is that people are unlikely to get dehydrated enough within a training session to actually affect brain performance. And so this easily addressed with adequate breaks – see below. Anyone without a medical condition will feel thirsty long before they become significantly dehydrated.

Fuelling the Brain

Food is needed but exactly what food is far from conclusive. It certainly seems that increased amounts of blood glucose have a positive effect on brain performance especially when combined with caffeine. However high GI food such as grains, even whole grains will get a disproportionate response from the endocrine system and insulin will cause blood sugar levels to drop later on. The other foods mentioned in the original post such as proteins and vegetables are a far better bet. It should probably not include fruit if stable blood sugar is your aim and certainly not fruit juice.

Stimulating the Brain

Sensory stimulation must, since this is how we take in information, be important. But let’s move beyond the obvious very cautiously; we need to be careful what conclusions we draw. This article states ‘most people’ are sight, hearing or feeling dominant I would say that barring impairment of all three that covers everyone. This probably originates from the idea of Learning Styles, which might say something about people’s preferences (or the preferences they believe they have) it doesn’t have basis in fact. Scott Lillienfeld did a good job of debunking this (summary here).  These two facts combined mean that investment in scented pens or similar is not money well spent, the concept of a ‘olfactory learner’ is only correct in that smell seems to be particularly useful for the emotions associated with memory which is rarely the aim of training. Indeed having stimulating pictures on the wall, other than to give the learners confidence in the investment or quality of the training is equally pointless. If you truly have learners at the centre of what you do the all of the stimulation can, and must, be in the training itself!! With the exception of those with a visual impairment everyone learns visually and (in the case of a skill) by doing it or seeing it demonstrated.

Splitting the Brain

A final myth that should probably be addressed although it isn’t mentioned in this post is the idea of split brain. Whilst technically we do have two halves to our brains the idea that they function very differently is a myth. The significant difference seems to be in the use of language and even then I find it hard to believe that a so-called right or left brainer with therefore want to use language or abstract concepts respectively (neatly summarised here). There is far more similarity between the two hemispheres than difference and even the differences we do know are notoriously difficult to isolate (even then assuming that fMRI is measuring what we think) suggesting that it would be very difficult to target or understand learners through these differences. Moreover anything complex (including creativity) is process by both hemisphere using multiple structures simultaneously.

So what does work? Before I answer that let me just say that just because something is boring doesn’t make it wrong. The idea of brain friendly environment being filled with colours and toys is an exciting one but that doesn’t make it true. Some universal truths are straightforward we often don’t see them or we try to change them for the sake of it.


I haven’t found a study, but one thing we do know that the brain is sensitive to is blood oxygen levels (hence yawning) so training with good ventilation does seem to be important. Outside? Well maybe but you don’t want to be competing too much for the  focus of the learner. It is nice to think that a natural environment is more, well, natural. But don’t forget, cramming everything someone needs to know about PowerPoint, or feedback into a one day course is by its nature a fairly unnatural way of learning so we need to manage the conditions a little. By the way fresh flowers might be nice, or plants in the room, but just bear in mind that plants respire as well as photosynthesise. This mean that if the light is less than great you may not get much of an oxygen benefit and first thing in the morning, after the lights have been off all night and the plant has taken some of the oxygen out of the room you might be inhibiting the waking up you were hoping for!! One more comment on this (it also links with the pictures), walking or even seeing nature scenes seems to aid cognitive performance. This effect hasn’t been studied extensively but as well showing nature scenes on the wall you might consider nature slides in the break (almost zero cost) as the effect lasts for some time after the image has been seen.


We have already covered the type of food and for those of you that were paying attention the implications of my commentary above does mean that the obligatory bowl of sweets we get at many management conferences is counterproductive. However, particularly if you are trying to sell an idea (not a great start in training but that is another post) it may well be important that food is present. This generally makes people feel comfortable and receptive (perhaps because no hunting or gathering is required?) so may well be a worthy investment. I will re-edit this post when I find the study that measured this. Also, here’s one that will have facilities managers losing sleep: chewing gum. Now the views on this are mixed, particularly the bad press that sweeteners have been getting of late, a couple of studies have shown that chewing gum aids concentration. I won’t attempt to come up with an evolutionary explanation for this one but it does seem to make a difference.

Taking Breaks

I believe this works for a number of reasons. Firstly, it replicates a natural learning process where we switch our attention and then return back to what motivates us. Secondly because of something known as the Zeigarnik Effect, our learning consolidates when we are doing something unrelated (try reading here, and here). Finally I feel it works because the level of concentration required by modern life can only be maintained with breaks (probably relates to my first point – read more here and here).

Learning with the Body

So the other part of the post I agree with is that the most engaging exercises use the whole body. Why? Well because activity of this kind signals to the body that it is doing something and exercise is a fantastic way of getting the blood moving and therefore that all important brain oxygen level up (video with Dr. James Levine here).

Engaging with What We are Doing

This is possibly the most obvious point of all and is undersold in favour of cheap tricks. If you are really struggling to maintain focus in a given session, it’s not a very good session. I am a great proponent of the ‘there’s no such thing as a bad student only a bad teacher’ which is sometimes tough to admit, particularly after you have just run a session that has been completely derailed. This subject is huge but I’ll give a very quick rundown:

  1. Do whatever you can to get your learners to pay attention to the learning process. Making it personal is often the best way people are also naturally curious so think about starting with some kind of contradiction or problem to solve.
  2. Do not use icebreakers and energisers. Yes, I just said that. If you feel that more activity is needed in the training then put it in the training! Why are we shoehorning these things in around otherwise boring training and then claiming we are working with the brain and motivation levels.
  3. Encourage exploration. This can be in  the form of challenging the instructor or each other, identifying which areas require more or less focus (have a flexible plan in place).
  4. Keep it visual and discussion based. Pictures and people are far more interesting than chunks of text. There may be no way around the text based learning at some point but not in the classroom/training room.

I have tried to keep the examples above fairly generic. For instance you could argue that repetition and self testing are big, scientifically proven ways of increasing learning but not only is less about being brain friendly and more about tricking the brain into learning something (nothing wrong with that) but also assumes that learning is fact based. Whilst, at least in principle if not the direct target of some of the studies, what I have presented here should also work for behavioural and leadership type training.

Let me finish with a quote from the post that inspired me to write this:

“Scientific studies demonstrate that effective linking of the different systems of the brain during the learning process improves the transfer of knowledge into long-term memory.”

I think that these studies that are referred to should be quoted in anything that is seeking to present knowledge and guidelines for people to follow. I also think that if nothing in the post that follows specifically addresses this or describes any of these studies then I have to ask why this statement is there. Sadly it seems like a cover-all statement to prove that what follows is scientific. Whilst it is hugely unfair to pick on this post it is also an example of why the pop-psych movement exists. We must be asking questions and challenging these kinds of assertions especially if we are going to write posts for the internet:

Disclaimer: I will inevitably make a similar mistake at some point. And whoever spots it has every right to throw it in my face. It’s all learning, right? But please know that wherever possible I do due diligence and try to get hold of the original study if I can, but my statistical knowledge sometimes lets me down.

Some further reading:

Implications of Brain Research for Distance Education by Katrina A. Meyer

50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology by Scott O. Lilienfeld

Power of Mindful Learning by Ellen J. Langer