Separating Learning Myths from Reality


McKinsey&Company, the global consulting firm, just came out with a list of its most popular articles for the year from the McKinsey Quarterly.

One of the articles in particular caught my attention, “How to separate learning myths from reality“, by Artin Atabaki, Stacey Dietsch, and Julia M. Sperling.

The authors examine what they refer to as “neuromyths,” misconceptions based on incorrect interpretations of neuroscientific research. More specifically, the authors identify three of these myths.

  • The critical window of childhood.  The first years of life are critical for the proper development of the brain. It is often believed that after this period, the development of the brain is fixed. However, recent neuroscientific research indicates that experience can change both the brain’s physical structure and its functional organization—a phenomenon described as neuroplasticity. Practicing simple meditation techniques, such as concentrated breathing, helps build denser gray matter in parts of the brain associated with learning and memory, controlling emotions, and compassion. A team led by Harvard scientists has shown that just eight weeks of mindful meditation can produce structural brain changes.
  • The idle-brain theory. The belief that portions of the brain are idle while other parts of the brain are working has proven to be inaccurate. More carefully interpreted functional brain scans have shown that, irrespective of what a person is doing, the entire brain is generally active and that, depending on the task, some areas are more active than others. People can always learn new ideas and new skills, not by tapping into some unused part of the brain, but by forming new or stronger connections between nerve cells. Such information plays a role in creating effective learning environments. Knowing that multitasking engages large parts of the brain’s working memory, a person needs to free up some of that memory, or that person cannot successfully memorize and learn new information. In short, multitasking and learning cannot occur effectively at the same time. Organizations who want its employees to learn need to reduce distractions during training sessions,
  • Learning styles and the left/right brain hypothesis. Many of us have heard of the theory that most people are either dominantly analytical (and left brained) or more creative (and right brained). However, this either/or dichotomy is false. The two hemispheres of the brain are linked and communicate extensively together; they do not work in isolation. This suggests that it is best to engage all the senses in a variety of ways (for instance, audiovisual and tactile) in order to help employees retain new content.

While many of these insights are targeted at leaders of corporate training programs, I think the insights are helpful for individuals as well.

For example, this is probably at least the 100th article I’ve read that discusses the value of mindfulness/meditation. Given all that, there must be something there that is beneficial, and I’d like to find out what it is.

Thus, I may set a new 31 day challenge for myself for January related to mindfulness, and then hope that it will, like this blog, become a daily habit.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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