How The Human Brain Learns

Have you ever wondered how your brain is processing all the information that gets thrown at it every day?

How do we actually learn anything in this age of information overload?

This short explainer will shed some light on what is happening behind the scenes of your learning process. Understanding this basic process can unlock a world of conscious competence to improve the way you learn.

There are three fundamental research-based assumptions about how the human brain learns that are relevant to this explanation. Those assumptions are:

  • Dual channel – humans possess separate information processing channels for verbal and visual material
  • Limited capacity – there is only a limited amount of processing capacity available in the verbal and visual channels (working memory)
  • Active processing – learning requires substantive cognitive processing in the verbal and visual channels

Active processing involves paying attention to presented material, organizing that material into a structure that makes sense, and integrating the material with prior knowledge.

Now, the capacity to present material is unlimited (in 2016, 300 hours of video was uploaded to YouTube every minute!), and the capacity for storing knowledge in long-term memory is virtually unlimited. But the capacity for mental holding and manipulating words and images in working memory is limited. And herein lies the greatest challenge.

How do we overcome this?

Good teaching absolutely needs to capture the learner’s attention. This is essential to be able to stimulate active processing. The best way to do this is to connect with someone on an emotional level. This is why the medium of video is such a powerful learning tool. I will explain how and why video is arguably the best medium for learning in my next post.

Then, good teaching needs to encourage and facilitate the process of organizing that material into a coherent structure and integrating it with the learner’s prior knowledge. A deep understanding of prior knowledge is crucial. A well-designed course structure, with built in interaction in the form of knowledge checks, scenarios and case studies, are the key ingredients to then unlocking new insights and understanding in the learner. This is how learning is encoded into the unlimited capacity of working memory we each possess.

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