Two weeks ago I mentioned research by the Aspen institute around the different needs at different ages for stimulation of our brain for learning. In the same research document, the researchers outlined, the 5 pre-conditions necessary to optimise our ability to develop our brain and to learn. Some of these come as no surprise but maybe one or two will have a few people questioning.
- Sleep and rest
You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to get this one. The media today has plenty to say about the fact that we need enough sleep to deliver at optimal performance levels in most things. In fact, our brain needs rest and sleep to remove the toxins that build up during our waking hours and works on our cognitive memories and other brain networks that keep our learning organised. If we don’t sleep enough these functions may be compromised and can result in mood swings, impaired decision making and other side effects. For anyone that has done any 72 hours or even 48-hour challenges, you do feel your body and brain aching for sleep and also accepting some weird and wonderful ideas, which after a great rest you can recognise as fundamentally flawed.
2. Nutrition and low exposure to toxins
Sufficient nutrition and the absence of toxins especially for children are seen to have a significant impact on their brain development. Too much sugar and fat, not enough iron and other nutrients are considered reasons why brain development around memory, cognition and learning may not work in an optimal way and even lead to impairments. Exposure to environmental toxins such as pollution can hamper brain development and the use of drugs and alcohol clearly also has a negative impact. Just when you thought obesity was the main consequence of our unhealthy diets and inactive lifestyles, you now have brain development to add to the mix. In schools around the world providing breakfast and healthy lunches has become part of the curriculum to combat some of the deficiencies some children experience at home. But in the corporate sector or adult learning, I don’t see that many actions in this space.
3. Physical activity, exercise and green space
Fitness and physical activity are necessary to keep the neural networks in your brain working in an efficient and organised manner. Effectively physical activity enhances brain activity. Research has proven that physical activity has both short term and long term impact on general well-being but also on academic achievement and learning related behaviour. Taking exercise in a green space increases the sense of well-being another bit.
Somehow this doesn’t come as a surprise but yet, I know I am guilty of not taking enough exercise to keep at my best performance. Travel, workload and deadlines often my main reasons for not necessarily taking the time to be out and about exercising in nature. When I do however I can feel the difference both immediately after and for the rest I get as a result. When it comes to learning environments such as schools playing in the playground and daily exercise should really be part of the standard.
4. Emotional well-being, social relationship and a feeling of safety and belonging
Chronic and excessive stress, as well as loneliness, are toxic to brain development. Emotional well-being, on the other hand, influences good health and optimal brain development and learning. Stress from threats to emotional safety and belonging, such as bullying, abuse, rejection can lead to short term impairments relating to memory and cognitive functioning in the short term and in the longer term it can lead to premature ageing of both brain and body. Supportive parents, friends and community as well as school programs to help young people in these situations can go some way to reduce the negative impact. Equally spending time outside in green space can assist in creating a better feeling of general well-being.
Both in our childhood and adult life I can see how these factors will impact how we learn and adopt new information. But I never imagined it could be as profound as research is indicating. In gamification, through scenarios, we often make it safe to learn and by playing both individually and together we can see how certain skills can be learned first in the safety of a training environment before applying them to real life. In therapy, we see the use of virtual green spaces and worlds to help people who have experienced chronic stress, depression and other mental illnesses and allows them to claw back a bit of their identity and sense of belonging.
5. Cultural well-being
Feeling part of a community or culture where you experience a shared history, similar values, rituals, lifestyle and purpose are a good foundation for both physiology and cognition. However, any experience of discrimination from one group, or race or gender or whatever other diversifiers, to another causes harm. I don’t think it should come as a surprise that discrimination leads to feelings in inadequacy, inequality, lowering of expectations, misalignment of goals based on cultural settings and all sorts of other stereotyping. In short, it is not conducive to a great learning environment nor for people of different cultures to thrive.
To me, this is a fabulous top 5 of conditions to create ideal learning environments for both young and old. As we are more and more driven into urban environments taking regular breaks into nature, paying attention to our sleep, diet and exercise seem ideal. In some way it makes me think that our bodies know what they need to thrive, yet it is our humanity that has created unhealthy behaviours. Obviously, if we could replace power and domination with inclusion and empathy that will work further wonders for all of us looking to learn for the long haul.
In our work in gamification design, we take research pieces like this into account and work on creating ideal spaces for our clients to thrive and learn. Inclusion of ability, culture and gender is at the core of our work and now we know there is a good reason for it, it helps us learn better! (apart from the great reason that it is best for all involved on a personal level too)