Image (Vance; Wright 2009)

The age of one size fits all is certainly over.  This is specifically relevant for learning.  Up to about 25 years ago we did not have the information we have available today about how our brain functions.  The phenomenal research in neuroscience due to the availability of advanced technology, has provided us with knowledge and information on how we can utilise our brain more productively.

Neuroplasticity is one of the major finds from the research. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form new connections. The concept of “neuroplasticity” stems back to one of the neuroscience field’s founding fathers, Donald O. Hebb (1904–1985), who demonstrated that mental stimulation results in actual structural change to the brain.  Hebb coined the phrase “Neurons that fire together wire together”, which is often quoted when discussing neuroplasticity. When neurons fire together to promote a new behaviour and that behaviour is repeated multiple times, such neurons will connect together to develop a permanent habit or behaviour. It was assumed our brain does not change over time; we now know that it does throughout our life.

Due to neuroplasticity and neurogenesis (developmental plasticity) no two brains are the same.  Each brain has its own unique connections, structure and chemistry. Our physical brain connections develop based on our experiences, the people we interacted with in our upbringing, where we lived and what we were exposed to on a daily basis.  Every time we encounter an experience, our brain changes.

This has a very important impact on learning.  Why do some kids fail and others don’t; why can’t we learn anything we want to with ease; why do we start to forget things as we age?  Thus, what is it that limits and facilitates neuroplasticity?

The variability in brain composition, chemistry and structure is affected by our behaviour.  Therefore, the best driver for neuroplastic change in your brain is your behaviour.   The behaviours you employ in your daily life are critical, since these behaviours change your brain structure.  What you do over and over becomes a habit, because the neural connections in your brain were strengthened by the repetitive behaviour. This makes it difficult to change such habits!

The problem with neuroplasticity is that it applies to both positive or negative change.  Think of a skill or particular task you used to do all the time and then stopped doing it.  It is harder to get straight back into it or to remember all the details relating to its execution.  We may also learn poor behaviours and habits such as not exercising, allowing certain routines to become habit over more productive ones for instance.

Patterns of neuroplasticity are highly variable from person to person.  Due to the uniqueness of each brain structure, we learn differently.  There is no single intervention that will work for all of us and this is even more relevant when considering personal development, improvement and change.

Take leadership development as an example, in order for a leader to learn how to be more emotionally intelligent, they need to consider their personal relationship with the constructs of emotional intelligence.  Sending them on a course is only going to teach them theory, but how to apply it within their own emotional make-up and leadership style, requires a completely different approach – a personalised learning approach based on their brain composition and network functioning.