The Neuroscience Of Learning With Stella Collins

Curiosity and fear are even more closely related than we ever thought they were. In fact, they are both registered in the nucleus accumbens and it depends where dopamine hits your nucleus accumbens as to what you feel. Did this make you even more curious? Then this episode is something you don’t want to miss. Dr. Diane Hamilton interviews the co-founder and Chief Learning Officer at Stellar Labs, one of the Brain Ladies, and author of Neuroscience for Learning and Development, Stella Collins, about all things neuroscience, brain, and learning. They dive deep into emotional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligence, the learning revolution and our DNA model, and teaching soft skills. Stella also talks about how mindfulness helps and what changes are happening in learning and development since the book. Tune into this discussion to gain more interesting insights about learning, whether that be in the context of work, school, and more.

TTL 771 | Neuroscience Of Learning


I’m glad you joined us because we have Stella Collins, who is the Cofounder and Chief Learning Officer at Stellar Labs, one of the Brain Ladies and author of Neuroscience for Learning and Development. It’s going to be an interesting show because we’re going to talk about all things neuroscience, brain, and learning. I love all that.

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The Neuroscience Of Learning With Stella Collins

I am here with Stella Collins, who is the Cofounder and Chief Learning Officer at Stellar Labs, one of the Brain Ladies and author of Neuroscience for Learning and Development. I’m excited to have you here, Stella.

It’s absolutely lovely to be here with you, Diane.

I was looking forward to this because I had seen that you were one of the speakers, as I was, for the curiosity month for Novartis, which is an amazing event that Simon Brown and others at Novartis have put on. I’m curious of the topic that you chose and what you spoke about there.

I talked about the fear of failure, how curiosity could help you overcome that fear of failure. Instead of thinking, “I got it all wrong. What’s going to happen?” What’s going to happen is perhaps a curiosity provoking question, “I wonder why it went wrong? I wonder how it could be better. I wonder what it might be like next time.” One of the things I found out that was fascinating to me is that, apparently, curiosity and fear are both registered in the nucleus accumbens and it depends where dopamine hits your nucleus accumbens as to what you feel. I discovered that for myself. I’m not quite sure how that works in the real world, but I thought it was fascinating. It’s science.

I like science. I set you up to ask you that question, in a way, because I knew you had talked about that. It’s an important topic because, in my research, I found that four things keep us from being curious. The first thing is fear. The second is assumptions, which is what you’re talking to yourself about, technology, and the environment. Anybody we have around had an impact. I am interested in the neuroscience behind a lot of this. I’d read about dopamine. It makes you feel better, of course, to have dopamine. There was some research to show that we’re living longer and different things that I found. I want to know about your background in neuroscience and psychology in general. What led to your interest in going to that area?

That’s a long time ago. I was always curious. I was quite a shy child. I don’t know how that connects. I became curious about people. Eventually I went and studied psychology at university. Other people were saying, “I’m not enjoying my degree.” I’m like, “It’s exciting what I’m learning.” As part of that, because it was a science-based degree, we were doing proper research in a lab. I was researching dopamine to a degree. That was part of what we were looking at dopamine and attention. Dopamine is such a fascinating neurotransmitter. Everyone calls it the motivation one, but it got many other purposes and functions. It’s hugely complex. I do not pretend to understand it at all, by any stretch. I had that interest in how our brains work and how that affects us as people. I’ve kept up.

I’m the same way. It’s funny how much we’re alike. When you said that, I would have been particularly shy probably as a child and I never stop asking why. I think the brain if I hadn’t got into business. I wanted to be in the business realm. I never changed my topic. I always was interested in the psychological aspects of business. It’s why I wrote my dissertation on emotional intelligence and its impact on sales performance because I could combine the two. If I could go back and study anything, it would always be psychology and brain-related things. Having Albert Bandura on the show was exciting because he was such an interesting guy and the impact he made in cognitive-behavioral therapies and different things that he did. It was fun for me to get to talk to people like that. You have the same background and all the things that I would like to learn more about. I want to know what the Brain Ladies are exactly. I’m like, “She’s one of the Brain Ladies. I hadn’t heard that expression.”

That’s quite a small group of four of us who came together through one of them who lives in Belgium, funnily enough, as I do. She is Belgian. Like us, she was interested in the science behind learning and how people behave. She started studying neuroscience and we met each other at a conference and then she said, “I know these other two ladies who are also interested in the brains and learning. Why don’t we get together and have regular catch-ups and see what we can exchange? We’ll call ourselves the Brain Ladies.”

Do you wear purple hats? They have the Purple Hat Club here.

[bctt tweet=”The first part of learning is that you’ve got to perceive something in order to have it.” username=””]

We don’t wear hats at all, mostly. We feel we should wear a pink brain or something.

My next book is on Perception and the impact of it in the business setting. I co-authored that with one of my colleagues from the Forbes School of Business, Dr. Maja Zelihic. It was interesting to look at perception because we looked at it as a process, a combination of IQ and EQ for Emotional Quotient, CQ and CQ for Cultural and Curiosity Quotient. It all combines into what makes us see what we see. It’s the empathy part of emotional intelligence is huge for companies and individuals to get along to understand that our perception is not the same as somebody else’s. Do you do any work in that area? What focus do you take?

Not specifically. When we’re working with organizations that perhaps got communication challenges, those can be quite simple ones or quite complex ones. What we try and do is get people to think about, “Let’s see it from the other person’s perception.” People are often surprised how perception works, how much we filter out, how much we have to suppress in terms of the information that’s coming in. Therefore, you can have a different response to exactly the same stimulus.

Sometimes, beginning to teach people a little bit about that stimulus response and your perception of that stimulus can help them realize, “That person experienced that thing completely differently from me.” That might depend on their point of view whether it’s standing, but it might be their mindset at the time. People who are depressed almost don’t see smiles. They can’t recognize a smile. That makes a real difference to how you perceive a situation if you’re feeling depressed or anxious yourself and you look around and all you see is other anxious, depressed faces. You can’t see the smile. That’s the impact on how you perceive the situation.

It is interesting to me. A lot of people will go, “Look at this. Look at how she said that.” I read it and I’m like, “I don’t see anything.”

“Have you seen that email?”

“Don’t you think that was snarky?” “No. It was a sentence.” We see a lot of that. We read things that aren’t necessarily there, which I find that whole thing fascinating. It was interesting to me to study these different aspects of curiosity and perception because of learning. I’ve taught more than 1,000 business courses and learning is such an interesting thing to study. A lot of students would take the VARK to see if they’re visual learners or whatever, all those different things. You talked about the status of learning at work at the moment. I want to know what you would deal with in terms of helping people in businesses learn.

It’s a thing I’ve got at the moment. People talk about their organizations can do this. People, they can learn. In my company, what we do is we specialize in helping people within organizations learn more effectively. We all learn naturally and as far as I know, we can’t not learn. It’s how effectively we learn, how well we learn. A lot of people don’t understand how learning happens. They think they learn. You mentioned the Visual Auditory Kinesthetic, the VARK. People think they’ve been told they have learning styles, but there’s absolutely no evidence at all that we have learning styles. People have these myths.

Are there preferences at all to that? For me, I can read something a million times and it doesn’t go in my head. If I have word read it to me and I hear it, it does work a lot better for me. You’re saying there’s no science behind that.

That’s something entirely different whether it’s your learning style. I always use this example. If you were trying to ride a bike, you couldn’t learn it reading a book. You couldn’t read it by listening to an audiotape. You would have to go and ride the bike. You might watch a video to see if somebody got a different technique or something, but that’s quite a sophisticated skill in terms of riding a bike. First of all, you have to do it. There’s no evidence to show that those learning styles happen.

TTL 771 | Neuroscience Of Learning
Neuroscience for Learning and Development: How to Apply Neuroscience and Psychology for Improved Learning and Training

I’m far more interested in how Gardner talks about, which is different intelligences. It’s partly to do with our habits. It’s partly to do with our experiences. It’s partly to do with what interests us. What he talks about as intelligence is what helps us be successful in whatever role we end up in. He wouldn’t call it empathy. He wouldn’t call it emotional intelligence, but he talks about interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence. It comes out to be emotional intelligence in the end.

It is interesting to see how everybody defines emotional intelligence because it depends on the researcher on what you’ll hear of what they’re finding and the different parts of it. I had Daniel Goleman on the show, who was interesting to talk to about that. What I found interesting is being able to understand how your emotions impact you and understanding how they impact others as well. I think that all comes into the perception and the things that I look at. I was interested in the learning part of what you research. You use a DNA model to think about the learning revolution. I want to know about that.

Our DNA model is the things that we think are important in an organizational context to make learning work. I’ll go first with a high level. First of all, you need people. People are social animals and we tend to learn socially. A lot of training, which is not necessarily learning, tends to be quite focused on delivering content and delivering a message, whether it’s a core message for the organization or whatever it might be. What you need to do is tap into what the learner needs to know. It’s the learner whose brain is going to have to change.

For me, you need to have a strong focus on the learner. Learners then need support from their managers or their supervisors. They work well with peer-to-peer learning, social learning. You also need to think about who else they are going to encounter in their learning. Are they going to be learning with customers? It’s not going to be learning in the formal context. They’re going to be learning things in an informal context too. Are they going to be learning with customers? Are they going to be learning with other colleagues? Who are all the people involved in this process of learning?

Since I’m interested in the science, what is the science of learning? What’s the evidence based behind what we’ve learned about perception? The first part of learning is that you’ve got to perceive something in order to have it. Even before perception, perhaps, comes motivation. You want to be motivated to want to learn. We need to know about memory. We need to know about perception. We need to know about empathy. Emotion is incredibly important for learning too.

Learning is a process. People often think, “I’ve read something so I’ve learned it. I’ve been on a training course so I’ve learned it.” You don’t. Learning is a process that takes place over time and requires energy and requires effort to try and to understand what happened. What we know about the science makes it much more likely that you’re going to achieve a good outcome for the organization and the individual and the person themselves. Understanding the science gives you the background to choose if you’ve got an option. How are we going to do this learning if you know that this works and that doesn’t because that’s what the science is saying? Choose the one that has some evidence.

We also include process. It’s helpful if you’re designing and delivering learning if you’re working in that field to have a process. People often talk about the instructional design process, which, as a phrase, I find it quite hard because it sounds like you’re being given a design about how to instruct. It’s about thinking, “What’s a learner-centered process of learning?” That comes back to the science again. The tech that we need for learning, and that could be anything from pencil and paper, chalk on a cave wall was considered tech at one point, all the way up to sophisticated VR and AR learning. The learning management systems that we need to support us in learning, they’re not enough for learning but they are needed to support us often artificial intelligence. Finally, the data. We need to measure it, especially in an organization, in business. We need to measure where were our people and where have they got to and what worked to get them there. That data measurement is also important.

You bring up a lot of important things. You had gotten to the beginning of motivation being the start. I’ve had many experts on from Harvard like Francesca Gino and Amy Edmondson. Anybody whoever has been on, I’ve asked them what comes first, curiosity or motivation. They all have said curiosity is the spark to all those things we’re trying to do. I love that companies like Novartis and Verizon, some of the companies I work with for like that are working on these things.

A lot of times, companies will look at learning without looking at it as getting out of status-quo thinking, which is what I want to do in a lot of these organizations. Sometimes, they keep doing the same things. Even though they may be learning, they’re not changing and opening up their mind to innovative ideas. Do you focus on the status quo at all when you’re looking at learning to have people? We have many people who are hired for their knowledge, but they’re fired for their behaviors. In all the eLearning I do, soft skills are critical. They’re hard to put into an eLearning type of platform. I want to get your input and all those issues. I asked you a lot in that question.

[bctt tweet=”The memory cannot go from short to long-term memory if you’ve not had a night’s sleep.” username=””]

I’ve got to start backward. I think eLearning isn’t great for soft skills, because soft skills are things you have to do. You could read everything there is to know about how to have the best, critical conversation if that’s what you want to call it. Until you’ve been in that conversation where you felt your heart beating faster as you’re about to approach this slightly challenging conversation where you know that you’re not entirely sure of where you’re going with it, you don’t quite know exactly how the other person is going to respond. You’ve got a feeling that they’re going to feel challenged by it. Until you have that conversation and you can feel your heart beating faster and you can feel your hands sweating, you don’t know what that’s going to be like. You don’t know how much of your focus is going to be taken away by that emotional fear, how that’s going to be taken away from the lovely list that you had prepared earlier on.

If the other person goes off-piste and away from your list of questions you had, what are you going to do? Soft skills are the hard skills to learn because we’re often trying to change habits. We’re trying to change our behaviors we may have had for many years. I don’t believe you can change your personality, but you can certainly change how you come over to others. That’s an important and difficult skill to learn.

I talked to a lot of people in the education realm. Whenever I’m in an MBA program at the Forbes School of Business and all the courses I’ve taught and working as a doctoral chair in different universities and different things I’ve done, they’re always trying to look at what the future is of education and learning and all that. I’ve had a lot of people think that the future is picking courses more a la carte. Maybe you don’t even go to the same university or even have a degree program. You have this then you maybe keep track of it through blockchain and it gets all complicated. What was interesting to me was, if you pick and choose, “I want to learn about this. I want to learn about that.” You don’t have all the soft skills and the humanities, which I look at as the glue of holding things together. Do you see the future of education having us be less well-rounded? Do you think organizations should teach some of those soft skills and humanity-based things?

They should be learning them at school. You start learning soft skills at home, don’t you? When you learn some, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got the best soft skills. The things you learn at home, you’re going to end up with those habits and behaviors for the rest of your life or until you change them. Work is too late to start on them. Schools and the education system should be beginnings. Schools do support people with soft skills, but not perhaps as well as they might. The one skill they don’t teach at school is how to learn.

How do you teach that?

You can give people the skills of learning. First of all, teach them what learning looks like to choose what they are going to learn. There’s slightly a different process if you’re trying to learn the last ten presidents. You don’t have kings in America, do you? There’s a different process to learning the last ten presidents compared to learning to process something complex or learning how to prevent a cyberattack. They’re different. Helping people recognize that different things you need to learn or maybe learn differently is a good start. There are things we can do to support learning. If people don’t know how the learning process happens, they don’t know if they go on a course. It’s like a one-day course. What they then need to do is come back to reflect on what they learned, to have a go, to practice, to get some feedback, to ask somebody else, “I’ve tried this new skill. I’m not confident about it. Would you mind giving me some feedback as to what went well and what I need to work on?” People don’t know that. If they don’t know that, they won’t do it. Therefore, they won’t learn as effectively as they could do. The whole process might take a lot longer than it’s needed.

It is interesting to see some topics. I like your comment. You said, “There’s no such thing as a boring topic, just boring training.”  

I believe that.

It brought to my high school history professor, teacher, or whatever you would call her. She would start off in that monotone voice as we started. All I hear is like the Peanuts cartoon, “Wah, wah.” It’s hard if you don’t have a passion for a certain topic to begin with. That’s what can spark curiosity. I had this one teacher and he was crazy. He was wonderful. I dedicated one of my books to him. He would climb on the chalkboard to talk about algebra and he would yell at the board. If he was trying to do X plus 2 equals 6 or something, he’d be yelling at the 2, “Get off there.” He’d scream at. He got to get rid of it. It’s in my head. He might have been a little bit nutty, but that’s what made me get a passion for algebra at a young age. Does any of your research look at the teaching behind it? What’s the dynamic nature of all this and how much it impacts us?

That example you’ve shown, you paid attention to it because he was different and it was unusual. When we pay attention to things, we take notice of them, we’re more likely to remember them. Paying attention is generally about keeping us safe. We need to make a decision as to whether that teacher is shouting at the number two or, “Are they shouting at me? I may need to get out of the classroom fast.” We pay attention. What we pay attention to is far more likely to stick in our memory. The teachers who are boring and is always the same and they don’t have any passion themselves, that’s never going to stick.

TTL 771 | Neuroscience Of Learning
Neuroscience Of Learning: Curiosity and fear are both registered in the nucleus accumbens, and it depends where dopamine hits your nucleus accumbens as to what you feel.


I talked a little bit about people and how connected we are to people. If you feel somebody else’s passion for something, that’s a way of taking people with you. Educators need to be passionate about their topic. I do believe there is no such thing as a boring topic. I’m sure you’ve seen it too, interesting things made boring and things that you might think are boring. I’ve seen compliance training done incredibly interesting because it’s important. We need to keep safe. If you know why you’re having this compliance training and it stops you from losing your arm or something, all of a sudden, that can become quite interesting.

It’s a good thing. I was thinking of my real estate school I took years ago. I wish I had it on videotape. This guy was good. He made measuring square footage interesting. I’m thinking, “How do you do that?” It was compelling. I listened to a book that Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote, it’s called Death by Black Hole and it’s all these different things he’s written about astrophysics. The guy who did the voiceover for his book, his name’s Dion Graham. I listened to Dion Graham reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s words. He’s reciting the decimals of PI and I’m sitting there, “That’s interesting.” Sometimes I’ll be listening to this book over and over again because I want to hear it. Even when he’s going, “Point zero, zero.” I’m like, “I don’t know why. I have to listen.” It fascinates me. They mix it up. I like the cadence of how they go from one thing to another. Do you study all that when you’re talking to people about learning, about the art behind it?

It’s a complex art and some people are good at it naturally. First of all, people need to be motivated. What motivates them? If somebody else says, “This is an interesting thing.” You’re an expert on curiosity. If they tell you all about it, that can be quite boring. If they start connecting you with why it might be relevant to you or connecting with something you already know, this is a bit like that other thing you were talking about, then that begins to make connections between the two of you. Connections and getting people curious and asking questions, that’s the start of any learning journey. Some learning is quite boring when you get to the point where you have to practice something. When you’re learning a skill, whether that’s playing tennis or whether it’s learning to write a good email or learning something to program or to code, there are some boring bits in there. They’re not boring, but they’re a bit hard. It’s quite hard work.

If you can feel inspired by somebody who keeps you going, motivated, interested and shows you that you’re making progress, that’s an important thing for teachers. They show people that they’re making progress, you’re doing well, and you’re making changes. That’s important as well as the enthusiasm. One of the challenges with enthusiasm is you get what I call the curse of the expert where somebody asks you one question and you go on for hours about it. They weren’t at that level yet. Good teachers recognize where is the learner and how can I support them to get to the next step in their learning?

I always enjoyed teaching first-time learners in my eLearning classes because I thought it was fun to have them get excited about the whole learning experience. You mentioned the learning journey. I’ve been working with this company. They were creating a learning journey and an app based on my research in curiosity. I find it fascinating when the woman has worked with Steven Spielberg and has visualized all these things with green screens. It’s things I can’t even imagine. She’s going, “I could see them going up this mountain.” All these things are in her head and I’m trying to visualize what she can see. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with. That’s not my best thing. I don’t have that creativity or experience in creating certain things.

I have other experience with creating courses in different ways. I’m anxious to see what the courses of the future are going to look like. They always say, “We’ve made them high tech.” When I get into these courses I teach, they look pretty much the same as they have always done. Maybe there’s another video there or something. Do you think that our education system is keeping up with what technology should be doing in these classrooms?

Tech can be helpful and useful, but it isn’t the only thing that’s going to make it new and interesting. It’s how you use the tech. For instance, virtual reality is a real big topic at the moment. We’ve been starting to investigate some programs by using virtual reality. You could still create a boring virtual reality program. You can create something interesting and fascinating and immersive where I can see the nervousness on the other person’s face or I can feel my heartbeat racing faster. You can create that using VR, for instance.

I can see what you’re saying. I teach at a technology University here in Arizona. They all love to code. We have to get them involved in business because if they start their coding company or want to create an app, they have to be able to sell it. There’s always business associated with things. I could always feel their sense of, “Ugh,” when they get into my class at the beginning because it’s business and it’s not fun technology stuff. I try to reach them in a fun way to try and show them the challenges of getting the game and make the business be interesting. It’s one of the harder things the groups have had to deal with and it taught me a lot of experience throughout these years that every group has their passions for what they’re hoping to learn about. They all have to take those required courses.

In the workplace, it’s interesting to see how they’ve changed learning. When I was a pharmaceutical rep for AstraZeneca for fifteen years, when we first started learning, they threw fifteen notebooks the size of my desk at me to learn all the drug names and pathogens and everything else you had to learn. Later, they made more CD-ROMs and different things. Now, I’m sure everything is digital and online interactive. I’d love to see how they’re doing that. There’s much more that we can learn. I would love it to get to the point where we’re at The Matrix where they can plug it into your head.

[bctt tweet=”One of the biggest challenges to purely digital learning is we don’t get enough movement.” username=””]

I think that would be quite boring.

It could be boring. It’s like getting on the top of the mountain without hiking it.

You get landed on with a helicopter and that gives you a short burst of excitement for a minute, but you haven’t done the journey. There is something joyful about the challenge of learning something. You asked about the future of learning. You talked about people being able to choose their own route through. That’s a much better way of learning for the individual than being told, “You must do this course. You must do that course.” At the point where your coders have got coding, they weren’t ready to learn about business yet. They didn’t know they needed that. The way to do that would be to introduce them to the need. Give them the need. Until they’ve got the need, there’s no point teaching it because they won’t remember it. A lot of learning is about creating a need.

It’s an interesting point for universities in general, what they have is required. I remember when I was in college, I thought, “I have to take everything I have to take. I’m never going to take anything I don’t want to take.” There weren’t a lot of electives. There weren’t a lot of things that work. If you wanted to get a business degree, you’re spending most of the time in business courses. I missed out on taking a lot of courses I would have liked to have taken. It will be interesting to see if they focus on the core of what goes into a one focused degree, like a business degree, or allowing you to have more of an interdisciplinary. I know they do more of that here.

My one daughter had an interdisciplinary degree where she has Portuguese and communications and different things combined. It will be an interesting aspect of how learning is in the education realm. When you wrote this book, Neuroscience for Learning and Development, were you thinking of university learning? Were you thinking of work learning? What made you want to write such an intense, hard book to write? I was impressed by it, by the way.

My experience was aimed mainly at the workplace. Having said that, learning in your brain is the same process wherever you are, it’s apart from child development, which is slightly different. When you’re learning some new skills, new knowledge and new information at work or at university, the process is much the same. It was aimed at thinking, “How does learning happen in the brain? What do we need?” You need to be motivated. You need to be paying attention. You need to remember some things. You need opportunities to practice. You need opportunities to get feedback. You need lots and lots of time to repeat, to recall so that learning gets retained in the end. You definitely need to sleep. That’s important.

It’s huge. There’s such a difference. If you had a bad night, I can’t learn anything. I’m pitiful.

There’s been lots of research that show that you cannot consolidate that memory. The memory cannot go from short to long-term memory if you’ve not had a night’s sleep. That’s why they use it as torture because people lose their ability to think, be clear and the ability to learn. Memory consolidation happens at night. There’s an actual physical process happening. You think you’re asleep and resting, but your brain is working overtime.

It makes a difference for me. We’ve seen a lot of university students who either wait until the last minute and pack everything in. College students, a lot of them take amphetamine or something to try and wake up. Do any of these pills make you smarter or make you learn more?

I’m not an expert on the drugs at all. There are apparently a number of drugs, Ritalin is one of them that can increase your attention and can support cognitive load. Even the coffee helps you take in information. It gives you improved cognitive function. Take it at the right time. If you have coffee late at night, then it will keep you awake and that will disrupt your learning. There clearly are drugs that are going to improve learning. There will be other impacts that may or may not be helpful to your own term. I know that at universities and organizations throughout the world, students and professors are taking these mind-altering drugs to help them, but there will be consequences to that as well.

TTL 771 | Neuroscience Of Learning
Neuroscience Of Learning: Dopamine is such a fascinating neurotransmitter. Everyone calls it the motivation one, but it has many other purposes and functions. It’s hugely complex.


It’s sad. It makes me think of one of my favorite books growing up, Flowers for Algernon. Did you ever read that book by chance?

I have read it. It’s a fascinating book.

It’s a great book about a guy with mental disabilities who they want to help but they’ve tested out some treatments on a mouse or a rat named Algernon. They put something into his brain and Algernon can learn and get to the cheese faster. They try it out on him. It’s a touching story until things don’t work well. I wonder if we’ll get to that point. Do you think that Flowers for Algernon’s story is something that we’ll start to see? Do we want to do something like that?

People are already doing it. There are multiple ways we’re affecting our brains like that. Part of it is people are taking drugs to support their learning in the short-term but long-term, that may have consequences. Also, the technology we’re using is also changing the way we read, for instance. We read with far less depth than we used to. We tend to skim so we can read quickly. We can skim, but we’re not going into the same depth that we did. Things like the technology we use keep us awake at night and we’re all addicted. I hate to say it, but I’m quite addicted to my phone. I check it when I get up in the morning. It’s affecting how we behave, but it is affecting how we learn too.

Have you done any research into the blue light aspect and its impact on learning? I know a lot focuses on that and keeping us up at night and I’m sure it would impact it that way.

It definitely impacts how well we sleep and learn and how well we function the next day. The recommendation is you turn your phone off two hours before you go to bed. Some people say, “Yes, but you’re going to have a blue screen filter.” These phones are designed to grab your attention, “I want to look at it. I want to look at it again.” Even if you turn the blue screen off, they’re still demanding your attention. What you need, as you’re going to sleep, is to have your attention dulled and to be quite relaxed and not paying attention.

To get your mind off things, I noticed you covered mindfulness in your book. Daniel Goleman, his newest focus after emotional intelligence has been mindfulness. You’ve obviously written something about that. I’m curious how much that helps in terms of our learning.

For some people, it helps because it can reduce anxiety. If we’re anxious, we tend not to learn well for different reasons. For some people, it can be useful. That mindful visualization can also help with your learning. Sometimes, visualizing things can be a good way to help you to reinforce memories. There does seem to be some evidence that, for some people, mindfulness is not good or is less helpful because it tends to make them focus on internally. For some people who have depression, that internal focus is partly why they’re depressed because they have this strong internal focus. Naturally, they could do with being focused outward. There’s been some evidence that says that mindfulness is not the solution to every challenge. For most of us, it reduces your heart rate. It helps you focus for a short time. It’s a useful technique.

You’ve written about all this stuff. Neuroscience for Learning and Development, this is the second edition. I noticed that you had written one in 2015 and the second one came out in 2019. Were there a lot of changes that you had to make? What changed in learning and development?

[bctt tweet=”We are designed to move. We’ve evolved to learn by moving, by doing, by actively taking part in things.” username=””]

The biggest change was thinking about the impact of tech and how tech has become much more part of our standard learning process in organizations. The book was written for people who are designing and delivering learning. I thought much more about what we need to do as tech designers if we’re designing technical learning using digital technology, what we need to think about. That was one part of the edition.

I wrote a chapter on the differences between digital training and face-to-face, for lack of a better word, and some of the differences in our brain and things like, “Do we pay less attention now?” The evidence is our attention span has shortened. The evidence seems to be that our attention span isn’t necessarily any shorter, but we are getting distracted more often. We can pay attention if we choose to, but we tend to find distractions. Distractions are quite rewarding. We get rewarded by those distractions. There are some differences in learning digitally. One of my biggest challenges to purely digital learning is we don’t get enough movement.

It’s an interesting thing. One of the first books I wrote was about online education. I was one of those students that wasn’t good at sitting through lectures. I’m too hyper. I couldn’t sit still. The thought of parking, a half-hour to drive there, twenty minutes to walk to class, sitting through an hour lecture, I’d eventually talk myself out of going to class. I didn’t learn very much at all because I never was there. I had to force myself to participate in a more traditional model.

When online education became a potential, you couldn’t keep me out of class because it was lectures, it was aimed at whatever I liked. I meet many people who are the exact opposite of me. It’s interesting to see who it appeals to. I get a lot of introverts in my education school classes. I get different types of personality types in different courses. People either seem to love it or hate it. The ones who hate it are mostly doing it because they don’t have a lot of other options.

It comes down to the motivation again. If you are motivated and it was well designed, you would enjoy it. The challenge is not all classroom training, not all face-to-face training, not all eLearning is designed well, but some of it is designed well. If you’ve got the right person who’s motivated to want to learn and it’s designed well, then you’re going to hit the button much more quickly than if you’ve got somebody who’s not motivated, it doesn’t matter. It could be the best eLearning in the world. It might be the best lecture in the world. It won’t make any difference.

The whole thing about movement is interesting. If you got an incredibly inspiring person, you can do half an hour. We are designed to move. We’ve evolved to learn by moving, by doing, by actively taking part in things. There’s a lot of evidence to show that we learn better when we are physically moving. Certainly, exercise boosts your memory. It helps us to grow more brain cells. It’s like a growth hormone for brain cells. The brain cells in our hippocampus, in particular, are stimulated by movement, physical activity, and exercise. We don’t do enough of that. Especially we’re in Corona, people are staying at home. They’re sitting at home. They’re connecting on Zoom. They’re not getting the opportunity to even walk between meetings.

It’s true. It’s such an odd time. It’s going to be interesting to see what comes out of all of this. I’ve had people from Zoom on my show and different platforms in the past. I was always a big fan of Zoom before all of this. It’s going to force some new technology, some new ways of doing things that maybe wouldn’t have happened. There are some of those positive and creative aspects of what should come from all this.

Also, the things you can do. I’ve got a stand-up desk. When I come in the morning, I always have it so that it’s up. I’m forced to stand for the first few meetings or conversations of the day. I’ve got a yoga ball that I sit on, rather than sitting on the chair. Introducing some movement is good. Linking learning with physical activity. We do an activity in one of our programs where we teach people a bit about brain science. They physically become parts of the brain and they’re physically passing communications and messages and being part of the brain. They absolutely love it. They remember it because it’s fairly unusual to be a part of a brain. They’ve also got visual, auditory, and physical. They’ve got all these different sensory connections to the learning as opposed to it being a single sense.

Anytime, they could mix it up and have you learn in different ways or you can get my real estate professor and find everybody to teach like how I did. I wish I could put my finger on exactly what it was he did. There are many things that we could do to help people learn more. I was looking forward to having you on the show because I had seen some of your work from the Novartis event. This was endlessly fascinating to me. I love neuroscience and learning and all the things that you’ve researched. I’m sure a lot of people would like to learn more about you. I know your book is on Amazon and in different places. Is there someplace that they can find out more or follow you?

They’re welcome to connect with me on LinkedIn. Also, if you look at website, they’ll see some of the work we’re doing. There’s lots more coming up. I’ve got a podcast too. They can listen in to some interesting conversations on that too.

TTL 771 | Neuroscience Of Learning
Neuroscience Of Learning: The things you learn at home, you’re going to end up with those habits and behaviors for the rest of your life or until you change them.


There are many podcasts going. I’d love that there’s so much we can learn. I hope people take some time to check it out. Thank you, Stella, for being on the show. This was fascinating.

Thank you very much. We had a real gallop through a whole array of different things there.

We went all over the board. It was great.

I’d like to thank Stella for being my guest on the show. We get many great guests on this show. I love our discussion because it ties into so much that I research in terms of curiosity, perception, learning, education, the whole space of all that. In my research in curiosity, I looked at some of the things that we talked about on the show in terms of dopamine, how curiosity improves that and makes you feel better to explore your curiosity.

We look at animals. All beings have this normal sense of curiosity. Birds, for example, if they flew around one bush and they ran out of berries and didn’t have curiosity, they’re going to die. We need this sense of curiosity to grow and develop. What’s great about our opportunities is that there are many things we can learn and explore. When I was looking at curiosity, my real goal was to get us out of status-quo thinking, to get out of the failures we’ve seen with the blockbusters and the companies out there who followed the way things had always been done.

If you can explore more learning, more education that helps and developing a sense of curiosity in individuals at work is critical to that exploration. As Francesca Gino had pointed out in a lot of her research, we aren’t seeing that the employees necessarily feel that curiosity is as rewarded as leaders think that they are rewarding it. We need to take a step back and look at the things that keep people from being curious.

In my research, I found there were four factors that inhibit curiosity. They include fear, assumptions, which is that voice in your head that tells you, “I’m not going to like this,” that type of thing. Technology, the over and under-utilization of it, and environment. Environment is everybody with whom you’ve ever had interactions. It’s critical to take a look at the things that hold you back so that you can move forward and explore. As we talked about learning to get to the point of being an effective learner, the spark to all of that motivation and drive is curiosity.

Sometimes it takes a great instructor, some of the things we talked about on the show. You can have somebody that builds that curiosity because they make things interesting. As leaders, we have to recognize the impact that we have on the overall culture of our organizations which we run. If we don’t recognize that it takes a sense of motivating people by building that spark of curiosity, then we’re not doing all we can to help people in our organization.

I love this conversation. I was glad to see Stella did some amazing talks around the world. I hope you take some time to look at her site and information. We had many great guests on the show. If you’ve missed any past guests, you can go to Feel free to go to the site and tweet out some tweetable moments. We’d love to hear from you. I hope you enjoyed this episode. I hope you join us for the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.

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About Stella Collins

TTL 771 | Neuroscience Of LearningI lead a company where our mission is to upskill people and business for the future. This is driven by effective learning, led by innovation and scientific insights to get results.
Change happens when training is linked to business goals, it’s personalised, transferable and results focused.

Curiosity about how people think, work and learn has led me to investigate how psychology and neuroscience applied to training drives personal and organisational change.


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