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The Link Between Neuroscience, Cognition, and Experiential Learning

By Ian Cornett on April 17, 2018

Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system and brain. Cognition is the process of acquiring knowledge through thinking, experiencing, and using the senses to interpret surroundings. Scientists use neuroscience to get a better understanding of cognition, in other words, to learn how humans learn.

Businesses are looking to neuroscience research to learn more about how understanding biological and neurological processes can lead to behavior change. As neuroscientist Dr. David Rock said in an Inc. magazine interview:

"The active ingredient to large-scale behavior change is facilitating insight in social situations over time. Research points to the importance of a three-step process: seeing something different in a social setting, having an insight about that behavior, and making these types of connections over time. Insight to action causes change. If you have those insights and discuss them in a social setting, you are more likely to want to change."

Applying these concepts to learning in a business environment leads to long-term behavior change.

Understanding How the Brain Learns New Behaviors

In the business world, more often than not, telling people what to do doesn’t work and one-off training events are not enough to make a lasting change. Neuroscientist Gretchen Schmelzer explains that this is because information that is received in this manner is stored in short-term memory, rather than in long-term memory. Information can shift from short-term to long-term memory in three ways: urgency, repetition, and association.

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The types of long-lasting memories that are created by urgency are often associated with negative situations, such as accidents and threatening situations. Urgency is an effective learning mechanism, but by its very nature, it’s not sustainable in the workplace as a stand-alone strategy.


Repetition is useful in the workplace for technical information and numbers. Schmelzer says, “It is also why it is so hard to make behavior change, because the new behavior must be repeated for so long—and the old behavior must be held in check.”


Association taps into existing neural connections, like old files. These connections are made on the neural level when you make associations in real life. For example, you might not remember a new person’s name after meeting them once or twice, but after you have a meaningful conversation with them, you have an association that helps you recall the information more readily.

All of these methods stimulate new protein connections between neurons. Through repetition and association, the proteins are strengthened and the connections increase. Repetition grows the brain’s neural network and facilitates learning and behavior change, while association strengthens those connections.

Changing Human Behavior with Experiential Learning

When developing a training strategy with these things in mind, consider experiential learning. Here’s how this learning methodology taps into all three of these components for long-term behavior change:

  • Urgency is felt during the training experience when participants are fully immersed in a challenge that requires them to think and act quickly to achieve a specific outcome.
  • Repetition is used during the training as scenarios are played out repeatedly so participants can practice new skills and see how the results change based on those skills. After all, behavior change requires facilitating new thinking. The only way to facilitate new thinking is to help people make new neural connections through repetition.
  • Association is employed in the debrief when the knowledge gained during the training is recalled and connected to the workplace. These new connections create “aha moments” that can be referenced in the future, also through association.

Whether you are trying to transform your culture, improve productivity, or improve the way people communicate, it all comes down to individual behavior change. We relate to people first, objects second, and concepts third; it’s hard for people to understand a concept. Trying to sell an organization a concept—that leadership wants to be different—is too hard for people to grasp, but giving them an experience that demonstrates the concept and what the associated behaviors are allows them to make the connection at the neural level. Training that makes those kinds of connections—like experiential learning—makes more impact because it enables people to understand concepts better.

It’s important to remember that learning extends beyond individual training events. Continue to use repetition and association as part of a reinforcement strategy that references the new learning. This strengthens the neural connections that were made during training and leads to long-term behavior change.

Connecting Neuroscience to Corporate Training

Every time something new is learned, the brain is changed. However, making a change in the workplace requires repeated exposure to specific situations in order to make connections between concepts and behavior change. Experiential learning paired with a retention strategy helps make these connections by demonstrating the effects of specific actions during training and reinforcing the new concepts in a real-life setting.

Experiential Learning: The Key to Effective Employee Development

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Ian has been with Eagle’s Flight since 1997, and is Executive Vice President, Global Accounts. He holds an MBA in Finance and Marketing from the University of British Columbia. Ian spent 12 years at Nestlé Canada and brings a wide range of experience that includes practical business experience in management, sales, program design, development and mentoring. He works closely with the Global licensees to ensure their success as they represent Eagle’s Flight in the worldwide marketplace. He has developed outstanding communication skills and currently is the Executive in Charge of a large Fortune 500 client with a team of employees dedicated to this specific account. As a result, Ian has been instrumental in driving the company’s growth and strategic direction.

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Founded in 1988, Eagle's Flight has earned its reputation as a global leader in the development and delivery of business-relevant, experiential learning programs that achieve specific training objectives and lasting behavior changes.

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