Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Emma Weber


Intuitively we know that most of the time training interventions fail to create real change and get the desired results.

The brain does not like to change. Findings in cognitive neuroscience cement the need for an ongoing support process after learning so that training really makes the difference we all strive for.

In this interview we hear from Colleen Lightbody, Managing Director of Neuroleadership Africa. Colleen and I dissected the links between neuroscience and learning, and explored why the transfer of learning is crucial from a cognitive point of view. Colleen’s knowledge is remarkable, and of course I was excited to learn that my instinctual beliefs in the importance of learning transfer are truly backed up by science…

Cognitive Neuroscience

and the Transfer of Learning


Colleen can be contacted on or you can check her out on

What are your thoughts on the links between neuroscience and the transfer of learning? Join the discussion.

Interview Transcript

Emma: So today we’re here for a very special feature, for learning matters, and I’m thrilled that I’m speaking with Colleen Lightbody, all the way from South Africa this afternoon. Colleen, welcome to the call.

Colleen: Great, thanks Emma, it’s great to be with you.

Emma: I’m thrilled; I’m thrilled we’re going to be having this conversation about neuroscience, brain plasticity, and all things brain and learning and a whole host of exciting things that come beneath that. So Colleen, lovely to have you here, I know that you’re the managing director of The Neuroleadership Group Africa and also a global trainer in neuroscience leadership and coaching, and alongside that you run your own business of Brainwise Coaching and Learning Systems. I’m thrilled that you found time to squeeze us into your hectic schedule.

Colleen: It’s busy but that’s fun and it keeps the brain alive.

Emma: Indeed. So Colleen do you want to just start by maybe telling us why you’re so passionate about the brain?

Colleen: I think I’ve been in the field of human development and leadership and learning for many many years but when I became particularly attached to the neuroscience it was really because I found that when everyone was teaching people about how to learn better, teaching about how to think better, when there was science behind that, it gave it much more credibility and it gave it a stickiness, and people understood the how of what it is they were doing as opposed just to the what they had to do, or rather the why, even, of what they had to do.

Emma: Fantastic. And Colleen, you and I really connected through our sort of shared passion of getting results through learning and actually getting change after training programs and I remember when I was introducing you do our methodology in terms of our turning learning into action, where we focus on the transfer of learning and helping people change after training programs, there was just a real click, wasn’t there, when you said so much of this is embedded in the brain and neuroscience with some of the latest research coming out. I was fascinated in that because we’ve developed our methodology here using my experience and what I’ve observed happening in organisations, what we’ve observed through learning and it’s thrilling to know that there’s parts of science about the brain that are actually backing up what we’re – the approach that we’re taking anyway.

Colleen: Absolutely, and I think that it’s not only the science but also intuitively people have known that training interventions don’t last and don’t really create change, because change is incredibly difficult to manifest from a neuroscience perspective; the brain does not like to change and so when I came, you and I connected and I heard about the process that you were putting into really create learning to really make sure that there’s accountability and sustainability. It just made such sense and I was really excited somebody was doing it, and the science all backs up the need for that ongoing process to make sure that the training makes a difference.

Emma: Why is it that the brain finds it hard to change or – humans using their brain find it hard to change? What’s the story behind that Colleen?

Colleen: Well, that’s a long story.

Emma: The abridged version?

Colleen: The abridged version: I think one of the most critical things is the brain is designed to homeostasis. The brain is designed to go back to what is familiar and what is comfortable, and one of the primary reasons for that is when we have to think, when we have to do something differently, it takes a lot of effort. It transitions into an arousal state that is perceived as stressful and so therefore the human being resists it – and it particularly reacts to our consciousness or our prefrontal cortex, which is your thinking, intelligence, rational part of your brain. In order to us this part of – in order to create a change you need to use your prefrontal cortex because you think about what you’re doing, and do it differently. That prefrontal cortex is really energy intensive, it uses so many of your resources, it’s very small, and very limited in its capacity and so therefore we resist and we go back to our old habits. If I can just give you a quick description, which might explain it a little, if you fold your arms, now fold your arms the other way. You can feel how uncomfortable that felt. So that’s what I’m talking about, if I ask you to fold your arms in half an hour are you going to fold your arms in the same way? It takes consciousness, it takes effort, it takes commitment to be able to change behaviour. Does that make sense?

Emma: It does. I think we can all relate to the – when you’ve been on a training program for a day and the end of the day you’re absolutely exhausted…through having used so much brain power trying to learn new things. When we’re trying to get the behavioural change, it’s taking, letting people know that this going to require effort and it is going to require focus, and that’s actually normal. I sometimes have people saying to me, ‘oh, I just want to be able to do it without even thinking about it.’ What there needs to be is sort of a transition stage, is what I share with them, and it sounds as if that’s all to do with the brain as well.

Colleen: Absolutely and I think what you put in place is this: four days training actually makes no sense. Unfortunately logistically often that’s all the time we have to engage in, or even a two day or up to a four weeks training, but what you’re doing is creating – first you’re letting people know that this does take effort, so you’re creating a certainty and you’re creating a comfort level for them that’s, ‘don’t expect this to be different,’ but there’s that motivation and that connection with the ongoing process that staggers the learning, that spaces the learning out, that becomes more comfortable and manageable for the individual, rather than being totally overwhelmed by a whole lot of new information that they resist and say no to completely.

Emma: Yes, I love the fact that really, as you were saying earlier, this kind of common sense, and intuitively we know that it works, making it more manageable, spreading it out over time, but the science is now showing us that that helps the brain take it as well.

Colleen: Absolutely, and embed the learning and I think the key word which you often mentioned is accountability and sustainability.

Emma: Yes, all part of the picture. So before we get into the nitty-gritty of our approach Colleen, and I’d love to share with you some of the things that I’ve put into the methodology and we’ll look at why that works with the brain as it is, I just want us to think about one of the truisms that I’m often confronted with within learning and development departments is, I might be talking with a learning and development manager, there might be twenty people going through a program or a cohort and people might say, ‘oh well, John and Joe, they’re never going to change, so don’t worry about them,’ that’s just not been my experience. When people say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, I know that we can, and when we get them in the right frame of mind I know that they do. It’s just often people don’t take the time to get people in that right frame of mind. What’s the story with the, ‘you can’t teach an old dog tricks?’

Colleen: Okay, so that’s one of my favourite subjects, directly related to the concept of neuroplasticity, which is fairly new in the evolution of our understanding of the brain, and really what the concept of neuroplasticity is, is that the brain is actually capable of change right throughout your lifetime. Brain neuroplasticity really refers to the fact that the brain is not rigid, it’s not solid and hard and cannot change, so despite the fact that we know it’s difficult to change, we also now know that it’s completely possible to change. There are certain learning periods for critical skills, like language for example, which is more rigid and more difficult to learn at an older age, but for most things we are actually able to learn anything new right throughout our lifetimes, and I’ve seen people change their IQ, change their temperament, change their motivation, take up musical instruments, do degrees in their 60s and even 70s. One of the keys, and people get really excited about this, is knowing that you can change, firstly, it’s important that people know that, and secondly, the desire to change. So you are capable of profound change but you have to want to.

Emma: I think that’s one of the exciting things that the neuroplasticity is now telling us that it’s possible, and then that gives the individual much more power to really consider, ‘well do I want to do this, have I got the desire to do it?’ And we’re getting people to complete action plans at the end a learning event that they’ll then commit to taking into their behavioural change, one of the things I really stress is that it has to be something that you think is important and is going to make a difference in your role. It’s not what either you think your manager wants to you to put or you think the organization wants you to put – really consider what’s important to you. So does that come all down to that desire piece for the self, Colleen?

Colleen: Absolutely. Most of our waking thoughts, almost all of our waking thoughts are about ourselves; actually about ourselves in connection with other people often as well. When we can tap into a person’s own sense of meaning and purpose, then the brain is much more active than when we’re talking about some kind of arbitrary contextual thing that the person can’t really relate to. I think, yes, choosing the action plan and getting that person personally involved will create the right neurochemical balance in the brain. When a person talks about themselves and feels like they’re connecting to their own purpose and meaning, you get an increase in dopamine and an increase in serotonin, which are the feel-good neurochemicals, which facilitate neuro-connection, which facilitates learning and brain development, so it works beautifully.

Emma: It’s just fascinating to consider that what seems so instinctive to me, which is getting people to own their own actions and decide for themselves, there’s a big chemical link underneath that. It’s quite mind-blowing in itself, I’m always – my dopamine is firing off right now.

Colleen: It probably is, because what happens is you’re kind of making a new connection in your brain which we call an insight, you’re connecting maps of learning and knowledge that your either just hearing or really subliminally or subconsciously has been there and as you make that connection, you change the brainwave state of your brain, and you actually experience this outpouring of catecholamines or neurochemicals which are feel good neurochemcials, and that’s exactly what happens when the person is talking about what it is they want to achieve and what have they learnt, they start making these connections, creating new mental maps and a neurochemical explosion is actually happening in their brain, which is terribly exciting and useful.

Emma: I think one of the things we do when we get people into the depth of the conversation is help them not make only those kind of obvious connections but the more you reflect and think about change or think about the things that you’re trying to implement, people can see other connections and other patterns that are useful to them, perhaps in an experience that they’ve had in the past, whether that’s an opportunity whether it’s something that worked or didn’t work, they can connect in with that and create more connections rather than just those obvious ones when we really do take time to reflect.

Colleen: Exactly, and I think what you’re talking about is leveraging not only the conscious mind but also the subconscious and conscious mind, so thinking with the prefrontal cortex is a really limited way to think. That’s the logically, reasoning, rational, and often people can feel quite anxious because remember I mentioned that the prefrontal cortex is so resource intensive. So in a way what you’re talking about is intuitive learning. It’s about exercising that learning from the basal ganglia which is your habit sense of your brain from your emotional brain your limbic system, from previous knowledge, from making those connections and allowing those connections to emerge in a very safe space. And sometimes there’s much deeper learning from that perspective, than just the usual logical, linear kind of thinking.

Emma: How important is it that it’s a safe space when we’re having these learning transfer conversations. As a team we always have, the calls are actually confidential themselves, so what’s shared on a learning transfer call in terms of our turning learning into action conversations, it just stays on the call. How important is that, that level of safety, Colleen?

Colleen: I think human beings completely underestimate the importance of a safe relationship in any kind of development conversation. Recent research, for me one of the most transformational kinds of knowledge that I ever gathered, was that the brain processes the affective component or the emotional component of physical pain and social pain in exactly the same place. So if I have you in an MRI scanner and I insult you, your brain will react as though I am cutting your arm – or you even if you are cutting your own arm. So we have a very powerful evolutionary and physiological response to an unsafe relationship. When a person in called in for feedback, they actually experience that feedback as a threat to their lives. When people are told what to do, micromanaged, not treated fairly, anything that commonly happens in an organization, you do not realize the impact that actually has on the brain. And when we experience physical pain, we go into a survival brain state, which is totally instinctive, reactive, nonconscious, and defensive. I know I’m talking a lot but…

Emma: No, no this is fascinating.

Colleen: So just by providing a safe, confidential, and non-directive environment where that person can really access their inner knowing, they can access their own wisdom is incredibly powerful for people’s developments; much more powerful than a manager giving them feedback.

Emma: It’s almost the – how many different threads within that Colleen? There’s the safety piece, of ensuring that the person doesn’t feel threatened, and I was astonished at the ATD conference in the USA recently and heard that fact about the body reacting to the emotional pain the same way as the physical pain and I just thought, ‘isn’t that strange?’ because we try and deny that words can hurt us or words are powerful but when you actually look at what’s happening within the brain, the brain and therefore the body are so sensitive to it. It’s fascinating in that way, but what I’m also hearing is that even giving solutions or sharing your knowledge, can appear as a threat to people, so from a coaching viewpoint, we ask questions, we don’t give advice, don’t tell people what we think they should do to help with the learning transfer, we hold the space for people to have the conversation for themselves and work it out for themselves. Why is it that even just giving someone advice can trigger this people feeling threatened, Colleen can you tell us a little more about that?

Colleen: Yes, there probably are quite a few threads to that as well, but firstly, we really have to honour the fact that no two brains are alike. So you may say, ‘my friend and I think exactly alike,’ there’s not a chance that you have created the same neural pathways in your brain as your friend has done, we’ve got over 300 billion possible connections – sorry trillion – possible connections in your brain. 300 trillion, it’s completely impossible that one person thinks like another. As soon as somebody is trying to tell you what to do, what they’re doing is that they’re putting their mental maps or brain maps onto yours, and already there’s a disconnect for you. That first way, it feels like a threat because it doesn’t make sense to us, it’s somebody else perception of our way of thinking, and then secondly, we are driven to, David Rock always talks about autonomy, he talks about fairness, he talks about status, and all of these things are dishonoured when somebody just tells you what to do. The brain is driven to be self-oriented, and to, and wants actually, to use it’s own knowledge. It makes sense, to my brain, to be able to use my thinking, because somebody else’s thinking doesn’t make sense to my brain.

Emma: It’s something I’ve always instinctively believed that the most powerful behavioural change that we will get from people is when they come up with the solution themselves, the answers themselves, and that no one can ever know someone else’s life situation, or indeed as we’re saying, brain, the way that that individual does. And I’ve seen it happen time and time again that that is the most powerful way to get ownership and to get change. I guess I just never knew that it was all down to what’s happening in the brain. I think in a way I’m loving this conversation, but in the past I’m thinking, ‘well I know this works and I don’t really care or need to know how, but I just know it works,’ but it’s fascinating to really just get this depth behind it.

Colleen: Unfortunately what we have to remember is for you it may have felt instinctive, for most people this is not instinctive, it’s not a default mode, to get other people to think, telling other people what to do makes us feel fantastic. It’s serotonin and dopamine in our brain – so when you’re telling me what to do, you are getting positive neurochemicals, but I am not getting any. So when you’re addicted to it, and we’re also addicted to sorting out people’s problems, we’re not worrying about our own problems. Instead of relying on people – the honour and the privilege of actually doing the thing themselves, with all the best will in the world, we jump in, but in actual fact it just shuts down people’s thinking.

Emma: I’m going to recap a little be on that because I don’t know if the internet line was just a little bit shaky there but so what I heard you saying at the beginning is that for me, asking the questions and growing people through that way is a default mode, but that there’s a real plus side for people just telling people what to do because it makes us feel so great in our own selves anyway. And then if we take that step further, that’s what we see playing out in a lot of organizations, and for a lot of managers they get that sense of significance through knowing the information and being able to tell people which just doesn’t grow the people underneath them.

Colleen: Exactly, also I think there is maybe another aspect: people really truly do have wisdom. They do have the answers, they do have the knowledge, but if a person pauses, and reflects, immediately we think, ‘oh, it’s because they don’t know,’ and so therefore we jump in. In order to actually get a person to think, we really need to allow them the time to reflect. We need to allow them that space to do that thinking because that’s where solutions are allowed to emerge from their subconscious and they’re able to make connections they may not have made before. It all links right back.

Emma: Although this is slightly kind of off topic, in terms of learning transfer, I think in a way we’ve been sold the myth that in organizations that it’s very easy for managers to have coaching or behavioural change conversations with there people on the fly and as they go. What I find, and I manage a team within this business, I find it hard to have those conversations unless I physically change my hat and slow myself down. Our business is traveling at one hundred miles an hour and it is that sense of if someone doesn’t answer something quickly, in the heat of the day it’s really difficult to sort of slow down, give that time for reflection, give that time to honour and let that wisdom kind of bubble up inside someone – which is why when we’re doing learning transfer, we set aside the thirty minutes, which is not a big period of time, but it’s enough time for people to slow down, and to slow down their thinking, and then it’s almost, you’ve got the guidance and this is the time for the wisdom to come in, this isn’t the time to be running around trying to solve problems and firefight as you go through you day. I think that again just speaks to that really interesting part of the model, of needing to change hats, Colleen.

Colleen: Absolutely. And again it’s the perception of coaching or that coaching take a long time, that has actually prevented organizations from creating change, because they think, ‘oh it’s much easier,’ or ‘it’s much quicker just to tell somebody what to do,’ but you’re not changing anything in their brain. There are no neural pathways that are being developed. There’s no neurochemistry that is being facilitated to motivate change. So the fifteen minutes might feel like slowing down, but in actual fact, in the long run it speeds up. It’s getting people, changing their perception of how people function that is quite, again the managers themselves are having to change.

Emma: Are you seeing organizations really starting to embrace this Colleen, what’s been your experience there from a brain sense of view for an overall organization?

Colleen: I’m not sure if I’m answering you correctly but what I’m seeing is people to start embracing this understanding because they’re seeing their change initiatives don’t work. They’ve seen that there is something more that we need, possibly sometimes organizations even being exposed to the neuroscience, where they’re understanding that there is a different way that we need to manage people, there’s a different way we need to engage with people. Once again the science adds to the rigor to the school of people developments.

Emma: Colleen, I’m afraid we did just lose you a fraction there; I could sense the excitement in what you were saying. We’re saying that the brain science gives rigor and organizations are really loving that rigor, can you just pick us up from there again, sorry?

Colleen: Well I think many people are, if we can give them the neuroscience behind why we need to change the way we manage people and that it has validity, it’s not just a soft skill, it’s not a “nice-to-have” it’s actually absolutely essential if we actually want to create a new and different kind of organization, and if we want to be effective with the way we develop our people. So there is a much better buy-in right across the world and I just mentioned how, I train in many different cultures from the far-East to the United States, Europe, and Africa, wherever we go, everybody has a brain, so we, it’s a common language.

Emma: It’s really as we’re talking about this now Colleen, I’ve kind of got my learning transfer radar on, because that’s my passion and that’s how I show up in the world, but isn’t it fascinating, this just goes across everything within organizations, not just learning but day-to-day management, as I was saying I was at the ATD conference and they were saying only 17% of change initiatives are successful within organizations. As far as I’m concerned, change is the only thing we know is definitely going to happen at the moment, so it is really about how do we get people to change and how can we change organizations through changing people. It’s fascinating that this is so broad and so relevant. I do want to bring us back to something you said earlier, you referred to the subconscious of the brain, first the kind of consciousness and the thinking part, one of the things I find in our work is that when we’re having the conversation with people, often they’ll start wanting to solve it logically, but when we get down to questions such as, ‘what’s your gut feel?’ or, ‘what’s your intuition telling you here?’ we get the much more powerful answer, what’s happening there from a brain perspective?

Colleen: Again, from a brain perspective, what we’re used to doing is using our thinking brain, logical brain, prefrontal cortex which is incredibly small, and again is resource intensive, as soon as we ask a person to reflect, as soon as we ask a person for perhaps ask them to think in a way that they haven’t thought of before, what they start doing is accessing stored knowledge, knowledge from past experiences, they start putting knowledge together, in unusual ways, and when that is allowed in a safe environment, to emerge, it often creates new thinking as opposed to our usual linear way of thinking. Perhaps we could also talk a little about our left hemisphere, right hemisphere. It’s a little bit of a generic term, but essentially we do use more of our left hemisphere when we’re doing logical rational, academic thinking, and we use more blood flow in our right hemisphere when were creating intuitive, imaginative. A lot of these conversations are actually engaging whole brain function, as opposed to this usual way of telling people what to do or just coming up with a quick couple of solutions with a left brain way of functioning. It’s actually engaging with many different kinds of processes, in the brain.

Emma: This whole idea of creativity and curiosity, is that in the right side of the brain, Colleen? The creativity and the curiosity? More so than the logical on the left, if I’m following you correctly?

Colleen: It’s a bit of a generic term, but generally speaking what we want to encourage is whole-brain thinking. Creativity is using perhaps my visual cortex, its using auditory cortex; it’s using my intuitive brain. It’s creating in ways that I haven’t thought before. As opposed that kind of linear logical kind of thinking which is limited.

Emma: One of the trends that I’m seeing in learning transfer again coming out of the US is people trying towards online learning transfer solutions, which may be necessary for some scalable programs where I think some programs need to be hugely scalable, but we’ve got programs where we’re working with over a thousand people, so it’s still relatively scalable, and what I see is that where we try and make learning transfer about control and compliance, and ticking a box, the level of behavioural change is much, much lower than where we can really engage with someone and get them reflecting and thinking creatively and curiously about what they’re doing. It sounds as if the whole-brain approach is broader when you have a conversation than when you’re logically ticking the box, answering an email or answering an online survey, in terms of your learning transfer. Is that making sense or am I making a leap too far there, Colleen?

Colleen: No, online learning has to be very carefully facilitated in order to engage the brain because it’s so easy for people to disconnect, to multitask; when you’re having a one-on-one conversation, when it’s about you, when it’s confidential, when it’s safe, when it’s open and curious, the person is much more likely to go much deeper, and to be more engaged. As opposed to when knowledge is just presented to them. It’s activating many, many more areas of the brain, in order to create learning you want to stimulate as many parts of the brain as you possibly can. Social brain is critical to learning. People learn much better in a social engagement than they do when they’re just passively learning on their own. Yes, it’s maybe the active versus the passive.

Emma: I’m interested in this kind of social brain and connection to help facilitate learning Colleen. A lot of what we do is around this confidentiality and getting people to have the conversation with themselves, and the power that creates through the safety but then at the same time knowing that the social connection is also important, so tell me a little bit more about the social connection.

Colleen: Our social needs are our primary needs as we’ve discovered from the neuroscience in terms of the social pain/physical pain link, and if we are engaged in a relationship – human beings are evolutionarily designed to be in a relationship. The human baby doesn’t survive very long, and we almost can speculate that we’ve evolved this part of our brain for our very survival. That for when you hear your baby cry or when you feel separation from your baby, you actually experience it as a physical pain, so therefore you respond, as opposed to leaving your baby to forage for itself in the bush. We’re driven to social, but we can also be driven into a total threat state through social, as much as we can a positive brain state. That is why this – it sounds as though you are extremely careful and you’re extremely rigors about creating that open confidential environment, because the slightest thing can trigger that threat state. In fact a threat state is much easier to trigger than the positive brain state because we have a much stronger reaction to what is negative, so you can have a best friend whose your best friend for your whole life, and then she says one thing wrong, and suddenly the friendship disappears. We have a powerful response to the negatives social engagements.

Emma: I’m going to paraphrase that, cause the line was a little bit difficult Colleen, so there’s a very strong response to negative, that threat rather than the positive, and it’s interesting because although our calls are one-on-one, so you’ve not got the social element of the group, it does mean that we can keep it completely safe and we can also bring in a lot of questions about, ‘who else do you need to speak to, what support can you get, who can you work with on this,’ so it’s interesting that it’s kind of one-on-one but I always say to people, the power of the process is what happens after you’ve had the conversation, and that’s when the social part takes place. It’s interesting to be balancing the two. The other thing that came to me as I was preparing for this conversations was really thinking about the times when I’ve been on a call with someone and they are really kind of ranting or anxious, about something that’s happening or it almost feels as if their brain is running away with them. Part of my role is to slow them down, get them thinking a little bit differently, even though they really know that’s the reality of the situation that they’re facing. How does the brain get itself in that way, where people are sort of ranting and not thinking clearly, when we’re all capable leaders and capable managers?

Colleen: Hopefully, the reactive brain is very powerful and we need to be conscious in order to manage it, and unfortunately they don’t really teach this, this is something that we need to be taught in schools, is how to be able to manage our emotional states, how to be able to regulate so that we can bring ourselves into consciousness as opposed to just going over and over and over the same neural pathways which are usually dysfunctional. Remember when I said is that the threat state is much stronger than the positive state, and it’s quite addictive. We get lost in that rant, or that brain running away from you, as you call it, because it’s a survival state, it’s instinctive, it’s not conscious, it’s not thoughtful, it’s not present. So what you’re, it sounds like you’re doing, is that when you help to slow them down, what you’re doing is helping them in a very safe way, is to bring consciousness back into the conversation. What we can tend to do, is when we go out with our friends and our friend starts ranting about their boss, we join in the rant and we both spiral upwards as opposed to what you’re doing is that you’re listening, you’re allowing them to express their emotions, because it’s not that you don’t have emotions, and they’re not valued, but then you’re bringing consciousness into the conversation. Interestingly enough people often experience that as a great relief, because neurochemically when you’re ranting, you’re starting to emit cortisol which inhibits your immune system, it creates stress in your body, it raises your blood pressure, you have adrenaline running out of control and just by bringing consciousness starts to regulate those neurochemicals, so pretty powerful way to support somebody to think more effectively.

Emma: Yes, and it’s fascinating isn’t it because I can feel the difference to when I’m with a friend, and I do join in, as to when you’re in that roll where you’re supporting that individual to think differently and then having that different chemical reaction behind it. I’m conscious Colleen that we haven’t touched on the remembering repetition part of learning; I know a lot of your work is around how people need to learn. My obsession is around behavioural change and learning trends. Let’s just talk a little bit about that kind of repetition piece and how people learn through that.

Colleen: So repetition, we constantly when we’re learning we’re creating new stories, new narratives, creating new thinking in our brain, the terminology that we use talking about the brain, unless we’re hard wired in, it’s like going to the gym. You exercise your arm when you lift up a weight, your muscle will be activated, but if you don’t do it again, that muscle will just start fading away. And it’s the same with learning, when you create that new neural pathway for the first time, the brain is an organ and it functions very much like a muscle, what you’re creating is you’re creating a new neural pathway, and in order to make it last, in order to make it thick and strong, you need to lift the weights again, or go over the learning in more depth or in a slightly different way, or just repeating it over a period of time. That’s what establishes that neural pathway more permanently. Repetition is not the only thing; we also need to have novelty. We need to create interest. We need to again create that, ‘what’s in it for me,’ that connect – the person is thinking mostly about themselves. That repetition needs to be done in a way that is engaging, meaningful, interesting, has some novelty, so there’s lots of nuances, about how we continue that engagement.

Emma: One of the things that I really try and encourage people to build on is once you have that relevance of how it is important to that person, how are they going to use it, and what’s the change that’s going to happen because of it. I think certainly the remembering and being able to get someone to actually hardwire it and really have the memory of it is important, but I’m really keen that people do something with it, so I think that can only ever happen when, as you say, they have that relevance to them, and then we create the safe accountability in a non-threatening way to get people to experiment, be curious to try and do things differently and repeat that and reflect and come back to it, so yes, interesting on that reflection piece.

Colleen: I think you’ve also pointed to an important thing here; it’s not just about changing their thinking. You can do all the thinking in the world and get the most wonderful neurochemical brain state, but if the person doesn’t actually go and do something, that doesn’t embed a new behaviour, so it’s not just thinking but it’s also getting them into action.

Emma: You’re speaking to my deep heart there Colleen, as you know what I’m hugely keen on. Colleen this has just been such a fascinating conversation, I feel really privileged that you’ve taken the time out to share your experience and your wisdom and this depth of knowledge with us. Thank you so much, is there anything you feel we’ve missed that’s important to this discussion, because I’d hate to cut this off if there’s anything burning there that we’ve still need to address.

Colleen: I think we’ve covered everything, I mean we can talk about it for hours! Its about really actually how what it is that you do works so well, I think it really supports people to do even more of it.

Emma: Colleen I have to apologize to our listeners, we are having a little bit of interference on our internet, I don’t know whether it’s because there’s a really heavy rainstorm just happening out here in Sydney, so I apologize for that, but I’m really thrilled that we’ve taken the time to have the conversation and delve into this. I’m loving the way the brain science is reinforcing what we’re doing and the approach that we’re taking, but also from our conversation today that people will really be able to get a sense of the different ways that this can be applied and the real significance and depth that this research and this work has across organizations. So Colleen, if people want to find out more about your work and your approach, what’s the best way to connect with you? Is it via Linkedin or email, what’s your preference?

Colleen: I’m happy with email, perhaps you can share the email address, they also can very well go onto the Neuro Leadership website and access me through there, Neuro Leadership Group Africa.

Emma: And is that a .com or a


Emma: Okay so Neuro Leadership Group Africa, and certainly you can connect with us through our website, and we’ll be happy to put you in touch with Colleen if you want to continue that conversation. I certainly hope that we get a chance to continue this conversation further down the road. Colleen, it’s just been fascinating today and I’ve really enjoyed having you on the call. Thank you and keep up the great work, keep being at that pioneering level that’s really supporting the organizations. Very very much appreciate it Colleen, thanks for sharing.

Colleen: Thank you, great privilege.

Emma: And look forward to connecting with our Learning Matters readers and listeners very soon. Have a great day everyone, thanks for listening, bye.


Emma Weber

Emma Weber is a recognized authority on the transfer of learning. As CEO of Lever – Transfer of Learning, she has helped companies such as Telstra, Oracle and BMW deliver and measure tangible business results from learning. Emma has also been a guest speaker at learning effectiveness conferences worldwide and authored the hugely successful book Turning Learning into Action. Much more detail around the issues and solutions examined in this article are available in the book – please feel free to download a free chapter.