Learning is often taken as something that happens in childhood and adolescence, in preparation for adulthood. This view of learning contains the thought of education as a means to provide individuals with the cognitive skills and knowledge they need for occupational life. After that, it’s just the occasional Spanish course or leadership program alongside work, which is the application of the things you have learned in school. In contrast, the modern view of viewing learning sees it as a key process and an especially salient characteristic of knowledge intensive work. Seeing learning as a continuous process of the mind and as a key factor in value creation supports the ability to consciously produce better quality and develop in any field. Understanding the neural characteristics of learning can be one way of finding a more conscious take on personal learning processes.
The research on brain plasticity has demonstrated the multitudes of ways the brain responds to experience, finding ways to reorganize after trauma or undergoing structural and functional changes as a result of intense skill training, (see e.g. Tervaniemi et al (2009) for a review on structural and functional changes induced by music training). Learning can be described as changes in the organization and connections within neuronal networks in the brain happening conjointly with external life events. On this fundamental level, every experience we undergo contains the possibility of producing learning and change. Learning can also be characterized as disruption of the models with which we predict life events and operate in this world. New events that were not succesfully predicted by our model capture our attention and cause an update, i.e. learning. Developing personal learning processes requires developing a sensitivity to recognize subtle differences. It also calls for courage to seek interaction that challenges or disrupts old models.
Neuroscientific research has revealed interesting connections between learning, neurogenesis and health. It was long believed that no new neurons are born in the adult brain. However, recent animal studies reveal ongoing neurogenesis in adult individuals. The remarkable thing is that after birth, these new cells will slowly start to die – unless learning happens. Markers of a healthy lifestyle such as exercise and low stress levels can increase the number of cells being born whereas for example alcohol consumption can decrease their number. Learning can save entire populations of new neurons, but it has to produce enough of a challenge. If the task is too easy or too difficult, there will be no effect.
Neuroscientific research has also found a striking association between learning and motivation. It has been reported that performance of a task itself, without explicit reinforcement, can act as a reward, supporting learning. Learning has the capacity to be intrinsically rewarding for people – and if work is viewed AS learning, the best way to support motivation and development is to let the individual determine and lead personal work processes. From the viewpoint of relationship structures at work, being in a setting where someone else defines the meaning of your work or attempts to guide it by for example providing reinforcement, can in fact hinder learning, value creation and the experience of meaning.
Learning should not be viewed as something that happened before entering work life, but as the core function of work. If we do work that produces no learning, no new connections or no change within ourselves or in relation to others, it is an activity that is cognitively worthless. Learning can be seen to protect the brain and develop cognitive capacity throughout life. From this viewpoint, work settings that require individuals to do unchallenging tasks are unhealthy. Work should focus on learning in interaction, minimizing repetitive and personally meaningless tasks. In addition to individual health, this will lead to more value in the work that we do through new connections, development of information and the breadth of interaction around the subject.