Positively Delicious Learning

I’m a huge fan of the human brain. Imagine one billion neurons packed densely together, firing off electrical signals, communicating through chemical exchanges across infinitesimally small spaces. “So what’s the big deal?” you might ask. Just think; this gooey 3 pound blob in your head defines your sense of self, your capabilities, your relationships and your perception of reality.

Peeran MukadamThanks to technologies like Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, researchers are able to study the brain in real time. This has helped neuroscience make quantum leaps in knowledge compared to what we knew about the brain just 20 years ago.

L&D practitioners want better ways to make learning permanent, create stronger collaboration across teams and improve employee engagement. I believe answers to these challenges can be found in the field neuroscience. After all, you could say that leadership is the ability of one brain influencing other brains. Neuroplasticity is the term used to explain the brain’s ability to change itself. Neuroplasticity occurs based on our everyday thoughts and learning new skills. This was scientifically proven just in the late 90s. This “recent” finding has turned many long held beliefs on their heads. I’m sure you’ve come across statements like “You can’t teach old dogs new tricks” or “I was just not born with smarts”. Neuroscience can prove why this conventional wisdom is anything but wise. Yes, IQ is heritable but it can be increased.

Yes, we typically see memory and learning skills decline with age but now we know that they don’t necessarily have to. Ellen Langer from Harvard University constructed a clever experiment with 80 year old men who experienced a timeless retreat lasting just one week. It was startling to see that their vision, memory, grip strength and other factors showed statistically significant improvement.

My intrigue for neuroscience also led me to the field of Positive Psychology. Dr. Martin Seligman, considered the founding father of this field, terms it the science of human flourishing. The field of psychology has traditionally focused on curing depression, addiction and other mental illnesses. Bring people from -10 to 0. However, an absence of depression does not mean a person is thriving. Employees that are not de-motivated are not necessarily engaged or going the extra mile on their jobs. Although positive psychology studies soft issues like optimism, gratitude, happiness or flow; it is still based on rigorous scientific research.  By applying principles of positive psychology we can take a person from 0 to +10 or even +100.

Armed with the research on neuroscience and positive psychology I have run multiple lunch-n- learn sessions for our staff here at Heidelberg USA. These hour long training sessions are totally voluntary and usually attended by groups of 5 – 20 people.  The typical session starts with a presentation and is followed by an extensive dialog and healthy debate. The casual format allows everyone to share their views and narrate experiences on the material.

In the first lunch-n-learn on neuroscience, we discussed the basic anatomy of brains, how aerobic exercise generates BDNF (fertilizer for your neurons), the concept of neuroplasticity and the brain’s ability to generate approx. 1400 new neurons daily. We also covered how extreme stress and fear debilitate our brains and mechanisms to combat our mental demons.

The next session was devoted to the fundamentals of positive psychology; why this field is important for our daily lives at work and at home. How a cautiously optimistic outlook actually contributes to us being able to spot opportunities that may be overlooked by brains tuned to negative or neutral.  We also examined the work of Dr. Seligman on learned helplessness and learned optimism. Participants chatted about how Dr. Seligman’s mantra of P.E.R.M.A. (Positive emotions, Engagement, Meaning, Relationships and Achievement) leads to a sense of flourishing and well-being in our lives.

Our most recent lunch n learn was solely devoted to Shawn Achor’s book “The Happiness Advantage” which is a must read. Shawn rightly argues that our traditional paradigm of hard work = success = happiness is flawed. In our quest for success we miss a huge opportunity to be happy and fulfilled. He presents abundant scientific research on why a positive mindset fuels success. We explored, at length, his 7 principles of practicing positive psychology. Some participants have reported keeping a record of the things they are grateful for (gratitude journal) and experienced the resulting rewards i.e. reduced stress, positive emotions, stronger relationships etc.

There are multiple tangible benefits that the practice of positive psychology can bring to the workplace. Most of us fall victims to the brain’s inherent negativity bias. We sometimes guise our skepticism for realism and will reluctantly admit to having struck down a creative idea just because we are stressed out at work or don’t like the idea’s originator L. The principles of positive psychology encourage leveraging human strengths. We’ve successfully implemented sizeable business transformations at work not by focusing on eliminating all the problems but doing just the opposite. Appreciate inquiry (rooted in positive psychology) teaches us we can get to a better state by envisioning a positive future, growing the good and celebrating each step in our journey to get there.

I have implemented positive psychology within Human Resources and we have benefitted from the vibrant climate it has helped create. All of the members on my team, I’m proud to say, consistently exhibit discretionary effort.

This article could go on and on but I think you get the picture.

I’m currently working with a colleague on the next lunch n learn on “Improving Focus and Mental Calm”. This session will also highlight research on the benefits of having an “uncluttered mind” and how to get to that state. Positive psychology is being taught to various audiences from preschoolers to graduate students at prestigious universities across multiple continents. Our next big endeavor at Heidelberg is to weave neuroscience and positive psychology principles into our leadership development curriculum. I’m convinced that in future positive psychology will be woven into the fabric of how we do things at Heidelberg.


Written by Peeran Mukadam Director, HR & OD at Heidelberg USA