In order for us to learn something new, we need to store it in long term memory. If we’re unable to save it there, then we’ll immediately lose that learning the moment we focus our working memory on something new. Working memory is quite limited1 so we need to save those memories quickly if we’re going to.

One of the key requirements for storing that information in long term memory is a dopamine hit. There are other factors such as the level of cognitive load and a good nights sleep2, but we’re going to focus on dopamine for the moment.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical in the brain, that rewards us for a variety of things, including taking action. What we care about here, is that when we get that dopamine hit, our attention becomes fixated long enough for our brain to write that new information into long term memory. If we can’t keep our attention focused long enough, we’ll forget it.

If we’re designing an experience for others (workshop, meeting, etc) then the easiest way to get that dopamine hit for our participants is to do something that triggers a smile (less dopamine) or a laugh (more dopamine). Laughter actually triggers a whole slew of other helpful neurotransmitters beyond dopamine so it’s an extra win.

Novelty also triggers a dopamine hit so ensure you mix up your activities so it isn’t always the same routine over and over.

How are these actually triggering dopamine?

Our brains have evolved into astounding prediction engines3. It turns out that to survive, it wasn’t enough to be able to react to a danger, we had to be able to anticipate it. So all animals, are able to predict what’s about to happen, to some degree.

“Prediction errors aren’t problems. They’re a normal part of the operating instructions of your brain as it takes in sensory input. Without prediction error, life would be a yawning bore. Nothing would be surprising or novel, and therefore your brain would never learn anything new.”
How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett

When our brain makes a prediction, there are three possible things that can happen4.

  1. Things happened as predicted. If our brain thinks this was a success then we may get a little dopamine. The catch is that if our brain thinks this was too easy a prediction, it won’t reward us. See the Millennial Whoop for a fascinating example of that.
  2. Things did not happen as predicted. This is a negative prediction error and results in a drop in dopamine that we interpret as disappointment.
  3. Things happened unexpectedly better than we predicted. Perhaps I expected a good reaction to a presentation and the reaction was much better than expected. This is a positive prediction error and results in an increase in dopamine. Laughter is often a positive prediction error.

Learning in general, comes from a prediction error. We either had a drop in dopamine and we immediately adjust our behaviour to fix that or we got an increase in dopamine, fixating our attention and allowing that information to be pushed to long term memory.

“We learn fast when we start something new, and then it gets slower by the law of decreasing returns. We are more motivated at the start because the positive prediction error is the highest, so dopamine levels are the highest.”
Coaching the Brain: Practical Applications of Neuroscience to Coaching by Joseph O’Connor, Andrea Lages

When we’re designing a workshop or meeting and want to maximize learning, we need to ensure that these prediction errors work to our benefit. Novelty helps here. Anything that causes laughter, or even a smile.

I’ve seen too many cases where a facilitator will try something fun for an ice breaker and then not make any attempt to make the important part of the session enjoyable. While that might lighten the mood at the beginning, it really misses an opportunity for learning. We want people laughing and smiling during any part we want them to remember, not just during that “icebreaker”.

  1. The research indicates that the typical person can hold 7±2 chunks of information in their working memory at once. There are reports of people who can store as many as 80 chunks of information but these people are extreme outliers. 

  2. “Sleep is vital to the laying down of long-term memories. You may have done the most wonderful piece of change work with the client, but much of the real change actually occurs while the client sleeps and dreams!” Keeping the Brain in Mind: Practical Neuroscience for Coaches, Therapists, and Hypnosis Practitioners by Shawn Carson, Melissa Tiers 

  3. Seven And A Half Lessons About The Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett 

  4. Coaching the Brain: Practical Applications of Neuroscience to Coaching by Joseph O’Connor, Andrea Lages