Have you ever watched the cartoon Pinky and The Brain produced by Steven Spielberg and Warner Bros. Animation?
Genetically-enhanced laboratory mice, Pinky and Brain are caged in the Acme Labs research facility. Brain is egotistical and devious. Pinky is cheerful and dim-witted. Each episode starts with Brain devising a new plan to take over the world. Ultimately each plan fails due to Pinky’s idiocy or Brain’s ridiculous plan.
So what do Pinky and The Brain have to do with conference learning? Keep reading and you’ll see.
Meet Neuroscientist Dr. Marian C. Diamond
University of California, Berkley Professor Dr. Marian C. Diamond has spent her life studying the brain. She is one of the foremost researchers on neuroplasticity: the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections.
She, her colleagues and students have conducted experiments with rats and kittens to learn more about how our brains work. Why rats? Besides the obvious fun connection to Pinky and the Brain, the rat brain is very similar in structure to human brains. It also has fewer wrinkles making it easier to measure for changes.
Diamonds’ 40 years of study have led to some interesting results that shed light on learning and have practical application for conference organizers providing education sessions.
In one of Diamond’s tests, she had five different cages with rats (the closest thing to Pinky and the Brain):
- A single rat in a typical cage with no toys. The rat was given food and water as normal.
- A larger cage with one rat and toys. This rat was given food and water just like the others.
- A very large cage containing 12 rats with toys such as rat wheels, trails to follow and blocks to climb. They were fed and tended to just like the other rats.
- A second very large cage with 12 rats without any toys. They were given nourishment just like the others.
- Her control group was a final cage of three rats without any toys.
She called the cages with toys enriched environments and those without toys impoverished. She and her team were able to measure changes in the brain and its impact on learning as related to these environments.
Some Background on Neurons, Your Brain And Learning
Stay with me on this. It’s important to know in order to understand Diamond’s research and conclusions.
Neuroscientists define learning as occurring in your brain when two neurons communicate with each other. Neurons are tiny and 30,000 can fit on the head of a pin. You have more than 100 billion neurons in your brain and each neuron may be linked with 5,000 to 10,000 other neurons. That’s a lot of neurons. (Pinky is obviously lacking in neurons or they’ve been pruned. See below for more on pruning.)
Neurons have three parts:
- Cell body
- Dendrites (Did you see the dendrites in the Pinky and the Brain song?)
Think of a neuron as your hand and forearm.
- The neuron’s cell body is the palm of your hand.
- The dendrites are your fingers
- The axon your forearm.
Dendrites (your fingers) receive information. Axons (your forearm) send them. Scientists say neurons have learned when one neuron sends a message to another neuron. Neurons don’t actually touch in the learning process but use an electro-chemical process: the action within the neuron is electrical and message becomes chemical. The chemical message swims though space creating a pathway called a synapse. (Synapses were mentioned in the Brain Song too.)
As neurons repeatedly fire a message, communicating with each other, the dendrites and axons become accustomed to the connection. Thus the connections are easier to make.
Here’s the interesting part: the more that learning occurs, the more the dendrites grow and the more synapses are strengthened. A growing, learning brain contains neurons that have thicker and more dendrites. Think of a mature tree with maximum branches and leaves. Neural pruning occurs in brains that aren’t growing or learning and the dendrites become impoverished with fewer branches. (Poor Pinky, he has a meticulous pruned brain!)
Back To Diamond’s Research
Diamond’s team was able to measure and compare the rats’ neurons and dendrites–the basic elements used in learning. What did she and her team discover?
1. The control group of three rats without any toys learned more than the rat left alone without toys or the rat left alone with toys.
Diamond’s conclusion: rats learn more by living together and thus humans learn more by working together.
Implication to your conferences: Humans are social creatures and learn better with others when engaged social activities. Conferences must schedule more time for attendees to interact with each other, often in structured or facilitated activities. Keep your attendees in six- to eight-hours of lectures where they don’t get to interact with each other much and you decrease their brain growth! You create more Pinkys!
2. The 12 rats that lived together with toys learned more than any of the other rats. They had thicker and more dendrite branches.
Diamond’s conclusion: rats living together in an enriched environment learn the most and humans that work together with activity and play learn the most.
Implication to your conferences: Your attendees need to interact with each other, their environment, and be involved in active participation in order to increase learning. Decrease their interaction with each other and active learning, and you decrease their learning and brain growth. Attendees need to work together and take part in their learning. Also, enriched environments lead to greater learning.
Social interaction, challenge, active participation and play are important for helping your attendee’s grow their brain and increase their learning. All of these factors influence how and how much we learn.
What do you think? Are your conferences impoverished or enriched learning environments? How can you apply Dr. Diamond’s research results to your conference or events?
Look for more conference application of current brain research on enriching environments and increasing life spans in coming posts!