How Do Your Dendrites Grow? With Enriched Environments, Active Participation And Conference Chairs Not In A Row

Imagine this scenario.

You’re attending the annual conference of your favorite professional association. You can’t make up your mind which breakout to attend and decide to peek in on a couple sessions that have alluring topics and descriptions.

Session 1
You walk into one room and find the presenter demonstrating the use of a popular software using their own computer and showing the steps on a screen. The speaker is showing the attendees how to set up the account and use it properly. The attendees are sitting, listening and watching the screen. None of the attendees are using a computer and following along with the presenter.

Session 2
You walk into the second room and find the presenter lecturing using PowerPoint. The speaker is showing slides packed full of text and content. The attendees are sitting, listening and watching the screen. It doesn’t look much different than the previous room.

Session 3
You walk into a third room and find two presenters giving a fast paced lecture of 60 tips in less than ninety minutes. The presenters are firing tips at a rate of one tip in every minute and a half. The audience is packed. Everyone is sitting on the end of their chairs, listening intently and watching the screen as the PowerPoint slides change rapidly.

So, here’s my question. Are these attendees learning? Who’s growing their brains in these groups?

The answer might surprise you.

Dr. Marian C. Diamond’s Research
In a 1985 study, University of California neuroscientist Marian Diamond, placed young and mature rats in the same enriched environment with toys such as rat wheels, trails to follow and blocks to climb. She wanted to know if both young and mature rats could learn and grow their brains.

Rats are often used in neuroscience studies because the rat brain is very similar in structure to the human brain. It also has fewer wrinkles making it easier to measure for changes. Neuroscientist like Diamond measure the number and density of dendrites, part of the brain’s neuron involved in learning, along with a host of other things. The more learning that occurs, the more dendrites grow and become thicker.

Guess what happened in Diamond’s young and mature rat study? The older rats refused to let the younger rats play with the toys. The mature rats dominated the cage and controlled the toys. The younger rats sat passively and watched their elders play.

Diamond’s results were amazing. Only the mature rats grew dendrites and experienced learning. There were no changes in the younger rats’ brains.

Let’s return to the three annual conference breakouts listed at the beginning of this post. Were the attendees learning? Who had brain growth because of their attendance at these conference sessions? According to Diamond’s research, the presenters were learning and growing their brains, not the attendees.

In conferences and events, it’s not enough to offer a variety of presentations where attendees sit passively in lectures, panels and demonstrations. They must be actively involved in the session in some way like case studies, pair or group discussions, role plays, simulations or structured note taking for learning to occur. The attendees need to help create their learning and be active in it. Active participation, not passivity, in experiences encourages brain growth.

And the one bright spot from Diamond’s young and mature rat research about learning? No matter how old you are, stimulating and challenging your brain with active learning will foster brain growth. You can teach an old dog new tricks.

How can conference organizers change some conference sessions so that more learning and brain growth occurs? What can event professionals do to encourage more learning and brain growth at annual meetings and events? Or does a conference’s attendee’s learning even matter? Is it more important to give attendees a temporary feel-good session so that they return positive smile sheets than actually have them learn something?

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  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeffhurt: How Do Your Dendrites Grow? W/ Active Participation & Conference Chairs Not In A Row #assnchat #eventprofs

  2. You just confirmed why I felt I learned so much when I was teaching a hospitality marketing class years ago… You’ve put things in perspective… I was being the old rat all along! 🙂

    The challenge is to make sure we avoid rodent behaviour when delivering programs… Great post, Jeff!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and for your comments. I laughed out loud when I read your statement, “The challenge is to make sure we avoid rodent behaviour when delivering programs.” Great addition.

  3. Sam Smith says:

    Hi Jeff,

    This research underscores the importance of getting attendees into “active listening” mode – or better yet into another form of interaction, collaboration and content creation mode.

    Recently, I have started to think about interactive sessions across four dimensions: Topic, Learning Objectives, Engagement Format (tech & non-tech) and room setup.

    What I am doing is using reviewing the topic & learning objectives and then matching the right layout and engagement format to the topic. To make the process faster – I have created a list of engagement formats and creative space configurations. These “building blocks” allow me to imagine the attendee experience across a wide variety of formats & technologies very quickly.

    I hope that this helps. I would be interested to hear what others are doing as well.

    – Sam

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Thanks for adding to the discussion.

      Your idea is interesting. It would make life easier for meeting professionals and presenters for sure. I’ll think more about that one.

      Here are the questions that came to my mind regarding your thinking which may be off the path you were considering. I may not have enough information from you to fully understand what you’re thinking. So, here are my out loud thoughts & questions….
      1) Is any topic limited to a specific type of engagement?
      2) Are you going at this backwards since learning objectives should drive the instruction, not engagement practices or topics driving the instruction?
      3) Are learning objectives restricted to a specific type of interactivity, participation, room set and time limit?
      4) How do you handle the six levels Bloom’s Taxonomy of Higher Thinking Skills (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation) which is a foundation for any education programming and the first step in identifying learning objectives?
      5) Are you reducing the thousands of action verbs that can be used in learning objectives to specific activities? Here and here are just a few examples of some of the verbs.
      6) In pure training and workshops, Bloom’s Taxonomy verbs are used to create discussion questions, instructional plans and learning experiences. Isn’t a graphic like you describe going to create cookie-cutter presentations?
      7) Is creating some type of chart or graph identifying which learning objectives belongs to which type of attendee engagement and room set actually creating a barrier for attendees’ learning because it limits presenter creativity, experience, skills, etc.?

      As a presenter and educator, I can usually take any learning objective (for example compare and contrast X) and create several different types of attendee participation activities (for compare and contrast I might use individual structured note taking, pair conversations, small group discussions, etc.) regardless of the room setup.

  4. Sam Smith says:


    While I am the leader of the interactive meeting technology fan club – I don’t think that all technology tools (or non-tech engagement methods) are correct for all situations. Rest assured that I am not trying to take Bloom’s Taxonomy and simplify it into a graphic that concludes with “use voting systems” for all education sessions.

    In addition, while I agree with you that learning objectives should come first – I come across many people that don’t think this way. These are the people that end up producing events that use the speaker / listener model and throw in a panel session or two for variety.

    By helping these people map engagement into their sessions (moving away from speaker/listener to something that drives active listening and participation), then I have helped the event take a small step toward getting attendees into a learning mode or into a collaborative thinking and decision making mode. In some ways, this is like deciding to remodel the kitchen – rather than tear down the whole house and starting over.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      We are both in agreement that ulimtately anything that can improve an attendee’s experience, their learning and help them retain information is a good thing! I also agree that most interactive technology tools and some engagement methods are not best for all situations.

      I think the argument you present is a reflection of an age-old one: strategy versus logistics. Your analogy made me laugh as I thought about someone remodeling the kitchen without any plans, goals or objectives. Many of us have been in those type kitchens. 😉

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  6. […] • Attendees need to interact with their environment and with each other in order to learn. Passively listening and watching a speaker decreases the learning and causes dendrite death. Attendees need to work together and actively take part in their learning. […]

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