Using AGES To Design Brain Friendly Conferences

"Does Not Work"

Is your conference experience one that hurts your participants’ brains or one that helps their brains learn?

In other words, is your conference brain-adverse or brain-friendly?

Does the experience align with how your attendees’ brains work? Or does it work against the brain’s natural systems, shutting it down from learning?

Two Critical Conference Factors To Consider

Two of the most critical conference factors that you need to consider when evaluating whether it’s brain-adverse or brain-friendly are:

  1. Conference schedule
  2. Conference presenters

Yet, how much time do we give to planning and preparing both?

Often we just replicate last year’s conference schedule with a few minor tweaks and changes. Then we default to our traditional settings and allow committee members, who don’t understand good adult learning techniques, to select our conference presenters.

Leveraging Learning

Our conference attendees want to learn more, faster and better than they have in the past. Facing disruptive technologies, rapid innovation cycles and reduced budgets, everyone is trying to get more from conference education.

To increase the effectiveness of learning, we need to update some of our intuitive understanding about learning. For example, while people generally believe that condensed information in one block of time is more effective, neuroscience research is showing the opposite. It’s far better to break-up the learning over time to increase long-term memory retention and eventual application.

Neuroscientists have discovered that the hippocampus plays a significant role in learning. The hippocampus is the part of your brain that moves information from short-term memory to long-term memory. It is involved in memory forming, organizing and storing learning. To leverage learning, we need to understand how it functions.

Learning That Lasts Through The AGES

Neuroscientists Dr. Lila Davachi, Dr. Tobias Keifer and Dr. David Rock have been studying how to make learning stick using recent finding from neuroscience and the biology of learning. They summarized their findings into a four-part model: AGES.

A – Attention

Focused attention is critical to learning. To activate the hippocampus for learning, the learner must pay full attention. Dividing attention between two tasks decreases the quality of attention and diminishes any learning. Undivided attention to learning is critical.

Conference application: Organizers must select presenters that are skilled at creating engaging and captivating presentations. They know how to grab and keep an audience’s attention.

G- Generation

Unlike a hard drive, the hippocampus does not store information as isolated memories. Instead, memories are interconnected webs of data stored across various parts of the brain. The more the learner associates new information to already stored information, the thicker their web is and the easier to find that memory later. The hippocampus gets juiced when we create these associations.

Conference application: Organizers must select presenters that give audiences time to discuss the new ideas and associate them with past knowledge. Presenters must reduce the amount of content covered and allow more time to connect the information with past knowledge and experiences.

E – Emotions

Emotions are salient to regulating learning. Emotions enhance memory in two ways:

  1. Emotional content, like stories and images, grab an individual’s attention, focusing it on the event.
  2. Emotions activate the brain’s amygdala which tells the hippocampus if the experience is relevant and needs to be encoded.

It’s far easier to create learning experiences that trigger fear or threat than joy or pleasure. Unfortunately, negative emotions also reduce creativity and innovation. And the amygdala may have an emotional highjack to minimize the threat thus causing the body to react in flight or flight. That will shut down learning. The challenge is to create learning experiences that maximize reward and are fun.

Conference application: Organizers must craft experiences and select speakers that create events where people connect deeply with others and experience emotional resonance. Learning must be fun and relevant.

S – Spacing

Spacing is a gift. Attention, Generation and Emotions require effort, thought and work. Spacing allows us to strengthen the memory as we rest. Without rest or space between information intake, we can’t learn.

Cramming as much information as possible into specific time periods disturbs the way the brain learns. Distributing learning over time leads to better long term memory, which is the ultimate goal of any learning. Massing more information does not lead to learning.

Conference application: Organizers need to educate attendees that while large blocks of information in short periods of time may seem superior, it is temporary. Spacing information leads to long-term memory which is actually superior. Organizers should thread content so that some big ideas, issues and themes are discussed in all sessions allowing ample opportunity to connect the information. Then give attendees extended breaks (at least 30 mins.) between sessions to allow the brain to rest as well as during the presentations.

How can you apply the AGES model to your conference or organization learning opportunities? Which step – attention, generation, emotion or spacing – affects your conference the most?

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  1. Excellent post Jeff. Thank you for pointing out the research to use when arguing for less content and more time and activities designed to help us digest what we are learning at conferences.

  2. Good post, Jeff. I’m enjoying reading “Brain Rules” and learning a great deal more about this. The old model of a program committee needs to be reconsidered, and serve around topics of interest, current topics, industry trends…and leave more to staff. However staffs will need to develop new muscles, or perhaps learning expert positions within their teams.

  3. YEAH, I love it. How cool is it that we can be more efficient in our learning and absorbing data today?

    Having always been huge lover and learner of brain technology, reading reinforcing messages like this get’s me juiced to be a better presenter.


  4. mike burns says:

    Great post Jeff, now if we could only convince those who keep regurgitating the same stuff, over and over….all my best to The Velvet Chainsaw and his Axeman.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      My pleasure! Thanks for reading and commenting too. Always a joy to hear from you.

      I’m with you that the traditional model of “Call for Speaker Proposals” and an annual meeting program committee picking speakers and presentations is broken and dead. Staff needs to step up to the plate and become experts in adult learning and content curation. Or they need to work with experts in the field to improve the conference experience. Thanks for bringing this issue to the forefront!

      it’s great that we can actually become more efficient and effective with our learning. Here’s to all the speakers like you that are taking this type of information to improve their presentations! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes the challenge is convincing those who believe in a traditional model and are stuck regurgitating the same stuff. We’ll keep sounding the drumbeat though!

  5. […] more information: Using AGES To Design Brain Friendly Conferences Learning That Lasts Through The AGES, white paper by Neuroscientists Dr. Lila Davachi, Dr. Tobias […]

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  8. […] more information: Using AGES To Design Brain Friendly Conferences Learning That Lasts Through The AGES, white paper by Neuroscientists Dr. Lila Davachi, Dr. Tobias […]

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