Your Brain Wants To Avoid Thinking In Conference Settings


Your brain is built to survive!

It’s in the biology and chemistry of your brain to survive at all costs.

Survival and protection are at the top of the list when it comes to brain activity. It even outranks thinking in priority.

Survival Trumps Thinking

Your brain will avoid thinking in order to conserve energy for its survival instinct.

That’s often why we don’t want to think in conference settings. And it’s why we don’t want to work in education opportunities.

Remember, thinking is work. It uses approximately 30% of our body’s’ resources.

We prefer to just listen to a lecture. Why? Well, it doesn’t require any work or thinking. It’s easy. And we have been conditioned to believe that learning is the byproduct of listening.

We prefer to read about a topic. We prefer to look at the handouts. We prefer to get the shortcut tips. In reality, we prefer not to work for the learning.

Why? We are actually following the biology of our brain: conserve resources in case we get into jeopardy.

Your brain wants to use the body’s energy for fight, flight or freeze. Not thinking.

That’s why so many conference attendees say they just want to be given the secret sauce and don’t want to work for it. Without knowing it, they are letting the brain’s survival instinct trump any real learning.

When Thinking Trumps Survival

Here’s the only want to get the brain to allow the work of thinking to trump its survival character:

Show the brain the value that will be gained from thinking.

That’s why it’s important to help audience’s understand the WIIFM – What’s In It For Me—of a topic or presentation. Then we have to show the brain the benefit of thinking thorough reflection or peer discussion. Because that’s the real key to learning, retention and application.

When the brain sees the benefit of thinking during a presentation, it will engage.

If we want people to learn, if we want people to change attitude, behavior and skills, we should not worry about what motivates them. Instead, we should try to identify what already motivates them.

It’s only when we show the value, benefit and worth of thinking, will it motivate them to truly learn.

What are some ways to help audiences see and believe the benefit of thinking? How do you handle attendees who say, “I don’t want to think. I came to get the information from the expert and I don’t have any ideas right now?”

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  1. Part of the problem is also that people just can’t learn for a full eight or 10 hours a day–it’s exhausting. I once went to a three-day conference that really was a learning experience, and I learned tons, but I got home so wrung-out that it took months, literally months, to figure out how to use it all. I would have welcomed a few lectures just to give my brain a break.

    That’s why pacing is so important, building the program for periods of intensity, and quiet times, and free conversation times, and goof-off times, to script it like a movie, as Kare Anderson would say. I don’t think our brains were made to withstand the nonstop educational onslaught most meetings, even ones that do show WIIFM, tend to offer. I know you talk about this a lot, but it seemed like an important thing to mention in the context of this post—sometimes we want lazy learning because we’re just too burned out to deal with anything that requires more effort.

  2. Earlier today when I first read this, my brain was exhausted from thinking after working on contracts. & designing training. There was nothing left .. I thought. Like Sue said & has been discussed here & elsewhere, time out was needed. I took it & on an almost Fall-like day, got on my scooter to go to the n’hood weekly farmers’ market.

    The specificity of that was bec, once away from the office, outside, and with interesting people, my brain re-engaged in conversations that helped me learn & problem solve.

    At meetings, I have to be aurally & orally engaged to think. I have to have silent time – total silence – to engage my brain and me. (Why are there no “quiet rooms” at meetings like the quiet cars on Amtrak?)

    I’ve said for years that in my next life I don’t want to think at all. Is that possible?

    Strangely – based on what you write, Jeff – no one I’ve taught or trained has ever said (that I heard) that they didn’t want to think. Is it the permission to doodle, play with stuff, move around, use motion & responsibility, all that is offered & accepted that helps ppl think? Is it that the ebb & flow of individuals in a group create a safe space for one’s own ebbing to sit back & then think & re engage & think when ready?

    And perhaps everyone _is_ thinking…just not about the exact subject or in their own ways about the applications to which they will apply what they hear.

    Oh to have individual fMRIs attached. And then there’s the work at UofM on collection of data on just this…

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      You’ve got it right on the target. We can’t engage our brains with thinking all day. We have to give the brain natural breaks, whether doodling, playing for clay and pipe cleaners or just taking a walk, to really align with the biology of learning. Recent research says take a two-five minute break every 30 min – 45 mins to align with our biology of learning. That’s a totally different process than trying to learn four-, six- or even eight-hours a day.

      Thanks for reading and engaging in discussions here too! We appreciate it.

  3. Margaret Ost says:

    As a people, we are used to living in large families and working to make our clothes and grow our own food. Now it is too easy. We need to keep moving and be with people to function well.

    Starbucks and their ilk captured this social necessity. Now it is a thing to bargain hunt for luxury goods online or in the burgeoning stores that resell designer goods. What we really need is what the US is famous for: getting together and solving problems and doing things and not expecting the government to do it, as in many countries.

    Conferences are exhausting if there is too little opportunity to be outside, in my experience.

    1. Margaret – your comments are interesting. Of one of the sentences, I do agree with this portion: “…getting together and solving problems and doing things….” makes sense especially when it comes to conferences. It’s why I like “hall conversations” [note to Sue from another conversation: I so want to keep pushing for “hall passes” as a registration method. Please DM me w/ the conference that did that.] or those with people you happen to see in the lobby.

      Not all people grew up in large families and even if they did, the Introverts among them crave alone time! If you go into a Starbucks (your example) you will find many tables of one person writing or reading. I do think, and John Naisbitt and others have shown, that too much alone time (esp. w/ one’s electronic device) leads to some craving time with others.

      Perhaps a solution is to provide free or low-cost fMRIs prior to registering for a conference and then allow people to participate as their brains dictate.

  4. Margaret Ost says:

    “Tougher” maybe but I meant TOGETHER!

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