Has working from home reduced your ability to learn?

 In Gill's Blog

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working from home

Recent neuroscience studies have shown that loneliness and social isolation experienced by all age groups is having a negative impact on our ability to learn.

Brain Terminology

There are a lot of terms which may be unfamiliar to you in neuroscience, so here are a few explanations before I consider the impact on our ability to learn.

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Neuroscience is the science of how our brains works. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience. The main components of the limbic system of the brain are:

  • Hippocampus– this part of the brain controls learning and emotion – it is involved in the formation of new memories associated with learning and emotions. It has an important role to play in processing spatial memory e.g. the ability of London cab drivers to navigate complex routes. Consolidates memory during sleep. It takes in information and temporarily stores it before being filed into long term memory.
  • Amygdala – is critical in prioritizing salient information and plays an important role in emotion and behaviour. It is best known for its role in the processing of fear and a number of studies suggest it is involved in experiencing anxiety.
  • Neocortex – or pre-frontal cortex – this is the working memory part of the brain – which controls rational thought and creative impulses which we need to access to make changes. It has a limited capacity and can ‘run hot’ from dealing with continuous new activities.
  • Synapse or neuronal junction is the site of transmission of electric nerve impulses between two nerve cells i.e. they are part of the circuit that connects sensory organs, like those that detect pain or touch, in the peripheral nervous system to the brain.

What impact is social isolation having on our brain?

A number of studies have shown that social isolation shrinks the pre-frontal cortex, the hippocampus and the amygdala – result: impaired learning and memory and inability to concentrate.

Working from home takes away the stimulus of working in the office. Synapses grow through repetitive use of new experiences. The office presents us with new challenges through interactions with others and we are missing these opportunities so our brains are not stretching as they would have done in the office.

According to Dr Guy Champniss of the Creative Engagement Group, we may be either less inclined to learn or less able to learn due to the amount of information which is in our working memory because of working from home. Working from home is taxing as it removes all the usual social non-verbal and visual cues, we use to navigate situations. The cognitive load may be too great and so we have less bandwidth available for learning.

What can we do to improve neuroplasticity and optimize learning?

Natalie Ramsden, Director of cognitive optimization consultancy SOFOS Associates suggests:

  • Stay hydrated – drink 8-10 cups of water per day as it can boost brain performance by up to 30%.
  • Ensure a good night’s sleep – sleep detoxifies the system and solidifies learning.
  • Try something new to break routines – e.g. try brushing your teeth with your left hand if you are right handed and vice versa.
  • Eat food which boosts cognitive function – e.g. oily fish and berries.
  • Manage stress – mindfulness, deep breathing, yoga etc.

Are the effects reversible?

The answer is ‘yes’. We humans are malleable and adaptable so if we encourage people to be curious, collaborative and brave we can help people to relearn how to learn. An experiment undertaken by AstraZeneca in 2020 to simulate a richer learning culture in their business found that by providing nuggets of content each day to their employees and drawing attention to such behaviour, encouraged people to do whatever was being signposted.

For example, if you Follow me on LinkedIn you will receive into your timeline nuggets from me each weekday on Wills, Probate, Trusts, Tax and Elderly client matters as well as general life coaching. If you join in the conversations that arise around some of the posts, you may well be nudged to reflect on whatever is the topic and how you currently deal with it. It can provide a real boost if other people’s comments and likes show you the benefits of a particular action or way of doing things or simply their experience, which may coincide with how you approach things or challenge the way you do so.

Why not try it – Follow me and you will find all my posts via my profile page.

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