How E-Learning Can Harness Your Brain’s Micro Sleep Cycles

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At LearnBIG, we like to keep our eLearning approach dynamic, and we do that in part by looking out for developments in the field of neuroscience. After all, the more we know about our brains, the better we can develop educational content that sticks. Now, we’ve never had a problem with our courses putting people to sleep, but new research from Stanford University suggests that certain parts of our brain actually fall asleep (and wake back up) all the time, even when we’re awake!  

We already know quite a bit about what our brains do when we’re asleep, but that’s because the brain’s activity ebbs and flows in visible waves across the whole organ. It’s kind of like watching a stadium full of people stand up and do the wave. If only a few people stood up at a time, it would be significantly more difficult to spot them–and that’s why it’s taken scientists so long to realize that small pockets of neurons perform the same active-to-dormant cycling that the entire brain does when we sleep.

Think of the brain as a series of columns, containing groups of neurons. By using highly-sensitive pins to record activity in individual neural columns, the researchers found that neurons in those discrete columns cycle on to off in unison, rather than at different times. These coordinated cycles last only fractions of a second, but they mirror the longer cycles that the brain goes through as a whole during sleep. This means that different parts of our brains are in high-activity states or low-activity states at any given time.

The researchers were able to tie this incredible finding to the functioning of attention span. The group conducted an experiment with monkeys, in which they recorded a region of the brain that’s responsible for observing a single part of the visual field. They trained the monkeys to watch for a cue that something in the visual field was about to change in a specific way. If the monkeys correctly signalled that they saw the particular change, they got a treat.

The fascinating result of this experiment was that when the monkeys were cued that a change was about to happen, the neurons in the column that controlled the related portion of the visual field spent more time in their active state. In other words, that part of the brain spent more time “awake” when the monkeys were paying attention. And not only that, but when those neurons were active, the monkeys were better able to identify the change in their visual fields. If the monkeys were trying to identify a change during a low point in the neuron cycle, they didn’t do so well.

Sound familiar? This experiment explains a common phenomenon for most of us: thinking we’re paying attention, but still missing things. When it comes to eLearning and education, this research proves that interactivity is key. While we’re certainly a bit smarter than our monkey counterparts, our brains still function similarly–so we now know that our learning-related neurons will spend more time in their active state if properly engaged.

Effective online training uses interactivity in a way similar to how the researchers cued their test subjects. By creating an environment where learners are regularly expecting an interaction, we can prime the neurons in the learning center to spend more time in their active state, which leads to better engagement and better retention of information. It just goes to show that a little neuroscience know-how can make a big impact on our ability to create the best training possible!