Thursday, 14 July 2011

Neuroscience, Stress and Games Based Learning

This blog is going to be a bit ambitious and is much about getting my thoughts down, as sharing ideas with others. I am currently listening to “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” and some of its ideas got me thinking about games based learning; in particular stress and its impact learning acquisition and flow, self-mastery and retention of knowledge.

Renowned psychiatrist  John J. Ratey’s book  delves into neuroscience to explain the transformative effects of exercise on the brain. The book includes chapters on the beneficial effects of exercise on Stress, Anxiety, Depression, Attention Deficit, Addiction, Hormonal Changes, Aging and Learning. I won’t give too much away, but on learning he cites an example of a revolutionary fitness program in Naperville, Illinois, which has put this school district first in the world for science and sixth for mathematic based on internationally recognised testing methods. These results put the school significantly above the US average.

"I need a break, or do I?"
There is a huge amount of interesting material in the book, but one particular point about stress got me thinking about what I have experienced in workshops and about how games based learning could be achieving some of its learning outcomes.

According to Ratey, stress works at a fundamental level in the brain. It is linked to the ‘fight or flight’ response. Stress focuses the brain martialling resources for immediate use. Adrenaline kicks in, increasing heart rate and dilating bronchial tubes to allow more oxygen to get to the muscles.  Two neurotransmitters put the brain on alert: neoroprenephrine arouses attention then dopamine sharpens and focuses it. Cortisol takes over from adrenaline to allow more glucose to be freed up for the brain.

Too much stress can overwhelm us, and inhibit learning and performance, but a little can be beneficial.  For example, mild stress before going on stage ramps up chemicals in the brain, which means the brain becomes more focused and performance improves.

Ratey states that people suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Didorder (ADHD) can sometimes be seen as stress junkies, but they are probably using stress as a mechanism to achieve focus. He also suggests engendering stress is a primary focus of procrastination. We only can get motivated and focused when the stress has ramped up to the required level.

So what as this specifically got to do with my experiences of  games based learning at games-ED and using learning simulations at pixelfountain. Well, at the start of our workshops, learners are often stressed as they are asked to quickly learn the rules of a game. This usually takes around ten to fifteen minutes, as we design the game rules to be simple so that it doesn't take too long for the learners to get into the learning. But maybe this initial ‘out of their comfort zone’ experience is not a hurdle to quickly jump over; it could actually be an integral part of the learning process. The stress could be putting the learners’ brains in a more attentive and thus receptive frame of mind to take on new information (build synaptic links).

In fact in our adult workshop, it has often been delegates that have struggled the most at the start that have raved the most at the end. I can think of one specific workshop, where a woman in a local council said, “I have only just learned Monopoly, how do you expect me to do this.”  At the end of the workshop, she was praising the games based learning approach and stated that everyone in the council should do it.

We have thought of this turnaround as a journey that these individuals go through, and that this experience means they feel the need to talk about it. I think this is probably still the case, but maybe the initial stress has focused their brain, meaning they have learned a lot more as a result.  This would make sense, as these individual are recommending the process in terms of “this is the best training I have done and everyone should do it”.

Furthermore, the stress of dealing with challenges could be the biological mechanism behind learning flow. The mild stress enables the individual to keep going and discover more. In our games designs we include incidents, so that in later rounds of the simulations, learners have an extra challenge. We do this to increase realism and to spice things up a little. But, maybe we have inadvertently designed games that keep stressing the learners a little in order that they learn a lot. The games based challenges generate learning flow.

The idea of a learning journey is powerful. The initial stress and challenges along the way, enables the individual to achieve a degree of self-mastery. And in doing so, learners feel good about themselves. They have earned that pat on the back. I think that this presents a fantastic way to motivate learners.  So, games could offer up an opportunity to create a “learning arc”, where learning can be seen in terms of beginning, middle and end with crises along the way building to a learning climax.

The stress response goes beyond generating focus and providing an opportunity for self-mastery; it can help with the process of learning and memory. A bit more neuroscience courtesy of Ratey . The stress response elevates cortisol, hypothalamic corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) and neoroprenephrine. These agents enable glutamate to be boosted which in turn speeds up the flow of information to the hippocampus and changes the dynamic at the synapses. Cortisol turns on genes inside cells which make proteins that are used to build up the very structure of the brain and solidify the memory.  Put simply, stress improves learning and memory. But, there is a downside.  Too much cortisol can have a negative impact on memory and is probably the reason why when people are severely stressed they do not learn very well. “Everything in moderation” works for the brain as well.

And they all lived happily ever after.
We have gathered a huge amount of feedback from delegates and have conducted long-term evaluation on a number of large regional programmes. Delegates have talked about accelerated learning of complex subjects and that long-term changes have occurred in their organisation. These may have occurred because games based learning and specifically simulations provide high quality learning, but possibly stress has played its part in focussing delegates brains and forging strong memories and learning. This could also be why Games Based Situated Learning is such a powerful learning theory and approach.

As I said at the start of this blog post, these are ideas that are very fresh in my mind. Hopefully, I have got them down in a coherent manner. Over the next weeks and months, I may pick up on the idea of mild stress being an enabler for generating focus, flow, allowing the opportunity for self-mastery and improving the efficiency of learning and memory. Alternatively, I may bin the whole concept. Possibly, because it doesn’t stack up or probably because it makes my brain hurt!


If you want to know more about John J Ratey ideas on learning then grab a copy of his book, and you can also find information on his blog “Exercise Revolution” or on his website.


If you have got this far in the blog you may also be interested in the work we do at pixelfountain on Organisational Transactional Analysis.

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