PART 3 of 11 | This series highlights practical approaches to leveraging game mechanics in business and digital learning design.

Let’s talk about crocodiles and sensory processing for a moment. How do our brains process, filter, and store information? When we experience an important event, how does it get encoded into long term memory? How do stimuli, songs, smells, images, pass through our brains and what makes them “memorable”?

Oren Klaff is a successful investment banker and author. He is interested in how the brain works in so far as it can make him money.

Fortunately for us, his performance was once below average as an investment banker. Actually, to be fair, he was a brilliant investment banker, he just wasn’t an effective communicator. He would assemble magnificent deals with low risks and big returns. Oren would outlay the simple steps he’d like his investors to take. The problem? No one was biting. He was failing to get investors’ attention and they weren’t taking action.

So Oren did what any driven professional would do in this situation. He met with a cognitive psychologists to learn how the brain worked. He wanted to understand how to engage people and how we process information. What he discovered has forever changed my thinking.

He was trying to teach potential investors about the amazing benefits these opportunities presented. But the investors weren’t absorbing what Oren was trying to demonstrate. They weren’t “learning”.

He discovered that his approach to communicating created a barrier between him and his audience. This barrier could be traced at the neurochemical level. In other words there was a scientific explanation. Neither he nor his audience were to blame. Well, sort of.  

Oren simplified the brain into three major regions. The neocortex, the midbrain, and the crocodile brain. Most of us are familiar with the neocortex, which is responsible for higher level thinking and problem solving. Our midbrain, is associated with vision, hearing, motor control, alertness, and temperature regulation. And the crocodile brain. This primitive area of our brain thinks in simple, linear survival terms: Do I recognize this? Is it dangerous? Can I eat it? Can I mate with it?

Oren provides a great example of how the brain processes information. Imagine this: You are walking down the street and hear someone shouting.

  1. Your first reaction is fear. Your crocodile brain wonders if there is danger.
  2. You turn to see the person shouting to someone else and not you. This is the mid-brain processing the social component of the interaction.
  3. Finally, your neocortex evaluates what the person is saying and concludes that it’s simply a friendly exchange between two friends.

So how does this relate to teaching, pitching and communicating? Like many of us, Oren believed that communicating was about delivering information. So he simply relayed information the same way it’s stored in our own neocortex.

The problem is that, in reality, you aren’t talking to your audience’s neocortex, you are talking to their crocodile brain first. And the crocodile brain can’t understand anything beyond primitive, black & white logic.

Information must first pass through the crocodile brain then through a complex pathway before it ultimately gets processed and interpreted by higher regions of the brain.

As humans, we are constantly bombarded with copious amounts of information. Most of it we don’t pay any attention to. And most of the time that’s a good thing. For example, I bet you’ve never really noticed the pattern of your office carpet, or the texture of most ceilings, the low hum of your air conditioner. Most of these things we tune out. This is known as sensory gating, sometimes called the “cocktail party effect”. Think of the people you pass on the street, most of them don’t stand out. They become a sort of white noise. When they do stand out, many quickly fade from memory. So of the tiny fraction of those people or meals or events, what makes them stand out? Why do we remember them?

It has to do with crocodiles. Or what Oren Klaff refers to as our crocodile brain. A primitive part of our brains called the amygdala is responsible for filtering all stimuli which passes through. It’s a sort of gatekeeper. This is by necessity. Nature has devised very clever and compact ways of maximizing efficiency. If all regions of our brains were asked to process all information which passed through, we’d have brains the size of Cadillacs. I don’t need to point out the potential issue with this.

This crocodile gatekeeper is responsible for either giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down to all stimuli. If the crocodile deems the stimuli worthy of further processing it will let it pass and send it along to the appropriate regions for further processing and storage.

So what kinds of stimuli gets a crocodile’s attention? If you were to bribe this prehistoric bouncer, what would get you into the club?

Let’s imagine for a moment, a predatory crocodile lazing at the river’s edge. It takes notice of a rustling bush nearby. Out leaps a Jaguar, one of a crocodile’s few natural predators. As the predator becomes the prey, the crocodile needs to decide quickly whether to fight or flee.

Baby crocodiles and their mothers have additional to worries to grab their amygdalae attention; flying predators such as eagles and herons are known to feed on young crocodilians.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a duck swimming past the crocodile would instantly shift the reptile into predator mode. A potential opportunity for food, the crocodile would spring into action, helping itself to the delicious snack.

What else? We can’t forget sex. There’s nothing quite like a salacious male, bellowing deeply, blowing bubbles from his nose, and releasing an oily musk to get a female’s attention. At least in the crocodile kingdom.

Imagine our crocodile spotting several twigs scattered by the river’s edge.  Why would a lifeless twig get a crocodile’s attention? Surprisingly, crocodiles are quite intelligent. They will often collect twigs, and use them as bait to catch birds who are looking for raw materials during nesting season. So to a crocodile, twigs pose a huge benefit.

There’s one last thing that might get a croc’s attention. Something that is truly novel. Unique. In other words, it requires further investigation to determine if it meets one of the other four criteria (threat, food, sex, benefit).

The only information that will get through is if it poses a threat, or a potential benefit, like we can eat it or mate with it. Only if the stimuli are novel, or useful or threatening, will they get vetted and passed along to the higher parts of the brain. To the frontal and temporal lobes which are responsible for things such as problem solving and memory.

What’s amazing is these higher parts of the brain can’t physically pay attention, they can’t grasp information unless it’s been vetted and passed along by parts of the limbic system.

As learning professionals we so often just want to go straight to the raw content.  We layout the learning objectives then hit learners with what they need to know.  We lay out important and complex information, believing that scaffolding it will be enough to enable our audience to assimilate it. Thinking this will make it easy.

JUMP TO NEXT: 04 | The Habit Loop & Dopamine

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