The Neurobiological Foundation of Fun in Learning

Imagine if your employer encouraged you to share a laugh with your colleagues at the water cooler, or to use monkey bars to get to your next brainstorming meeting, or to present the results of your SWOT analysis through a game of hopscotch. While this may seem for some as a little farfetched, research is showing that a bit of non-productive activity actually makes you more productive. This has many wondering: what can it really do if it’s playful and productive?

The use of games in business, a phenomenon called gamification, has gained tremendous popularity in the last decade. The underlying concept is that games engage the end-user to complete tedious activities in such a way that keeps them attached to a brand, product, or service ( Having fun thus provides an engaging experience that captivates the learner. As the literature is starting to show that fun creates a neurobiological response that leads to retention, maybe senior management should start considering fun as a key performance indicator (KPI) when deciding on budget allocation.

According to Dr. Stuart Brown’s book entitled Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, play is one of the fundamentals of life that produces learning, memory, and wellbeing.  If this is true, it assumes that play and fun are essential in creating valuable and meaningful learning experiences, and are strategic imperatives in the knowledge economy. Advocates of serious games are using the benefits of engagement and fun as primary arguments to support this instructional strategy. The problem is that the focus on the fun factor rather than concrete benefits is leaving many wondering if serious games can produce serious results in corporate training.

At the heart of any game lies a challenge that the learner must respond to, leading to what Jane McGonical refers to as the urgent optimism that motivates them to try to achieve the epic win. At a biological level, the excitement is prompting the brain to release dopamine, an important neurotransmitter responsible for behaviour and cognition ( Dopamine has addictive qualities, prompting gamers to return for a dopamine squirt and master the game. However, the neurobiological foundation of fun doesn’t end there. As stated in Stuart Brown’s TED Talk on play, “3D play fires the cerebellum, sends impulses to the frontal lobe, and helps contextualize memory”.  Turns out that the physiological and cognitive response to playing and having fun may actually unlock the potential to meaningful and lasting learning.

Games can undoubtedly be successful in training. A caveat is that achieving that dopamine squirt requires a perfect balance of challenging activities blended with the instructional content. You want learners to return to relive the experience and achieve better results. After all, having learners addicted to their training is certainly a valuable performance metric in the eyes of senior management!

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