Babysitting the Brain

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Babysitting the Brain

An instructor using engaging learning strategies
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The little girl is scared. This place is new. Different. Bright. Hot. She wonders, “Why is this strange man talking to me?” He raises his voice. “Look over here,” he hollers. She’d look, but the lights are bright. He holds up a toy. He squeezes it. The toy’s eyes pop. It’s interesting. Fun. She smiles. A bright flash of light pops. Her mother says, “Good girl!” They are done. The picture has been taken.

Someday the girl will appreciate this photo. She’ll marvel at it. Scrapbook it. Show it off. Her kids will marvel, laugh, and enjoy it, too, and so will their kids. But on this day, she was afraid. The situation was new – unknown. She wouldn’t have looked if not for the toy. It caught her attention. Its fun beckoned. And the light went on.

This scene repeats itself millions of times a day at Wal-Marts, Olan Mills, Sears, photography studios all over the world, and in classrooms filled with adults afraid of learning. To overcome this, you need to understand the way our brains process threats and fears, and what steps can be taken to eliminate fear by implementing brain-based learning.

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What Would Disney Do? Eight Strategies that Pixie-Dust Your Training

Survival or Pleasure

Our brain has a dual focus: survival and pleasure. Survival is the baseline. Without survival, nothing matters. Our brain, to ensure survival, never stops looking for threats. All the components of the brain, even those responsible for logic and arts, refocus immediately if the brain perceives a threat. This dynamic cannot be ignored in the classroom. Ideas, and the intellectual application of those ideas, are unimportant to a threat-focused brain.

Once a brain determines that survival is temporarily secured, it refocuses on the second priority – pleasure. The brain doesn’t specifically want to have fun. It’s just that many pleasurable sensations, including sleeping, eating, and playing, are directly tied to survival. The survival connection to food, rest, and enjoyment seems obvious, but the brain also needs intellectual stimulation. Thinking is the brain’s own exercise machine, keeping it healthy, alert, and functioning.

Being Holistic or Being Logical

A large portion of our brain, our neocortex, consists of a left and a right hemisphere. The corpus callosum provides a communication bridge between the two halves – and the two hemispheres need all the communication help they can get. They see very little the same way; they resemble two siblings whose experience is the same but who rarely agree about what they experienced. With the help of the corpus callosum, the two hemispheres are able to partner. Together, they simultaneously comprehend the details and the context.

Although generalizations about brain functioning are dangerous, we can, for the sake of discussion, say that the left hemisphere thinks logically, and the right hemisphere thinks holistically. The left thinks sequentially; the right thinks randomly. The left analyzes; the right synthesizes. The left comprehends words; the right comprehends metaphors. The left examines what is said; the right discerns how it is said. The left seeks facts and details; the right interprets stories and visuals. And, most importantly for this discussion, the left processes positive emotions like laughter and joy; the right processes negative emotions like fear and disgust.

This duality allows our brains to size up unknown situations quickly. The right hemisphere surveys the big picture and looks for survival threats. The left hemisphere analyzes the potential threats, and if no threat is present, looks for the positive aspects of the situation.

When the incoming information doesn’t fit recognizable patterns, our brains go on alert. If the right perceives negative potential, it directs the release of cortisol. If the left perceives positive potential, it releases adrenaline. Both of these brain chemicals sear memories into our brains. They allow us to remember the events years afterward.

Babysitting Adults

The threat of threats doesn’t disappear in adults. As a result, the brain’s survival focus can block learning. To the wary brain, a classroom can be uncomfortable. Foreign. Threatening. The act of learning implies a lack of completeness. Learners suspicious of facilitator motives, or fearful of their own learning disabilities, can become so wrapped up in right hemispheric negativity that they switch into survival mode. Learning is forgotten. Given that this brain panic cannot be stopped, smart trainers find ways to harmonize with and direct the brain’s dual focus.

That’s where brain-based learning comes in. Engaging activities babysit the right hemisphere, keeping it busy with things it likes, such as cartoons, music, games, interactivity, mnemonics, or this author’s own Learnertainment® concepts. These activities provide the pessimistic right with a positive context. Once the right hemisphere is playfully engaged, learning can commence without blocking.

If you want your trainees to “look at the camera,” babysit them. Focus them on pleasure, not survival. Tell a joke. Display a toy. Play some music. Make it fun. By doing so, you will help snap mental pictures they can savor years into the future.

Headshot of Lenn Millbower
Lenn Millbower
The Mouse Man™

Lenn Millbower, the Mouse Man™ and author of Care Like a Mouse, teaches Walt Disney-inspired service, leadership, innovation, training, and success strategies. Everything Disney touched seems magical. It isn’t. It’s a method. Lenn saw that method up close. He spent 25 years at Walt Disney World as an Epcot Operations trainer, Disney-MGM Studios stage manager, Animal Kingdom opening crew, Disney Institute, Disney University, and Walt Disney Entertainment management. Now, he shares methodologies that will help you make your own magic.

Connect with Lenn on LinkedIn, FacebookTwitterYouTube, and at

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What Would Disney Do? Eight Strategies that Pixie-Dust Your Training

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