My guest for today is Dr. John Medina, Affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine, and the author of Brain Rules, a best-selling book spawning a franchise covering Work, Babies, Aging and more.
In this ‘massively stimulating’ conversation, John and I discuss
🛠 How the brain is actually focused solely on surviving, and learns only as long as it sustains its prime goal; and why the learning environments we create are actually the opposite of what the brain is expecting
📄 How the Zoom fatigue we’ve all experienced in online classes is related to the “big head problem,” eye contact timing, missing body columns, nonverbal information… even minor variations in air pressure (you’ll have to listen to understand that little nugget)
🔃 What the BRAC, or basic rest-activity cycle is, and why you need to incorporate it into your teaching and learning ASAP (PS. BRAC gets even better if you just go outside for a few minutes)
🖌 “Flow,” the two types of creativity and cognitive disinhibition, and how they all play together to help us solve problems
🌝 Why we absolutely need to sleep to learn and why it’s actually just as important *when* we sleep as *how much* we sleep
🎓 How grief affects our ability to learn, and how critical it is that we all take this into account in a world recovering from a pandemic and other global afflictions
🕛 Finally, we talk about what a “perfect” schedule would look like for anyone learning or working from home
Click to expand
This is the e -learn podcast episode 94 so all the sudden shows if you have a problem you’re stuck on and by the way this is also been shown empirically. The best thing you can do before you go to bed is to get out a pencil and a piece of paper.
And make a drawing if you can doesn’t matter if you’re an artist or not make a drawing if you can of the problem itself then put the paper away and go sleep. Welcome to the e -learn podcast.
My name is Ladek and I’m your host from Open LMS. My guest for today is Dr. John Medina, an affiliate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine and the author of the book Brain Rules which has many variations at this stage including work,
babies and many more. In this massively stimulating conversation, and I mean that literally this is an incredible conversation, John and I discuss how the brain is actually focused solely on surviving and only uses learning as a means to achieve that goal,
and the learning environments we create that are actually the opposite of what the brain is expecting today. We also talk about how the Zoom fatigue that we’ve all experienced in online classes is related to the big head problem,
eye contact timing, missing body columns and nonverbal information, and the fact that we can sense air pressure as a way to understand how we’re supposed to interact in conversations,
but you’re going to have to listen to the interview to learn about that. We also talk about what the BRAC or Basic Rest Activity Cycle is and why you need to incorporate it into your teaching and learning immediately,
and PS, the BRAC is even better if you just go outside for a few minutes. We also talk about flow, the two types of creativity and cognitive disinhibition and how all of these play together to help us solve problems.
We then move into why we absolutely need to sleep to learn and why it’s actually just as important when we sleep as about how much we sleep. We kind of go into our conversation in a little bit of a dark area when we talk about how grief affects our ability to learn and how we might work with this as an important strategy since all of us has been affected by COVID in this way in some form or another.
And finally, we round out our conversation by talking about what a perfect schedule would look like for anyone working from home or the office. But before we get started, a quick word from our sponsors. The eLearning podcast is sponsored by the eLearn Success Series,
a uniquely valuable set of events that bring together sector experts and thought leaders to offer solutions to the most critical challenges and issues at the intersection of education and technology.
Get your free ticket to all four sessions at elearnsuccessseries .com and Open LMS, a company that provides world -class LMS solutions that empower organizations to meet education and workplace learning needs.
Learn more by visiting Open LMS .net. Hello, everyone, and welcome to another live broadcast from the eLearning Hot Seats. My name is Ladic,
and we come to you from Open LMS. We come to you from the eLearn Success Series, but really, this is not about me. This is not about us. This is about my guests. Today,
we have Dr. John Medina on the show with us today. Dr. John, well, actually, I’m going to call you John. Is that cool? Absolutely. Yeah, you’re a good musician. I have a better voice, though. Oh,
nice, nice, nice. So, John, just because I mean, I know this, and we were actually talking for a few minutes in the green room there. Tell everybody, tell everybody, where are you sitting right now? I’m in Seattle,
Washington. My home base is at the University of Washington School of Medicine here in Seattle, Washington. So, I’m a Husky. And right now, we’re in the middle of an atmospheric river, which Stephen just suits me so fine.
I can’t stand it. I love the rain. I love to see the wind, and we have a big old store. I’m down in my basement. It’s kind of a bulletproof area. It’s actually somewhat soundproof. So, we’ll interrupt our signal together as long as the ethernet holds out.
I was just going to say, I’m sitting in Mexico cities. You never know. you never know. We’re flying that a net here. I will say this, I have to put, we’re recording this on March 15th,
2022. And I wanna remember anybody who’s listening right now, either live or in the recording, put a comment in the chat. We’re here to talk to you if you happen to be around, but you know,
something happened a few days ago that I don’t know if you follow the national football league, but my Denver Broncos just took Russell Wilson. I shut up. Yeah, Robbie Wagner’s gone too.
I mean, the entire, our entire Super Bowl team has been dismantled. Yeah, I gotta say without, it surprised me, even though I feel like I pay attention to the NFL,
but it surprised me that that was even on the table. And then when it happened, I was like, well, this changes the story. There’s been rumors that we’re flying back and forth, but that got particularly heavy in the last year.
So it wasn’t like a super complete surprise. I was surprised that Denver was in the offing. I thought for sure, well, I wasn’t sure where he was gonna go, but it seems strange to me.
We were shooting for Deshaun Watson to come and replace, but he does not wanna come to Seattle. I was just gonna say, I saw, yeah, that kind of looks like it has the gabbash as well. Yeah. But we digress. I mean, I could talk football for a while,
but we’re gonna talk about brain science. You wrote a book a while ago called Brain Rules. And now there’s several editions. There’s brain rules in the workplace. There’s brain rules in academia.
There’s brain rules everywhere, which is fantastic. But I wanna tee us up like this. And I told you this in greener before, but I was actually watching you speak at Google a little while back.
And I love what you put this on the table. I’m gonna make sure I do a quote here. Sure. At that talk, you said, the brain appears to be designed to solve problems related to surviving in an unstable environment.
No, related to surviving in, yeah, in an unstable environment, outdoors in constant motion. Correct. Yep. And just like you did, I wanna repeat that. So the brain appears to be designed to solve problems related to surviving in an unstable environment,
outdoors and in constant motion. How about that? So I’m gonna start with one thing today. You and I are now talking through the ethernet. We’re talking to cameras.
We’re not in the same room. Neither of us are outdoors. And this is how millions of learners are working today. Are we absolutely crazy or what?
Well, we’re absolutely inefficient. Maybe that would be the way to say it. Because what you just described, I call the design performance envelope of the human brain. The human brain really is designed to solve problems.
It’s not related to surviving. It’s not interested in learning. It’s interested in surviving. And it uses learning in the service of that survival, but you can’t flip it. So at every time when a survival instinct may be jeopardized or even thought to be mildly threatened,
the brain goes into a completely different mode of learning. Because it’s not interested in learning. It’s interested in surviving. Now, the conditions under which that occurs is an unstable meteorological environment and doing it in near constant motion in the great outdoors,
for sure. That just shows how much our evolutionary history is antithetical to our learning environments. I mean, if you were to design a learning environment that was directly opposed to what the brain is naturally good at doing,
Stephen, you would design this space right now, the thing we’re doing together. That’s about as far away from how the brain actually is used to working in our hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary history.
So we should be on treadmills at least, walking 1 .2, 1 .5 miles an hour, just to keep the blood from pooling into our butts and into our ankles. Yet, that’s not happening. You’re seated, I’m seated. So I had originally written brain rules because I really got tired of this confounder.
I mean, I’m really interested in teaching people, shouldn’t we think a little bit about how the brain works, being as how it’s not like you can teach things to your pancreas? Yeah, for sure. All of your things to your organ.
So if the organ follows specific rules of engagement, you would ask the question, what are those rules of engagement? And would that then not also optimize the learning experience? The answer, it’s a hypothesis,
but I believe it’s also a strong one because the answer is yeah. So what? So now here we are 24 months after. Day one ish.
Yeah, 24 months after, you know, the world declared, you know, shut down and, you know, we’re starting to open up. Let me let me let me just put this on the table. Like, what have you learned? What have you observed? What,
you know, what are the one of the key? You know, maybe the key few things that people have been asking you or that you have learned from this, you know, learning in this pandemic environment. Yeah. Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned wasn’t anything new.
It was more just like it got underscored, how ridiculously relational the human brain is and how important in -person contact is to the human brain.
Now, I know this is all about e -learning and I totally get that there’s an entire industry that is not only involved in it, but it’s probably saved some people’s academic bacon simply because they can’t get out of the house and they’re alive today.
And I totally get that. Doesn’t mean doesn’t give a rip about what the brain is interested in, what it’s used to. A real good example might be Zoom phone calls, maybe a phone call like this.
Shall we pick on Zoom for a minute there, is would that be okay? Absolutely. I love, yeah, like the Zoom phenomenon is creating itself. And now you can actually say, hey, let’s Zoom, you know, it’s just like,
let’s Google that, you know, sure. It’s become a verb. It was a noun, it was a company. Let me give them a noun now, it’s become a verb for sure. Okay. One fact that you can say to show, and we’ll get back to the whole idea of how ridiculous the relational we are in a second,
but we’ll go down this path for a second I suppose, Zoom phone calls make you tired. Now we actually don’t know why Zoom phone calls are exhausting, but they are. And the good counsel is to,
if you have to do an hour’s worth of Zoom, Steven, when we’re done with this phone call, you and I should both go do something that’s not Zoom. That’s not a video conference. It’s not teams. That’s not anything else. We should go do something else.
It exhausts us. We think there are we don’t know why, but there are a couple of reasons that suggest something plausible. I’ll give three. Number one, the first one’s called the big head problem or the big face problem.
The big face problem. The big head problem is just like right now. I see your face. You see mine. You see a similar shoulders down to the down to my mid abdomen and I can sort of see your shoulders in your big microphone.
The only time in the Serengeti when we saw a big face or a big head was when we were about to have a physical assault with somebody or we were about to have sex. Those were the times when we saw a big face.
So the suggestion is because in a zoom phone call, you know, there’s not going to be a physical assault and there’s probably not going to be any intimacy that would require in person contact that the brain has to call up these little batch files.
Am I showing my age? Do I pull that? Do I pull the floppy discount? No, these tiny little algorithms that actually can be repeated over and over again. Is that better for people not knowing what DOS is?
I don’t blame you if you don’t. We have these little files that have to come up and say, no, no, you’re not having sex. No, no, no, you’re not going to fight somebody. No, no, no, you’re not having reproduction. No, no, no, you’re not going to have a physical assault and that gets exhausting.
So the first reason people think that zoom meetings are exhausting is because of the big head problem and our need to constantly bat away our evolutionary history to have a conversation. Here’s the second thought about why zoom meetings are exhausting.
It has to do with something you can measure actually really well and that’s eye contact. Eye contact is unbelievably important to social mammals. It’s unbelievably important to gorillas and orangutans and chimpanzees and dogs.
It’s important to human beings too. And you can measure certain emotional reactions to eye contact simply by doing this. For example, if I am talking to you, Stephen, and then all of a sudden I break away after 1 .2 seconds.
Let’s say I’m talking to the camera right now, but I’ll talk now to your image on my on my on my computer here. Now I’m talking to you, but I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to an angle of you.
I no longer have your eye contact. Now, there I am. Ho, I’m back. If that’s gone for 1 .2 seconds or more, you think I’m ignoring you. I was just going to say,
you get uncomfortable. You feel a little strange with somebody, especially when you talk with somebody and it’s clear that their camera is over here and they’re talking to you, or they’re talking to their screen over here. You’re like,
hey, wait, I’m right here, right here. If you want to do a parlor trick sometime to show the uncomfortable, I’ve done this in lecture before. I teach mostly bioengineering graduate students, by the way.
I’ll have them say, don’t look at my eyes when you’re talking to me. Look at my hairline, and I’m going to look at your hairline too, so it’s just off. So it’s just off a little bit like this. It gives people a really creepy feeling because you don’t have eye contact.
We need 1 .2 seconds or more, but there is a Goldilocks here, Steven. If I give you a steady gaze for more than 3 .2 seconds,
I’m about to do that right now. Watch. You think there’s something wrong. In fact, if I’m gazing at you with not saying anything with some intensity,
you might get actually creeped out. So it turns out that human gazes are extraordinarily important for social information, and not just with us human primates,
but non -human primates and dogs, and there’s lots of animals that require eye contact. In a Zoom phone call, you could be one of a Brady Bunch filled of squares, Hollywood squares,
inside a cult where you’re doing nothing but doing this and staring and silent. A little creepy at any rate, the brain’s not used to it. So the second reason why it’s exhausting,
we have to bring up that same batch file. No, he doesn’t have good camera etiquette. That’s why his eyes are down here, but he’s still trying to talk to me. That’s a batch file.
something and if you’re staring for two a longer period of time the brain goes Geez, so there’s a big head. You got eye contact issues. I can just hear the brain You know,
it’s only 2 % of our body weight, but it’s 20 % of our metabolizable glucose. It sucks up But there’s a third reason which I think probably is the strongest of all That has to do with non -verbal body column communication You can’t see my body column.
You can see my chest. You can see my face. I can’t see your body column I have no idea how to extract information Social information about what you’re feeling right now Steven because I can’t hold you I can see part of you I can see a very important part of you your face and whatever.
I’ve tried to when I give distance lectures So I have done sometimes we had to do that course in the COVID times That’s what I almost always wear a dark shirt and when I wear a dark shirt I then make sure that my hands are visible so that there’s a high contrast so they can actually see some of my you know I’m a I’m a scientist so I lecture with my hands.
Okay Sure, of course That’s that allows us to see something beyond the body column if I could really do it I’d be standing up and moving and blocking and going back and forth. Oh We don’t have any of that information either what you can’t show is that the brain will sometimes then make it up It doesn’t know what you’re feeling so it’s just gonna have to make it up Oh,
he’s got a frown But I don’t know if he’s got a frown because he’s about to clear his throat or because there’s something else going on I can’t see also the brain is so sensitive to that form of information any of the nonverbal contact that even it can Even detect changes in micro pressure in air pressure between two people that are talking Mm -hmm another experiment you can do if you know what an interval is between
a one and a two just do a Second as opposed to like a perfect fifth do a two and smooths and you can feel the the air vibrate between two people Your brain is sensitive enough to pick it up in a zoom call I can’t detect your airplane.
I don’t even know if you’re breathing air right Well, I can’t detect any pressure that’s going on between us So I can’t know when you’re about to interrupt me and I need to stay silent so that you can have your say I’ve been monologuing here what for the last maybe one minute one minute 30 seconds And I can’t know if you’re starting to inspire Because you want to say something or if you’re just busy being polite or
maybe i’m boring you all that information is lost to me So you got the big head problem. You got eye contact problem You got body column and nonverbal problems You’ve got an exhaustion for god’s sakes when you have a zoom phone call after one hour Get off and go jump on a trampoline or something How do we so I have two questions that come from that One what are their ways to counteract these three phenomena in you
know, maybe not counteract, but at least What’s the word i’m looking for like really Dude yeah, yeah mitigate them right mitigate them in some way and then two You know,
I know that you and I in in a previous, you know, sort of a warm -up call You you know you had put together an actual schedule for what you know like an ideal schedule would look like which I know no one Zero I know exactly zero people who do that schedule,
but I’d really like to hear what is the you know What would you say so that we optimize how our virtual days go now? Yeah Well, this would be true not for the virtual world Although I think you can make a logical extrapolation the stuff i’m about to describe would be kleitman’s what’s called a brach basic rest activity cycle This was not done in this environment,
so we have to be clear about that I think you can extrapolate what you can show is that Nathaniel kleitman was actually mostly interested in sleep He did sleep research and he showed a lot of the cycles that go on at night And there’s a big big time study of rem and rem sleep But he also started looking at cycles that occurred during the day because he noticed that the brain seemed to be following oscillations,
not just at night, but also during the day. So he started to study them and he came up with something called the BRAC, the basic rest activity cycle. He found that every 90 minutes you need to take a break from whatever the heck you’re doing.
It’s too long a stream. You can show that your attention begins to wane in a practical setting. He showed that and others than apologists for him were able to show that during shift work,
if you don’t give somebody a break in 90 minutes, their error rate, their mistake rates go way, way high. But if you then give them like a 10, 15 minute break at the 90 minute mark and then have them recycle back to work,
their mistake rates go back down to baseline. So you actually have a set of improvements. You can make, I think, a logical extension that you need a break from whatever stream of information that is occurring on a regular basis every 60 to 90 minutes easy.
It would be an extrapolation to this very good work that was actually shown. One of the ways that I can really see this, because I’m associated with a medical school, we see these emergency rooms and they’ve been clobbering our poor residents for ever and ever where you don’t get 90 minute breaks.
And their error rates just increase. Everybody’s does simply because they’ve been working for too long. And I’ve suggested we’ve worked with some architecture firms here in the Seattle area, one in particular, NBBJ,
to design the emergency room of the future, which could be a substitute for the workplace of the future, just in general. You know what you need to do after 90 minutes? If you’ve been in the ER and you’ve had nothing but code your entire time and you’ve had two people die on your shift,
you know what you need? You need a big door with a big sign that says this way out. And you open up that door and here is this Japanese garden with a waterfall and a big chair that says,
sit here for 10 minutes. You can show that if you could re -expose somebody to the natural environment within 200 milliseconds,
the nervous system of the human body begins to respond in a positive direction. It begins to detach, it begins to disengage. And after 10, 15 minutes of that disengagement, you have begun to,
I’m gonna use the word restore. I’m not sure that that’s the right word. I may be a better way to say fuel up the tank partially so that you go back in and then do more of your stuff. This is very much in line with what Kleitman said about the BRAC,
whatever. But if now we add the natural environment, notice Steven, we’ve just gone back to our very first sentence in our conversation. The human brain appears to have been designed to solve problems related to surviving in an outdoor setting.
Right, that was, quite honestly, when I heard it in your talk, that was the one variable or the piece that really, it really caught my brain and threw me out with,
because we spend so much time in our offices, in our houses, in our car, in places that are not natural settings.
And I’m just wondering if, obviously there’s many people out there who have been waving the flag for a very long time that we need more nature in our lives, et cetera. But this is definitive. Yeah,
well, it’s not an opinion. Because a scientist, I’ve long since carried what I believe. I just would like to know what’s out there. And if nature wasn’t restorative,
I couldn’t say that. And so I’d say, well, Steve Gellert and all the other people that worked on this at the University of Michigan for years, sorry. If you didn’t do any experiments, I can’t show that to you, but you can actually measure autonomic responses,
parasympathetic, sympathetic interactions. You need, in fact, you need a specific type of outdoor. It’s better if it’s green. 523 nanometers or above in wavelength.
It’s better if it’s green. And it’s better if there’s, you get an amplifying effect if you can add running water to it. Why? Why running water? Oh, because it just makes sense.
I mean, it makes sense, like just in my brain, in my gut. Like I knew you were gonna be like, okay, and if you could have a stream, you know, like that’s going to make it better, but. Well,
let’s get into it. Sure, there is a reason why it’s not just a plant, not just a plant but a specific wavelength of plant and running water as a force multiplier. In our sojourn in the Serengeti and the sides of the Ingor and Goro crater that’s a savanna but it didn’t used to be a savanna years and years and years and years and years ago it wasn’t a savanna it was a rainforest it’s still a rainforest in the
central part of Africa but beginning about you know there’s some controversy about this but let’s just say a long time ago maybe half a million years ago maybe there’s there’s there’s a lot of slop here but there’s not a lot a lot of slop about this our birthplace our uterus our Serengeti our Africa began to dry out and to eridify it’s still doing that the Sahara is still moving south so we had to come out of our
beautiful lush green rainforest filled with water and now we were on the savanna so when we look around on the savanna what is going to give us a yippie what is going to give us a calming effect about survival well two things might number one if you could see a beautiful green plant you don’t see a lot of green plants out in the savanna he’s a lot of savanna out in the savanna but if there’s this beautiful green
plant that suggests something oh there’s a photosynthesis event going on i’ll bet by god there’s water underneath it because biggie is you’re gonna dry out in the savanna so you want to be folk with water it makes perfect sense that if you then could hear running water you would say to yourself oh this isn’t just green this is a green with water so exposed that even when it’s evaporating you know there’s a lot of
water so it makes perfect sense to this scientist in our evolutionary psychology stripes to look at that and say well of course a natural environment is going to give you certain reassurance but it would be specific components of the natural environment not just the natural environment itself but specific elements within it that would provide the calming effect that produce a bed A bedding if you will for a whole series
of research projects that have really pushed this out in spades in in Britain it’s called a ecological walking sometimes called green exercise in Japan the University of Kyoto,
they call it forest bathing Yeah, yeah, yeah an ecological walk in the but I mean, but you think is you know when I think of Jeff like The Japanese garden.
I mean, that’s a thing. That’s a real thing like and this Was that based on? Researcher was that just so you know, I mean it was that I guess is your research now just proving like the You know the name for these harmonious spaces and the connection with nature,
you know, they really are on to something Yeah, well once you have the initial find it’s not my research. It is it is sorry and and hit to UK’s University Kero and and yeah,
I came to the Once the original result was found that within 200 milliseconds There was something happening to the nervous system. The second tier of questions was well What are the elements that can produce the event?
What are the things that produce a calming effect? What are the things that induce learning and from that we’re a whole slew of research is being found Some of it is extraordinary urban settings are awful.
Turns out we hate 90 degree angles Are you serious? Yeah, cuz they’re sharp. When do you see a 90 degree angle? Oh, I don’t know when there’s a bunch of obsidian rock mirror volcano in the And getting some time when it’s gonna tear,
you know, we are this soft pink little tissue So anything that could be good that could puncture us would often be a death sentence in the hunter -gatherer Cruel world in which we resided so it would make perfect sense.
Here’s another one blue light 490 nanometers or so and above Stimulates you it does. In fact, you should not look at 490 nanometers and above you should not look at blue light about two hours before you go to bed because your brain gets aroused by it,
something you could show. Now, why would it be blue light that does that? Well, the answer once again comes from the Serengeti. When was the time that we saw the color blue? Well, when it was daytime.
Sure, I was just thinking like a giant blue sky, you know. Yeah, and before it’s blue, that means it’s either dusk or it’s dawn, but in either event, you’re coming out of a sleep environment. Blue is gonna be the signal to,
you know, bring out the Disney birds and let’s all have a, you know, a morning party because it’s time to get up. The interesting thing about that also, is that we probably have natural clocks in here that gauge not only when there’s blue light,
so that whenever we see blue light, we are aroused. When the blue light begins to go away, that’s the time to start settling down. I’m just starting to get rid of certain things because in the nighttime, we are not an octurnal predator.
We’re not, we were a predator. We’re in between state where we could do some things. We learned to take over the world because we survived by cooperation, but at nighttime,
we’re vulnerable. We’re vulnerable to a raccoon for heaven’s sakes at night. We’re certainly vulnerable to the nocturnal animals, the leopards of the world and maybe other animals that do their hunting at night. So we had to get out of dodge.
We had to go someplace else. So blue not only was an arousal, lack of blue was a safety issue. I want to circle back to the 90 minute clause that you were just saying,
if you’re paying attention, if you’re engaged for 90 minutes in your work or whatever, that you need to take a break. Just suppose that for me with the work and the theories around flow about,
and there’s been a lot of people over the last, at least that I’ve read five, 10 years, and maybe it’s 90 minutes, but chunking your work, where it’s like, look, get yourself into a block of time where you can just really dive in,
and especially if you can achieve that flow state. Does that tear apart or extend that 90 minute window? Where did those connect? Well,
I have a hard time. Mikhail, a cheek set me higher, the guy who actually did the Gary and the American who did the work on flow. I’ll just have to be honest here.
I don’t know what flow is. Okay. Now remember, I’m a developmental molecular biologist. I’m a biochemist, so I have a pretty strict requirement for things that can flow from the biochemistry flow,
from the biochemistry into the behavior, and the distance between biochemistry and behavior is a big old deal. I do like the word better, cognitive disinhibition, because it’s something that can actually measure better than flow.
Flow is usually defined as a creative state, and one of its biggest hallmark features is that you lose track of time. Right. That’s fine. I’ve been in that. I’m sure you have, too. But exactly what that means,
and are you more creative in that space? I think that’s an open question. But you can say some things. This is Shelley Carson’s work at Harvard, something called cognitive disinhibition,
and then also some other work about divergent, convergent creativity. Shall we talk about creativity for a minute? I would love, yeah. Let’s talk about creativity. Let’s go there, for sure. Okay. Well,
there are two models. Let’s do the second model first, because it will explain better Shelley’s work, I think, which probably has more empirical support. Okay. We think of creativity.
We think of, since we don’t know what it is, there are about 60 definitions about what it is. It’s almost always defined functionally, and that is a novel idea that has use. Because my research interests are the genetics of psychiatric disorders.
I meet all kinds of people all day along whom you might call really, really creative. They also hallucinate a lot and bang their heads up against the wall, and they do all kinds of things that are aberrant. You wouldn’t call it creative because it doesn’t have a utility associated with it.
So that’s the operating definition that most of us use. Okay. With that in mind, there are two types of creativity. There is something called divergent thinking, which is something you can measure. The archetypal archetypal example of Divergent Thinking is,
think of new uses for a brick. I’ll sometimes say that in lecture. Class, think of new uses for a brick, and somebody will say, oh, doorstop, or somebody will say,
paperweight and whatnot. If you give those kinds of answers, you’ll score really low. Because it’s not all that far away from a brick, right? A brick is a solid mass,
and it’s used as a support structure. But here’s one that’ll just put it off the charts. It’s a famous answer. It was done by, I think, a little girl. I would grind the brick into dust and use it as paint.
How about that? Yeah. See how that diverges? That’s real. So you might call that creativity, but you can show that there is a divergence of things. Okay, so that’s one type of creativity.
To have divergent creativity flow, I guess you might call that, but divergent you can measure, you can’t be very stressed. You have to be able to be within your 90 -minute zone and just getting all that stuff.
Okay, there’s a second type of creativity in this view before we get to Shelley’s work. That’s called convergent creativity, which is also a form of creativity, is also something you can measure,
but it’s the exact opposite of divergent. Whereas divergent you might think of as a spotlight, convergent creativity is like a magnifying glass that actually focuses. It converges you on a point. The best example I can think of for convergent evolution or convergent creativity,
have you seen the movie Apollo 13, way, way back when, with Tom Hanks? Oh, Hanks, yeah, yeah, sure, absolutely, huh? That movie, Steven, is a celebration of convergent creativity,
because they’re doing all kinds of creative stuff, but they have one goal in mind, to get the people safely back to Earth. So rather than being like a sparkler finding new uses for a brick, it’s actually focusing you so that you can focus down on a particular problem.
Both are new. Yeah, and I remember in that particular instance, there was a really finite set of options and variables, and so how do we put these together to achieve that goal,
right? Right, they had things like duct tape, of course, and all kinds of… My guy ever was not involved. Yeah. I remember them trying to make a carbon scrubber,
and I don’t remember what they, but they can only use essentially scissors and paste, but they made one and it actually worked. That’s a great form of convergent creativity. Okay, so that’s one form.
I’m not sure where flow fits in there, but these two things you can actually measure in the laboratory. Now here’s something else you can measure, and it’s a different series of ideas. This comes from Shelley Carson’s work called cognitive disinhibition.
Okay. Okay, it’s a great term, although it seems a little awkward to say, but you are disinhibited. You are cognitively disinhibited. You can think of, oh, just about anything. The metaphor I sometimes use when I’m talking about it in lecture.
In the movie, I haven’t seen the new West Side Story version, but I have seen the old West Side Story version, and in it they have a dance scene.
Let’s take a place in the dance with the idea of the two gangs trying to reconcile with each other. Sure. And what’s wonderful about the music is that you got the big band of Leonard Bernstein on one spot with a mambo, which Leonard Bernstein also wrote on the other,
and they are a clash, not just of musical styles, but of social culture, which was the point. And there’s this cacophony, and there’s a point where it just gets, oh, cacophonous, cacophonous, cacophonous.
And then something magic happens. The two protagonists, the male female, Natalie Wood. The spotlights come down. Yeah, the two spotlights come in.
The thing causes up, they turn the music down. That’s kind of important, because what you’re going to replace it with, they then come together and do this almost like a waltz type thing. Focus, focus, focus. This is a perfect metaphor for Shelley Carson’s ideas about creativity.
What, in the beginning, when you need to solve a problem, you want to be as cognitively disinhibited as possible. So you want the dance floor with mambo and big band, and let’s get some hip hop in there,
and maybe some Aerosmith, and maybe some Billie Eilish. I mean, just throw it all in together with this gigantic stew of stuff. But if you see two commonalities, you have a powerful ability to tune out everything else,
for just a short period of time and just look at the two variables. Like the two leads, like Richard Bamer and Natalie Wood, whereas the equivalent of that in Steven Spielberg’s movie. So that you can then,
then if you want, you can lens back out and see this cacophony and go back and forth. This ability to go back and forth between the two produces some of the best problem solving that exists. And there it’s interesting. Cognitive disinhibition really is,
you want to be as stress sensitive as you can, but in order for you to solve a problem so that you tune out everything else and just go, sometimes it’s good to have a little bit of stress. Upon a 13, sure,
stress, you know, you need it to get it done. So there’s a whole lot in there that has nothing to do with flow. And boy, are you a patient listener. You just pushed my batch while there, buddy. No, I’m utterly fascinated here.
I could listen to this for, I mean, this is just my personality, but I could listen to this for hours just because, you know, what I love about these conversations as well is that we, you know, everybody who’s listening right now, they connect it to something that’s happened in their life or how they,
you know, how they operate or whatever. And I’m just, I’m thinking of those times when, you know, what I, what I really love are those times when you either find yourself unexpectedly in a stressful situation,
especially like with a business problem or a school problem or something like that. And you’re not quite sure what to do. And one of the best things that I’ve always done is you just throw everything on the table and you start sorting through it.
And then like magic starts to happen, right? You start to come up with the timing. This is a classic, I mean, to a brainstorming session, right? And you start, you know, you just sort of nothing, nothing is held back,
but then something sort of comes out. And I love that somebody gave it a name and also can measure it, right? Yeah. Well, you can show it in the laboratory. In fact, there’s a business application for this too, which has been done by Bob Epstein a long,
long time ago, whereby he’s asking the question, can groups be creatively solve a problem? Say that if you give them a divergent thinking task, can they eventually come up with the brick as paint idea?
Here’s what he did. It was just interesting because it shows the tension between having a bunch and then having a solitary moment, just like the West Side Story does. The experiment that he did was he had a whole bunch of a group of people say 15 or 20 at a time,
and he randomized and blinded these trials, so this is good work. Ask the question, okay, I’m gonna give you a problem, you got 15 minutes to solve it, go. How many do you come up with if you just do a brute force,
whatever? And then he measured that, measured how many solutions to the problem. He then took a second group and did an extraordinary thing. He allowed the big group only to interact for five minutes.
Then everybody in the group had to scatter to the hills and cogitate by themselves for an additional five minutes.
And then at the end of that five minutes, got them all back together, and then they started to have this gigantic conversation. And what he was able to show is that that group that was staggered where you had group and then isolation and then group again came up with three times more solutions to the problem than ones that had just been brute forcing it for 15 minutes.
So there appears to be a commonality between this idea of group interactions and then isolation. They may sound like they’re in tension with each other, but they have echoes of things you can actually measure in the laboratory.
I love it. I feel like there was a third thing you and I had teed up to talk about that I wanna make sure that we get to, but remind me what it is, because now I’m feeling a little embarrassed that I just completely lost it.
I’ve been so fascinated by creativity and chunking and all this other stuff, so what was it? Well, let’s continue on with the creativity for a second because the next one that I think that we talked about in our conversation previous is a downer,
it’s grief. That’s what I, okay, that’s what I thought it was, but then I was like, is that right? I can’t, because I knew there was something about death and grief that we had talked about, but I couldn’t remember. Okay. Well, let’s continue on with the creativity thing about,
and then you can get to the Saturn, equally important. I totally get, we should talk about it. It’s important, given we’re close to a million deaths now now with Okay,
but let’s have one more confounder or not a confounder, but a variable to get in with creativity Nathaniel Kleitman the guy who did the basic rest activity cycle as I mentioned was really into Sleep and asking questions about sleep So was another guy by the name of Robert stick gold for whole different reasons asking questions about why do we need to sleep?
And this is a really interesting question to ask here because a sleep turns out to not to be bio energetically very Restorative in fact the brain is more rhythmically active at night than it is during the day with these gigantic swaths of eventually getting down to what we call Delta sleep and then up through non -rem one two three four and then up to a Rem you all you go up and down like this four or five times a
night and during REM sleep rapid -eye movement sleep Which by the way, we have no idea why there’s rapid -eye movement Why do you why do you have REM sleep? I have no idea. Why is the sky blue?
I mean, we just don’t know Um, so you come up for air and then go back down was able to show something really interesting If the question about why we need to sleep isn’t bio energetically Available as an answer.
Why do we sleep? Turns out he may have the answer and it came from studying from rats And I’m gonna kind of conflate both the rat and human data together because they all kind of work together here What happens at night Steven when you go to bed?
You’re brain at a certain part in the sleep cycle begins actively replaying Everything it experienced that day Thousands of times wow over and over and over again In fact,
it will repeat thousands of times and then it will begin starting to select almost like it was taking Food off of a grocery shelf other things that happened a couple days ago, and maybe a week ago who knows, maybe five years ago.
You’re beginning to process all of the information that you had available to you during the day at night. And it all of a sudden dawn on him. We don’t need to sleep for restoration.
All we need to do is to sleep, is to cut off all the sensory inputs because we need to focus on what happens in here. We don’t need to sleep so that we can rest. We need to sleep so you can learn.
And with that – I’m done, I’m sorry. That blows me away because I’m like, I’m like, wait, what is that? We need to sleep to learn? Okay,
bring up, unpack that. And if you don’t get very much sleep, you’re not gonna get a whole lot of learning. How powerful is this? This actually has an antecedent in the behavioral world.
He was able to show it using a lot of deep field electrodes and like I say, originally with mice, we now know the areas of the brain that actually get turned on when this occurs. So you’re replaying it,
was able to show this. I’m not sure the specifics of this, but I know one experiment of the published work, but I know one experiment that was said. So I’ll just say it this way. Took a bunch of math graduate students and gave them some math problem to solve,
like some differential equation, some math. And the researchers also gave these poor graduate students a bonehead way to solve these problems,
you know? Unbeknownst to these wonderful graduate students, there was an elegant, beautiful way to solve these math problems. But they didn’t tell them what that way was.
In fact, the measures you might suspect, they wanted to figure how many spontaneously got the new way on their own. Okay, so here’s the experiment. We’re gonna let them go for eight hours on this thing, so you’re gonna have the whole day to try and solve these equations.
That’s group A. Group B is also gonna get eight hours, TOT, time on task, but inserted into that is going to be a good night’s sleep. So get at it for four hours,
but then they had to sleep on it, and then they had to get up again and then solve it again. The question that was asked by these researchers, who got the most? The answer is extraordinary.
If you just worked on it all day long, about 20 % of the group gets the new fast, elegant way to do it. But if you had a chance to sleep on it, that number goes up to 60%.
Wow, got the new way. Showing that the brain was not only repeating what it was learning during the day, during the night, it was actively processing what it had learned during the night.
And so when you wake up, you’re really gonna have both. So it all of a sudden shows, if you have a problem you’re stuck on, and by the way, this has also been shown empirically, the best thing you can do before you go to bed is to get out a pencil and a piece of paper and make a drawing if you can.
It doesn’t matter if you’re an artist or not. Make a drawing if you can of the problem itself. Then put the paper away and go sleep. Then when you wake up after you’ve done your morning toilet,
go right back to that paper and get started solving the problem. You’ll get much better at it. Wow. Showing the ability to harness the things the brain is naturally good at doing, yeah?
In a way that can bring into our lifestyle. And so that’s also a very powerful way to look at sleep. Now, there is a confounder to some of these data that we have to look at. It depends upon lots of things to get this optimal work,
but one of them is, have you heard of the concept of chronotype? Do you know what that is? Have you heard that before? It sounds something to do with time. I don’t know, but I’ve never heard of it before. Yeah, yeah, well, very good. Yeah, chrono and type. So something about time inside us,
turns out to be the case. It turns out that when you take your sleep, turns out to be as important as that you get your sleep. Which is why this is,
it’s a confounder, not a confounder, I guess would be a variable that take into consideration. About 20 % of the population, if they had their druthers, if you could disengage from life and just sleep like you naturally,
like you were genetically wired to, about 20 % of the population, one in five, are what we call early chronotypes. They typically will wake up at 6 .30 in the morning,
and they will typically not want to go to bed until about 9 .30 at night. They will report that their most productive times are in the morning, you know?
And if we measure them by golly, that’s about right. If they are in the morning, in fact, it’s noon, is the peak, so they’re accelerating up into the noon hour, okay? About one in five of the population is like that. We call them early chronotypes.
If you want to ever Google this or Bing this, they’re also called larks, okay? Okay, I think I’m interested to hear what the other ones are, because I’ve already put myself in the lark bucket, so let’s go. Well,
you then, Stephen, are the sworn enemy, okay? Probably with my wife, but that’s okay. About 20 % of the population or so, about one in five of us, if they had their druthers,
would not go to bed until three o ‘clock in the morning, and would not get up until 11 o ‘clock the next morning. They will report that their most productive times are at night,
typically between nine and 12 and midnight, and then kind of sort of decelerating, and they’re absolutely right. We call them late chronotypes, or owls,
not surprising there, and it makes perfect sense to me if that’s one in five, the rest are on a continuum, and by the way, the middles are sometimes called hummingbirds, and I have no idea. It’s living proof that scientists really need to take an English course,
but they’re hummingbirds. So they’re hummingbirds. So we have a school system. You know, it’s really funny, is that we have early chronotype students, for sure.
It may be genetically wired, there’s strong evidence that suggests it does, and if that’s the case, you could no longer, you could no more change that habit of yours, then you could change your eye color. If it’s that deeply welded into us,
you’ve got 20 % of the population that are early chronotypes, and that’s true with students, it’s true with teachers, in the school of the future, in the business of the future, why don’t you match them? Right,
absolutely. absolutely. If you’re gonna bust up the concept of office anyway, which is what’s happening with this COVID business, then the late chronotypes should also have the same grace given to them.
You would have the late chronotype executives match to the late chronotype non -executives, and then we’ll work together. Would that not increase their productivity? The answer is probably.
And isn’t sleep is so extraordinarily important to the learning process when you take your sleep, is a powerful productivity argument, just like how much sleep you get is a productivity argument.
Wow, I don’t even know what to do with all this data that we’ve like, I mean, we’re 45 minutes in it. And now we have to go to the sad topic,
the grief topic, because as you and I discussed before, one of the obviously most powerful outcomes of the last 24 months is we’re all connected to death, and very, very, very much for most of us immediately,
right? Many, many people who’ve been touched in their immediate family, but it’s hard to find anyone who has not been touched by the pandemic in this way. And so that’s affected businesses, but it’s infected the learning environment,
our ability to show up and those kinds of things. So take me there. Yeah. Well, okay, I guess we’ll end on the sad note. No, because we’re gonna end with, what’s the perfect schedule?
Because we haven’t talked about the perfect schedule yet. I like that better. All right, we should talk about grief for sure, because in our culture does not deal well with death. We live in a culture that has never been overrun by a foreign power,
for example. Imagine one of the horrific scenes of looking at Ukraine and busy being assaulted is that, is just that. This is now a culture which has been run over throughout its entire history.
We don’t have anything like that around here. So we deal with death in a more sanitized version. And so it’s, in fact, we don’t even say that we’re death, we say that he has passed. Sure. Nothing wrong with that.
I love euphemisms to soften the blow if you’re not used to it. But last year, New York Times said that one in three in the United States have been directly affected by a death from COVID and it’s much more now because,
like I said, we’re approaching a million as of this recording, a million deaths and counting. Here’s an interesting statistic. And then we’ll talk about grief and the brain science of it.
Before COVID, about 25 % of the workforce was already dealing with what is sometimes called primary grief. So grief was already a thing way before COVID.
I don’t know what the numbers are gonna be. I wouldn’t trust any longitudinal that’s coming out right now anyway, but it’s gonna be much larger than 25%. And I have a feeling. So grief is gonna be a big deal. So what do we know about grief?
For this, we’ll go to the great work of George Bonanno. That’s literally his name. He’s at Columbia. There are other, he sounds like a mafia dog. Don’t kill me, George. No,
I’m Medina, it’s Spanish. You’re Bonanno, it’s Italian. But he has studied grief in a very responsible way. And one of the things you can say about not only his work,
but others is that we have to do some myth busting before we can talk about what to do and how to generalize your work day. Here’s the myth busting. Throw out everything you know about Elizabeth Kubler -Ross’s stages of grief.
There’s absolutely no empirical support for it. You might be familiar with her work originally. You start out with denial, you go to anger, then you go to bargaining, and then I think there’s depression and then there’s acceptance,
as if it was a march step through. That has absolutely no empirical support. That’s just Elizabeth Kubler -Ross’s comment on how others that she observed with through grief. If you do it more responsibly,
if you then make it a research effort, and there is now a whole science of bereavement out there that you can study, George is leading the pack in one of these, you find three things. Number one,
we’ll start out with a predicate that the myth is busted, but then what replaces it? Because people do grieve. The first thing is that individuality replaces it. Everybody grieves differently.
There’s a lot of differences in the way we grieve. the intensity of the grief, the type of grief, what cultures you’re in, your associations with it. It is individually understood. So no one size fits all grief response you can have.
The second thing we know is that there are, even though it’s all individual and vulcanized even, there are some statistical trends that you can show that are behaviorally linked.
There turns out that there are three types of grief and they fall very well into the categories individually expressed within those categories. First is what’s called uncomplicated grief. This is your standard grief that you know and love or hate,
but you are familiar with it. Grief that people go through. It’s uncomplicated, it’s horrible. It’s the worst thing most people go through, but it is also uncomplicated. There is the second type of grief that’s called complicated grief or complex grief.
It used to be called stuck grief and I’ll tell you why. People that are in complicated grief are still grieving 10 years later, 15 years later, 20 years later, the 15th year of their grief looks just like the first year.
They have gotten stuck. They appear to have gotten, it’s become more complicated. Probably historically the best example is Queen Victoria back in the days of when her nearly beloved spouse,
Prince Albert died, she stayed in black the rest of her life even though she would reign for many more decades, never seeming to come over her grief and that’s called complicated grief.
And then finally, there’s a third one called disenfranchised grief. And that is a little bit more like survivor’s guilt grief where you go through, oh, you, I’ve had some horrible things happen,
but people have had a lot more horrible things happen than I, why am I feeling this way? Idea of survivor’s guilt is a form of the grief also. So there’s that. All right,
with all that in mind, we can talk about what are the things that can be done? The answer is it fully depends upon how you’re grieving to show you that even within these categories where there’s Most of them some people are stuck some people are not It’s still really individual for example.
I know one person that whose mother died She was close to her mother and she just collapsed fell apart as you should that I would call Healthy grief you are grieving because but there is a story somebody told me once of a of a woman whose mother also died And she was the kind of the can -do person that would just take charge of it And she did she took charge the funeral made sure that there was a wake afterward
and all these kinds of things 10 years 14 years passed by and then the following happens Steven This woman this dear responsible daughter wakes up one morning.
She had a parakeet. She goes in to feed the parakeet Finds the parakeet on the floor of the cage because the parakeet died that night She looks at the parakeet and says my parakeet is died Just like my mom Boom then she goes It is as individual as that The timeline usually goes for uncomplicated grief the four to six months is usually the hell months So usually the toughest part the within the next two years the
next 24 months You’re busy visiting the anniversaries of all the times during the year when you were with someone and they were and so you’re still Responding most people don’t have what is sometimes called integration events where you have integrated the death integrated the loss until about year four So and even then it’s not usually if the person really meant something to you you have just learned to live with it It’s
as so you’re integrating is a good word as opposed to stamping it down or feeling It often gets replaced eventually with feelings and nostalgia, but not for a long time And if that’s the case the workplace of the future Needs to deal with the fact that a whole bunch of people are going to be coming back into the office walking wounded.
Oh Yeah, for sure. Coming back with a psychological force behind them that they have spent most of the time in their own homes, busy grieving by themselves.
And when they come back to work and they see somebody else who’s always grieving, a powerful article published in Wired, this was pre COVID, I believe, talking about that 25 % grief.
What some offices, nobody accommodated this because we hide grief under the rug, but some office mates eventually created something that’s called a weeping path. A weeping path,
a place where they could go and a way to get there where they could go back and be by themselves and just fall apart. Maybe go to the store room underneath the stairwell or something, but it got to be known as,
oh, this is where you go when you need to fall apart. I think that should be institutionalized in the modern business world. We should create and offices of the future should have formal weeping paths and understand that when people are sitting at their cubicle,
at their office and then all of a sudden they seem to fall apart for no good reason, that there’s a really good reason. They’re grieving and that that needs to be, I fully get it that an office is not supposed to be a counselor’s chamber and I totally understand for therapy purposes.
Nonetheless, grief is a normal part of the human experience and if we’re starting to talk about how to optimize the workplace of the future, the office for the best schedule, one of the biggest thing is take account of the fact that you deal with human beings when they come back and that some of those human beings have suffered catastrophic loss.
I want to take that last thing that you said there where maybe the workplace isn’t a counselor’s chamber or anything like that, but at the same time, one of the hallmarks of our culture and when we say all our culture,
I’m saying, we’re both Americans, we come from that sort of Western, low context kind of stuff. One of our failings, I’ll call it a failing,
that we are now discovering over the last five, 10, 15 years is that we try to be septic. We try to be clinical about how we, I was like, look, you’re at work now. There’s a different person,
there’s a different personality that comes. And I’m going to, I’m going to extrapolate this to the learning environment too, right? In a university or in a school, like, hey, suddenly, you know, hey, you’re here to learn, and this is who you’re supposed to be. I love that you’ve put it on the table.
And it’s like, wait, you know, we need to acknowledge, prepare for, have outlets for, and actually celebrate. Let’s use that word, that we’re humans. We’re complex. We are,
life doesn’t stop because, you know, because you’re on the clock. Well, we’re also ridiculously relational humans. But yeah, you brought us right back. Perfect. And maybe we can close with this.
We survived the Serengeti. Like I said, you know, look at your insides. I mean, this doesn’t do well against a mouse. Look at your claws, right? I mean, this doesn’t do well against paper.
Hey, look at your endoskeleton. I mean, we are just this week. We conquered the world because we could do something magic. We grew our fangs on the inside. And we grew our claws on the inside.
We learned that we could double our biomass, not by waiting millions of years to double our biomass, but simply by changing a few neurons in here over several hundred thousand years, so that we can learn to cooperate,
so that we learn to have the concept that is virtually foreign to every other animal, social animal that exists right now. And that is, we could create the concept of friend. And that relationship,
the ability to coordinate, to cooperate with our behavior with people that were pro -social towards us, and that we were pro -social too, that they were friends with, meant that they would have my back if needed and I would have their back if needed.
All of a sudden, we doubled our biomass in a few hundred thousand years, not by doubling our biomass at all, but by creating the concept of friend and ally. If that’s the case, relationships lie at the heart of everything we are.
And to think you can ignore that hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary history, simply because you’ve got some fricking spreadsheet that you wanna optimize, that means you know almost nothing about the workers that are trying to build that spreadsheet.
Nice, man, that is such a, I wanna tie it in a bow right there, but I’ve talked about it now so many times that I have to make good on the promise of, so if we know that 90 minutes is the thing,
we know that you gotta take a break and we know that the big head piece and all these other things, right? What’s the ideal schedule for a learning institution or a workplace or just an individual?
You’ve told me this before, but I’d love for you to tell everybody who’s listening. Well, I think one of the best things you can do is that you can optimize the individuality of the learners that are occurring, so that if you’re in a learning space,
optimal is probably one to five. I know that’s not realistic and I couldn’t give her it. This is so extraordinarily important and it would be in person one to five, that you would have tremendous amounts of relationships that are developing between a mentor and the people that are around.
I think the Oxford model, which is based a little bit on the Socratic idea of walking through the forest and answering and asking questions, that would be the first thing I would do.
So I would get rid of the whole concept of we’re all gonna gather together in one place. I won awards for my teaching in times past and I’m glad I’m good at it, but I am actually putting lipstick on a pig.
I look at those kids and I know what I’ve gotta have to do to teach them something about the molecular biology of psychiatric disorders, but I know that they need a break for me in 90 minutes, that they need to have a nap, which we didn’t talk about,
probably about three o ‘clock in the afternoon, that they need to figure out what their chronotype is. I know some of my colleagues are late chronotypes and get them over there. I would create the individuality that their brains suggest need to happen as the first thing in instituting an institution why change.
Fantastic. Dr. John Medina, thank you so very much for being on the show today. This has been not only a treat, treat, but an absolute trove of data and ideas and wonderfulness.
I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to speak with us, and I hope that we’ll get to talk to you again sometime. Well, you’re a patient listener, and thank you very much for asking me to come on. Thanks again for tuning into today’s episode of the e -learning podcast.
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