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When you learn something “by heart,” you have done more than memorizing information or learn something by rote. Instead, you have gone a step beyond and thoroughly digested and internalized information. You’re able to make sense of it in other contexts. Ideally, everything pharmaceutical sales reps learn for work would be learned by heart, because that would mean they could not only retrieve the relevant information at will but also make proper use of it in context.

Learning experts and neuroscientists believe they understand at least some of what goes into really learning something, and it has to do with brain structures, pathways between them, and the release of neurotransmitters. Fortunately, there are starting to be some basic principles that training professionals can apply during learning that will increase the probability of information being absorbed, retained, and better still, used properly when it’s needed.

What Are the Basal Ganglia?

The brain’s basal ganglia can be envisioned as a sort of funnel that takes in all cortical output, integrates it with goals, motivations, and mood, and resolves it into some integrated behavioral output. That behavioral output may be a motor function, like learning an intricate dance move, or a cognitive function, like learning a concept.

The basal ganglia are made up of several brain structures distributed throughout the cerebral cortex, the midbrain, and the layers in between the cortex and the midbrain. Originally thought to be strictly motor structures (since many basal ganglia defects manifest in motor control problems), more recent research has shown that the basal ganglia are involved in cognitive and emotional functions. In particular, sequence learning and category learning are associated with these structures. Two pathways, the direct pathway and the indirect pathway, process signals through the basal ganglia.

Studies Suggest that as much as 90 percent of new skills learned are lost within a year.What Do the Direct and Indirect Pathways Do?

The direct pathway is believed to selectively facilitate cognitive programs in the cerebral cortex that are appropriate for the present task. Simultaneously, the indirect pathway inhibits execution of competing cognitive functions. In other words, the direct pathway “tells” the person what to do and how to do it, while the indirect pathway keeps the person from doing things that aren’t appropriate to the task at hand.

For optimal cognitive or motor learning, the learner must experience a balance between the direct and indirect pathways. Cortical feedback loops through the basal ganglia select and enable cognitive programs stored in various cortical areas. Early in training, neurons in the basal ganglia fire at many locations. But as the learner incorporates knowledge more thoroughly, the neurons change their activity patterns, firing only at the beginning and end of the knowledge recall. This implies that once information or tasks are learned, the “programs” for them are stored elsewhere and are signaled by the initial firing of the neurons in the basal ganglia.

How Does This Play a Role in Learning and Cognitive Functions?

When a new concept or skill is learned, and when that learning is rewarded in some way (perhaps by “leveling up” in a learning game), reward pathways in the basal ganglia light up to produce a sense of accomplishment in the learner.

Like learning a motor habit, cognitive learning requires repeated “trials” of the knowledge, some of which are unconscious. One reason why we can “sleep on” our new knowledge and feel it more thoroughly ingrained the next day is that the sleeping brain plays a role in the formation of long-term memories. Specifically, while we sleep, the brain moves information we learned from short-term memory into long-term memory, physically building and strengthening neural pathways.

How Does Dopamine Fit In?

Recent studies on the effects of the neurotransmitter dopamine on neural activities and behavior have proven something that researchers have long believed. That is, cognitive decisions are represented by temporarily calm or stable neuro-dynamics that are modulated by dopamine surges.

The death of dopamine-releasing neurons in people with Parkinson’s disease is helping further elucidate dopamine’s role. A study of Parkinson’s patients that measured their dopamine signals as they consciously played an investment game found that in these people, there were no ups and downs in dopamine levels. Because dopamine levels remained flat, the reward pathways didn’t work the way they did in healthy people. Rapid changes in dopamine release are involved in tracking what actually happened and what could have happened, so when those changes don’t happen, cognitive impairment like that seen with Parkinson’s disease can result.

Basal Ganglia and “Habit Loops”

The basal ganglia are in charge of building “habit loops” consisting of a cue or trigger, the manifestation of a certain behavior, and a feeling of reward for having completed the behavior. Over time, these habit loops become well-marked neural pathways, similar to how a repeatedly hiked nature trail becomes easier to navigate as the path is repeatedly worn in by hikers.

In human terms, it’s just another way of saying that you get better at things you practice. As you practice, knowledge stored in the basal ganglia is recalled without a lot of effort or expenditure of energy. So when someone asks you a question you have answered countless times, you can deliver your response without stumbling or having to stop and think.

Incorporating What We Know Into Pharma Sales Training

In addition to transferring information to learners, sales trainers must also incorporate retrieval of that information on the part of the learners. There are any number of ways learners can retrieve this information. For example, a student could relate the information to one of his or her past experiences. Learners could take a quiz or play a game that requires retrieval of the new information. Or they could put the new information into practice with a relevant hands-on activity or role play. This type of retrieval is what goes on in coaching activities, and is one reason why coaching is considered an increasingly important element of training.

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