The Shoemaker’s Children – How Travel, Training and Social Learning Expand Your Mind

The shoemaker’s children always go barefoot.” – Proverb

The saying goes back at least to the Middle Ages. It indicates that professionals like us often don’t bestow our greatest gifts on ourselves.

The Hippocampus and Spatial Reasoning

The hippocampus is a remarkable structure within the Limbic system, sometimes called the “midbrain,” referring to our understanding that it evolved in early mammals as a means of separating mammalian species from more primitive species with “reptilian” brains. This structure performs several key functions, including:

  • Attaches emotions to memories
  • Converts short-term to longer memory
  • Performs spatial reasoning

All learning is emotional; we attach some emotion to everything that passes from short to longer term memory in our brains. Spatial reasoning is the process that gives us our “mind’s eye,” the ability to visualize images inside our heads. This gift of the hippocampus gives you the powerful memory tool called the Mind Palace, or Method of Loci (place.) The method goes back at least to ancient Greece, where great orators used the technique to memorize their long speeches. There are specific steps to building a mind palace. If you’re interested you can go learn more here. Note that with each item to be remembered there is an associated emotion. Neuroscientists have recently discovered that some patients thought to be in a “vegetative state” can be engaged by asking them to “walk” through their home or other familiar place. Drawing on that internal map, the patient will show activity in the cerebral cortex that is typically related with movement, tapping into longer term memories created by their hippocampus. It is this relationship between space, emotion, memory, and cognition that I explore today. Eventually, we’ll get around to putting some shoes on those poor shoemaker’s children.

How London Cabbies Change Their Brains

The six square miles of London’s Charing Cross is one of the most complex navigational spaces in the world. To qualify to be cabbies in London, applicants must demonstrate that they can find the quickest route to each of the 20,000 landmarks in the area, using the 25,000 streets. Cabbies go through a rigorous training program called “the Knowledge” to prepare for their test. Brain scans of candidates before, during and after their course of study reveal physical changes in the brain; their hippocampus become larger, growing more brain cells to accommodate the extra spatial memory required. In effect, these cabbies have created a special mind palace to navigate London. But creating these mental maps isn’t just about being able to memorize long lists of seemingly unrelated words or develop an internal GPS system; the hippocampus communicates with regions in the prefrontal cortex to perform tasks such as route planning, recognition of unexpected blockages and course adjustment based on new data. These cognitive tasks are accelerated and enhanced through the development of better and better mental maps in the hippocampus.

The Educational Value of Travel


You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to recognize the educational value of travel. In 16th and 17th century Europe, young adults of the British upper class were expected to spend about two years abroad, visiting the great cities of Europe, learning about art, culture and society. The “Grand Tour” was perhaps a precursor of the “year abroad” for some college students today.

Travel Wakes Up Your Lazy Brain

Travel isn’t just for well-off students and nobility. Changing your physical space wakes up your lazy brain and takes you out of your comfort zone, forcing your brain to form new memories connected to the stimulation of new sounds, smells, sights and social contacts. In fact, the travel experience doesn’t begin when you step off the plane; it begins in your brain as soon as you begin to anticipate a pleasurable trip. The more you can visualize the location and what you will be doing, the greater the enjoyment. Anticipation of travel can lift your spirits, give you hope, and prepare you to get maximum enjoyment of the upcoming trip, tapping into that powerful connection between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. In effect, you’re building new memories before you’ve even started.

Don’t Be a Shoemaker’s Child

Which brings us back to the shoemaker’s children. As learning professionals, we’re often tasked with making the case for a travel budget to support our training programs. Yet, when it comes to getting funded to attend educational events for our own development, many of us are stuck at home. As an independent consultant, I must justify my educational travel to myself and my business partners. I’ve learned a few strategies that may help you attend the conferences and training events you need to stimulate your brain.

First, convince yourself of the value

Neuroscience proves that once you become convinced of an idea, it is much easier to persuade someone else. My first tip is, therefore, do your homework. Approach your own education the same way you would anyone else. Be sure you can identify the business benefits of the investment and be sure that you would agree if you were the person paying the bill. (Of course, in some cases, you may be truly paying for you own development.)

Look for the most “bang for the buck”

Many conferences offer extra workshops or add-ons that can maximize your learning with a single trip. Consider these options to stretch limited travel dollars.

Research business and networking opportunities that can take place outside of the main event

You may have prospects, clients or professional contacts in the city where the conference is taking place. If you can time a meeting with an important stakeholder for the same week as the conference, your travel dollars may be easier to justify.

Bring the team or the boss along

When you attend a conference together, you can “divide and conquer,” making sure that each member of the team attends a different track or series. Discounts for groups attending together may also be available

Offer to bring something back

One of my clients requires everyone who attends a company-funded learning event to bring back a summary of what they learned to share with the team. You may be able to bring back a miniature version of the conference, giving you a chance to build the case for more and more attendance. Sharing the experience ensures greater retention of the content. As every trainer knows, the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else.

Consider a non-training conference

An industry-specific conference may be an easier “sell” internally and will yield many insights and best practices you can instantly apply to your work as a learning professional. Growing your business expertise will increase your value as a learning consultant and may open the door to attend future conferences in the future. You may be able to attend one of these events with your internal customers, maximizing value and building your role as a valuable partner.

Look for less expensive alternatives

Change of place doesn’t always have to involve long, expensive plane rides and overnight stays in hotels. Consider events closer to home, within a reasonable drive or even in your home city. The brain benefits of change of place will still take place.

Your local or regional ATD chapter offers a steady stream of local events to support your professional development. Look for similar programs offered by local chapters of ISPI, SHRM and other organizations. ATD, the eLearning Guild, HR.com and other organizations offer webinars and virtual training on a regular basis. The key to getting the most out of these events is to make use of your imaginative powers and envision yourself transported to a different internal space dedicated to learning. Remove distractions, immerse yourself in the experience and be sure to take plenty of notes to maximize the experience.

Become a shoemaker yourself

Most conferences offer free attendance to speakers, so you can reduce the cost of your own education by offering your expertise to others. All of us have unique talents, insights and experience to share with our colleagues. Don’t be shy about applying to speak at any conference that interests you.

Get your development on the calendar early

The major learning opportunities in our industry take place at about the same time year after year. Start planning now for next year and beyond. Here’s a short list to get you started. Be sure to check the website provided, as dates and programs change year to year.

Is a favorite conference missing? Please let me know and we’ll update the list with your information.

Month/2018 Sponsoring Organization Event For more information
January Association for Talent Development (ATD) TechKnowledge td.org/events
TLDC The Learning & Development Conference Tldc.us
CloserStill Media Learning Technologies Learningtechnologies.co.uk
Advent Group MERIT Summit Meritsummit.com
February Training Magazine Training Conference & Expo Trainingconference.com
iLearn Collaborative iLearn Conference Ilearncollaborative.org
World HRD Congress World Training & Development Conference Worldhrdcongress.com
March The eLearning Guild Learning Solutions Conference & Expo elearningguild.com/LSCon
International Academy of Technology, Education and Development (IATD) Education & Tech Conference (INTED) Iatd.org
April ATD Core4 Foundations of Talent Development Core4.td.org
Chief Learning Officer Magazine Chief Learning Officer Exchange clomedia.com
International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) Performance Improvement Conference Ispi.org
Training Industry Magazine Training Industry Conference & Expo www2.trainingindustry.com
International Mentoring Association (IMA) International Mentoring Association Conference Mentoring association.org
May ATD International Conference & Expo td.org
June eLearning Guild Performance Support Symposium Elearningguild.com
July
August
September eLearning Guild Online Learning Conference Elearningguild.com
eLearning Africa Republic of Mauritius & the United Nations Elearning-africa.com
October Learning Magazine World of Learning Conference & Expo learnevents.com
eLearning Guild DevLearn Elearningguild.com
Stimulearning L&D Talks ldtalks.stimulearning.be
The Masie Center Learning Masie.com
Chief Learning Officer Magazine Chief Learning Officer Fall Forum Clo.org
November International Conference on Knowledge Discovery (ICKD) International Conference on Knowledge Discovery Ickd.org
CloserStill Media Learning Technologies Asia learningtechnologiesasia.com
CONNEXUX Corporate L&D Summit Connexusevents.com
December Elearning!Magazine Enterprise Learning Conference & Expo 2elearning.com

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