exploding-head-syndromeDo you suffer from PCDS?

How many times has this happened to you? You’ve convinced your boss (or yourself) to pay up to $2,000 plus travel expenses so you can attend a conference in your field. You spent a few energizing, exhausting and sometimes confusing and frustrating days with thousands of strangers and maybe a few friends, learning what’s hot and what’s not in the learning and training profession. Now you’re on your way home with a suitcase full dirty laundry, a new canvas bag/backpack/t-shirt to add to your collection and a pile of crumpled business cards and scribbled notes. By the time you get home you’re exhausted and its business as usual the next day. You stuff all those business cards in a drawer along with your post-conference to-do list and promise yourself you will get to them as soon as you catch up on email. Ten hours later you go home and the spinning wheel of daily life picks up where you left off the next day. And the next, and the next. Soon, your memories of that learning experience, though positive, have receded into the cobwebs of your mind, right next to your college roommate’s third ex-boyfriend and that nagging reminder that you’ve neglected something important that keeps sounding a soft alarm in your brain. Months later, you are looking for something else and come across the business cards in your drawer. By now, your own handwriting looks as indecipherable as Sanskrit, so you sigh and throw them away. But that nagging alarm in your brain keeps throbbing. Congratulations – You’ve got Post-Conference Depression. Yep, it really is a thing.

The Forgetting Curve and the Importance of Reflection

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As learning professionals, we already know what’s happening. It’s the classic case of the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. We know that unless new information is spaced and reinforced, we start to forget it after just a few minutes. And yet, most conferences herd us from session to session, with barely enough time for a bathroom break, let alone a moment of quiet reflection.

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The importance of reflection is something I talk about a lot in my workshops and conference presentations, because neuroscience and cognitive psychology have both demonstrated the key role that reflection takes in learning. In fact, as John Dewey said, “We learn from reflecting on experience.” Almost 50 years before the birth of neuroscience, he realized that learning is a process of creation and integration. We integrate new information into what we already know by connecting multiple neural pathways together in new combinations and we create new meaning out of those combinations. A neuroscientist might say that the prefrontal cortex holds a small amount of very recent information in a sort of temporary holding area. But the storage capacity of this “working memory” is quite limited, so as new information comes in, the existing stuff your brain is holding onto must go. It can either be committed to longer-term memory, or its just gone. Let’s say that you are going to run errands so you ask your partner if you need anything from the grocery store. She answers “milk, eggs and dog food.” You repeat that phrase a few times and you’ve got it. You come back with milk, eggs and dog food. The next day, if someone asks you what you bought at the store yesterday, you will likely have a very hard time remembering because your brain has made a determination that you no longer need that information and has long since replaced it with other working memory ephemera that have been remembered, forgotten and replaced with new temporary data.

When you consider all the sounds, sights, smells and emotions hurtling towards your brain during a stimulating conference, this is probably a good thing. Without this regular purging of working memory, our brains would be in a constant state of information overload. But this adaptation comes with a price. We may lose valuable new information if we aren’t able to move it to longer term memory before it is purged forever.

Longer Term Memory Requires Reflection

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If you want to truly learn something, you have to be able to think about it. Going over your notes, making a quick list of questions for further research, maybe drawing a mind map of how this information fits into a project you’re working on, these are all examples of active reflection. Because your brain is plastic, it is constantly re-wiring itself. New neural pathways are formed by breaking down existing ones and recruiting neurons from other pathways. Seemingly disparate groups of neurons may start to form together, starting a big “aha” moment we experience as a flash of insight. But none of that can happen without reflection.

The good news is that we can choose to reflect and learn to do it better. One study has demonstrated that teaching the art of reflection creates physical changes in the brain and allows participants to demonstrate measurable improvement in memory.

  • Take the time to go back through all those scribbled notes on napkins, business cards and tablets as soon as possible. This is a great activity to do before they let you open your laptop on the plane.
  • Prepare a summary of what you learned for your team, a friend, or just for yourself. This activity will help your brain organize your thoughts and make it more likely that you will act on what you learned during the event.
  • If you purchased books, CDs, or software, open them now – and use them while your motivation level is high. If you have more than you can handle, share with some friends and ask them to give you a summary of what they’ve learned.
  • Post a summary of insights in your blog or on social media. This helps support the event as well as consolidating the new neural pathways your brain is forming.
  • Make a short action plan. Choose two or three things you want to implement or try right away, before the memory fades and the tyranny of the urgent rob you of the opportunity.
  • Take a few moments to be grateful. The habit of expressing gratitude helps keep your brain resilient in challenging times and allows you to attach a positive emotion to the things you’ve learned. What are you most grateful for from this event?

To paraphrase Thomas Dewey, you’ve only started to learn when you begin to reflect on your experience, so let the learning begin!

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