Dopamine and Learning: Scientific study shows the link between the two

In our recent series of articles examining the science behind learning, we’ve uncovered that human interaction is key to learning. But does it play a role in how excited we are about learning? New research suggests that dopamine, the chemical which controls pleasure and memory in the brain, can be used to hijack motivation and increase attention spans among learners – and when used correctly, can make your online courses addicting!

What if there was a secret way to motivate someone to do something? A way to not only make someone learn a new behavior, but make them jump-and-down excited about it. Any guesses? No, we’re not talking about evil mind control, but rather a psychological hack that can trigger a person to be motivated to do any activity, including online learning.

You might have heard that positive reinforcement is the secret to conditioning someone’s behavior, but what is it about this type of encouragement that is so darn effective? It all comes down to one thing: dopamine.

Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that controls reward-motivated behavior, as in behaviors that we do with anticipation of an expected reward. Over time, a positive reward associated with an action strengthens the desire to do the behavior, meaning positive reinforcement can train a person to expect a “reward” when they complete a certain behavior, and consequently, create motivation.

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Sounds simple enough, but how do we offer a reward, dangle money in front of the person? Not exactly. Believe it or not, positive reinforcement in the form of words of encouragement, the feeling of pride when getting an answer correct, and social praise are all dopamine triggers, powerful enough to turn any person into a reward addict.

How important is motivation when it comes to learning?

Dopamine has the power to create motivation, but what effect does it have on actually learning said information? Well, a recent study has proven that dopamine does more than just create excitement about learning: it actually controls learning retention.

In the study, The Role of Dopamine in Learning, Memory, and Performance of a Water Escape Task, researchers tested mice injected with dopamine to determine how big of a factor this special chemical plays in learning. The team used a group of dopamine-deficient mice and injected half of them with dopamine and half with nothing, before having them perform a series of tasks. As you might have guessed, the group injected with dopamine succeeded at learning the task with flying colors, but the second group showed a different result.

The dopamine deficient group was able to learn the task but only after several tries and with much lower performance rates than the group injected with dopamine. The analysis concluded that learning when dopamine is not present inhibits comprehension  due to the lack of motivation and memory.

When we examine the results from the mice study, we can draw two important conclusions:

  • First, when dopamine is not present during the learning process, a person’s performance will suffer due to the lack of motivation (ie. engagement).  
  • And second, because dopamine is linked to memory, it triggers the brain to remember the action/material (ie. retention). Translation? Dopamine = engagement + retention.

This information suggests that engagement isn’t just a “nice-to-have” when it comes to learning, it’s practically necessary. And finding ways to stimulate the release of dopamine in your online courses is crucial to reaching your learning KPIs. Lucky for you, there are several easy ways to create dopamine-driven motivation in your courses today!

Your secret weapon for learning success

If your goal was to motivate your trainees to not only learn something but to be excited about learning it, you need look no further than human interaction.

Dopamine is a powerful chemical, addictive even. And finding ways to stimulate that sweet feeling of reward during an online course is your sure-fire way to generate motivation and engagement. The most effective way to trigger the response? Through human interaction: encouragement, positive feedback, peer recognition, and opportunities to shine. It’s as simple as implementing activities such as group discussion, quizzes, recognition, and feedbacks. You can try adding these features to your learning program with a free trial of our Learning Engagement Platform.  

Each time your learner gets a question right or hears words of affirmation, you’re stimulating the release of dopamine and ensuring your course is both engaging and memorable. If you are able to create a positive experience within learning, not only will the material be retained, but your learner will feel intrinsically motivated to seek out and replicate the feeling – aka, continue learning.

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Knowing how the brain works and reacts in these functions allows us to manipulate our instincts in order to achieve the results we want – psychological hacking in it’s finest form. Armed with your knowledge of human interactions and the important role they play in motivation, achieving learning success should be a no-brainer!

360Learning is the first digital learning platform designed to empower experts at scale. Discover a world where experts publish new courses every day, employees are engaged, and learning becomes the new normal. Want to taste this by yourself? Sign up for a guided tour and give it a try today!

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