The hippocampus is the part of the brain that takes in information and moves it to our memory. When it's damaged, people lose access to past memories and no longer can make new ones.
The hippocampus acts like a recorder or data drive; like those devices, it has an "on" button. Physiologically, it's when our eyes and ears attune to something that causes the hippocampus to begin recording. Richard Davidson, from the University of Wisconsin, calls this "phase locking" and it's the starting point of all learning.
As a result, we must design our learning environments to help people focus and we must bust the myth that you can multitask while learning. Research has proved that when we divide our attention, our focus switches back and forth between the two activities, also known as switch tasking.
The hippocampus loses vital pieces of information for both of the things we were trying to attend to. I call this "Swiss tasking" because we end up with holes in the data the hippocampus was capturing and, therefore, holes in our learning that cannot be recovered.
Here is the big shocker about the hippocampus: It can only hold so much information before it must be processed and pushed into short-term memory. Studies show that the maximum amount is about 20 minutes of information.
Lecture-style sessions never have demonstrated good results for retention, and now we know why—it works against the brain's natural functioning. The good news is that many other learning activities can help.
All the hippocampus needs is a few minutes of processing to push that data into short-term memory and it's ready again for more. I now build all my learning events in chunks of 15 minutes of information followed by a processing activity, such as a dyad discussion, a period of reflection, an experiential activity, or even a break.
I can then string these mini-modules together into a longer session, although I rarely go longer than a half-day because of what I have learned about the brain. Since I have adopted this approach, I have seen a real increase in the effectiveness of learning events in terms of comprehension, retention, and ultimately behavior change.
Learning is not the only activity that benefits from focus. Daniel Goleman's latest book, Focus: The Hidden Ingredient in Excellence, details the positive impact focusing has on leadership, decision making, and creativity.