What impact has the recent study of neuroscience had on the use of historic psychological learning theory, such as Maslow?

A blog by Stella Collins

I recently had a conversation with someone working their way through the CIPD Level 7, Fast track, advanced award in Design, Delivery and Evaluation Principles.

He asked me if I would answer some questions to use in his submission and because they were interesting questions they got me thinking; I thought you might like to think about them too. I wonder what you’d have said.…

Question 1

What impact has the recent study of neuroscience had on the use of historic psychological learning theory, such as Maslow?

First off I think I need to point out that ‘neuroscience’ is not one thing and is still evolving as a subject.  The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as ‘Any or all of the sciences, such as neurochemistry and experimental psychology, which deal with the structure or function of the nervous system and brain’. So potentially it includes biological and cognitive sciences, possibly even Artificial Intelligence and machine learning and there are even quantum theories of the brain being proposed, so physics gets a look in too. It doesn’t include NLP (Neuro Linguistic Processing) though some NLP has scientific evidence and some doesn’t.

The important piece is that neuroscience is science; ie rigorously tested, replicated and reported so that others can build on or disprove the findings. Scientists are supposed to embrace challenge and having their hypotheses disproved. I once heard a CERN physicist explain that if they proved there wasn’t a Higgs Boson he’d be just as happy as if there was one because that gave them a different set of evidence to explore. I highly recommend ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre for an explanation of how science is supposed to work; though in the real world scientists are people too, with their own messy cognitive biases and motivations so are by no means perfect.

Models on the other hand usually have far less rigour and are usually a way of making the complex seem more manageable. And unlike science where change is welcomed, for many reasons people, who may or may not be scientists, sometimes choose to cling to old favourites and feel uncomfortable letting them go.

Evidence from neuroscience may provide some supporting evidence for historic models whilst also enabling us to debunk others. It’s actually very difficult to tie up specific neuroscience results with particular models  because models tend to include complex, sometimes abstract, concepts whereas neuroscience experiments measure small, granular level results in non-normal environments. For instance, neuroscience may measure changes in our brains that occur when we’re presented with particular stimuli but that’s different to experiencing the same stimuli in our real life messy world with no experimental controls.

There are plenty of classic models and tools for which there is currently no neuroscientific evidence to back them up and therefore they should be treated with caution. For example, there’s no evidence for the existence of learning styles, despite them being a popular model for many years. Similarly, MBTI, whilst widely used, has no scientific evidence to back it up and make it credible with what we know about behaviour today.

Maslow’s model of motivation is well known but it’s really too complex and abstract to subject to neuroscience based research.

One thing we know from neuroscience is that the dopamine system in the brain is hugely important for motivation (amongst other things).  But it’s important for motivation in a more fundamental way than Maslow described. For instance, lack of dopamine is a significant factor in Parkinson’s disease. People with Parkinsonian symptoms may be emotionally and cognitively motivated to want to move but their lack of dopamine means that they can’t physically initiate movement in the normal way. ‘Motivation’ in the world of neuroscience is very different to that of management theories.


Learn more about the application of neuroscience in learning at these upcoming workshops:

How to be a Brain Friendly Trainer
Neuroscience for Learning & Development

…look out for my answer to question 2 next week.