femke nijboer.jpeg

Neuroscience, brain plasticity and Learning Agility in the age of Corona

Learning Agility

Neuroscience, brain plasticity and Learning Agility in the age of Corona

Interview met with Nijboer

Femke Nijboer was one of the speakers at the 2019 HFMtalentindex Learning Agility seminar. She is a neuroscientist and university lecturer in Creative Technology at the University Twente (UT). During her presentation at the seminar, she spoke about the plasticity of the (healthy) brain, but also about how a damaged brain recovers and how we can work to improve a healthy brain.

How is she doing now, and how is she dealing with the current situation? 

Online lecture

Femke is working from home, just like all of us, from where she lectures to 70 students. This is not an easy task, because she receives little feedback; all the students have their sound muted. “You talk in a vacuum and, in the meantime, I see that they are chatting with each other.” Or they ask questions in the chat that are more critical and more cynical than in real life. When someone asks you a question in person - in real life - they do this in a slightly more polite manner, as it turns out. But she understands that her students are uncertain themselves in this completely new situation. At the same time Femke sees that we are all getting much more relaxed together and saying: "Hey, I'm only human."  That’s one thing she likes about the current situation: everyone asserts his or her authority just a little bit more than they usually do.

Willingness to learn

During the seminar, Femke talked about brain plasticity, which ensures adaptability, and its two main ingredients: experience and environment. Does she see a link between the plasticity of the brain and our adaptability to the current new situation? How does this completely different way of working affect us and what does it require of our adaptability?

The thing that strikes her most is our willingness to learn new things from each other and the patience we have while doing this, for example when trying out new apps together.

She herself flies from Zoom to Adobe Connect to Google Hangouts and back to Skype.

At the same time, everything seems to slow down, and there is more time to think. “Meetings take a little longer than they normally do, and everyone seems to take this into account: ‘It will take longer so I have to communicate less’. This probably has to do with the fact that the non-verbal communication is somewhat lost when you work online. I now have a window with you on it and I can see you nod, but maybe I’m missing out on lot of subtle things that I would see if we were face to face.”

femke nijboer.jpeg

Femke Nijboer, photo by Annabel Jeuring

Apps and digital skills 

According to Femke we are learning a lot together, and she really would have liked to have done a brain study before and after the impact of the Corona virus. “It is said that if you know how to use Google well, if you know which search terms to use to get your results, your IQ will increase. We are now learning to present ourselves digitally at lightning speed. Our behaviour has already changed within this new digital situation and that must definitely also have its effect on the brain.”

“Of course, we don't yet know how these digital skills will translate into something practical that we can use our daily lives.” She thinks that after this crisis, the way we work will have changed forever, that we will talk via Skype much more often than on the phone, for instance. Maybe we will also work from home more than before. We have all done it once before and we are not so scared anymore. Are we all going to be stuck in traffic jams again? “The situation also opens our eyes to new possibilities.”

Fighting loneliness amongst the elderly

Another topical theme that Femke is working on is the Pharaon project (Pilots for Healthy and Active Aging). In this European project, the UT collaborates with companies in an effort to combat the loneliness experienced by the elderly. The goal: to enable the elderly to go through a digital transformation, so that they will be able to make more use of digital tools in 2040, for example to keep in touch with their doctor, in a more practical way than is currently the case.

Due to the Corona crisis, the elderly suddenly became out of reach because the planned afternoons were cancelled. This made Femke and her staff decide to roll up their sleeves and send them postcards, make phone calls and go a step further each week. In this manner, they invest much more of their time in trust and in building a relationship. “Before, the idea was to tell the elderly our ideas and then ask what they think. This approach will probably make them feel much more connected to the project, which otherwise might not have been achieved at all.”

But it also appears that within the group of partners, it’s much better to get to know and trust each other first. There is now also a session with the partners every week to get to know each other and understand what each other’s interest actually is. That also helps with the planned brainstorm sessions. Because why would you throw crazy ideas on the table if you don’t quite feel comfortable with one another?


Elderly people have a lot of life experience that they can draw on, but at the same time their flexibility of mind diminishes, and it becomes more difficult for them to accept that rules can change. Certain personality traits become more noticeable, sometimes they become stricter. Is that because the plasticity of the brain has decreased?

Femke explains that it isn’t that no new connections are made, but that these connections are more deeply ingrained. Just like in the Grand Canyon, where certain trails are completely worn out by footsteps. It’s no longer easy to build new paths. This means that learning new things becomes more difficult, but not impossible.

People Agility 

Research also shows that Learning Agility decreases considerably beyond a certain age, except for People Agility, which increases. Someone who scores high on People Agility is open to others with different backgrounds and opinions; this individual wants to understand what others mean and takes others seriously. He/she more easily makes contact with others and learns better from the input of others. Moreover, he/she adapts more easily to people from other cultures.

Femke thinks it could well be that People Agility increases over the years because the elderly have had so much experience in dealing with others and have simply become better at understanding them. Maybe it’s easier to relate to others because you have experienced many scenarios that you can run through in your mind, and thus you have a clearer understanding of what the underlying information could be.

What struck her when she spoke to people between the ages of 83 and 89: they actually felt that young people aren’t at all resilient and agile in the current situation. One of them said to her: “If I only have 10 euros to spend next month, I know how to manage. You probably don't!” They experienced, although long ago, what it is like to lose your freedom; perhaps we can learn something from them in dealing with this uncertain period we’re facing.


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