Three things a skeptic should know about neuroscience
Below is the reaction between octane and oxygen that takes place in the internal combustion engine. Will that help you repair a car? Will it help you win a Grand Prix? Perhaps not. Systems can be analyzed a number of levels from the quantum to the cosmic. Does knowing that your cortisol is elevated help you deal with stress? Does knowing your amygdala is activated when afraid make it easier to cope? Does knowing the “love hormone,” called oxytocin, exists make you a nicer person?
Reading today’s neurohype, you might conclude that the true path to a great life is a course in neuroanatomy, or biochemistry. And unlike much pop leadership pseudo-science, lots of what is written in the neuroscience world is reasonably accurate scientifically. But although “true,” is it really useful?
Among all the ten syllable words and grandiose promises, some neuroscience is very useful. Below are three simple things I think business people should know that derive their validity from findings in neuroscience.
1. Mindfulness rocks
Mindfulness conjures up images of saffron robes, or new-age hippiedom. Yet, in the world of self-help aphorisms, and things gurus advise, mindfulness stands way, way above the crowd. In contrast with its woo-woo image, there is more hard scientific evidence for its effectiveness than just about anything else in the self-help world.
What do I mean by effectiveness? It has been shown to improve depression, ADD, anxiety, and stress. But maybe you are not mentally ill, so what does it do for healthy people? It improves attention, focus, and emotion control. More abstractly, mindfulness strengthens our metacognitive, or executive functions. It makes you much better at observing yourself in action, and much better at self-correcting deficits in thinking, feeling and acting.
We are all mindful some of the time. Recall those moments of maximum clarity, focus and engagement. If you are like me, borderline ADD, those moments are too few, rare even.
My brain needs training and that training is meditation. Meditation is to mindfulness as practicing free-throws is to basketball. To return from distraction, lack of focus, and not being present, first you have to notice, then you have to come back. If you are like me, however, you can spend an entire morning distracted. The faster I notice, the faster I can return to my zen-like focus and being present. Sure, it will quickly disappear: “I wonder what is happening on Facebook.” But because I’ve practiced my free throws, I might notice more quickly, and come back more quickly. Or, perhaps not even go there.
Wise leaders cultivate perspective, can handle stress, react less and create more, and are generally in control of their moods. People have often said that when you talked to Nelson Mandela, so great was his focus and attention on the moment that it felt as if you were the only person in the room. That kind of presence is part of the mindfulness package.
If you worry that it will take 10 years of an hour a day to “get there,” think again. In a recent study, some mood management and focus benefits were realized after just 5 days of 20 minutes of meditation per day.
Back in the day, we used to have smoke breaks. Perhaps, in the 21st Century, it will become commonplace for people in workplaces to say “I’m just gonna go sit for ten minutes.” Some companies are taking it seriously: Google runs a program, called Search Inside Yourself, that has mindfulness at its core. It has been a small part of the dozens of leadership programs I’ve run during the last decade, most of which have been for very senior investment bankers, but based on current research, I’m giving serious thought to making it more central, perhaps even the core of the leadership work I do.
2. Inauthenticity stinks
Ever listen to someone saying something enthusiastic or positive, and it just feels wrong? While we are listening to words, our brain is processing micro gestures, posture, tone, inflection, cadence and other non-verbal cues. We now know of a structure called mirror neurons that fire in synchrony when people do things as if we were doing them ourselves. That means that humans understand each other and relate at a deeper level than just information (word) processing.
To communicate powerfully, to inspire and persuade, all of that must be aligned. That means you have to believe, at the deepest possible level, all you are saying. Pretending (that you are excited when dejected, or confident when afraid) works poorly. To boot, it can be hard work, under pressure, to keep the game face on.
This finding speaks strongly to another leadership buzzword: authenticity. Although the word is misunderstood and overused, there is fundamental truth at the heart of it. Inauthenticity smells, and the leader needs to do the internal work to align thoughts, feelings, and actions to produce an authentic presence.
3. A tip and a tool to make you smarter
The human brain is superb at processing, but poor at juggling numerous items in “working memory.” The more juggling you do, the less present, focused, attentive and sharp you will be when you need to be. Working memory can get clogged by to-do lists, calls, worries, and creative ideas. Tip: create the practice (or habit) of clearing out working memory and dumping all that into a safe place. Just doing this “mindsweep” thoroughly once a week can yield improvements in concentration and clarity of thought.
We call this “distributed cognition” and in today’s distraction-fest world, having tools at your disposal that enhance cognitive function, in this case easing the strains on working memory, is critical.
There are two information-overload problems solved by one incredibly powerful free app: Evernote. The first problem Evernote solves is multiple information sources: meetings, phone calls, websites, email, post-its, voice-mail, and social media. You want an app that with one-click will save and intuitively categorize it all in a snap no matter what it is. One click, wherever you are and it is saved, and indexed. Onto the next one.
The second problem is that we cannot afford multiple storage systems. If you make a note on your tablet, you don’t want to go hunting for it a few hours later when you are in a cab with just your phone. Evernote syncs your “dumps” and all those other inputs across tablet, PC, laptop and smart phone instantly. You now can safely park that great new product idea, knowing it won’t be forgotten, and attend 100% to the moment. You can insta-clip that website you bumped into (when you ought to be doing something else) and get back to what you were doing.
Neuroscience is in its infancy, but a deeper understanding of the brain can help leaders in daily situations such as these without having to learn arcane neurotransmitters and the names of cortical structures. These are just a few examples, so I am curious what students of Neuroscience and behavior would add to this list and what managers make of the usefulness of these concepts. Let us know in the comments!
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