Inside the mind

John Jakenfelds explains how cutting-edge neuroscience research is helping us understand decision-making, behaviour, leadership and more

The art of managing ourselves more wisely lies in how well we really know who we are. One critical way to do that is to have an understanding of the workings of the brain. By doing so we can really help change our behaviours and improve our well working lives.

So what do we know about the brain the burgeoning field of neuroscience and how its work is changing perceptions?

Since the turn of the millennium, research has accelerated globally through scientific methods such as MRI scanners, enabling a better understanding of what actually happens in the brain when we experience situations. Almost 100 different neurochemicals are produced by a variety of parts of the brain and even in other parts of the body such as the gut. Understanding what they all do is an enormously complex task, made more challenging because many parts of the brain work together as a network. We are still at the early stage of this particular voyage of discovery.

A little learning is a dangerous thing

Though we now have a better understanding of what is actually happening inside our brains, our picture of how it affects our behaviour is still incomplete. Indeed, the academic community has been concerned in recent years about the degree to which areas such as imaging and biochemistry findings have been taken out of context. The inferences of what these findings mean for how we behave have at times led to misleading conclusions being drawn.

Professor Vince Walsh, Professor of Human Brain Research at University College London – Europe’s top university for the study of neuroscience – notes there are a few fundamentals that do have a solid biological underpinning. These include such vital areas as sleep, creativity and group psychology.

The evidence base is very solid for the value of consolidating information during deep sleep and its impact on well working. The parallel is with rest days between gym sessions; that’s when you actually build the muscle broken down during a session. Walsh points out that we sleep for 37 per cent of our lives, yet we don’t value its importance for effective brain functioning as much as we should.

He highlights that there are also biological means through which we can have good ideas. These are essentially through getting ourselves relaxed – but not too relaxed. This allows “long range interactions” to occur between networks of brain regions. In effect, we are getting out of the way of the brain.

Think of how creative your thinking can be when you are walking the dog or mowing the lawn, for example. Such everyday endeavours create just the right ‘brain’ environment with little conscious effort.

The three musketeers, updated?

Walsh comments that the best kind of diversity in a team is psychological diversity. It can take stress out of decision-making at work. He notes that there is good evidence of three kinds of decision-makers: ‘gunslingers’ (fast, indiscriminate), ‘poker players’ (who play the odds, but real life doesn’t give you all of the facts) and ‘chickens’ (those who wait for the moment to cross the road to a decision). Few of us are good at more than one of these styles and there is no such thing as a universally good decision-maker. What’s the optimal number in a team? The evidence suggests that four might be the largest manageable number. The brain cannot process conversations with more than three other people; indeed it can’t track more than that number of things spatially. Imagine trying to catch three balls versus five.

Adam Waytz, Associate Professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, is the co-author of a 2013 Harvard Business Review article titled ‘Your Brain at Work’ which highlighted four proven brain control networks, including setting aside unfocused free time for creativity. He adds: “There has been much more progress in the field and much more acceptance [of the value of neuroscience] even since we wrote our article. The research is getting better and better at identifying patterns of neural activation that can differentiate people on different skills. For example, there are neural differences between highly creative people and less creative people.” In his article, Waytz notes that being a successful leader requires prioritisation and outsourcing of tasks; this in turn requires a realistic acceptance of the number of tasks our brains are capable of handling, which is less than we think.

Nothing new under the sun

Insight on the behavioural changes possible comes from Professor Patricia Bossons, formerly Director of the Coaching Centre at Henley Business School, now at Massey University in New Zealand, and co-author of The Neuroscience of Leadership Coaching. She notes that insights from neuroscience give us different ways to understand why we react and behave in the way we do.

Her work shows that there is a fairly small set of typical challenges which make up the majority of those that leaders face at work. For each of these, it is increasingly possible to hypothesise what might be happening inside the brain. It enables us to explore strategies for dealing with those challenges. By consciously replacing a habitual behaviour that occurs in response to a particular trigger with a new behaviour, and by repeating it time after time, we can change bad habits for good.

Neuroscience advances are starting to provide a rationale for ways in which behaviours can be changed for the better. And surely that is something to be applauded.

John Jakenfelds is the Chair of the Life Sciences Practice, based in Odgers Berndtson’s London office.