By: John Medina
The May 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review features an interview with John Medina, author of “Brain Rules.” The article is called The Science of Thinking Smarter (click to read the full article on the HBR site). Below is the executive summary.
The Science of Thinking Smarter
Neuroscience can show managers ways to improve productivity.
You can hardly escape reading about neuroscience in the press these days, and it’s easy to see why the topic fascinates managers. Intellectual capital, after all, is what business is all about in the knowledge economy. Yet as with any new field of knowledge, there’s a lot of hype about the benefits that recent developments in brain science might bring—for example, the popular notion that executives can become better leaders by emulating the “management” secrets of the human brain. Unfortunately, if you truly emulated the management secrets of the brain, you would create an organization that ran something like the stock-market floor in the closing minutes of Black Friday.
Few people are better qualified to help managers sift through all the hype than John J. Medina, a developmental molecular biologist with special research interests in the isolation and characterization of genes involved in human brain development and the genetics of psychiatric disorders. Medina is a private research consultant, working primarily in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries on issues related to mental health. His résumé is not entirely corporate: He also holds joint faculty appointments at the University of Washington, in the department of bioengineering, and at Seattle Pacific University, where he is the director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research. He is the author of numerous books, including Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Pear Press, 2008).
HBR senior editor Diane Coutu recently met with Medina to discuss the relevance of neuroscience to practical management. They explored, among other things, the neuroscience of stress and the link between exercise and cognitive power. By unpacking the neuroscience of stress, for example, companies can find new ways to dramatically improve the productivity of their knowledge workers and thus gain a competitive edge.
We seem to read about neuroscience everywhere these days. Why are people so interested in it right now?
I think it’s because the brain is the most fascinating and complex information-processing tool we have, and we are getting a clearer view of how it works. That’s quite an undertaking. There are as many neurons in a typical brain as there are stars in a galaxy. That’s amazing and sometimes really weird. There is a region in some people’s brains that responds only to pictures of Jennifer Aniston or to pictures of Halle Berry. For some people, parts of their brain light up only when they are presented with an image of Bill Clinton. Those experiments have actually been done! The brain turns out to be so sensitive to external experiences that you can literally rewire it through exposure to cultural influences. So we have to ask ourselves: What other inputs besides Jennifer Aniston are capable of rewiring your brain? Is there a Boeing brain? A Goldman Sachs brain?
It’s fascinating to have a better understanding of how the brain works, but I have to sound a note of caution, despite the stunning achievements. So far, scientists know amazingly little about how to apply our knowledge to real-world settings. If we understood how the brain knew how to pick up a glass of water and drink it, that would represent a major achievement. People outside the science community, of course, understand even less. I would encourage businesspeople to be a little bit skeptical about what they read in the popular press. Occasionally, I’ll pick up an article in a magazine that says the new brain science can improve the practice of business, and I’ll say, “Really?” I speak several dialects of brain science and feel comfortable in behavioral, cellular, and molecular biology, and I know very little about how brain science can yet be applied to business. Obviously we all have brains and we use them all the time in business. But it’s just too early to tell how the revolution in neuroscience is going to affect the way executives run their organizations.
So there’s no real reason for businesspeople to grasp developments in neuroscience, apart from raw curiosity?
I certainly wouldn’t say that. Some of the things we’ve learned have great potential practical value. Look at the impact of stress on the brain. Stress hurts the brain, and that inevitably hurts productivity in the workplace. Our brains were built to survive in jungles and grasslands—we were built to handle acute stress. Take a dramatic event in evolutionary history: A saber-toothed tiger is either going to eat you or force you to run away. In either case, the stress is over in less than a minute. You can probably have several of these spikes throughout the course of the day and handle the stress fine. In fact, it looks like stress is actually good for us in that it makes our muscles move. But for hundreds of thousands of years, we’ve been built to handle stress for only about 30 to 60 seconds. Nowadays, our stresses are measured not in moments with mountain lions, but in hours, days, and sometimes months, as we deal with hectic workplaces, screaming toddlers, bad marriages, money problems. Our bodies aren’t built for that. If you have the tiger at your doorstep for years, then all kinds of internal mechanisms break down, from sleep rhythms to specific parts of the immune system. Enduring chronic stress is a little bit like taking a giant airplane and sticking it into water. The airplane wasn’t built to be in water; the brain wasn’t built to endure chronic stress.
Read the full interview in Harvard Business Review (It need subscription).
Source: Brain Rules