Neuroscience: Big News or Fake News?

In recent years neuroscience has been hijacked by marketeers to help sell products - there are neuro tablets and neuro drinks that are supposed to improve your mental abilities, there are neuro products that claim to improve your golf swing, neuro games they claim to prevent your brain from ageing and, my absolute favourite, neuro hair straighteners that claim to make your hair 'neuro smooth'. In the world of organisations and business there is neuro marketing, neuro training and neuro leadership. Sadly, many of these claims are 'neuro nonsense'. To learn more, I recommend reading the excellent book 'Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience' by Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld.

At MyBrain International our approach is different. We train people as Practitioners is what we describe as 'Applied Neuroscience for People Development'. We believe that neuroscience can teach people many valuable things that help us understand the challenges and opportunities of organisational life, and that through that understanding, we can help people and organisations perform better.

In 2001 the legendary business guru Peter Drucker said: "The traditional company, which is now 120 years old, is not likely to survive the next 25 years. Legally and financially yes, but not structurally and economically."

If he was right, as he was about most of his predictions, then we are today right in the middle of that change.

We all know about the impact machinery, computers, and the internet have had on the economic landscape, but far less attention is paid to the way we work, the types of challenges people face and the relationships employees have with their organisations. Yet surely, this is the area where the greatest change is occurring? It is a change of enormous magnitude, being the first time in history that the expectations we have of our employees, are in direct conflict with the default ways in which human brains work.

Broadly speaking, human brains perform three cognitive functions; they manage our instinctive and automatic functions, they store and retrieve our memories and they enable us to think.

For most of our evolutionary past the most critical of these functions was our instinctive abilities, such as running or throwing a spear, and the parts of the brain where these abilities reside were the first to develop in our early ancestors. Memory was the next most important as it enabled us to recall where the best places to hunt were, or which tribes of people were friendly and which were hostile. The frontal lobes, the part of our brain that enables us to think and reason, was the last part of the brain to develop. It is also the region that is most cognitively limited, which is why, when we concentrate deeply, we may be oblivious to other things going on around us. In fact, research conducted at MIT in 2011 suggests that humans can only retain four items 'in mind' at any point in time.

To overcome our limited capacity for thinking, human brains memorise routine tasks. Over time, we become so practised at those tasks that we no don't need to consciously think when we perform them. For example, walking is a skill all humans have to learn, but once learned, we can do it unconsciously, thereby freeing up the 'thinking' part of our brain for other purposes. Humans are creatures of habit - as we get older, we learn and routinize more and more functions. This is why we become 'set in our ways'.

Routinizing functions has served us well at work because companies have traditionally operated on the philosophy that there is a 'right way' of doing anything. When new people join the company they are taught the 'right way', managers supervise them to ensure they continue to do things the 'right way', and eventually, they may become supervisors of the 'right way' themselves.

As Peter Drucker observed, this approach has suited companies for the last 150 years as it has provided consistency and predictability. But in the last decade, two major changes have occurred. Robotics and computers enable us to automate most routine tasks, thereby freeing up employees for tasks computers cannot do - such as being creative, innovating and driving change. At the same time, the pace of change has accelerated to the point where companies can go from having near monopolies to becoming virtually irrelevant within a matter of years - think of Kodak, Blockbuster, Netscape and Blackberry.

Today, modern organisations want their employees to spend an increasing proportion of their time on what behavioural scientists call 'heuristic tasks'. These are tasks where there are no defined processes and no right or wrong answers. They require people to think and to rely more heavily on their frontal lobes, the most limited part of their brain. As a result, more people are suffering from stress, experiencing burnout, and in the most extreme cases, committing suicide.

This is not to say that people cannot fully engage their frontal lobes without it being stressful. They can, but this level of commitment only generally occurs when people are doing something that they are passionate about. When that happens, people become highly focused and fully immersed in a task - a state described by the Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi as 'Flow'. It is not stressful, because it is what that person wants to do and they will perform to the best of their abilities.

The challenge for companies is that they are used to dealing with employees collectively, whereas getting the best from people in this way requires that they tailor their approach to every individual. Traditional psychometric instruments are of little help in these instances because they tend to be based on studies of behaviours, rather than the motivations that lead to those behaviours.

Neuroscience is able to help as, through our work in MyBrain International, we can provide people with an insight into the energy and motivation that forms the foundation of those behaviours. In this way, we are able to help individuals, teams and even whole organisations drive performance improvements based on the unique approach and preferences of each individual.

If you would be interested in applying neuroscience in your work, MyBrain International offer a three-day Practitioner Certification Programme in Applied Neuroscience for People Development. The programme provides delegates with all the knowledge, tools and material to enable them to embed the subject of neuroscience into broader developmental programmes such as leadership skills, communication or employee engagement, or to run standalone workshops to improve individual or team performance. Delegates also receive a fully scripted slide set, with over 70 editable PowerPoint slides and access to MyBrain's support services to assist in applying the subject in other areas.

For coaches, the MyBrain Programme is approved by the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and counts towards the ICF's Continuing Coach Education programme.

Get in touch if you would like more information.


Neural substrates of cognitive capacity limitations. Timothy J. Buschmana, Markus Siegela, Jefferson E. Roya, and Earl K. Miller. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2011

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, 1990

The Human Advantage: A new understanding of how our brains became remarkable. Suzana Herculano-Houzel, 2016

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