The Intelligent Brain

Of course we know the brain is intelligent!  We use it every day to gather information, analyze and synthesize problems, and make informed decisions. To enhance our effectiveness as leaders, it pays to focus on keeping our brains in-tune and fit.

Socrates, Copernicus and Galileo continued to stretch their intellectual muscles well into their 60s and 70s. So have modern thought leaders like Alan Greenspan and Warren Buffet, now in their 80’s.

How can we stretch our intellectual muscles now – and for the future?

It turns out that a lot of what we previously thought about the brain isn’t true. We now know the brain’s abilities are not finite – we know it is plastic and capable of stretching beyond its assumed current capacities.  The brain, through a process called “neuroplasticity”, accommodates learning by producing new neurons, cells that help transfer information.

With physical training, our bodies respond to demands by strengthening muscle groups. Similarly, the brain will expand (or not) depending on the challenges we tackle. That’s the good news.

The bad news? If we don’t use it, we’ll lose it.

Neurons need not die as we age. In fact, several regions of the brain that control motor behavior and memory can actually expand their complement of neurons as we age. This process, called neurogenesis, used to be unthinkable in mainstream neuroscience.

Neurogenesis is profoundly affected by our lifestyle. Our experiences and interactions can help strengthen and improve our brain’s neural networks and cognitive abilities.

Brain-imaging studies indicate that acquired expertise in diverse areas-playing the cello or speaking a foreign language to juggling or driving a taxicab-helps expand our neural systems.

In other words, we can physically change our brains by learning new skills. We can even improve brain function by exercising conscious will. In one experiment, chronic-pain sufferers lowered their level of discomfort by employing neurofeedback techniques.

For extremely busy leaders, learning to play a musical instrument or doing challenging puzzles may not be practical at this stage of career and life. But we can incorporate some basic strategies into our existing responsibilities and tasks to improve our cognitive fitness.

On-the-Job Brain Fitness

In a November 2007 Harvard Business Review article, professors Roderick Gilkey and Clint Kilts describe the benefits of cognitive fitness for leaders:

The more cognitively fit you are, the better you will be able to make decisions, solve problems, and deal with stress and change. Cognitive fitness will allow you to be more open to new ideas and alternative perspectives. It will give you the capacity to change your behaviors and forecast their outcomes in order to realize your goals. You can become the kind of person your company values most. Perhaps more important, you can delay senescence for years.

Our cognitive fitness level is determined by our ability to reason, remember, learn, plan and adapt. Here are some strategies to help maintain an engaged, creative brain:

Expand your experiences. There are two parts to this step: First, learn more about your area of expertise. Second, learn more about outside areas. The brain stores knowledge through exposure to experiences. The more emotional the experience, the more you remember and retain.

Learn through observing. “Mirror neurons,” activated when we observe someone performing an action, help us learn new tasks and behaviors. Athletes often acquire skills by watching teammates drill, score and fumble.

Read the signs. Mirror neurons can also pick up on facial expressions, gestures and signals. You develop empathy by learning how to read other people’s body language.

Learn through mentoring. Observing your mentors helps you acquire some of their knowledge and experience. When you value their expertise, your mirror neurons are highly sensitized and responsive. Conversely, you fortify your own learning when you teach others.

Use case studies. When you read a case study that describes real customers and their experiences, you activate your mirror neurons to raise your level of understanding. The human brain is social, finely tuned to seek opportunities to connect and understand.

Take advantage of direct experience. One of the most powerful ways to gain direct experience, while also flexing your cognitive muscles, is taking a “walkabout” (also known as “management by walking around”). Taking time to talk with staff is one of the smartest leadership practices and well worth the invested time. When you share experiences, you gain a more comprehensive understanding of what happens at other organizational levels.

Use both sides of the brain. Leadership involves both brain hemispheres. The left hemisphere is the primary source of neural information for routine tasks. The right deals with novelty and innovation, including experiences and data that are less structured. The right hemisphere is more image-based and operates in the realm of metaphors. Think of this division as big-picture vs. small-picture thinking. You’ll need to master both hemispheres to successfully navigate complex business systems, even if you prefer one way of thinking over the other.

Use pattern recognition. Your brain scans your environment for patterns, discerns order and creates meaning from large amounts of data. Your organization depends on you to sift through this data quickly and assess the situation so you can determine appropriate actions. Superior pattern recognition is a major competitive advantage for consolidating learning and simplifying information (without being simplistic).

Play as hard as you work. If you’re not enjoying yourself, you won’t stay with a task long enough to master it. Find ways to bring enjoyment to your work. Studies show that being in a good mood sets the stage for enhanced creativity and decision-making. Play improves your ability to reason and make sense of the world.

Seek out novelty. The right brain is dedicated to discovery, exploration and processing of new experiences. Newly acquired knowledge is transferred to the left hemisphere, where it is organized, encoded and made available for routine use. The more you actively engage in new experiences, the more proficient you become at learning, thus preserving cognitive fitness. When you’re receptive to novelty and innovation, you tend to be better in a crisis because you spot opportunities for growth.

Develop a beginner’s mind. Buddhists advocate developing a “beginner’s mind,” in which you step back from current thinking and conventions to cultivate new solutions. When you don’t feel compelled to have all the answers and allow for doubt, you encourage fresh perspectives.

Cognitive Fitness as a Competitive Advantage

There are many ways to flex your brain, and you don’t even have to invest in a gym or special equipment-just the right mindset. Challenge and expand your worldview by reading different genres of books, visiting new places and listening to diverse viewpoints.

If you tend to be analytical, engage in activities that stimulate the right brain, which governs creative tasks. Expand your vocabulary, conceptual storehouse and general perspective.

Make an ongoing commitment to immersing your management teams in new systems and ways of thinking.  Avoid filling teams with people who have followed the same career path as your own. Selection and succession plans that draw from an executive pool whose members think alike limit organizational competitiveness.

Cognitive fitness can prove to be your most sustainable competitive advantage. Promote a rich working environment where healthy brains thrive and you and your teams achieve your full potential.

Content for this article provided by Patsi Krakoff, Psy.D