Neuroscience: the basics

Written by
Inji Duducu

24 Nov 2016

24 Nov 2016 • by Inji Duducu

Everyone needs to know the language of neuroscience

The social media arena of social cognitive neuroscience turns ugly from time to time, with the scientists and academics angry that their research is being simplified, dumbed down and sometimes just misrepresented. That's fair enough, but this sometimes spills over into an "only scientists should be discussing this stuff" attitude which really isn't very..... practical. Millions of people work in organisations around the world - There are obvious commercial reasons for applying brain based research to the workplace, as well as moral and compassionate ones for making our companies places where people can think and perform at their best.  

I have always been fascinated by people's behaviour, and I guess that's part of the reason I do the job I do. 20+ years ago when I did my psychology degree, we could only measure behaviour (for example, how motivated someone reports they are) - now due to technological advances we can see exactly what parts of the brain are active during certain actions, and when people are reporting certain feelings and experiences. So, based on my limited research, what do I think are the practical applications of this research, which is very much in its infancy?

We are pretty irrational. Being rational is very tiring and it's a finite resource. Psychologist Daniel Kahnemann set this out in his Nobel prize winning research - he called them system 2 and system 1. In neurological terms system 2 is the pre frontal cortex (the bit behind your forehead which does your cognitive processing) and system 1 is most other parts (senses, bodily regulation, memory, etc). The PFC is "late" in evolutionary terms, and far larger in humans than any other species. It's this part of the brain that does problem solving, prioritisation, working memory and all of your "braking" systems - anything that requires self control from not snapping at your kids to resisting the donuts in a meeting is using this same precious and limited resource - like batteries being drained during the day. It's also rather fussy - it needs just enough stimulation to get going, but too much pressure and it shuts down - the PFC can't operate effectively when threat responses are activated.

Understanding your people is fundamental

Let's think about that - most workplaces need their people to think, make decisions, solve problems  and use judgement. This is a finite and easily disrupted system. If you are creating any sense of anxiety, any threat response in the people around you, their ability to do those things is severely compromised. How many bosses create just that in their people? We know that our thinking affects us physically too - even thinking about stressful situations creates a physical response which was very useful when we had to flee from sabre toothed tigers, but is less helpful now when we are exposed to chronic stressors. Long term exposure to stress hormones is bad for our bodies, and is implicated in heart disease, diabetes and general low immunity. What else - oh, we have a negativity bias - we are over vigilant to threat and generally treat anything novel as a potential threat. So there's a good case for mindfulness, positive thinking, gratitude journals etc which create a balance. 

It is the contention of Professor Lieberman, among others, that we have evolved to be social and collaborative beings. The implications of this are that we are inherently and instinctively tuned into others feelings. Parts of our brain that we use for activities and processing emotions, are also activated by seeing third parties do those actions (for example eating and drinking) or expressing those emotions (pulling a disgusted face). We've probably all experienced this as some point - being caught up in someone else's elation or sadness.  This suggests that as well as workplace stress being easily triggered and disruptive to the individual, it may also be contagious - seeing people who are visibly anxious or worried will to some extent, engender those feelings in those around them. Being socially excluded is also painful for us and processed in the same brain regions as physical pain - so workplace micro inequalities (being left off emails, not being able to make yourself heard in a discussion) will be extremely uncomfortable for individuals. Conversely, social rewards (receiving praise/positive feedback, even a friendly smile) activate the same parts of the brain to the same extent as receiving cash rewards. A number of us have been pushing the benefits of creating a culture of appreciation and inclusion at work - it seems that there are good reasons why this make sense, and now the science to back up the business case. Or as someone on Twitter who is much funnier than me put it "making a sale releases enough dopamine to get a dolphin high for a month" (disclaimer - this is not true).

How can we be more productive and happy?

•    Be aware that your conscious processing and self control are limited capacity. Tackle the things that require your best attention early in the day and fit your exercise in then.

•    Think about how you are making people around you feel, both by your actions and the non verbal communication they will be picking up on.

•    Be aware that we're primed to look for the negative - use your conscious brain to look for the positives in your life and others' and when you find people doing something right make sure you recognise them for it and watch them glow.

•    When you feel yourself getting anxious, pay attention to what's causing it and see if you can take any steps to control it, eliminate it, reframe it

And spread the word - the more people who know how to create brain friendly and healthy organisations, the better!