Mind over grey matter

Mind over grey matter

Business leaders are learning to 'rewire' their brains, overcoming ineffective habits and enhancing productivity.

Glen Farrow, intent on his paperwork, looks like any executive toiling through the bureaucratic maze. But he is not. Farrow is working out in

a "brain gym", exercising parts of his brain that he believes he needs

to strengthen.

Farrow is one of an increasing number of executives applying theories

and techniques developed from the cutting edge of brain science to

solve the toughest parts of his job. The new science, called

neuroplasticity, postulates that the brain is capable of renewal in

circumstances that once seemed out of the question, such as severe

brain damage and disability.

Proponents in the business community believe they can apply the

methods used to create such astonishing recoveries to further the

talents of corporate high achievers.

Brilliance or bunkum? The evidence in favour is slight but the

possibilities are tantalising enough to stir a vanguard of fans, and

growing interest.

Farrow, a former procedural surgeon and military man, became the

director of clinical services at Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital three

years ago. As well as managing senior and junior medical staff, he

pledged to tackle the hot-button problems, such as cancelled surgery

for patients on waiting lists, faced by most public hospitals. "In the

first two years, we achieved a few really quick wins," he says. "But

the wins became harder. There was more I needed to do, but I couldn't

figure out how to do it."

He took his problems to his peers at The CEO Institute, where

executives from many industries meet monthly to seek and offer advice.

A lunchtime presentation by two cognitive scientists offering

leadership training, Phillip Campbell and Denis Jenkins, intrigued


Campbell and Jenkins, co-founders of Performance Thinking, asked all

the luncheon guests to complete a diagnostic test of their brain

function, a test based on Jenkins' research into plasticity over the

past 20 years. It is the first step in the process the two use to

assist their clients. "In a nutshell, we work with senior leaders to

change and improve their leadership behaviour," Campbell says. "But

our differentiator is that we address the subconscious brain and

develop 'neural pathways' in targeted areas."

For an illustration of neural pathways, look no further than one of

the foremost proponents of the new brain science, Dr Norman Doidge.

"Plasticity is like snow on a hill in winter," Doidge says. "If you

take a sleigh down the slope, there are many paths on the virgin run;

not an infinite number because there are trees and rocks. But if you

have a good run down the hill the first time, your next run will be

closer to the first run than any other route because our reward system

says, 'That felt good, do it again'."

Doidge explains that the brain has a capacity for flexibility, but

also a tendency to become rigid once it has developed a habit. What is

new is the discovery that habits, even deeply ingrained ones, can be

changed, especially if the brain has no choice.

Among the vivid examples of such change found in Doidge's new book,

The Brain that Changes Itself (Scribe, 2008), is one of a woman whose

sense of balance was destroyed as a side effect of medication, leaving

her unable to stand. Using methods based on plasticity theories, a

specialist taught the woman to stand again by training, over time, a

different area of her brain to perform the balance function.

"Neurons that fire together, wire together," Doidge says, to summarise

the theory of how pathways are created and rewired.

In a new take on tackling the "glass ceiling" that holds women back

from executive, board and entrepreneurial roles, management

consultants Jan Elsner and Barbara Heilemann have delved into new

brain science for answers.

"Diagnosis of the problems and barriers hasn't worked," Elsner,

co-founder of Positive Leadership, says. "We are going backwards in

terms of women's participation in leadership. How many programs are

developed on the basis of the 10 characteristics of a good leader?

Women are diagnosed on the gaps between them and the 'ideal leader', a

person who is not even real."

The negative focus of that approach turns women off, and they opt for

positions in which their strengths are appreciated - an instinctively

healthy move, according to Elsner's theories, which emphasise

identifying strengths, not weaknesses.

"We need to ask what is causal to women flourishing in senior roles,

and how they operate." she says. "It is not about personality, not

about changing the authentic self. It is about asking how to use their

brain, and enhancing their cognitive capacities."

Heady stuff perhaps, but the steps taken by Elsner's and Campbell's

companies are simple enough. First, a non-verbal diagnostic test to

assess abilities such as conceptualisation, which is taking

information, classifying it and turning it into understanding, and

field discrimination, which means focusing despite distractions.

Farrow was surprised by the results of his assessment. "Coming out of

my background in surgery, I was very task-orientated, good at the

engine room but weaker in thinking strategically and analysing complex

problems," he says.

Jenkins spent eight 90-minute sessions talking with Farrow over the

ensuing months, exercising Farrow's brain to tackle the weaknesses and

discussing the issues he wanted to master. The exercises started on

paper then progressed to small projects that required him to follow a

chain of steps in the "right way".

Focusing on the sequence of tasks is a critical element of the new

brain theory. "It is a very primitive diagnosis to say, for example,

that a person has a reading problem," Doidge says. "The brain did not

evolve to read. It evolved to see an animal moving, then to draw it,

then to abstract from that drawing to a symbol, then give a sound to

that symbol, and then put those sounds together to form a word and

attach meaning to the word. If there is a problem, it is usually with

just one of those areas. We do an assessment to find the missing

cognitive function. When you figure that out, you do exercises for

that hidden cognitive function."

As there is "one ring to rule them all" in the epic Lord of the Rings,

Dr Craig Hassed believes there is one function to rule all others:

focus. "When we are more at ease with ourselves, we perform better,"

says Hassed, a senior lecturer at the Monash University department of

general practice. "What happens when we are anxious is that our mind

is full of irrelevant thoughts. It cannot work out what is relevant

and has a longer 'attentional blink', which is the time the mind takes

to process new information."

Anxiety, depression and extreme stress are ways for the mind to "tune

out", he says, and prevent us from engaging with others and the jobs

we are doing.

The link with neuroplasticity is the need to practise focus or

concentration, often to tame the mind's habit of wandering and

strengthen its ability to remain calm and steady - an ability housed

in the pre-frontal cortex.

"Every time you think or behave in a certain way, you strengthen that

[neural] pathway," Hassed says. To break a habit, there are two steps:

paying attention to the old habit to avoid returning to the

pre-programmed way, and practising the new approach. "Every time we do

the new behaviour, the brain starts to rewire."

For most executives, the prospect of adding a "brain workout" to their

exercise regime, quality time with their children and preparation for

the monthly board meeting can send stress levels through the roof. But

Hassed insists that five minutes in the morning and evening would be a

great start, and Farrow says he practises mind exercises for 20

minutes every couple of days.

"Initially, I found it hard to fit in," he says. "I have young kids

and you don't get around to stuff until late at night. But over time I

have found the exercises and projects quite appealing. You don't see

the benefits for a while, and you can question what you are doing when

you are tired. But over six weeks, you start to see changes in the way

you approach a problem."

Executives have some common failings and Andrew Keefe, co-founder of

consultancy Hardwired Humans, says he knows why: some reactions are

"hard-wired". Humans have characteristics that are inherited from

thousands of years of evolution and that are singularly inappropriate

to the workplace, where they have less than 200 years of adaptation on

their side.

There are nine of these characteristics (see list, right). A couple of

the most common ones that derail leaders are summarised by O'Keeffe as

"confidence before realism" and "loss aversion".

Confidence is a valuable trait for a man hoping to attract a woman who

needs convincing he will stick around while the kids grow up. But

confidence and optimism that contradict the facts in front of a leader

can lead a company - or the global economy - into turmoil. "If you are

caught by confidence before realism, you will be good at strategy and

plans for growth," O'Keeffe says. "But you won't invest in proper

governance, audit systems, processes and controls. Then the

environment turns against you."

Loss aversion makes people avoid loss even when faced with the

potential for gain, and this explains why the often-quoted maxim that

"change is hard" is wrong. "That cannot be true or we would still be

in caves, and Barack Obama would not have won the US election on a

policy of change," O'Keeffe says. Anyone will change if, at a personal

level, it does not involve loss. For example, if a leader wants to

move the company office, those in favour may be those who will end up

living closer to the office; those resisting may be those who must

travel further. However, if managers handle the potential loss - by

offering to pay for extra petrol for a year, for example - they may

neutralise that resistance, O'Keeffe says.

For a leader suffering from the disagreeable tendency to jump to

conclusions, there is more good news: this is a hard-wired reaction

too. To handle the amount of information flooding into the brain, a

lot of it is written off. Of the hundreds of people who pass us on the

street, attention may be paid only to the one holding a pistol.

Can O'Keeffe overcome even the hard-wired faults? Despite their

genetic nature, he says that becoming aware of the tendencies gives

leaders the opportunity to choose another response. And, like other

new-brain-science adherents, he believes the more often leaders choose

a different response, the easier it becomes to do so.

However, there are hard-wired sceptics, and they will find refuge from

the infinite possibilities suggested by new brain science in the views

of United States philosopher and cognitive scientist Jerry Fodor. He

challenges the idea that consciousness emerges from neural processes,

and accuses some new-brain-science adherents of avoiding the "hard


"The hard problem is this: it is widely supposed that the world is

made entirely of mere matter, but how could mere matter be conscious?"

he writes. "How, in particular, could a couple of pounds of grey

tissue have experiences?"

Think and change

The inspiring personal stories told by psychiatrist and researcher Dr

Norman Doidge in his book The Brain that Changes Itself makes learning

to be a better leader seem like a walk in the park.

Often without medical help, at least at first, people have recovered

movement after suffering a disabling stroke, learned to read when all

the experts had given up, conquered pain in phantom limbs, broken the

cycle of compulsive obsessions and restored their failing memories.

The brain science of neuroplasticity builds on knowledge about the way

the brain works - that different functions such as sight, hearing,

memory, imagination and even humour are located in specialised parts

of the brain - but adds an exciting new dimension: these locations are

neither permanently fixed nor rigidly defined.

With practice, weak functions can be strengthened and even transferred

to other (often neighbouring) parts of the brain.

"Plasticity is competitive," Doidge says. "When you learn to do

something, you form a coalition of neurons that work well together;

they send sharp, efficient signals in concert. They take over cortical

'real estate' in the brain."

In other words, the well-used parts get bigger at the expense of the

less-used parts.

Theories, however, have long dictated that these processes stop at

about the age of 25, and the brain goes into decline.

"The brain was seen as a complex machine that starts to break down

through wear and tear," Doidge says. "But machines don't reorganise

themselves [like our brains do]."

New brain science explains why humans continue to learn as adults, and

provides a greater incentive to do so.

"One of the things I see in business over and over again is the

general sense that people cannot change. Leaders cannot, and their

colleagues cannot," Doidge says.

"When they get into problems they want to retire, or to get rid of people.

"Plasticity helps us change our attitude to what is possible."

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