The promises of Brain science

In the last 15 years (or so), brain science has significantly improved our understanding of how the brain really works and is capable of from an adaptability standpoint.

One of the most interesting discovery, I think, was that what used to be thought as a fixed-capabilities organ, always getting worse after 18-20 years old, is actually an extremely plastic one. Recently again (December 2013) an Ideacast episode (the Harvard Business Review podcast) on reducing stress with mindfulness – i.e. mediation-, and how it can also help in business settings, was highlighting how mediation can physically changes how the brain is wired.

It would have been thought as heresy to think the brain could have such plasticity even 20-30 years ago. At least for the non-specialists.

For those interested in learning more, here are a few books I read on the topic the last 5 years that are definitely worth reading.

For instance, Brain Rules, talks extensively about how the brain works and how this could be used to change the way classrooms and office are designed. The key elements I got from this book were that:

  • The brain is wired to work better when exercising (think about our ancestors walking in the savanna for hours to find a prey to hunt), hence exercise is good for the brain… and we should be working at our computers while being on a treadmill! You can even buy these workstation treadmills on Amazon now
  • It takes up to a decade for short-term memories to become genuine long-term memory
  • Emotions and feelings heighten our learning and memory capabilities (do you remember where you were and what you were doing on 9/11? I certainly have a vivid recollection of this meeting room in Eindhoven I was in when I learned the news).
  • and many more interesting facts

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School
ISBN: 0979777747
ISBN-13: 9780979777745

Another one, Management Rewired, although a bit long winded and going through many detours, uses what has been learned about how the brain works to come with interesting points about why feedback and praise don’t actually really work and then contributes some thought-provoking ideas. For instance, it advises to let someone do something we know is a wrong approach or idea, then cut the reward associated with it thereby indirectly demotivating the person to do this again.

Or, on the flip side, that the best way punishment works is by not giving it. That the positive impact of not giving it when the person expects it was much more important that the one coming from a praise or reward (unless the reward keeps on increasing, which is a tough one to achieve!).

Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science: Charles S. Jacobs: Books
ISBN: 159184262X
ISBN-13: 9781591842620

A third one, Buyology,  examine the human brain mechanics as it applies to the science of selling and advertising. Also based on the latest research on brain science and a little bit scary sometimes as advertising and manipulation can easily become close cousins in the wrong hands.

Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy: Martin Lindstrom, Paco Underhill: Books
ISBN: 0385523882
ISBN-13: 9780385523882

Finally, moving from books to marketing consultancy, a company like Studio B, also leverages these developments in brain science to help company develop better white papers, leaflets or even PowerPoint presentations.

Interestingly enough many of the points they advocate on their website, match with the philosophy of presentations that Jerry Weissman has been teaching for 20 years. The difference being that his teaching are based on experience as a TV producer not brain science. Still the conclusions are very similar in many aspects.

I find this change from a “computer” modeling of the human brain I grew up with, to the re-discovery of its very special way of functioning fascinating. I can’t wait to see what the next 20 years we teach us in that front. What I’m sure of is that Ray Kurzweil and his assumption (in his book “The singularity in near”) that within 20 to 30 years computers will be able to simulate a human brain, and even the whole humanity, in a computer the size of today’s laptops is totally unrealistic.

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