Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Is the Brain "Plastic" and What Does that Have to Do with Business?

Several months ago, I tapped out an article on change that mentioned the concept of neuroplasticity: that an injured brain can repair itself or re-map itself to regain or enhance thinking and brain function. Long the bailiwick of neuroscientists, this ability of the brain to generate surprising shifts in learning, thinking and acting, is now the province of business leaders and those who support them. A couple of books, The Brain That Changes Itself and The Mind and the Brain, both written by experts in the brain function/behavior game, discuss leaps in human capacity that are setting the world of brain science on its ear--blind children in India who are learning to see, deaf children and adults who are regaining capacities to hear that are challenging the notion of congenital deafness, people with hemispheric lobectomies (half their brains removed due to disease or injury) who are operating with minimal deficiencies in physical or mental ability.

Our "hardwiring" is more malleable than once thought.

Why this is an important consideration in business is that we've been taught that diminished brain function is a "given" as we age, that older generations are more "set in their ways" and that there's little we can do about any of it...that we're wired to resist change.

Perhaps not.

In business, I see people slavishly doing what they did before, producing diminished results over time. One maxim I operate under (rather than the mistaken belief that people who can't change simply don't want to) which tends to be a "truism" is that an early, long-standing history of success is the greatest predictor of failure in an instance requiring change. Starbucks kept doing what used to work, long after there was clear evidence that the wheels were falling off. We continued to buy and operate larger, less efficient cars long after it was clear that the price of a gallon of gas was never going to see a buck again. Why? Because it used to work so brilliantly. There was a dictinct payoff.

Harvard professor of psychology, Ellen Langer, in her book Mindfulness, laid it out pretty simply: mindfulness--good...mindless--bad. Looking through the prism of business: Operating on "autopilot" in our businesses and our lives can prevent us from seeing opportunities to shift before our mindless behavior leads us deeper into the weeds (where the crocodiles lurk). Her book, like the other two I mentioned earlier in thi blog post, can be dense reads, but are worth it to begin to understand that we're not in a battle just with our competitors: We're at war with ourselves.


Stephanie said...

Here is an interview of Jeffrey Schwartz (author of THE MIND AND THE BRAIN) on neuroscience and leadership in which he discusses neuroplasticity:


It was conducted yesterday.

darinstrauss said...

I wrote this on the other trhead but figured I'd post it here, too....

Thanks for your kind words on my piece on NPR. I was wary of doing writing the piece,
at first -- but then I got so many messages from people who had been in situations like mine, or who were just dealing with grief of some other kind, and found my piece helpful -- that I'm very glad i did it.

Anyway, thanks again for writing,

p.s.: If you send me your address, I'll send you a copy of my newest book. It's not about the accident at all, but i think it's informed by the lessons I learned from having experienced it....
If you want a free book, email me @ darinstrauss@hotmail.com
Thanks again -d
p.p.s.: SOmeone liked my piece enough to post it without the rest of the show....

Scott Forgey said...

As an expert in brain-behaior connections, plasticity is a very interesting phenomenon.

Mostly, we seek to have the patterns we learned when young, thus being able to predict the outcome of actions. What feels comfortable is the past, then there is the reaction to uncertainty, but creation (and thereby value in the marketplace) comes from the awareness and recognition of the patterns, dis-assemble them and let the cortex do what it does best - create new connections and reconfigure reality.

I recommed Jeff's book, On Intelligence. A good but terse read.

Scott Forgey