Brain gain: 5 things bosses can learn from neuroscience

Neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart offers five ways to train your brain and get a competitive edge.

by Dr Tara Swart
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

Most of us get paid to use our brain. But few leaders understand how it works or how to boost its performance. Here are five things you need to know from the world of neuroscience:

1. The importance of sleep

We often hear about famous leaders, such as Margaret Thatcher, who survived (and indeed thrived) on very little sleep. Former Thomas Cook CEO Harrriet Green admits to getting by on just three to four hours' kip a night. The truth is that getting seven to nine hours’ good quality sleep every night is extremely important for staying on top of your game. Not getting enough can cause an apparent IQ loss of five to eight points the next day, and a whole night’s lost sleep leads to up to one standard deviation loss on your IQ, meaning you’re effectively operating with a below normal IQ. Over time this can also leave you at higher risk of developing dementing disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as failing to get enough good quality sleep can prevent the brain from flushing out the protein plaques and beta amyloid tangles that can lead to these illnesses.

2. Gut feeling

Making judgment calls and quick decisions is part and parcel of being a leader. We often make reference colloquially to 'gut' feelings - and for good reason. There is an inordinately large nerve supply connecting our guts to the 'limbic system' (intuitive part of the brain), so what we feel in our gut is literally connected to our brain. A gut feeling is based more on data from our life experiences than on data we use consciously every day - and in many cases this non-conscious thought may be a better reference point for working out the best course of action. Of course this is particularly the case for business leaders with lots of experience and wisdom.

3. Emotional intelligence

An emotionally intelligent leader’s ability to build and sustain trust within their team leads to long-term survival and success in a business. The 'attachment' emotion spectrums (love/trust and joy/excitement) correlate to the hormone oxytocin, and neurotransmitter dopamine. The brain’s resources are used up when it perceives any potential threat, so there is an impact on our ability to think clearly and intelligently when we feel stressed. Conversely, inspiring trust in the workplace encourages team learning, bonding and innovation. Take time to notice both your own and other peoples’ emotional responses at work. Noting them down in a journal can be a good nudge to keep track of this.

4. Hone your senses

The connection between brain and body should not be underestimated and you can use your five senses to strengthen your mental resolve. Smell, for example, is the most emotive sense because our olfactory nerve (which carries smell) travels directly from the nose to the part of the brain close to the emotional centre, the limbic system. Lavender is the most potent naturally occurring neuromodulator and can calm people when they are agitated or boost their mood when melancholy. Physical contact is also important, and keeping eye contact when shaking hands is another example of the strong connection between body and mind, establishing trust and rapport (Bill Clinton was allegedly particularly good at this).

5. Neuroplasticity

Business leaders are all subject, at times, to large amounts of stress and pressure. What we now know about neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to adapt by creating new neural pathways) confirms that you can re-train your brain to change your habits, including the way in which you respond to stress. Each time you practice a new behaviour you are not using the old one, which weakens those links. Mindfulness is a classic example of a technique we can teach ourselves to better control our own thought processes. Make sure you get some mindful time each day eg. meditation using an App or audio book, to help manage stress, reduce cortisol levels and improve your mental resilience.

Meet Dr Tara Swart at MT's Inspiring Women event on 16th November. Other guest speakers include TalkTalk boss Dido Harding and top chef Angela Hartnett.



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