Neuroscience in business

On Monday last week I was facilitating a session on neuroscience in business at the Cambridge Network. While I was preparing for it I scanned through my blog pieces to find out how many times I have referenced neuroscience since I started writing the blog in 2009. It turns out to be in ten blogs. I then re-read the section in my forthcoming book Organization Design: Engaging with Change that has a piece about neuroscience in one of the chapters. What I was reminding myself of was the number of points where neuro-something touches organization design. It's quite a few.

Undoubtedly what scientists are discovering about brain function will continue to change the way we approach and work with organization design and development. But we need to be cautious about what we appear to know. Although seems as if we know a lot about 'hard wiring', brain sections 'lighting up' and so on which we take as 'evidence' for certain things we are currently in the very early, elementary, and unsophisticated stages of being able to speak with certainty on neuro stuff applied to organization design and development. Nevertheless it is an exciting and appealing arena and one where already lots of happiness coaches and neuro-marketers are doing very well.

The Society for Neuroscience describes neuroscience as 'the study of the brain and the nervous system. Neuroscientists aim to decipher:

  • How the brain's 100 billion nerve cells are born, grow, and connect
  • How these cells organize themselves into effective, functional circuits
  • How it shapes our thoughts, beliefs, hopes, dreams, imaginations and behaviours'

And an interesting article notes that 'Neuroscience-based principles have been incorporated into areas such as business management, economics and marketing, leading to the development of artificial neural networks, neuroeconomics, neuromarketing and, most recently, organizational cognitive neuroscience'. (my bold). (Gillingwater & Gillingwater 2011).

Organizational cognitive neuroscience is defined as 'the cognitive neuroscientific study of organizational behavior. OCN lets us start to understand the relationship between our organizational behavior and our brains and allows us to dissect specific social processes at the neurobiological level and apply a wider range of analysis to specific organizational research questions.' (Senior, Lee, & Butler, 2011)

Ok – but let's pause and look at some of the issues. For example, there are 'technological limitations of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which appears to be the method of choice for cognitive neuroscience research at present. A fundamental limitation in neuroimaging is an inability to infer complex social behavior from observations of specific activated brain regions. … Organizational researchers who wish to investigate the potential of neuroscience to inform their work need to engage with these inference problems in order to avoid the nonsensical claims that seem to appear with such frequency in the popular press'. (Lee, Senior, & Butler, 2012)

I love the phrase 'nonsensical claims'. I agree it's great to read that 'Human brains are hard-wired for empathy, friendship' but let's look at this type of soundbite with a bit of skepticism. Ask questions about it like: How was the research conducted? What were the demographics and culture of the sample? How big was the sample? Is it reasonable to generalize from this research into the wider population?
In her fun TedX Talk 'Beware Neuro-Bunk', Molly Crockett, a neuroscientist, offers more comments on skepticism

  • "If someone tries to sell you something with a brain on it … ask to see the evidence. Ask for the part of the story that's not being told."
  • "[Neuroscientists] haven't found a 'buy' button inside the brain, we can't tell whether someone is lying or in love just by looking at their brain scans, and we can't turn sinners into saints with hormones."
  • "When you see activation in [a brain region], you can't just pick and choose your favorite explanation."

While Malia Mason, another neuroscientist, comments (in the HBR Ideacast, Big Brain Theory) ''This idea that you can distinguish a good leader from a bad one by throwing them into a scanner and looking at what their brain is doing just doesn't seem to hold a lot of weight."

But here's the question – how do we know what stuff based in neuroscience principles might be worth trying and experimenting with in our organizations? I offered three suggestions to the group on Monday: mindfulness, positive psychology and multitasking. All three have a reasonable amount of research history.

Oxford University, UK, has a Centre for Mindfulness and suggests that 'People who have learned mindfulness:

  • Experience long-lasting physical and psychological stress reduction.
  • Discover positive changes in well-being.
  • Are less likely to get stuck in depression and exhaustion, and are better able to control addictive behaviour.'

Certainly our group enjoyed the 3 minute breathing space meditation available on the Centre's website and there are a number of organizations who offer mindfulness programs including parts of the UK's National Health Service and Google.

Positive Psychology
The University of Pennsylvania has the Center for Positive Psychology . There positive psychology is defined as 'the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play. '

Given all the happiness hype on this, it's good to see that the American Psychological Association makes the point that 'positive psychology proponents agree that the field's success has come with some pitfalls, including the dissemination by the mass media -— though, they argue, not by the researchers themselves -— of overly simplistic messages'.

A National Institutes of Health study has found that 'Positive emotions -— if cultivated intentionally in contextually-appropriate ways -— can buffer against and undo the deleterious effects of stressful encounters and reduce the impact of future distress. Indeed, new scientific research on neuroplasticity suggests that positive emotional states may trigger lasting, durable changes in the structure and function of the brain which instantiate and promote further adaptive thoughts and behaviors.'

But run your skepticism questions and again be aware of the tentative expression of the findings. Many organizations, including IBM and Fedex have taken up principles of positive psychology – frequently under the 'happiness' banner which I think represents one of the 'overly simplistic messages'. I may be wrong here. But there's another article supporting this view here.

I don't know of a university research department with a singular brief to examine multitasking but there are multiple studies on the topic which, as typical across research studies, have somewhat conflicting findings but seem to agree on a few points:

  • The prefrontal cortex has been frequently implicated as a brain region that mediates multitasking and the switching processes.
  • Multitasking is commonly shown to impair cognitive performance, as each switch results in a reduction in performance compared to doing one task at a time.
  • However, there is growing evidence that the ability to multitask can be trained with repetitive and adaptive practice.
  • Multitasking abilities have been observed to decline as we age.

What's interesting about all four points above is that they are again framed rather tentatively. They are not screaming sound bites that only young people are good at multitasking, or people should never multitask. Everyone is familiar with multitasking and there are many instructions around this. I've been invited to a meeting in October and have been told: 'Leave your devices (laptop, phone, tablets, etc.) at home or check them at the door. We want you to be focused and devote yourself to this day with your fullest selves, without any distraction.'

You'll gather I'm not about to rebrand myself as a neuro organization designer, I remain skeptical about many of the soundbites and claims. As I say in the closing section of the chapter in the forthcoming book 'Neuroscience research is a burgeoning field that has started to have, and will continue to have significant impact on the way work is done and organizations are designed. Some of the current claims made about neuro-science are suspect and it is wise for organization designers to keep informed on the topic and to view findings from a critical mindset making careful judgments on whether or not to apply them in their organizations.'

What's your view? Let me know.

Lee, N., Senior, C., & Butler, M. (2012, July). The Domain of Organizational Cognitive Neuroscience : Theoretical and Empirical Challenges. Journal of Management, 38(4), 921-931.
Senior, C., Lee, N., & Butler, M. (2011, May/June). PERSPECTIVE-—Organizational Cognitive Neuroscience. Organization Science, 22(3), 804-815.
Gillingwater, D., & Gillingwater, T. H. (2011). A neuroanatomical approach to exploring organizational performance. Operations Management: A Modern Approach, 120.