There’s a lot of media coverage, particularly on those morning “news” shows these days about “new” brain research. Unfortunately a lot of it simply isn’t true. Anyone who has read some of my blogs or my, latest book Using Your Brain to Win! (click to order book) knows that I am a huge fan of using our brains more effectively in today’s work world.
In fact, much of my work is devoted to helping business leaders gain insight into how the human brain works (and sometimes doesn’t work so well). That way, they can use their brains to better engage their workforce and make business decisions based on hard data rather than un-examined personal assumptions and beliefs.
However, in recent years I have noticed increasing numbers of mainstream media reports that vastly oversimplify neuroscience research. It seems that everywhere you look you can find a blog or article touting another new approach to unlock the “secret” powers of your brain to change your life, find your perfect match, make more money, etc.
I’ll admit it can be hard to resist those kinds of pitches. But the problem is we’re still in the infant stages of understanding the human brain. Which means we’re still in the process of unlearning old brain “truths” even as we learn new ones.
Mind Over Myth
Take some of the common brain myths that still appear in mainstream media: We use only 10 percent of our brains. It’s all downhill after age 40 (or 60 these days). Our brains are like computers. We have around 100 billion neurons in our brain.
All of which are false.
For example, when a Brazilian neuroscience researcher begin exploring the history of brain neuron research, she discovered that nobody in the field could remember where the 100 billion figure came from. She then conducted an experiment using four adult male brains that had been donated for research. The results showed an average of 86 billion neurons, or slightly more than a seven percent difference, per brain.
A seven percent difference may not seem like much, except we’re talking about 14 billion neurons. Moreover, the real issue has to do with how scientific untruths often become scientific truths in the first place.
Much of the data fueling today’s brain misinformation comes from studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This tool allows us to peer into the brain and note electrical and chemical impulses across the different regions of activity. As pattern-loving, structure seeking-creatures (one undisputed brain fact), we humans have an intense desire to understand the brain. So we look at the data from the fMRI and create hypotheses as to its meaning.
Unfortunately, these hypotheses often require a significant leap when attempting to prove causation between what gets measured in the brain and the observed behavior. For example, a brain scan can’t determine whether one manager will be more effective than another. And it can’t tell marketing managers what products you prefer. (Let’s hope that day is a long time coming!)
Stick with What We Know
What do we know about the brain?
Currently, we have a very basic understanding of how the brain drives human behavior. It comes from the “Ladder of Inference,” a theoretical construct developed by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris, that postulates a six-step “ladder” for how the brain processes incoming data before making decisions or taking action.
For now, the ladder of inference offers the best tool for exposing how and why we do what we do. However, it is an oversimplification, and may one day turn out to be a theory that, although not entirely accurate, led us to a better understanding of the brain.
Let me reiterate that the problem doesn’t lie with brain research per se. It’s that people keep getting caught up in the sexiness of supposedly new brain research when we’re just beginning to understand the workings of the human brain.
We can’t even tell where taste originates in the brain, or what parts of the brain trigger facial recognition. So we’re a long way off from having any certainty about what really drives human behavior.
My advice to business leaders is to stay up on the research and take it all with a grain of salt. For now, we’re reasonably sure that the keys to great performance aren’t that different from what we see exhibited by elite performers in every field. Create a compelling vision or destination. Be intentional. Practice the right things. Pause, think and focus. Visualize success. Seek feedback and never stop trying to get better. And most of all, self-correct by promptly acknowledging mistakes, adjusting, and refocusing on winning.
Unfortunately, I don’t foresee a slowdown in the dissemination of brain misinformation. But I remain eager to continue learning – and unlearning – about what magnificent creatures we are thanks to our remarkable brains!