Myths about brain - part 2
This article follows on from the article:  Demolishing the Top Ten Myths About the Brain Part 1. It provides further insights into the latest science of the brain and how an understanding of neuroleadership can improve individual human and organizational performance.

In this summary we demolish some long-held assumptions about working efficiently. For instance:

  • We are not pre-programmed by either nature or nurture – change is possible.
  • Multi-tasking is not necessarily a virtue.
  • Letting go may help us solve tough problems.
  • It’s not always best to get your emails out of the way first thing.
  • Vivid memories are not always accurate.

Myth # 1: Our ways of thinking, acting and perceiving are determined genetically and by our childhood experiences.
We now know that the way we live our lives changes the way we think, act and perceive what’s going on around us. An interesting research study by Pascuale – Leone demonstrates this [1]. He recruited two groups of people who people who had no experience in playing the piano and divided them into two groups – one group who were taught to play a simple piece on the piano and one group who simply imagined playing the same piece on the piano. Both groups practiced for two hours a day – one group physically practiced using a piano and the second group imagined playing the sequence and hearing it played. He found that both groups learned to play the sequence and both showed similar brain changes. Remarkably, mental practice alone produced the same physical changes in the motor system as actually playing the piece and the imagined players were as accurate as the actual players were by the third day.

Clearly mental practice is an effective way to prepare for learning a physical skill with minimal physical practice. If we extrapolate these finding, it is possible that you believe you will be successful, your brain will work towards success. If you believe you are a failure, your brain will consolidate that belief. We become, neurologically, what we think.

Myth # 2: Multitasking is an essential competency for leaders.
We’ve all been told to multi-task for years. Sometimes multitasking is even put in job descriptions as a requirement. The reality is that the brain can only focus on one thing at a time. The mental processes relevant to getting work done require complex manipulations of billions of neurological circuits. When engaged in conscious activities, your brain works in a serial way – processing one thing after another. Therefore conscious processes need to be done one at a time [2]. Every time a new piece of information enters the brain it has to compete for attention. The influx of competing messages overloads our working memory and makes it harder to concentrate on any one thing.

Many studies have shown that switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load, impeding our thinking and increasing the likelihood that we’ll overlook or misinterpret important information.  The scientist Harold Pashler showed that when people do two cognitive tasks at once, their cognitive capacity can drop from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an eight-year-old [3]. A study done at the University of London found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capability by an average of 10 IQ points [4]. The effect is similar to missing a night’s sleep. For men, it’s around three times more than the effect of smoking cannabis!

Whenever you multi task, we lose efficiency, accuracy and performance. Frequent interruptions or distractions scatter our thoughts and weaken our memory. It makes us more tense and anxious. The only way to do two mental tasks quickly and accurately is to do one of them at a time. However we are all required to do multiple things at work. You could try to handle this dilemma in one of two ways – firstly prioritize – do the most important things first. Then consciously decide how much time you will devote to each task and limit your attention to that time period, before switching back to the previous task.

Myth # 3: If at first you don’t succeed, try harder.
Actually, if we concentrate too intensely on a tough problem, we can get stuck in a mental rut and hit an impasse. We can’t come up with new ideas, we want to make connections but can’t. This may occur when, for example, you are trying to remember a person’s name. If you don’t think of it, it will come.

We have all heard of the term “sleep on it”. When we break our attention or focus on a problem, this enables the unconscious mind to work the problem, bringing to bear processes unavailable to conscious thought.

Various studies have shown that after spending time in a quiet rural setting close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition. Their brains relax and become both calmer and sharper. The reason is that when people aren’t being bombarded by external stimuli, their brains can, in effect, relax.  They no longer have to tax their working memories by processing a stream of bottom-up distractions.  The resulting state of contemplativeness strengthens their ability to control their mind [5].

Better decisions are usually made when we shift our attention away from a difficult mental challenge – but there is a proviso – you must have a clear goal in mind to begin with. Without a clear goal, unconscious thought does not occur.

Next lunch time, try going for a walk in a park and forget about agonizing over a problem. See whether you come back having made some progress in your thinking!

Myth #4: Get the emails over with when you first get into the office so you can then concentrate on the important things.
It’s tempting to switch on the computer and check your emails as soon as you get into the office. It’s probably the most common activity each of us do when we arrive at work in the morning. However using your prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for reasoning and problem-solving, takes a lot of energy. Every time you answer emails you expend energy and deplete needed energy to deal with more complex problem solving. Then, when you get around to working on really important tasks you are more tired and probably less capable than if you had tackled the most important things first.

Schedule your most important tasks early in the day when you have plenty of energy and a fresh and alert mind. This is probably not responding to standard emails. For example, try using the first hour at work (or a time in the day when you are fresh) to resolve some difficult issues. Then switch on your emails and think about scheduling specific blocks of time for emails rather than responding to each beep. Would it really make that much difference if you opened your emails one hour later? You’ll find it a much more efficient use of your time and you’ll have a great sense of accomplishment for the rest of the day.

Myth # 5: Important events – I remember them accurately as if they were yesterday.
Our emotions influence how we remember an event. Perhaps you remember exactly where you were when you heard about the 9/11 attack? However the way in which we store and retrieve information is heavily influenced by the emotion surrounding the event and your mood at the time of recollection. Studies of people who were involved in the Challenger explosion and 9/11 events show that 2.5 years after the event they gave detailed recollections of the events and were highly confident in their accuracy ……. however most of their memories were inaccurate [6].

You may be convinced that you accurately remember what happened on a big project in the past. You might use that recollection to make judgments about current work. How accurate and unbiased is that memory? You may want to test your recollections with others before relying on your own memory of what worked or what didn’t work in the past.

[1] A. Pascuale-Leone, N. Dang, L. G. Cohen, J. P. Brasil-Neto, A. Cammarota, M. Hallett, 1995. Modulation of muscle responses evoked by transcranial magnetic simulation during the acquisition of new fine motor skills. Journal of Neurophysiology, 74 (3): 1037-45 especially 1041.

[2] Rock, D., Your Brain at Work. Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus and Working Smarter all Day Long, 2009, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, p. 34-5.

[3] Harold Pashler had numerous papers covering his work on multitasking. One of these is Pashler, H. “Attentional Limitations in doing two tasks at the same time.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 1 (1992) 44-50.

[4] Cited in Rock, D. p. 36.

[5] Carr, N, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, 2010, W. W. Norton & Co. p. 219.

[6]Neisser, U., & Harsch, N. (1992). Phantom flashbulbs: false recollections of hearing the news about  Challenger. In E. Winograd, & U. Neisser (Eds.),Affect and accuracy in recall: Studies of‘flashbulb’ memories(pp. 9–31). New York: Cambridge University Press.