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Why Learning About the Brain Can Be a (Positive) Addiction.

Get the benefits of mindfulness, without the sitting.

I recently finished coordinating the 5th NeuroLeadership Summit, this year in Boston. It was a tremendous experience to spend three days with a few hundred ‘positive change agents' from around the globe, people who are in charge of leadership development curriculums or who develop leaders themselves. (There's an audio debrief on the event itself here and you can read about some of the sessions here.)

There were lots of amazing conversations, with research presented on many important topics: like how to give feedback in line with how the brain changes; how to use technology to measure and improve leadership development programs; and how to design learning experiences that stick.

You can listen to the sessions and see slides of the full program here. (The next event is in San Francisco, 8-10 November 2011.)

Sandy Pentland, MIT

My big personal insight from the event answered a long-held question I had. Which was, why is it so engaging, almost addictive, to learn about how your brain functions? I asked all the participants at the Summit at the end of the event if they felt addicted to learning about their brain. Most raised a hand. I also asked if it was a ‘healthy' addiction, and all but a couple raised a hand here too.

During the Summit I finally had an insight about this. I think that learning about the brain is giving some people similar benefits, cognitively and biologically, as practicing mindfulness meditation. Only without the hours of sitting quietly. Here's my hypothesis on why this could be the case.

Mindfulness (which I wrote about earlier in a post called ‘the neuroscience of mindfulness') is the practice of being in the moment, freshly observing your experience, in an open and accepting way. It is far from easy, though the research is unequivocal about the significant health benefits. Mindfulness training, even a short amount, increases attention span, increases cognition, reduces stress, and increases immune function. One study, published in the 1st NeuroLeadership journal, showed a 30-50% improvement in stress levels in a group of people trained in mindfulness, compared to a group trained in relation techniques, from just 100 minutes of training in one week. Clearly something important happens when mindfulness increases here.

The theory goes that practicing mindfulness thickens a specific set of neural circuits: your circuits for being able to switch (and thus focus and control) your attention. Several studies show an impact on the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, or ACC, of even short-term mindfulness training. By practicing focusing and switching your attention, you increase your ability to do so. The stress and health benefits appear to come from a reduction in the number and severity of threat responses that occur. You become more able to discern a rising threat experience, for example that might happen when you might be stuck in traffic and more able to intervene in the mental downward spiral that occurs so often, that increases cortisol and decreases immune function. It's all about increasing self-regulation capacity, which is the ability to control otherwise automatic neural functions. Self-regulation has been closely linked to personal productivity, and even success in life overall, in long term studies by Walter Mischel.

So, how is understanding your brain similar to mindfulness practice? Firstly, when you understand your brain, you find yourself noticing things you wouldn't otherwise notice. That's because you know so much now about mental experience. Life becomes more ‘real time' as you perceive, in yourself and others, data and signals relating to mental experience. You see things fresh. This is what happens with mindfulness training - you see the world as if for the first time.

Secondly, by having language for mental experience, you are able to make choices within a fraction of a second about whether or not to follow a train of thought. If you are upset at the traffic lights about an extended wait, someone who understood their brain would notice their rising threat response, and be able to consciously decide whether to take some deep breaths, before the threat response took over so much cognitive capacity that the run-away emotions took over. So, understanding your brain may provide increased self-regulation too.

Third, by understanding your brain, you are constantly practicing switching attention, for example switching between being meta-cognitive and being ‘in' an experience. The more you know your brain, the more likely you can make active decisions to switch mental gears. So again, you are building the ACC, the switching circuitry. In theory then, people on goingly learning about their brain, should be getting similar benefits to those who practice mindfulness. It's a hypothesis I would like to test in a study this year.

I recently started playing chess with my daughter Trinity, now age 7. It was her idea, and I hadn't played in so long I couldn't remember the rules. Watching my own mental experience, and hers too, made the event so intensely rich, it was a mental feast. I could see her brain jumping to a move without holding the new position in her working memory, to see what the move might mean for the board. And we got to talk about holding information in working memory. I could see her threat response rise up when I took a good piece of hers, and stop her thinking clearly. And we got to talk about threat responses. I could see her excitement rise, and along with it her perceived status, when she took one of my good pieces. I could see her expectations being met or thwarted, and the resulting neural response. Plus I could see my own neural responses to everything happening too. All this made for an intensely rich game experience, as well as great dialogues. My point is, there was so much aliveness and richness in a simple game of chess by understanding the brain more, and much more to talk about too.

In the workplace, as people navigate the complex game of business, making moves and countermoves, it can also be a wonderful thing to understand the deeper biology behind our behaviors. Leaders who learn about the brain gain an edge not just in their ability to solve problems and make decisions, but also in being able to stay cool under pressure, collaborate with others, and their ability to drive change.

Understanding your brain may be a positive addiction, because it makes life feel richer, and enables us to achieve our intentions. All that without having to sit and watch your breath.


The 2013 NeuroLeadership Summit is going local with three days of events in three different locations. Click here for more information.