Brain At Work

Over the last few years, there has been a growing trend to link human productivity (at work and beyond) to a better understanding of the way the brain functions, i.e. to neuroscience. The ability to rely on hard-core science, as opposed to “softer” disciplines, to explain and optimize human behavior has helped draw the attention of “cynical, anti-self-awareness agitators[i], thereby significantly increasing the audience for executive coaches.

In particular, neuroscience validates the concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness has gained significant attention in recent years, including in Davos where mindful leadership was once again the agenda this year. Not to mention that these days we are told to embrace mindful eating, mindful parenting and mindful work which all come with a notion of enriched life experience.

In an article published a few years ago and available here, David Rock, a leading expert in neuroscience and leadership skills, uses various sources (including an article published in Oxford Journals) to outline the scientific pillars of mindfulness. Mr. Rock highlights the fact that human beings have two distinct, contrasting operating circuits which drive self-awareness:

i. A narrative mode (“me” as self-reference): This mode is also called the “default network” since it becomes active when nothing much else is happening[ii]. It holds together a “narrative” which links experiences over time, from the past to the future. It is the mode involved in planning, daydreaming, ruminating and by extension goal setting and strategizing. Scientifically, this circuit relies on the medial PFC (pre-frontal cortex, the equivalent of a processor) and the hippocampus (memory)

ii. A direct experience mode (“I” as self-reference): This circuit involves different regions of the brain including the insula (relating to bodily sensations) and the anterior cingulate cortex (attention switch). Under this mode of operation, “real time” is experienced with an acute attention to the present and the sensory information it reveals, bringing the subject closer to “momentary consciousness”[iii], thus to the immediate reality, thereby enhancing its ability to respond and adapt to current events

Science demonstrates that these two aspects of self-awareness tend to be inversely correlated: one mode operates at the expense of the other. In addition, the narrative circuit (which is the default mode) can go in overdrive and obscure the gathering of data from the present, which may lead not only to a disconnection from reality but also to mood or anxiety disorder.

Relying on scientific findings, Mr. Rock suggests that the ability to actively switch from the narrative to the direct experience mode is a source of higher cognitive control and thus increasing well-being, productivity and creativity, including at work as argued in a great article by Adrianna Huffington (from the Huffington Post).[iv]

Activating the direct experience mode is beautifully simple. It can be achieved by switching one's attention to an object in a room, or to a physical feeling (e.g. foot on the floor, cold breeze, hot coffee, controlled breathing). The key is to practice often so that it becomes a habit.

There is no reason why mindfulness and the corporate world could not co-exist. As argued by Mrs. Huffington, what is good for managers and employees should be good for corporates and their bottom line, and thus shareholders.

[i] "The Neuroscience of Mindfulness", David Rock, Oct 2009 (published in Psychology Today) [ii] "Attending to the present: Mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference", Norman Farb & team, June 2007 (published in the Oxford Journals) [iii] Ditto [iv] Mindfulness, Meditation, Wellness and Their Connection to Corporate America's Bottom Line", Adrianna Huffington, March 2013 (published in Huff Post)

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