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Leading with the brain in mind

Neuro myths that might impact the way you lead!

Having a good understanding of the strengths and limitations of our brain can help us optimize our habits for better performance, productivity, and learning. These can also be used by leaders who can gain a better understanding of their employees in an attempt to build a brain-positive environment that is conducive to positivity, growth, and efficiency. As neuroscience and brain-based knowledge become more popular, so do the poorly-informed myths. Although these neuromyths have strange origins and are not based on any real science or evidence, they are unfortunately stubborn and hard to eliminate! This article presents some common myths and explains why they are inaccurate.

(1) We Only Use 10% of Our Brain

The myth that we only use 10% of our brain is one of the most stubborn and false neuromyths out there. Most areas of the brain are active all the time. It takes an unbelievable amount of cellular activity to monitor and observe the rest of the body, to generate thought, to respond to the environment, and to produce movements. These are all processes that are constantly happening whether we have conscious awareness about them or not. Certain areas are activated more frequently than others, depending on the specific function they are responsible for. At rest or during certain stages of sleep, neural activity is lessened, but there is no actual basis for the idea that we have a huge unaccessed treasure chest of brain power that we can tap into if we do certain things! 

(2) The Left Brain/Right Brain Idea

The idea that the brain can be divided into left and right based on different types of functions and behaviors is popular, yet untrue. In mainstream knowledge, this has translated into characterizing people as ‘left-brained’ versus ‘right-brained’ depending on whether they are more analytical or creative and artistic (respectively). There are some functions that are more concentrated on one side versus the other, but these are not related to intellect versus creativity. Furthermore, division in the brain is never clear cut and this is one instance in which a myth overly simplifies how the brain is organized. In fact, research has shown that activity is practically equal across both sides. One function that does show a bias to one side of the brain – or what we refer to as lateralization – is language, which is mainly active in the left hemisphere. This is because the regions required for speech comprehension (Wernicke’s area) and speech production (Broca’s area) are found on the left side.  

(3) Learning Styles

The myth of learning styles has been perpetuated in movies, motivational speeches, and by media outlets. The idea that every person has a distinct, easily characterizable learning style is neuroscientifically false. This neuromyth stipulates that learning styles are established early in life, have a biological basis, and cannot be changed. This can greatly limit one’s openness to different learning formats and can lead to inflexibility. There is no evidence that learning in one’s preferred style (e.g. visual versus auditory) actually leads to improvements in learning and performance. Accordingly, the belief in this myth can actually be counterproductive as a lot of time can be spent trying to adapt the material to a particular learning style. The point is, there is no biological underpinning for this idea. Learning can be subjective and based on preferences, but it is not due to certain built-in tendencies that are brain-based.

 (4) We’re Good at Multitasking

As much as we would like to believe that we are entirely capable of doing more than one thing at a time, science has repeatedly told us that we are ridiculously bad at multitasking. For starters, our brains hate it. To enhance focus and attention, our brain is wired to ignore any stimuli that are irrelevant to the task in front of us, so multitasking completely goes against our brain’s optimal mode of functioning. Second, we’re inefficient when we multitask. Actually, research has shown that when we switch from one task to another, it takes us approximately 25 minutes to reach full focus. That’s a lot of wasted time, known as “switch cost,” or the drop in speed and performance that accompanies task switching.

(4) There Are Restricted Windows During Which We Can Learn

Critical periods occur during development and they are thought of as windows of time during which certain functions need to develop. Outside of this window, the functions will not develop to a similar extent and will be weaker. This includes functions such as vision. This happens because at birth, the cells in the brain are already there but they have not yet established all the appropriate connections. Another example is imprinting in birds. On the other hand, for other types of behaviors and functions, the concept of neuroplasticity has been gaining popularity in the past few years. It is the opposing idea that learning and memory can occur at any time because the brain is plastic. The biological bases for neuroplasticity are changes in gene expression and the formation of new synapses. Accordingly, the idea that we are incapable of learning new skills after a certain age is a misconception.  

These are but a few examples of some myths that have been spread as crazy facts about the brain. As the average person is not well-versed in neuroscience, it can be hard to parse truth and biology from trendy ideas that are ubiquitous in media, motivational speeches, and general conversation. 

 Something to think about!

  • Which of the neuromyths have you believed to be true up until this point?
  • What insights from this article can you take away to enhance the way you lead?

References:

Boyd, R. (2008, February 7). Do people only use 10 percent of their brains? Scientific American. Retrieved September 17, 2022, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-people-only-use-10-percent-of-their-brains/ 

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Apa PsycNet. American Psychological Association. Retrieved September 17, 2022, from

California, G. M. U. of, Mark, G., California, U. of, University, D. G. H., Gudith, D., University, H., University, U. K. H., Klocke, U., Research, M., Microsoft, & Metrics, O. M. V. A. (2008, April 1). The cost of interrupted work: Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems. ACM Conferences. Retrieved September 17, 2022, from https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/1357054.1357072 

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Multitasking: Switching costs. American Psychological Association. Retrieved September 17, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/topics/research/multitasking 

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