Myth #1: Brain cells die off as we age. Brain cells, or neurons don’t necessarily die. In fact, neurogenesis is the process of expanding neurons as we age.
Myth #2: Brain development ceases in childhood or early adolescence. It’s true the greatest neural development occurs in our youth. However, we can continue to build mental capacity as we age.
Myth #3: We can’t change our brain or who we are. There are steps we can take to maintain and enhance our brain health, or cognitive fitness.
Rodney Gilkey and Clint Kilts describe these steps in a Harvard Business Review article titled “Cognitive Fitness.” Cognitive fitness is when our ability to reason, learn, adapt, plan, and remember are optimized. The more cognitively fit we are, the better decisions we make, problems we solve and the better we deal with stress. This fitness allows us to be more open to different perspectives. It gives us greater capacity to change our behaviors and achieve our goals.
Step 1: Expand Experience. Walking around and learning from employees and customers when she first became CEO helped Anne Mulcahy return Xerox to profitability. She expanded and deepened her experience that enabled her to make better decisions.
Step 2: Play Hard. Play is the primary source of joy and joy has been described as emotional fuel. This helps the brain expand its synaptic network. Synapses regulate neurotransmission – make connections from one neuron to another. This improves our ability to reason and understand our world. Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Companies like Google understand the importance of play.
Step 3: Pattern Recognition. Herbert Simon, Nobel laureate, coined the term pattern recognition, thought to be our brain’s most powerful tool. It gives us the ability to create meaning from vast amounts of data so we can take quick and precise action. It is a complex process using deeply stored experiences. We can exercise this by questioning our existing beliefs, by listening to different views, and experiencing new things. Companies can benefit from this by creating a diverse leadership team. When we promote those who are like us, we narrow our vision.
Step 4: Novelty. We learn and discover with our brain’s right hemisphere and use our knowledge with our left. Being open to new things through continuous learning exercises our right side. Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind describes the Zen Mind as open, allowing both doubt and possibility, one who can see things as fresh and new. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” People who have a beginner’s mind are good in a crisis because they are open to seeing more possibilities. Companies who are open to listening to questions from new recruits may learn more than the recruits.
Like any exercise, these exercises and their benefits overlap and reinforce each other. Imagine the benefit a leader can gain by reflecting on what isn’t seen, questioned, or thought about, like Johari Window.