I was recently chatting with a friend (who is well acquainted with MIT) and mentioned that I was in need of a tune up and planned on heading back to MIT to attend another Executive Education course. She commented, “it’s like a day spa for the mind.” Her response couldn't have been more appropriate considering that the course I was contemplating was Neuroscience for Leadership. This course is taught by Dr. Tara Swart and Dr. Deborah Ancona, two universally recognized experts in the field.
Like all of the Executive Education at MIT Sloan, this course is packed with tons of useful information and specific techniques for improving not only business performance but personal life as well. The course focuses on the chemistry of the nervous system. One of the particularly interesting points made was that while the brain accounts for roughly 2% of our body weight, it consumes around 20% of the total calories that we consume. In her book Neuroscience For Leadership, Harnessing The Brain Gain Advantage, Dr. Swart describes the brain as analogous to an engine requiring a volatile substance that can ignite and release energy as well as lubricants to make the system work well. To function on a high level we need to make sure our brains are getting proper sleep, nutrition, hydration and oxygenation. Lifelong dedication to learning and moments of quiet meditation are also critical to our brain health.
Our brains have developed over a long period of time and the version we are caring around today has a lot of leftover technology from earlier mammalian versions. Most of the architecture is made up of deep pathways that are designed to help us survive. Neuroplasticity is the term that describes the brain’s ability to reset pathways and reorganize networks of connections between brain cells and neurons, thereby altering behavior and outcomes.
One of the fascinating moments that got my attention during the two-day course was when we watched a short presentation based on the work of neuromusical educator Dr. Anita Collinson about how music affects the brain. It turns out that listening to music stimulates the brain quite a bit but playing music lights up the brain like a Christmas tree. Playing music fires up the entire system, simultaneously stimulating multiple parts of the brain in astonishingly fast sequences, triggering the corpus callosum, which is the bridge between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
The human voice was probably the first musical instrument. The earliest fossils of anatomically modern humans are from the Middle Paleolithic, about 200,000 years ago. The earliest examples of percussion instruments are around 165,000 years old and researchers estimate that a flute carved out of a bone discovered in Northwest Slovenia could be 67,000 years old. Canadian musicologist Bob Fink determined that this flute could have been used to play four notes of a diatonic scale.
In other words, our species has been playing music for a long time. Playing music requires all of the very functions that we know are positive for brain health including, breathing, concentrating, relaxing, and focusing. So, don’t neglect to drink plenty of water, think positive thoughts, breathe deep, meditate, and most importantly: take up an instrument if you don’t already play one—and don’t forget to sing in the shower!
Neuroscience for Leadership
Research in the cognitive sciences is leading us to a greater understanding of how to improve personal and leadership behaviors and performance. Those who grasp the meaning and implications of this research will be positioned to take competitive advantage. This program provides hands-on application of concepts and techniques deriving from neuroscience and psychology that can improve your individual performance, as well as that of your team and organization.