Brain myths #6: Your brain is like a computer

6. Brains are like computers.

Smithsonian: We speak of the brain’s processing speed, its storage capacity, its parallel circuits, inputs and outputs. The metaphor fails at pretty much every level: the brain doesn’t have a set memory capacity that is waiting to be filled up; it doesn’t perform computations in the way a computer does; and even basic visual perception isn’t a passive receiving of inputs because we actively interpret, anticipate and pay attention to different elements of the visual world.

There’s a long history of likening the brain to whatever technology is the most advanced, impressive and vaguely mysterious. Descartes compared the brain to a hydraulic machine. Freud likened emotions to pressure building up in a steam engine. The brain later resembled a telephone switchboard and then an electrical circuit before evolving into a computer; lately it’s turning into a Web browser or the Internet. These metaphors linger in clichés: emotions put the brain “under pressure” and some behaviors are thought to be “hard-wired.”

RapidChange Group: The most important way your brain and a computer are different is this: A computer can only think in a series of “yes” and “no” questions. The human brain can deal with many different inputs, options and possibilities simultaneously. The difference is the one between your dog, who is binary and thus can see in black & white and handle “yes” and “no” but not “maybe” and you, who can see in multiple colors and deal with “maybe” all the time. The computer is a really fast version of your dog. But it is still a dog.

Here’s another way to think about it: What is between Black & White? Most people instinctively say “Gray.” For humans, the full spectrum of color exists between Black (= full saturation of color) and White (= complete absence of color). This difference translates into how we go about solving problems. If we see every issue as binary, we limit our options to Black, White and Gray. In fact, most challenges have a full spectrum of possible answers.

By relying on the analogy of physics and computers, we have greatly limited our ability to creatively solve problems. It is time to start looking at the world through the lens of biology – multiple possibilities, infinite creativity.

Top Myths #7 – We only have five senses

7. We have five senses.
Smithsonian: Sure, sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch are the big ones. But we have many other ways of sensing the world and our place in it. Proprioception is a sense of how our bodies are positioned. Nociception is a sense of pain. We also have a sense of balance—the inner ear is to this sense as the eye is to vision—as well as a sense of body temperature, acceleration and the passage of time.

Compared with other species, though, humans are missing out. Bats and dolphins use sonar to find prey; some birds and insects see ultraviolet light; snakes detect the heat of warmblooded prey; rats, cats, seals and other whiskered creatures use their “vibrissae” to judge spatial relations or detect movements. By the way, have you seen the taste map of the tongue, the diagram showing that different regions are sensitive to salty, sweet, sour or bitter flavors? Also a myth.

RCG: What is interesting about these other senses is how they are related to the primitive Reptilian system – pain, balance, position. When our sense of pain or position is tweaked, our amygdala kicks in and we go into Fight, Flight or Freeze response. Time, however, is a curious one. David Eagleman, in his recent book “Incognito,” talks about time as a “rubbery thing.” His research demonstrates how the unconscious brain edits our experience and plays with our sense of time to protect us, to make more efficient use of our energy or to alter our perception of danger.

Our sense of time also is influenced by how engaged our Neocortex is in the task before us. When our Reptilian and Limbic systems are calmed and the Neocortex is in charge, we experience time flying by while simultaneously “lasting forever.” Why is that? I’m not sure enough research has been done yet to answer that question!

Top Brain Myths #8: Downhill after 40?

8. It’s all downhill after 40 (or 50 or 60 or 70).
Smithsonian: It’s true, some cognitive skills do decline as you get older. Children are better at learning new languages than adults—and never play a game of concentration against a 10-year-old unless you’re prepared to be humiliated. Young adults are faster than older adults to judge whether two objects are the same or different; they can more easily memorize a list of random words, and they are faster to count backward by sevens.

But plenty of mental skills improve with age. Vocabulary, for instance—older people know more words and understand subtle linguistic distinctions. Given a biographical sketch of a stranger, they’re better judges of character. They score higher on tests of social wisdom, such as how to settle a conflict. And people get better and better over time at regulating their own emotions and finding meaning in their lives.

RCG: One of the things that happens as we get older is we lose our patience more quickly. When a baby isn’t successful the first time she tries to walk, we don’t say, “Oh, well, I guess she isn’t meant to walk! I guess we’ll just have to carry her around.” We let the baby try and try again until she makes all the necessary connections and gets it right. As adults, however, we don’t give ourselves enough time or opportunities to get better.

The really cool concept here is that people can learn right up until the moment they die. There is no reason to feel stuck or locked-in, although we often do. Beginning with the assumption that everyone can learn, however, produces much better results than assuming the opposite.

Top myths about the brain, #9 Flashbulb memories

Myth #9. “Flashbulb memories” are precise, detailed and persistent.
Smithsonian: We all have memories that feel as vivid and accurate as a snapshot, usually of some shocking, dramatic event—the assassination of President Kennedy, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the attacks of September 11, 2001. People remember exactly where they were, what they were doing, who they were with, what they saw or heard. But several clever experiments have tested people’s memory immediately after a tragedy and again several months or years later. The test subjects tend to be confident that their memories are accurate and say the flashbulb memories are more vivid than other memories. Vivid they may be, but the memories decay over time just as other memories do. People forget important details and add incorrect ones, with no awareness that they’re recreating a muddled scene in their mindsrather than calling up a perfect, photographic reproduction.

RCG: This is a myth that we perpetuated in RapidChange work for years. People do have vivid memories of events such as the Kennedy assassination because there is a lot of emotion attached to them. Which, it turns out, is one of the reasons they aren’t wholly reliable. The part of your brain that holds your long-term memory sits near the part of your brain that is the catalyst for emotional responses. Those emotions and the stories we tell ourselves about those events combine to alter our memories.

Another factor is how the brain uses those stories to keep long-term memories. One of the best explanations of this is found in the book, “Picking Cotton,” a tale of what happens when a victim of violence becomes convinced someone she picks out of lineup is guilty. Eighteen years later, she discovers she was wrong. The reasons and the results make for an inspiring, and humbling, read.

Top 10 Brain Myths Countdown

Smithsonian Magazine this month has posted the “Top 10 Myths About the Brain.” The list is a good place to start a conversation about how a better understanding of the brain – how people Think, Act & Feel – is critical to the success of your organization. I’m going to try to tackle one every day or so until we get through them. Today …

Myth 10. We use only 10 percent of our brains.

Smithsonian: This one sounds so compelling—a precise number, repeated in pop culture for a century, implying that we have huge reserves of untapped mental powers. But the supposedly unused 90 percent of the brain is not some vestigial appendix. Brains are expensive—it takes a lot of energy to build brains during fetal and childhood development and maintain them in adults. Evolutionarily, it would make no sense to carry around surplus brain tissue. Experiments using PET or fMRI scans show that much of the brain is engaged even during simple tasks, and injury to even a small bit of brain can have profound consequences for language, sensory perception, movement or emotion.

Dan: The last 15 years of brain research has demonstrated two relevant points here: 1. Neuroplasticity allows the brain to constantly make new connections and that we continue to make those connections until we die. 2. Most of the work our brain does every day happens in our unconscious – tasks such as making sure our heart beats , our lungs breath and filtering the 12 million bits of information that bombards us every minute.

So why does it feel like there’s more brain power to tap into. Because there is. Interestingly, though, the way our brains are wired makes it a challenge for us to use its best parts. For example, the Reptilian Brain acts like a constant monitoring system. It has a hair-trigger response to anything that seems like a threat – physical or mental. It evolved that way to keep us alive – was that sound a bear or the wind? is that person friend or foe? But when we get scared or angry, the more intelligent parts of our brain are purposely slowed down so we can put our energy into Fighting, Fleeing or Freezing.

Once we learn to recognize that response, we can learn how to shut it down and let our “smart” brain take over. It is harder than it seems, which is why we look at others or ourselves and say, “why aren’t they using their heads?”

Disconnected? Unfortunately, you probably don’t know it

According to ExecuNet, a “professional network for executives,” CEOS aren’t very good at knowing what motivates their “C-level” direct reports. As a result, these executives either leave or they slowly become under-utilized. At worst, they become poison.

Apparently, most C-level folks only hear what they want to hear, assume most people are motivated by money and greed and think their colleagues have more influence on policy than they do personally, according the survey of 2,463 executives, as reported in Monday’s WSJ.

As it turns out, the executives surveyed said they are most motivated by having input into decisions, being heard by the CEO, and having control of their work-life mix. Funny, though, that they don’t think their peers or their employees are motivated by the same interests.

We’re wired to default to the negative – to be on watch for people getting more than we do, for danger, for thinking people are hiding things from us. Evolutionarily speaking, that has kept us alive for thousands of years.

That’s why creating a better workplace culture has to be a deliberate act. We have to be aware of concepts such as “loss-aversion,” “reptilian response” and our natural inclination to seek out information that re-enforces our already established positions.

If we recognize it, we can do something about it.


Why it’s called “leadership,” not “let-me-do-all-the-work-ship”

Mark Suwyn has run Fortune 500 companies and helped young companies become great companies. One thing that always confuses him is why leaders think that the higher they move up the ladder, the more they have to do everything themselves. The point of leadership is lead, develop, grow and encourage those who work with and for you. Otherwise, you’re inviting burnout, bad ideas and failure.