Exercising Your  Brain to Achieve Cognitive Fitness: A Personal Program

In their classic HBR article, “Cognitive Fitness” (November 2007), Roderick Gilkey and Clint Kilts explain how to exercise your brain.

Here is a brief excerpt.

o     o     o

So how can you become cognitively fit? Drawing selectively from the rapidly expanding body of neuroscience research as well as from well-established research in psychology and other mental health fields, we have identified four steps you can take. These steps are by no means exhaustive. They overlap and reinforce one another. Together they capture, we believe, some of the key opportunities for maintaining an engaged, creative brain.

Step 1: Understand How Experience Makes the Brain Grow

The experience-dependent nature of cognitive health has long been appreciated by psychologists. As early as the middle of the twentieth century, they noted that rich experience helped very young children to interact with their environment. We’ve also known for some time that experience has a physiological impact on the brain. In the late eighteenth century, the Italian anatomist Vincenzo Malacarne conducted a famous series of controlled experiments on dogs and birds. He separated each litter or set of eggs into pairs, giving extensive care and training over time to one animal from every pair, and good care but no training to the other. His later autopsies revealed that the trained animals’ brains were more anatomically complex, with more folds and fissures. This research was the first to identify the impact of experience and education on the structure of the brain. To build on an example mentioned earlier, the expansion of the motor area representing a hand that plays a cello is greater in someone who started lessons early in life than in someone who didn’t.

While the neuroscience community has known for quite a while about the biological impact of expanding experience, we’ve only recently figured out how the brain actually processes experience in order to encode learning and build performance capacity. The discovery of dedicated neural systems that represent objects, people, and actions provides a new explanation of the mechanism involved. The so-called mirror neurons making up these systems aid the speed and accuracy of our perception by mentally simulating objects and actions in our environment. Knowing that mirror neurons allow us to internally reflect our external world is a quantum leap in our understanding of how humans comprehend and master their environment. Experience gained through observation activates these performance-enhancing neurons, which accelerate learning and the capacity to learn.

Traditionally, scientists have assumed that people gain new skills through practice—that is, through direct experience—but the existence of mirror neurons means you can also gain skills through observation and indirect experience. Think about this for a moment: When a golf pro demonstrates the correct stance and swing for you to imitate, mirror neurons are activated, enabling you to learn from his experience by supplying you with the mental image of the correct actions. And it’s not just physical skills that can be picked up this way. Your social cognitions are similarly aided by specialized neurons that reflect facial expressions, gestures, and other signals, and develop your ability to read other people’s actions and expressions by matching them with internal representations you have acquired.

The existence of mirror neurons means you can gain skills through observation and indirect experience.

This suggests that mental imagery—for instance, trying to re-create the golf pro’s swing through a mental picture—is a valid mode of learning and acquiring new competences. Indeed, sports professionals often attribute their exceptional abilities to being able to “see” the ball and its flight prior to striking or catching it. The brain’s ability to learn in this way makes a biological case for the use of simulations and case studies as tools in your quest for development as a leader. Such approaches not only promise effective ways of learning but are also potentially very efficient. You can conceivably gain the brain benefits of other people’s long-term direct experience through, for example, short-term exposure to simulation. Simulated experiences can establish neural readiness for real experiences.

Of course, direct experience remains the keystone of a person’s brain development—but we increasingly understand how to pave the way for such experience. One of the most powerful tools available for strengthening the executive brain is the walkabout. In business, this is known as management by walking around—the practice of getting out of your office and talking to employees. It’s not just good business practice; it is also a sound form of cognitive exercise.

The walkabout is named after an Australian rite of passage in which aboriginal adolescents undertake a prolonged and challenging physical journey, sometimes for several months, in search of psychological and spiritual self-definition and maturity. The timing is just right, since it is during adolescence that the brain establishes and integrates the neural networks in the prefrontal cortex that encode a sense of self-identity, as well as moral and social conduct. This process culminates in late adolescence, when the brain’s neurons are fully myelinated (coated with insulation) and interconnected in networks that help the mature brain function in an efficient, organized manner. The walkabout is not, of course, the only rite-of-passage ritual; it’s quite remarkable how many similar rituals occur in different cultures at precisely the same stage in people’s lives. There is a generally accepted understanding that adolescents need such “peak” experiences to consolidate their personal histories and their physical development into a viable, more advanced identity.

This sort of journey, more broadly speaking, can also have a strong influence on an executive’s career, particularly if the timing is right. Warren Buffett is one leader who realizes this. When Anne Mulcahy, the CEO of Xerox, sought his advice about how to help the company emerge from a financial crisis that was rapidly pushing it toward bankruptcy, he urged her to engage in a walkabout. His advice was that she should learn what Xerox employees and customers were thinking and worry less about what the financial analysts and shareholders were saying. It made excellent sense from a neurological standpoint for Mulcahy to acquire at the beginning of her tenure as CEO a deeper understanding of the people who would be following her, because the neural networks that would enable her decision making as a leader would not yet be fully formed. If she had stayed isolated in the corner office, those networks would certainly have ended up looking different than they do today.

So how can you become cognitively fit? Drawing selectively from the rapidly expanding body of neuroscience research as well as from well-established research in psychology and other mental health fields, we have identified four steps you can take. These steps are by no means exhaustive. They overlap and reinforce one another. Together they capture, we believe, some of the key opportunities for maintaining an engaged, creative brain.

o     o     o

Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Roderick Gilkey is a professor at the Emory University School of Medicine and Goizueta Business School.

Clint Kilts is the Dr. Paul Janssen Professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

 

Posted in

Leave a Comment





%d bloggers like this: