Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Artin Atabaki, Stacey Dietsch, and Julia M. Sperling for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. They discuss misconceptions about the brain that are embedded in corporate training programs and could be sabotaging their effectiveness. Companies should reevaluate them in light of the latest scientific insights. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.
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Over the years, you have probably gained some insight into how your brain works. You may have taken a course or read a book that promised to reveal the secret of maximizing your mental capacity—a common sales pitch of leadership coaches these days. In the process, you may have read that after a critical period in childhood there is no hope for significant learning, that half of your brain is inactive at any given time, or that you’re capable of learning properly only in your preferred style.
Each of these claims is what we call a “neuromyth,” a misconception based on incorrect interpretations of neuroscientific research. Our experience advising companies on their lifelong-learning initiatives suggests that such misunderstandings remain embedded in many corporate training programs. As companies increasingly pour money into developing their employees, they can no longer afford to invest in training programs based on inaccurate and out-of-date assumptions. In recent years, for example, US businesses alone spent more than $164 billion annually on employee learning. The stakes are high and getting higher.
Bridging the gap between popular neuromyths and the scientific insights gathered in the past few decades is a growing challenge. As modern brain-imaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have advanced scientific knowledge, these misleading lay interpretations by business practitioners have advanced as well. Unless such misconceptions are eliminated, they will continue to undermine both personal- and organizational-learning efforts. In this article, we’ll address the three most prominent neuromyths in light of the latest research and explore some of the implications for corporate learning.
[Here is the first of three.]
Myth #1: The critical window of childhood
Most of us have heard about critical learning periods—the first years of life, when the vast majority of the brain’s development is thought to occur. After this period, or so the assumption too often goes, the trajectory of human development is deemed to be more or less fixed. That, however, is an exaggeration. Recent neuroscientific research indicates that experience can change both the brain’s physical structure and its functional organization—a phenomenon described as neuroplasticity.
Researchers studying the plasticity of the brain are increasingly interested in mindfulness. Practicing simple meditation techniques, such as concentrated breathing, helps build denser gray matter in parts of the brain associated with learning and memory, controlling emotions, and compassion. A team led by Harvard scientists has shown that just eight weeks of mindful meditation can produce structural brain changes significant enough to be picked up by MRI scanners.
Organizations from General Mills in consumer foods to digital bellwethers such as Facebook and Google increasingly give their employees opportunities to benefit from mindfulness and meditation. Most such programs have garnered enthusiastic support from employees, who often see a marked improvement in their mind-sets and job performance. For example, employees at the health insurer Aetna who have participated in the company’s free yoga and meditation classes report, on average, a 28 percent decrease in their levels of stress and a productivity increase of 62 minutes a week—an added value of approximately $3,000 per employee a year. CEO Mark Bertolini, who started the program a few years ago, marvels at the level of interest generated across the company; to date, more than a quarter of Aetna’s 50,000 employees have taken at least one class. Leaders like Bertolini understand that providing them with the tools to become more focused and mindful can foster a better working environment conducive to development and high performance.
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Here is a direct link to the complete article.
Artin Atabaki is a consultant in McKinsey’s Stuttgart office; Stacey Dietsch is an associate principal in the Washington, DC, office; and Julia M. Sperling is a principal in the Dubai office.
The authors wish to thank McKinsey’s Jennifer May, Michael Rennie, and Kristina Wollschlaeger for their support of and contributions to this article.