You know when you decide to have an early night, but your partner stays up watching Netflix? The next morning, you may have a vague recollection of them coming in and muttering something. Well, considering brains don’t go into sleep mode all in one go, perhaps a region of your brain was listening. Instead of the brain switching off for the night, different regions slide into sleep mode at different times. This is why I lead this week’s Thursday Thought with the image of city lights gradually shutting down compartment by compartment.
Thanks to extensive reading to prepare for our ongoing series on “Brains, Beliefs and Biases”, I continue to learn about the brain. This article is inspired by that series and my reading featuring Steven Kotler, Iain McGilchrist and many others. Iain McGilchristextensively explores how when certain parts of our brain are damaged or inhibited due to a stroke our behaviour can radically change. Meanwhile, in our episode with Steven Kotler, he touched on his research on the neurochemistry and neuroanatomy of Flow States for optimum human performance.
Steven Kotler tells us, “at a very simple level, neurochemicals are “information molecules” used by the brain to transmit messages. Mostly, these messages are either excitatory or inhibitory: Do more of what you’re doing or Do less of what you’re doing. But these small signals add up quickly, changing emotions, altering thoughts, and fine-tuning reactions — essentially shaping our response to external events.
The flow state includes a cocktail of dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, anandamide and serotonin. Alone, each packs a punch, together a wallop. Consider the chain of events that takes us from pattern recognition through future prediction. Norepinephrine tightens focus (data acquisition); dopamine jacks pattern recognition (data processing); anandamide accelerates lateral thinking (widens the database searched by the pattern recognition system).”
These skills of pattern recognition, future prediction, data acquisition, data processing and lateral thinking are coveted executive skills in any organisation. However, we are light-years from achieving the organisational environments to facilitate such states.. It is not so much that we need to add the excitatory elements of the flow state, but rather we need to understand the inhibitory benefits. We need “Organisational Transient Hypofrontality”.
Organisational Transient Hypofrontality
(Black And White Animation GIF By Ariel Victor)
In flow states, regions of the brain aren’t simply becoming more hyperactive, but they are slowing or shutting down. The technical term for this is “transient (temporary), hypo frontality” (hypo is the opposite of hyper and means to slow down, shut down or deactivate) and frontality refers to the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex houses our higher cognitive functions such as our sense of self and our inner critic and that part temporarily shuts off. Wouldn’t we all like that region of the organisational brain to go to sleep for a while? What might happen? We might explore, experiment, tinker and try new things.
When I work with executive teams on developing a culture of innovation one of the first questions I ask is, “What are we going to stop doing?” This question is often met with blank faces, but my point is that innovation is like a setting on a graphic equaliser, some parts of the culture need to shut off, while others need their intensity turned down and some need to be amplified. Your to-do list is already packed, your calendar is already full, and your brain is at capacity. The great management theorist Peter Drucker said, “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”
Take, for example, the effect of anandamide, which takes its name beautifully from the Sanskrit word for “bliss”. While this chemical has excitatory effects: elevates mood, relieves pain, dilates blood vessels and amplifies lateral thinking, it also inhibits our ability to feel fear. Fear is one of the hidden blockers to organisational transformation. People grow fearful of judgement, of suggesting new ideas, of suggesting stopping old processes, of speaking truth to power (in case they fall victim to the Mum Effect, Shooting the Messenger). After all, the boss might not appreciate your gainsaying, they might not like to be wrong! Many corporate change makers start their role uninhibited by a desire for acceptance or fear of disapproval and they speak up, calling out broken processes or suggesting new methods. However, they soon find themselves labelled as troublemakers for doing exactly what they were hired for!
Until organisations create optimal environments for their people, learning, innovation and transformation will remain limited. Yes, there is always an onus of employees to play their part in any change effort. But to overcome blockers to change, we must face brutal facts about our working environments and uncover the hard truths about our inner environments. Sometimes it is not what we have to start doing, but what we have to stop!
Thanks for reading!
The brains beliefs and biases series also features new episodes with Kenneth Cukier on his book Framers:
All episodes are available here on YouTube: