Understanding the Brain: Why men and women lead differently

By Timothy Maurice Webster

For centuries, the fusion of poor science, religion and backward cultural beliefs propped up patriarchy and dealt a blow to women’s leadership aspirations the world over. The enlightenment era (17th-19th century) helped usher in healthier dialogue around women’s rights outside the home.

The world is beginning to awaken to the power of women leaders. However, it’s critical to acknowledge the slow pace of change. Lohan Brizendine, author of The Female Brain put her finger on the pulse when she wrote, “For much of the twentieth century, most scientists assumed that women were essentially small men, neurologically and in every other sense except for their reproductive functions.”

I sought the insights of neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart, author of Neuroscience for Leadership. After a view conversations, she invited me to her Neuroscience for Leadership class at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Boston to hear the latest ideas coming out of the scientific and leadership community about how men and women lead differently.

The three-day program consisted of mind-centering yoga classes as well as dietary offerings designed to ensure maximum brain participation. But the star of the educational show is by far Swart, an Oxford-educated medical doctor who decided to invest her energy in ensuring leaders achieve their brain power.

About half-way through the course, while I learned a lot about why it’s not good to have coffee after lunch and the importance of uninterrupted sleep, my purpose for being there was clear – to understand how the brain of women and men are different and how this impacts their leadership potential.

Swart explained while structurally the minor size difference between men’s and women’s brains are very little (on average, men’s brains are 10% larger), it does not translate to additional capacity to lead. Anyone paying attention to world affairs would know this but it was good to hear it at MIT. Studies show the majority of male and female brains show masculine and feminine features that varied. This means that if every person you met took out their brain and put it on the table, you would not be able to go, ‘oh that’s a man’s or woman’s brain’. Most of us share traits from both. Research shows around 98% does not show a clear gender profile at all.

Things became very interesting when Swart began to note that our circuitry (or what’s commonly known as the connectome) has different wiring in key areas. These different proverbial road maps help explain why men and women lead differently. This does not mean men or women are better, it simply suggests we should highlight the strengths of each and be aware of what we may need to change. For example, women have more connections going from left to right across the two halves of the brain. The left brain is responsible for logical thinking and the right, intuition, which could offer women an advantage when analyzing several sources and and coming to a healthy conclusion. Men on the other hand have more connections from the back to the front. These connection patterns help heighten their perception, offering more motor and spatial skills and these skills assist in hand-eye coordination activities such as catching a ball.

These patterns are not hard rules that can’t be changed and the environment plays an important role when it comes to the brain’s wiring. Swart highlights the differences between women’s and men’s brain output is impacted by a complex eco-system of influences such as diet, friends, parenting as well as whether or not your boss emits too many stress hormones. One of the aspects of our brains that make us remarkable is the ability to make patterns, signals and connections stronger by committing to practices. So, overriding a negative pattern is completely possible through what Swart calls neuroplasticity, which is the gateway to new behaviours – and the good news: this potential occurs late into your retirement years.

Here are some common generic differences: Female leadership traits make women group problem solvers, participative, vocally encouraging, help others express emotion, and inductive in solving problems. Male leadership traits are: Personally problem solve, hierarchical, encourages less feeling and more action, downplays the role of emotions and deductive in problem solving.

The course was attended by students from around the world. The main takeaway from Swart was men and women both have the potential to lead at the highest level and can rewire their brain when taking conscious ownership. Somewhere between our conditioned programming and our need to participate in the leadership environment is the ability to choose.

Timothy Maurice Webster is an author in brain and brand science. 

Dr Tara Swart is a renowned neuroscientist, leadership coach, medical doctor and award-winning author. 

This article originally featured in Forbes Women Africa, April/May 2017, page 95.


Dr Tara Swart’s 5 Brain Health Habits For Better Leadership

By Savannah Freemantle

Dr Tara Swart is a neuroscientist and leadership coach with a unique brain health angle on what it takes to be a better leader and achieve success.

Her aim is to teach people why optimal brain functionality is important in a leader. Explaining that it strengthens your decision-making and improves your performance at work. She says that improving the quality of your lifestyle can help you to enhance your leadership abilities and excel in your field.

“Poor sleep, lack of exercise, stress and poor nutrition can all contribute to poor mental function. This reduces your ability to perform at work and present good leadership qualities.”

What Brain Health Habits Make For Better Leadership?

Dr Tara Swart breaks down the key aspects to a healthy lifestyle that supports good leadership:

1. Good Sleep

“98-99% of brains need to sleep for 7-9 hours per night, as this allows the lymphatic system to be cleansed of neurotoxins,” she explains. “Sleep is a forcible flushing of neurotoxins, this is important as overtime, a build up can cause neurological disorders. Poor sleep can also result in fatigue and make it more difficult to manage ones emotions.”

A good night’s rest resets the brain and allows you to approach your day with a sharp, clear mind.

2. The Correct Nutrition

If you are under stress, eat every two hours for optimal brain  health. Your brain can’t store glucose and so it is important to keep replenishing your stores,” Dr Swart explains. This will help you to maintain your focus and ensures a productivity boost. It also ensures that your brain is well fed for any of the decisions it may need to make.

She adds that if you have the space to develop your mental resilience, then it can be useful to practice intermittent fasting as it teaches your brain that you can manage small amounts of physical stress, because you are in control of your recovery.

She adds, “You should also avoid eating too close to bedtime as this disrupts sleep.”

Dr Swart suggests a diet high in salmon, avocado, eggs, nuts, and healthy oils. Preferably it should contain reduced amounts of smoked foods, red meats, alcohol, caffeine and processed foods. It’s also crucial to stay hydrated.

3. Regular Exercise

I recommend 10 000 steps a day and 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week,” she shares. “

“It’s important to engage in aerobic exercise as this assists in oxygenating the brain, which is vital for healthy functionality. It is also important to participate in activities that require different levels of co-ordination, such as Ping-Pong, and that include a social element,” she explains.

Exercise also boosts your energy levels and your mood. Allowing you to be more positive and develop the stamina it takes to get more done.

4. Stress Less

 Stress is a physical or psychological load that is too much for your body to bear,” Dr Swart explains. It results in high levels of cortisol and affects your quality of thinking and your ability to regulate emotions.”

She adds that high cortisol levels erode your immunity, which makes you more susceptible to illness and can result in time off work. They also have a negative impact on sleep, which results in neurotoxic build-up. This causes death in the nerve cells in the brain. Mindfulness practice is very helpful in reducing cortisol levels.

5. Improved Neuroplasticity

“Learning something new in adulthood, such as another language or a musical instrument, improves your neuroplasticity which has been shown to prevent the onset of neurological disease and keep your brain sharp. This improves your focus and decision making ability.”

Another good reason to never stop learning.

Dr Tara Swart is a renowned neuroscientist, leadership coach, medical doctor and award-winning author. 

This article was originally posted by Longevity.


The Benefits of a Digital Detox

By Dr Tara Swart

Neuroscience and understanding the brain is far more important for business than we might first imagine. Neuroscience-based coaching can help create the ideal environment and mindset in which business leaders can thrive, enjoy their work, and build happier teams too.

In today’s extremely frenetic work environment, some reports say that we check our phone up to 85 times or more per day. This means our brains have to process a vast amount of information on an hourly basis. How can we ensure that we look after our brain health in this demanding context? Just like athletes train and care for their bodies, professionals should look after their brain’s health in order to enhance performance at work, and realise that our bodies are not simply a convenient vehicle for moving the brain from meeting to meeting.

Our brains are not programmed to always be ‘switched on’, so a digital detox can be a good way of giving your brain a rest and reducing your stress levels. The increased space and time which a digital detox provides can even boost your creativity, as well as allowing you to spend more time with family and friends.

Taking a break from devices can improve your performance in a number of ways:

  • Improved Sleep and Rest for the Brain
      • Using a phone or device in bed or just before sleep can negatively impact the quality of your sleep.
      • Melatonin – the hormone that helps regulate our sleep – is released by the pineal gland into the bloodstream. The blue light that phone and laptop screens emit confuses the gland because darkness is what triggers it to start working.
      • Population norm studies have shown that a disturbed night’s sleep can account for a drop of 5-8 IQ points the following days.
      • Long term lack of sleep can even increase chances of developing a dementing disease like Alzheimer’s, because our brain’s glymphatic system removes toxin build-up from the brain whilst we sleep.
  • Social Bonding/Spending Time with Family
      • Oxytocin, the “bonding hormone” – released into the blood via the pituitary gland during times of trust and bonding – is likely to be more in abundance in a situation where people can communicate and interact freely over a shared experience, as well as through appropriate physical contact.
      • Putting down our devices and spending time interacting with loved ones can help to increase levels of oxytocin, which can improve communication and trust.
  • Combatting Stress
    • We generally feel under constant pressure to respond to emails and messages immediately. Being aware of emails coming into your inbox can cause stress and an increase in levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Some studies have even suggested that knowledge of unread emails in your inbox can reduce your effective IQ.
    • Further, our brains are not good at multi-tasking, so having to constantly overlap work and leisure by, for example, responding to emails at the weekend, can tire us out mentally.
    • It is important that we use our weekends and holidays to give our brains time and space to recharge and relax. A digital detox over the weekend can be the first step towards achieving this.

Dr Tara Swart is a renowned neuroscientist, leadership coach, medical doctor and award-winning author. She will present on Neuroscience for Leadership in Johannesburg on 25th May 2017, hosted by Business Results Group & the Gordon Institute of Business Science. For more information: www.brg.co.za/events; 0861 247328; rsvp@brg.co.za

How To Get The Best Out Of Your Brain At Work

By Dr Tara Swart

You might not have guessed it, but neuroscience and the way the brain works has all sorts of implications for business. Most people get paid to use their brains, but few understand how their brain works and how to get the best out of it. Understanding neuroscience means that we can better understand leadership stress and resilience, risk-taking and decision-making; how to harness diversity of thinking in teams; how to create conditions for success in organisations; and how to deal effectively with rapid change.

Our brains are by no means fixed or set in adulthood: neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to change itself in response to what it experiences, means that we are all capable of changing the way with think and feel about things. The more we practice new behaviours, the deeper the neural pathways will become, and the easier the new process is.  If we want to make a change, for example, from a fixed to a growth mindset, we have to do it consciously and deliberately with awareness, focus and attention.

Just like athletes train their bodies, professionals should look after their brain’s health in order to enhance their performance at work. Our body is not just a convenient vehicle for moving the brain from meeting to meeting. We receive a lot of information and input from our bodies. In the stomach and gut, you find almost all of the neurotransmitters – such as serotonin and dopamine – that are also active in the brain, and help us make decisions and function in everyday life. Caring for both body and brain with a healthy diet, we can improve our brain’s effectiveness at work. Good hydration is equally important; likewise, cutting back on alcohol and caffeine is ideal.  

The ways in which you can improve your brain’s physical health to boost your performance at work (and outside of it) fall into 5 broad categories: Rest, fuel, hydration, oxygenation and mindfulness, or simplification.

1. Sleep

Make sure you get 7-9 hours of good quality sleep every night. Whilst you sleep, your glymphatic system cleans your brain. Population norm studies have shown that any disruption to this reduces your working IQ by 5-8 points the next day.

2. Fuel

Eating properly boosts your brain’s executive functions such as emotional regulation, complex problem-solving and thinking flexibly. Eating magnesium rich foods, such as beans, nuts or leafy green vegetables and taking a mineral supplement lowers levels of your stress hormone cortisol. If you find it hard, you can simply take supplements in magnesium and omega oils alongside your usual diet.

3. Hydration

Hydration is critical as a 1-3% decrease can negatively affect your memory, concentration and decision-making. Try to drink at least 500ml of water for every 15kg of your body weight a day.

4. Oxygenation

Doing regular exercise can have the same effect on the brain as a low dose of anti-depressants and boosts your productivity by as much as 15%. Physical exercise releases cortisol from your body through sweating and this helps you deal with stress.

5. Mindfulness

Practising mindfulness can reduce cortisol levels in the blood which lowers our stress levels and makes us feel more relaxed.

Studies have shown that just 12 minutes of mindfulness a day or 30 minutes of mindfulness 3 times a week thickens folds in the pre-frontal cortex – the area of the brain associated with higher executive functions such as emotion regulation, problem solving and flexible thinking.

We have a limited amount of quality decisions we can make each day, so avoid focusing too much energy on decision-making in the morning, saving your cognitive resources for throughout the day.

In sum, neuroscience turns out to be far more important for business than we might first imagine. Neuroscience-based coaching, and drawing on the remarkable plasticity of the brain, helps create the ideal environment and mindset in which business leaders can thrive, enjoy their work, and build happier teams too.

Dr Tara Swart is a renowned neuroscientist, leadership coach, medical doctor and award-winning author. 

This article was originally posted by Entrepreneur Magazine.


Neuroscience tips for improved leadership

by Dr Tara Swart

Most of us get paid to use our brains, yet there is often a lack of understanding about how our brain works and how we can use it to its full potential. Knowing simple facts about how your brain functions can help you train your mind and improve how you work, both personally and as part a team. It is often presumed that good leadership is inherent, a quality which we are born with. Neuroscience supports the idea that leaders can be born and are then made by developing favourable brain pathways. There has been a lot of work done in the application of neuroscience to business, and I cover the subject in depth in my book Neuroscience for Leadership. The following are a few small science-backed tips that may help you begin to realise your potential for great leadership.

The ability to adapt is crucial to effective longevity in business.
With an ever-changing business environment, as well as ongoing stress and pressure, leaders must be constantly open to re-examining and changing their habits. Encouraging our brain’s neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to adapt by creating new neural pathways) will teach our brains new behaviours, whilst weakening the old habits we no longer need.

As a leader, it is vital to lead by example – if you are stressed this will affect your whole team.
Cortisol, the “stress” hormone, is contagious so reducing your cortisol levels is crucial to calm not only yourself, but those around you. In the long term, this can be done through practicing mindfulness meditation, which will thicken the folds in the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with higher executive functions, such as flexible thinking, impulse control and reasonable decision-making. If you aware of your stress rising, for a quick fix, deep abdominal breathing can reduce cortisol production and increase oxygen flow to the brain.

In contrast oxytocin, the bonding hormone, will help you develop trust and good communication with others. These qualities are crucial to leading an effective team, which will thrive long-term, as well as building new business connections. Developing a trusting work environment will help encourage learning, bonding and creativity. Oxytocin can be released through simple, physical interactions, such as good eye contact and handshaking as well as through successful communication. Productive meetings, a motivational speech or team bonding sessions will all help boost oxytocin between colleagues.

Good leadership is often all about confidence – whether it be your own or instilling confidence in others.
Higher levels of testosterone are linked to an increase in confidence. Testosterone also has a positive effect on risk taking and competitiveness, important when engaging with potential business contacts and staying one step ahead of your competitors. The connection between the mind and the body means that simply standing tall and acting with assurance can boost your testosterone levels and reduce your cortisol levels (stress). In the same way hunching and making yourself small will have the opposite effect. Having positive and open body language will not only come across well, but will make you feel more confident.

Even being able to examine your current habits and implementing small changes like these will help you harness your brain’s full potential for leadership and gain a competitive edge in the work environment.

Dr Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, award-winning author and a medical doctor. She works with leaders all over the world to help them achieve mental resilience and peak brain performance, improving their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions and retain information.

Business Results Group is delighted to once again host Dr Swart who is visiting South Africa to present on Neuroscience for Leadership in Johannesburg on the 25th May 2017. For more information, click HERE 

Tara 2017 Attend the Event