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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.