Core Neuroscience & Behavioural Theories behind NeuroSmart® Concepts

Neuroscience is really interesting. It’s also very complex and, despite massive increases in knowledge over the past decade, still evolving as a science. Many of the things that were taken as fact, even relatively recently, are now known to be more nuanced. Without doubt additional layers of complexity and uncertainty will emerge to accompany just as many amazing revelations in coming months and years.

Neuroscience is also very much on-trend, misinterpreted, abused and at times simply not relevant to the content it is supposed to inform. That’s not helpful. Neuroscience, in its most credible form, looks at very specific regions, connections and processes within the central nervous system, mostly focusing on the brain if for no other reason than that’s where most neurons are located.

Neuroscience, for its own sake, is not where our interest lies. For example, learning that some people have more connections between left and right hemispheres than others is interesting, but when we also associate greater capacity for complex thinking with those extra connections, it becomes apparent that some people are, through their brain development processes, naturally more inclined to complex thinking, from problem-solving (usually helpful) to simple communications (often not so helpful). From here we can start to see that some people are more naturally inclined to ways of thinking and working – for example, leaders who have higher connectivity between hemispheres tend to orient themselves toward transformational leadership, whereas others commonly fit and perform better in transactional leadership roles. This is where it gets useful for the benefit of individuals and organisations.

There is another dimension to our area of specialization too. Rather than simply focusing on neuroscience, our interest is in how brain and body interact to give rise to thoughts, actions and well-being. This is neurobiology, and this article lists some core neurobiological concepts that are common throughout our approaches to leadership, management, performance and fulfilment.

Brain development

The first is how brains, knowledge and habits develop. We are interested in four basic processes involved in brain development because of how they affect, and are affected by, workplace capacity and experiences:

  • Neurogenesis, being the DNA-programmed and nutritionally-influenced growth of brain cells, from stem cell through to a specific neuron for a specific role. DNA shapes not only our physical attributes, but how our brains develop – even to the extent of guiding personal preferences, capabilities and response patterns. DNA is highly influential all throughout life but DNA alone does not shape cognitive choices and cannot be solely blamed or attributed for behaviours and achievements. Think of DNA as a framework of likelihood – or even possibility – rather than a road map to inevitability.
  • Epigenesis, being the expression of DNA-programmed genes according to life experiences and demands. While our genes are encoded into our DNA before birth, they can switch on or off, and be expressed in one way or another, as a response to the demands placed on an individual. This occurs most with a growing brain and this is why early childhood experiences and environments are so influential in how a child grows and develops into an adult that has learned and adapted to survive and, hopefully, thrive in life. Epigenesis continues throughout life, albeit at a much slower pace, meaning that all life experiences have the potential to affect cell and trait development.
  • Synaptogenesis, being the formation of connections between cells. Most of these are pre-programmed, and some are created in response to experiences, environments and, especially, new learning. These connections are not only pathways, but the reservoirs in which knowledge is held as memories. Some of these are “explicit” memories, which can be, even with some effort, recalled and put into words, allowing them to be expressed and reflected upon for self-development and well-being. Others are “implicit” memories, where we don’t really know what we know, or understand how or why we know it. Implicit memories often trigger emotional or intuitive responses, and can be difficult to understand, express or, in how they are drawn upon, modified.
  • Myelinogenesis, being the coating of synaptic connections with severity and/or frequency. Habits and instinctive responses, both emotional and rational, are based in myelinated synapses. Myelination allows for faster travel and high volume of information – a well-myelinated pathway can be expected to be 3,000 times more capable than a novel one. This is why habits (in feeling, thinking and acting) feel “right” and are compelling, especially under pressure.

Synaptogenesis and myelinogenesis (connection and memory-related), as with neurogenesis and epigenesis (neuron development-related), continue in response to workplace experiences. This presents employers with some opportunities to positively influence the feeling, thought and behavioural patterns of employees, in turn contributing to their capabilities, performance, cooperativeness and well-being.

Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity relates to the brain’s ability to change itself according to its experiences and influences. Just as specific muscle groups respond to the needs placed on them in the gym, or atrophy if they are not used, neuroplasticity follows a similar process in the brain, strengthening regions that are worked and, to preserve brain-building resources, neglecting those that aren’t.

  • Where a new experience or way of processing an experience occurs, subject to the impact of that experience (especially emotionally), new synapses are created. Where synapses are activated at the same time, they are likely to connect (Hebb’s law) – for example, if a conversation with the manager is upsetting, the sight of the manager (the visual cue that accompanied the experience) alone can become upsetting.
  • If a new experience is weak, it may not be strong enough to be prioritised ahead of other internal or external stimuli (so is down-rated by the salience network) and, especially without repetition or meaning, is unlikely to lead to brain change (weak signals don’t trigger the “second-messenger” effect essential for learning). For example, skimming this article once without much interest is unlikely to contribute to processing, understanding and learning (converting into memory) its content, whereas emotional significance, concentration, reflection and repetition will.
  • If a neural activation pattern is repeated, existing synapses become myelinated and the beliefs and habits become stronger. If a neural activation pattern becomes disused, the synaptic connections that define it fall into disrepair (Merzenich’s law).
  • Variations between expected and realised outcomes support fast learning through new synapses, especially if the variance is significant (esp. emotionally).
  • The brains of employees and managers continue to change, either in strengthening of existing pathways or creation of new ones, as a result of interactions with and within the workplace environment. Doing nothing is doing something.
  • Simply thinking about something, unaccompanied by action, can be significant in supporting neuroplasticity. This is common in rumination and worry, where a neural loop focusing on loss and upset can become a dominant (default) thought pattern that triggers anxiety, panic or depression without necessarily having an objectively realistic foundation. It is also common in sports psychology and resilience, where rehearsing the steps and challenges involved better prepares the brain, from basic motor control through to neocortex, for them, and the responses required to overcome them. As a specific example, mindfulness requires repeated rehearsals when stress is not present to allow those synaptic pathways to develop and myelinate enough to be accessible when it is.
  • Neuroplasticity is supported by feelings of safety, good sleep, exercise, stress management, diet and relationships. In particular, hippocampal health is highly influential in neural regeneration and memory consolidation during REM sleep.

Neuroplasticity is influenced by age at the time of an experience, proximity of an experience, frequency of the experience, and the severity (typically emotional impact) of an experience. Whether an experience can be recalled, understood or expressed in words is not an indication of its neuroplastic influence, but is influential in facilitating therapeutic change (itself neuroplasticity) through counselling or reflection.

Regional brain function

A times we might refer to specific brain regions where there is strong evidence that a specific region is associated with a specific process, but to be an effective practitioner of NeuroSmart® techniques it is not essential that they are remembered. For the practical purposes of Neuroleadership and Neuromanagement, there are only a few concepts that matter to us. They include:

  • Differentiation, being the allocation of different tasks to different areas of the brain.
  • Connection or integration, being the interaction of various regions for a given process.

Three examples of differentiation we refer to include:

  • The amygdala (amygdalae), being the two small regions located approximately at the intersection of direct lines between the left ear and the left eye, and right ear and right eye. The amygdala is known for its role as the alarm bell, being the first stage in triggering fight or flight responses faster than any rational thought can be processed. It is not as well known for being influential in almost every decision, both emotional and rational. Anxiety, arising from a genetic predisposition and/or previous experiences and/or current environments typically involves enlarged amygdala that trigger at a lower voltage – an adaptation designed for a survival-first approach.
  • The hippocampus, being a region that reaches between the amygdala. It is known for its role in spatial awareness, contextualising threats, working memory, longer term memory coordination and consolidation, emotional management and, crucially, the brain-building functions noted earlier. The hippocampus likes a full night’s sleep to do its work of brain-building. The hippocampus typically experiences reduced functionality when the amygdala is highly active, and where the amygdala is often active (eg chronic anxiety), reduces in size with disuse, in turn reducing its effectiveness in all but the calmest of times. An ideal state for well-being and capacity is a strong, healthy hippocampus and an amygdala that doesn’t fire too often.
  • The prefrontal cortex (PFC), being the regions directly behind the forehead. The PFC is the “smart” part of the brain, specialising in highly cognitive and conscious processing. It is the seat for problem-solving, imagination, complex thinking & higher-level emotional management. It likes to work in tandem with the hippocampus and, like the hippocampus, is not part of the fight/flight response to the extent that blood flow to the PFC reduces as a part of those response mechanisms, preventing the person from being able to understand or control emotions, think clearly and even, at times, put sentences together. It also likes to concentrate on one thing at a time, so as things become repeated they may be delegated to other brain regions (such as the basal ganglia, a more primitive group of regions) to allow the PFC to focus on novel problems. For example, learning to drive a motor vehicle starts as a complex task requiring full concentration, but over time drivers don’t even think what their feet are doing – it happens “automatically”. However, when we are lost and looking for a road sign, we often turn down the music so we can concentrate on the prioritised input.

Recently the concept of connection, or integration, is gaining favour over differentiation as it becomes clear that although specific brain regions are associated with specific things, they are often not the only region that gets involved in that thing, and that that thing is not the only thing that region is involved in. There is also the brain’s ability, in some cases following physical brain trauma, to re-allocate tasks to a different brain region. For this reason the general functions of the amygdala, hippocampus and PFC as parts of neural systems is more helpful for us to understand. This also allows us to focus on the process, and how we might understand and influence it. You will see other systems noted from time to time (e.g. in the article on the neuroscience of motivation) for the purpose of understanding how an action-initiation or response can be welcomed, tolerated, managed or influenced.

Triune brain theory as a useful concept

Edinger, and later Maclean, described a theory of brain evolution and growth that divided it into three distinct regions, with the lowest, situated atop the brain stem, identified as the “reptilian brain” being the least conscious and most ancient in evolutionary terms. The next -oldest region was identified as the paleomammalian complex, commonly referred to broadly at the limbic structure, said to be the seat of emotional and intuitive processes, motivation. The youngest region is the neomammalian complex (neocortex) and is said to be the home of complex and abstract thinking, language, planning and perception (linked to consciousness).

More recent discoveries have found such clear distinctions, both evolutionarily and in function, to be a little inaccurate. For example, the amygdala, part of the limbic structure, is involved with rational processing (it might be considered to be a gatekeeper both in and out), as is the hippocampus. Similarly, emotional processing, from feelings to motivation, is not restricted to a single area.

However, the concept of emotional/intuitive processing (fast and powerful, implicit-memory based and more often associated with the limbic structure) as a different way of processing stimuli and coordinating responses when compared to cognitive/rational processing (slow and often weak, explicit-memory-based, associated with the neocortex) as proposed by Seymour Epstein is a very useful and realistic concept that permeates Neurosmart® practice.

This means that while triune brain theory is not as accurate as it was espoused to be some 50 years ago, as a concept it is still extremely useful in workplace settings and management process, especially conflict resolution.

Neurochemicals/hormones/neurotransmitters

The neural system produces and is influenced by various chemicals. These chemicals activate cells in brain, muscles, gut and so on to transfer electrical ions internally, in turn triggering chain-reaction responses between and within cells, often across thousands of circuits (neural pathways). For our purposes we will focus on a few of those as their influences translate directly into workplace capacity, behaviour and well-being:

  • Dopamine is at the heart of the reward system, releasing two opiate-like compounds that make us feel good. We need some dopamine to feel OK. Dopamine is released through eating high energy foods (hence our attraction for fats and sugars), task completion, learning, repetition, concentration, enjoyable interactions and lots of other very normal daily activities. Dopamine is also released in a massive dump through orgasm (teaching us to want to breed) and cocaine (a similar chemical compound). We are drawn to increasing those releases in size and frequency, but our homeostatic processing quickly adjusts – so the extra pleasure of a second iced donut soon becomes no more enjoyable than a single donut was a before. Or, shifting from a single sugary donut to a single donut, while initially not great, can soon become just as enjoyable as the expectation is adjusted. This phenomenon is at the heart of many over- and under-eating disorders, just as it is in normalising rewards in the workplace – the pay rise that was an “extra” one month quickly becomes the expected “norm” the next. For drug users, this normalization is known as tolerance, with the downside being a dopamine deficit if the higher levels are not available – hence the ultimately unsatisfying addictive power of sugar, sex, cocaine and many other dopamine-rich chemicals and experiences in-between.
  • Oxytocin also brings rewarding sensations, this time from close connection to others. It is very high in the mother-child relationship, where its purpose is to encourage the mother to continue to make sacrifices for the child. It is also released by hugging another, or, when distressed, hugging oneself. In the workplace, oxytocin helps to form close bonds (albeit with a limited number of others generally), arising from shared experiences, trust, vulnerability, mutual support and so on. The strength of oxytocin, along with its limitations in the number of people who can realistically enjoy simultaneous releases, says a lot about work group sizes and possible natures or expectations of peer and manager-subordinate relationships. Oxytocin is often ignored in the workplace as a resource, reward and element of team unity and personal well-being.
  • Serotonin is known for its benefits in regulating behaviour and mood while and by facilitating hippocampal function, notably in working memory and memory consolidation and retrieval. It is also linked to appetite and digestion. Low serotonin is linked to poor digestive function, depression, poor sleep and reduced higher-order cognitive capacity.

The above are all useful for behavioural management, cognitive enhancement, learning, creativity, sociability and well-being. A workplace whose employees regularly experience the effects of those chemicals is likely to be more productive, more fulfilling and healthier.

  • Norepinephrine is an action-oriented chemical that is always present in the body. Moderate levels are healthy, facilitating effort and focus. In larger amounts, such as when the fight/flight response is triggered, cause muscles to become ready for instant action as a physical response to what, evolutionarily, was typically a physical threat. When released in high volume it increases blood pressure while releasing energy to major muscle groups.
  • Epinephrine, otherwise known as adrenaline, is a high-action/panic response chemical only released when maximum energy is felt (non-consciously) necessary. It affects the whole body, increasing pulse rate and pressure, blood sugar levels and airway openings. The upset person with the red face and balled fists is experiencing epinephrine as part of a physical stress response.
  • Cortisol, known as the stress hormone, like norepinephrine, normally exists in moderate amounts but becomes elevated as part of the fight or flight response mechanism. It normally helps to reduce inflammation, controls blood pressure and increases the metabolization of glucose, along with supporting other essential bodily functions.

Where these three chemicals exist in elevated levels and over time, expect someone to feel fatigued, put on weight around the belly, suffer from elevated blood pressure, poor immune system function, and, unfortunately, to die prematurely. This can occur as part of chronic anxiety, which a workplace may have limited capacity to influence, a result of a compromised workplace environment or role, or of, most likely, both.

This isn’t just a well-being issue for employers, although it certainly is that. It is also a performance, quality, engagement, culture, customer service, reputation, health and safety, retention and profitability issue. For this reason, NeuroSmart® concepts, practices and techniques focus heavily on the prevalence and dominance of these groups of chemicals.

Electricity

Conceptually, the transfer of ions within a cell to create a response is similar to the way electricity moves from one side of a battery to another, lighting a bulb or turning a motor along the way. For electrical gadgets power (voltage) is the potential difference between both sides of the battery, and, for neurons, it is referred to as an action potential. Just like a rechargeable battery, cells that are in better condition and fully charged are the most capable, and the act of recharging can take a little time.

A cell is powered by the exchange of ions between potassium and sodium, so when ions are transferred to the extent that an equilibrium is achieved, no further flow is possible and the cell is no longer capable of responding – its battery is flat. This is most apparent with muscle fatigue – effectively, with repeated effort, the muscle’s batteries go flat and simply stop responding to the commands sent to them. Recharging involves cells absorbing more of those positively and negatively charged elements. This occurs naturally (e.g. recovery time) and charge is enhanced, for example by eating bananas (for potassium) or drinking electrolyte solutions (for sodium). Cell hydration is also essential, as is the availability of energy, either slow release (e.g. complex carbs and proteins) or fast release (e.g. simple carbs, fats and sugars).

As a NeuroSmart® principle, a basic understanding of how fatigue affects the brain as it does the body, and how hydration, nutrition and time (e.g., breaks, sleep) help brains to work optimally, is useful. In particular, the prefrontal cortex is highly susceptible to having a flat battery, in turn reducing, amongst other things, problem-solving capacity and emotional management as fast-fatigue, and loss of concentration, effort and productivity as slow-fatigue. A hydrated and fully charged brain is always going to be better at problem-solving, concentration and emotional management.

Behavioural programming

DNA influences not only development and core connections (projections) of neurons, but also their programming. Part of this programming is the fear response mechanism (fight / flight responses) as a fundamental survival reaction, and other, less dramatic but more consistent compulsions are also programmed in too. One of these is expressed in ideas around humans being driven to satisfy certain basic needs necessary for survival as a highly social – and socially-dependent – species. These basic needs, or basic motivational needs, or basic fulfilment needs (different expressions of the same things) we refer to are workplace applications of those identified by Grawe in his work in developing the field of neuropsychotherapy, in turn building on the ideas and research of behaviouralists and neuroscientists before and around him.

There are many “needs theories” which have arisen from attempts to make sense of the common behavioural patterns, from initiation to stimuli response, that have been observed for centuries. When viewed within their context and application, many are useful, but not based in brain function and, while being popular and useful in some ways, fall down in evidentiary base and broader application. We don’t see these necessarily as terminal failings of their concepts, but simply a contextual limitation or error arising from inadequate evidence being available at the time the concept was developed.

Behaviour, effort, stress and well-being in the workplace are significantly related to the drive to satisfy these overlapping and often interconnected needs, and the distressed responses (behavioural and physical) that arise from an individual feeling unable to satisfy them. The ability of an employee to act in positive ways within the workplace to satisfy organisational needs while maintain or enhancing fulfilment of their own basic needs is core to engagement, initiative, discretional effort, performance, joy and well-being.

The two main concepts here are the need to be able to act to achieve and maintain basic need fulfilment (relating to controllable and uncontrollable congruences and incongruences), and then the behavioural responses that are inherent as a common neurobiological response mechanism or have become habituated by an individual as their common response mechanism. Notably, the control an individual feels they have over reducing an incongruence is linked to their positivity, and in turn their response processes, from being highly positive, cooperative and creative, to reverting to the fear response. For this reason, managing motivation and behaviour in the workplace is closely linked to employee perceptions relating to their ability to act to protect or enhance their own safety and need fulfilment.

Consistency

“Consistency”, as concept relating to activity in the mind and/or brain, has enjoyed a few interpretations over decades of research and speculation. Even in neuropsychotherapy there are two quite different ways the word could be applied. One relates to consistency of response due to myelination, being consistency in neural activation due to strength and speed of connections. The other, which is referred to in the Integrated Model of Employee Engagement, relates to neural consistency as the compatible simultaneous activation of different neural circuits and processes.

When a stimulus is processed it does not travel down a single neural pathway. Rather, it spreads across fast and slow, rational and emotional, conscious and non-conscious, affecting different regions that in turn attempt to make quick sense of it in order to respond, quickly if need be. If the way the signal is processed, say, emotionally, is similar to the way it is made sense of rationally, then consistency, felt as sense-making and certainty, is achieved. If the way inputs are processed emotionally conflict with the way they are processed rationally, a state of inconsistency exists. For example, where someone says things that make sense on their own, but their body language or other “gut feelings” indicate that something is not right.

Inconsistency is most easily seen where people feel compelled to try to make sense of something that is unfamiliar or find it hard to take on a new information or a different perspective, feeling unable to move on or act until they do. Inconsistency serves as a warning system that has us feeling uneasy and unsure about someone or something when things don’t “add up”. Often it leads to confirmation bias, where the stronger emotional and intuitive interpretations and influences persuade the weaker rational processes to find facts that support the feeling, thereby resolving the inconsistency.

Generally though, the aversion to inconsistency is very useful in making sure processing and decision making, through being “being” right and “feeling” right, combines intuitive (or noetic) knowledge that might live within implicit memory with cognitive, conscious processing and reasoning. A decision based purely on logic is likely to be little or no better than one based purely on emotion, whereas a decision based on both (i.e., through consistency) is, statistically, likely to be better than either. Achieving consistency, where it doesn’t involve simple confirmation bias, might be thought of as different brain systems pooling their resources to collaborate on sense- and decision-making.

Coherence

Coherence is described by Dan Siegel as, in summary, a process involving the movement across time of information within the brain as part of an open, integrated and complex system that is essential for optimal functioning and well-being. This concept of the various parts, simultaneously and over time, of an open system involving internal and external inputs and outputs is really useful in attempting to understand the self-organising and highly complex nature of optimal neural processing, behavioural choices and well-being.

In Neurosmart® modelling, coherence is simplified as a concept to allow it, as a practical and actionable concept, to inform Neuroleadership and Neuromanagement. The Integrated Model of Employee Engagement identifies coherence as the achievement of both congruence and consistency. Simply, “I can satisfy my own needs and I am experiencing no conflict in how I am going to go about that.”

The implications for decision making, effort, commitment, ethics, effort, cooperation, culture and well-being are immense and immediate. Where coherence exists, or the path to it is clear and achievable, expect positive results in all of these areas. Where incoherence is felt to exist, and there is no perceived certain pathway to resolving it, expect opposite results, up to and including triggering of fight and flight responses.

Well-being

You will notice references to enhanced or compromised well-being throughout our articles and processes. But well-being can be a broad and vague term that means different things to different people, so it would be easy to relegate it to simply being a nice sentiment. However, that would be to misunderstand and undervalue it as a neurobiological condition.

For our work, well-being is simply neurobiological health. Firstly, it relates to well-being in the brain and mind, where employees and leaders are enabled to seek and achieve fulfilment in ways that are helpful for their physical and mental brain health. This involves all of the processes noted above coming together safely and sustainably. That individuals are able to pursue coherence individually and collectively. That workplace environments, demands and culture, psychologically and physically, are conducive to this. That the physical and mental health needs of individuals are considered in role design and location. And that leaders see their workplace as a part of the lives of themselves and their employees where each can enrich and add value to the other rather than simply being a master-servant time-for-money transaction.

Moving Ahead

The purpose of our work is not to be a repository on neuroscience or a definer of a single truth. Different views abound about the definition of consciousness, the specificity of differentiation and the influences of nature (DNA) versus nurture (experiences), and indeed the nature of reality itself. Most pressingly though is  To be practical, teachable and useful in everyday workplaces, it has been helpful to focus on broad concepts that are based in physical and/or behavioural evidence, and which are transferable into reliable, simple real-world best-practice. And, for us, as we’re sure it is for you, that’s the whole point.