The Neuroscience Revolution: Contributing to our understanding of leadership development

I have been participating in a Neuroscience Summit, listening to and ‘working with’ leading scholars and practitioners in this ever growing brain science area.

Neuroscience is the integration of scientific studies of the brain and nervous system with practices such as mindfulness, therapy, and meditation.

As a consultant with an interest in growth and transformation, I am excited about the support and ideas neuroscience is giving to our understanding of willpower, performance, changing habits, building resilience and decreasing anxiety.

Although many of the ideas are not new, they are now fine-tuned with a compelling body of research behind them. I am still processing the material from the 20 leading voices I listened to in this area, and will listen to many of the recordings, and work the material again. For now, I share three highlights for me: an evidence-based strategy for developing new habits, a ‘read this book’ suggestion, and techniques for calming the nervous system.

Change Your Habits: Kelly McGonigal’s talk on the Willpower of Change, provided helpful strategies for shifting from the impulsive automatic to the highest self. Interestingly, this shifting from automatic to conscious choice is one of the key behavioural change leaders make as a result of participating in extensive leadership development programs (Sharon Daloz Parks, Leadership Can be Taught, 2005).

McGonigal suggests that if we want to take on a difficult habit to change, that we:

  1. Remember to have empathy for ourselves, which helps put our wiser self in charge;
  2. Clarify and keep in mind the values inherent in the change;
  3. Accept the difficult; and
  4. Engage in the new practice daily for short periods of time to support the ‘rewiring’ of our brain.

Much of the content of her talk can be found in her book the  The Will Power Instinct: how self control works, why it matters and how you can get more of it, which is based on her popular class at Stanford and is informed by the latest research and insights from psychology, economics, neuroscience, and medicine. In short, her work explains what willpower is, how it works, and why it matters.

Book Suggestion: One of my favourite reads of 2016 was Into the Magic Shop: a neurosurgeon’s quest to discover the mysteries of the brain and the secrets of the heart written by one of the summit speakers James Doty. Doty is a neurosurgeon and Director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

His work is on the cutting edge of knowledge of how the brain and the heart talk to each other; what compassion means in the body; and how this understanding can help us reshape our lives.

As described in a Krista Tippet interview, titled the Magic Shop of the Brain:  “The backstory of James Doty’s passions is told in his memoir, Into the Magic Shop. In the summer of 1968, in the throes of a hardscrabble, perilous childhood, he wandered into a magic shop and met a woman named Ruth who taught him what she called “another kind of magic” that freed him from being a victim of the circumstances of his life, and that he now investigates through science.”

Calm your nervous system. Several speakers mentioned or led techniques for calming the nervous system. What I liked about this is they each had their own way of presenting them. These are certainly practices I have been using in both my personal and professional practices. Here are two:

  1. Remember your breath.

To quickly calm an agitated brain, try breathing in to the count of 4, holding for the count of two, and breathing out to the count of 6. You can change these numbers to suit yourself, with a focus on extending the out breath.

Simply breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness.  Such techniques connect us to our bodies and help shift our states.

  1. Focus on the heart connection.

Try a one to three minute heart meditation or coherence technique. These techniques are most potent if you listen to them and experience the potential for shifting states. I suggest you try one of the coherence techniques provided as a resource at the Institute of Heart Math, where the methodologies are drawing on over 250 independent peer-reviewed studies. They describe coherence as “a state of synchronization between your heart, brain and autonomic nervous system that has been proven to have numerous mental, emotional and physical benefits.”

The Heart Math Coherence Techniques are a favourite of my friend and colleague Lillas’ and she has been using it for years, herself, and in workshops whenever she gets the opportunity. After leading this short technique, she asks the group how they feel, and inevitably words like peaceful, calm, and clear are noted. At one conference where this was presented, a participant said that was the first time he hadn’t been experiencing stress in months!

Try it here

We’d love to hear from you on any of these topics? Did this get your heart-mind going? Let us know.

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