Lessons From A Man Who Grows Brains

Earlier this month I attended a two day workshop on the latest brain research with leading neuroscientist and author of Brainwise Leadership, Professor Pieter Rossouw. Pieter is a lean, tall middle-aged man, radiating enthusiasm and joy, and it was a privilege to learn from him.

Because FRI is running its own learning events over the next few months, I wanted to share a few insights I picked up on how to look after your brain and enhance the learning process. (By the way apologies if you missed out on a place in next week’s Multi-Unit Summit. Please register your team early for The National Franchise Operations Conference before it also fills up).

Harnessing the power of connection

Pieter Rossouw’s key message was, the healthy functioning our brains impacts significantly on the quality of our lives. But there’s more. Because the brain is primarily a social organ, our interactions with other people impacts on the functioning of their brains! In other words how we talk, behave and connect with other people directly influences the health of their brains. For instance he presented some compelling research to show how counselling is more effective (and safer) than drugs in modifying brain chemicals, and treating depression and anxiety.

At the start of the course he asked us why we were attending, and made the point that being mandated to participate in something is a barrier to learning. He explained that when the brain feels out of control, stress kicks in and a person is more likely to close down and get defensive. It reminded me how important it is to give people choices where possible, and help them feel a sense of control and involvement when working with them.

I particularly learned a lot in the way Pieter engaged us. Rather than relying on slides, he used a white board to draw pictures and make his points.  And every time someone asked a question he would treat it like an amazingly important issue, answering in a thoughtful and considered manner. He also used vivid stories from his own experience to bring concepts to life.

One amazing fact I learned is that in the first 10 months after birth, new brain cells (neurons) are produced at a startling 250,000 a minute, and then progressively less until we reach 25 years of age. After this we generate just 800 brain cells a minute. But our lifestyle enhances or inhibits this process. In an “enriched environment”, where there is positive social interaction and the regular learning of new ideas, brain cell production can double to 1,600 neurons a minute.

How to create or kill off brains cells

While new brain cells are created when we feel valued and are learning new things, a negative environment causes brain cells to rot and die. By negative, I mean when we are bored and disengaged, or in situations that make us feel isolated, anxious or uncertain. This obviously has big implications for organisational culture how we conduct meetings and discussions. The safer and friendlier the environment, the better peoples’ brains will function. Also by engaging people in meaningful small group discussions we can help them to double the number of brain cells they are generating.

One final thing I learned about learning. If you are listening to someone and you want to remember what they said, the physical act of making notes on paper significantly enhances learning and recall because of how it activates the brain. Even if this is just writing occasional words or making mud maps of what you hear. Reflecting on and discussing this boosts learning even more. So while typing notes on a computer or iPad is better than just passively listening, using good old fashioned paper and pen will give you the best mental returns.

I guess the message here is, if you want to stay sharp and remember things, mind your brain.

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