Business and the Brain

Written by Marsha Shenk

Doing business in our era demands a degree of intellectual and emotional agility that few are equipped for. Most adults dislike ambiguity, are overwhelmed by constant input, and nearly immune to change. And we’re all exhausted by ongoing stress. Our brains evolved during a time when stress came in short, intense bursts, nothing like 24/7. Our customers, managers, employees, colleagues and strategic partners are operating at a powerful disadvantage.

For many of those upon whom we rely to do business, change often sounds like bad news, and opportunity shifts quickly. Recognizing the right moment requires both grounded optimism and ongoing curiosity. Designing the best move begs for a combination of playfulness, ambition, and exploration that’s likely to go far beyond what any of us may have done last year – or even last month.

How to be one of the few who seize the day?

Neuroscientists have learned a great deal in the past decade. Many of the demands of modern business defy the brain’s hard wiring; we are challenged to spark ingenuity and resourcefulness in circumstances that tend to minimize the brain’s executive functions. But it’s possible to work with natural programming, making it much easier to move employees and customers, and increase enterprise value.

Humans make their living by cooperating and coordinating. While our world of global commerce appears significantly different than our ancestors’, many key variables – though invisible - are the same. Society and business are comprised of a network of exchanges - reciprocal promises : some monetized, many not; some tangible, many not.

Our brains are hard wired to keep us focused on those interactions, including with whom we trade (who are our people?), what concerns them, and what we can count on them for.

And there are key differences. During the time that the brain was evolving, peoples’ environments were well-known by the age of puberty; little learning was required of adults, change was rare. Exchanges took place in well-worn social patterns; people didn’t have to work with strangers or plan how they would earn their livelihood.

Neuroscientists say “The brain was made for sociality”: we are hard-wired through mechanisms of social pleasure and social pain to focus on the kind of interactions that fit perfectly in that historical environment. The commercial activities we undertake are highly influenced by the same brain chemicals that propelled a young man to give the best part of his kill to his mother-in-law, and not think of doing it differently.

However, in the modern era, we are tasked with a number of hurdles for which the brain is not well adapted, and which are frequently painful enough that people shun them or rush through them:

  • Doing business with people we don’t know, gaining and granting trust
  • Sorting relentless, changing input, and interpreting what it might mean
  • Designing and re-designing the actions and exchanges through which we make our living
  • Capturing the attention of customers and employees with fresh messages.

Functioning well in our world is possible. It requires the abilities to shore up the brain’s executive functions, and recognize the right moments to command them, enabling informed choices vs. being whipsawed by emotion or intellectually exhausted when our attention is needed.

Fortunately, human adults retain Neuroplasticity
We can learn if we so choose. And we can design our businesses to cultivate the required skills

We can build cognitive and emotional fitness, and thereby be able to command curiosity and resourcefulness at the right moments, choosing when and where to get to know new people, take in new information, and embrace new opportunities in a changing environment. We can develop the consciousness to observe our hardwiring and not get carried away by it. And to observe others’ hardwiring and, rather than being defeated by it, ignite their ingenuity.

The fact is, we’re all doing business with ancient mechanisms, adapted to very different circumstances. And no matter how lofty our intentions, the human brain – marvel that it is – rests on top of reptilian, mammalian, and primate nervous systems, which have the power to trump our vaulted reasoning, and do so, every day.


Competitive cultures are beginning to look to physical fitness as a way of mediating healthcare costs, and collaborative fitness as a driver of productivity. More opportunity is within reach for those willing to step up to brain fitness: people can be smarter, more responsive, more curious… The big payoff is that working with you can become a highpoint in peoples’ week, if not their lives.

Are You Fit to Thrive in Any Economy?