Igniting brain power

You can always improve your cognitive skills and abilities, said experts at BT MindRush.
 Goutam Das        Print Edition: January 18, 2015
P Murali Doraiswamy, Professor and Director, Mental Fitness Lab, Duke University
P Murali Doraiswamy, Professor and Director, Mental Fitness Lab, Duke University (Photo: Shekhar Ghosh)

It was 3:30 p.m. when the lanky P. Murali Doraiswamy walked up to the stage at Business Today's annual conclave, MindRush. "We are at the nadir," said the Professor and Director of Mental Fitness Lab at Duke University, referring to the time of the day. This is a time when an individual's cognitive performance is at its lowest. Just a while ago, the audience had polished off food from the lunch buffet. Their brains had a heavy dump of glucose; their stomach had, perhaps, started signalling the sleep centres in the brain.

Doraiswamy, however, knew how to keep his audience awake - arguments were one of his tricks. "One of the things I am going to do is challenge one of the earlier speakers, Peter [Docker]. And tell you why some of the things he said was wrong," he said.

Docker is a former British Royal Air Force officer and a pilot - he flew Margaret Thatcher, the late British Prime Minister. He has now metamorphosed into an eloquent motivational speaker who takes forward his friend and author Simon Sinek's theory of The Golden Circle. So, what did Docker say that needled Doraiswamy into a "friendly" challenge?

Both Sinek and Docker propagate the power of 'why'. The Golden Circle theory has three circles - 'why' forms the innermost circle, 'how' the middle circle and 'what' the outer circle. All corporations know 'what' they do, some know 'how' they do it, but very few know 'why' they do what they do. Why companies exist does not equate to making profits - profits are a result. 'Why', according to Sinek and Docker, is the purpose, cause and belief of the organisation and one that ultimately separates men from the boys.

Docker, in his talk at BT MindRush, forwarded many examples on how inspired companies have harnessed the power of 'why', with Apple and Richard Branson's Virgin being two examples. The 'why' of Apple is the fact that the company believes in challenging the status quo and in thinking differently. The company doesn't say they make great computers, which are beautifully designed, so buy one. Apple's marketing is "inside-out". It says they think differently. And the status quo is challenged by making products that are designed well. Branson, too, is very clear on his why - it is to positively impact millions of people's lives and have fun. Apple and Virgin are immensely successful and drive fierce brand loyalty. Both the companies have been able to make their customers feel connected because they articulated their 'why'.

Leadership and Motivation Expert Peter Docker (Photo: Vivan Mehra)
"Businesses have realised that manipulation through reducing prices are unsustainable models," Docker told BT. "If you take one product, you can drive the price down and down and then your suppliers can't afford to supply at that price because it is less than their cost price. People go out of business and people end up not having jobs." Loyal customers, however, are willing to pay a bit more and go to a business where they feel more connected.

It is here that Docker relates the importance of 'why', or for that matter, The Golden Circle theory to biology. Our brain has many portions - at the top is neocortex, which is responsible for rational and logical thoughts. Neocortex correlates with the 'what'. The middle component is our limbic brain, which is responsible for emotions, trust, loyalty, arousal and memory, among others. "It is the limbic brain that correlates with the 'why'. So if we don't know our 'why', we can't think, we can't communicate, we can't act. That means we are missing something huge," Docker said.

What Docker is suggesting is that the limbic system was the most important part of the brain for a corporation because it is this part that controls behaviour. Doraiswamy, however, doesn't quite agree here. Doraiswamy, in fact, had the audience's attention after challenging Docker at the beginning of his talk but avoided revisiting the topic directly.

When BT pressed him during an interview later, Doraiswamy explained: "In reality, the frontal cortex is really the one that has been responsible for all the innovations. You could have a limbic system, but you could never have built an iPhone in the first place. The iPhone was built using the frontal cortex. It was cold hard logic that went into developing the iPhone."

According to him, the frontal cortex is the most important for a corporation. "Without that we would be animals. We would be like Wall Street," he says, half-joking. "Greed, hunger, love, sex, scandals, wild swings - that is what all would be if we are limbic."

The debate on which part of brain companies should pay more attention to could have gone on, but Doraiswamy quickly moved on to yet another interesting topic during the interview: How to keep your brain going, make it healthy and wise. Of course, he had tips on what companies should do.

Moderate exercise, good diet, good sleep, stress management, and tricking the brain are good ways to ensure a healthy brain, he said. "You also need to use it. I like the idea of a young child's brain because the brain is willing to explore. Don't get into a routine and get jaded. Challenge yourself with new things every day," he advised. Tricking the brain is thinking young. "When you think young, you can slow down the physical manifestations. Thinking younger slows down the ageing process," he added.

Quote

"Acute stress is great and we need it. It is protective. But our body is designed to be in that state for under a minute at a time. However, in a modern society, when we move from one stress to the next, we get into a state of chronic stress"

P. MURALI DORAISWAMY

Professor and Director, Mental Fitness Lab, Duke University

What is a good diet for a healthy brain? "The best diet is Mediterranean (lot of coloured vegetables because it contains antioxidants) and small amounts of fish. The Indian curry diet is also good as long as you are not eating too much fried stuff," Doraiswamy said. He recommends five to six small meals a day, not a heavy meal. One way to control diet is to use smaller plates. He also proposes the Japanese practice of Hara Hachi Bu - eating till you are 80 per cent full.

These days, companies such as Google pay much more attention to what is served in its cafeteria. In fact, the company also has sleep pods for employees to nap. "NASA experiments have shown that if you took short naps, it increased cognitive performance by 18 to 25 per cent. Google sees it as positive if you are using sleep pods," said Doraiswamy. Not just naps, sleeping is key to stress control, too. Stress does several things to the brain. One, acute stress increases attention - if one sees a snake, the brain is super attentive. "Acute stress is great and we need it. It is protective. But our body is designed to be in that state for under a minute at a time. However, in modern society, when we move from one stress to the next, we get into a state of chronic stress," Doraiswamy said.

"The cortisol (a steroid hormone released in response to stress) level goes up, which decreases the attention in the brain. It causes depression, makes you overeat, weakens your bones, and reduces immunity," he added. Great sleep and some free time can prepare one to handle stress. A social support network - for instance, a best friend at work who one can talk to - helps as well. Exercise, meditation, and walks help too.

"A 10-minute walk in a green park can rejuvenate the brain. Yoga and meditation are very good at increasing the parasympathetic system," Doraiswamy said. While the sympathetic nervous system prepares one for dangers, the parasympathetic system triggers the relaxation response in the brain. "If you practice yoga every day, it does the reverse of what stress is doing to you every day. Yoga and meditation also strengthen the circuits in the brain and prevent the damage that happens from stress."

Finally, Doraiswamy also had a word of caution for macho CEOs who like to run marathons, especially if they are in their 50s. "A recent study showed that endurance runners had shrinkage of certain brain tissue right after a race. If they didn't run any more, it became normal in a few weeks time. Your are losing because the brain thinks of it as a stress," he said. Moderate exercise, on the other hand, is healthy for the brain. "It induces new nerve cell formation. So, half hour of exercise at moderate pace - a pace at which one can think - that's the best pace."

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