The Astrology Page Blog: Rewiring the Brain

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Rewiring the Brain

With the Moon going into Aquarius the sign of the abstract mind and the "wired brain", I want to share this article on the rewiring of the brain and how it could affect corporate America, written by Ginny O'Brien MS, PCC. of the Columbia Consultancy.

Spring is bringing me a new experience that is really exciting. In May, I’ll be traveling to the town of Asolo in the foothills of the Dolomites in Italy to attend the first ever Neuroleadership Conference. Experts in leadership, executive coaching and neurology will be coming together to share new discoveries about how the brain shapes us and how we can learn to shape the brain.

The latest buzzword in the coaching world is “neuroplasticity” — the ability of neurons in the brain to forge new connections and even assume new roles. According to Dr. Jeffrey Swartz, “Neuroplasticity means rewiring of the brain.” I find this truly exciting as we are now gathering the hard scientific evidence from medical technologies to explain the success of “soft” techniques used by coaches, such as visualization, affirmations and behavioral modifications. We are now able to see the brain in action and scientists have been able to gain deeper understanding of how we are hardwired and how we can rewire ourselves to change our behaviors.

In addition, there has been more research on brain differences in men and women. What many of us intuitively knew is now confirmed. Armed with scientific evidence we are better equipped to understand ourselves and to change and manage our behaviors more effectively.

Two of the best books on the brain that I have read recently are The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain by Simon Baron-Cohen and The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, MD. According to Cohen, “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy and the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.” Baron-Cohen provides evidence that, “on average, females spontaneously empathize to a greater degree than do males -- and that, on average, males spontaneously systemize to a greater degree than do females.” This doesn’t mean that all men are one way and all women another. Some people are systemizers; some are empathizers. And some are a combination of the two.

However, statistical evidence demonstrates that more men are systemizers than women and more women are empathizers than men. To be a systemizer means that one’s brain is more hardwired to “analyze, explore and construct systems in order to figure out how things work, extract underlying rules, and understand and predict the system or create new systems.” To be an empathizer means that one’s brain is hardwired to “identify another person’s emotions and thoughts and to respond appropriately in order to predict behavior and connect and resonate with others emotionally.”

These brain differences and thinking patterns emerged as a result of evolutionary pressures, and are attributed to both social and biological factors. Neither pattern is better than the other and both are needed. This is true in our personal lives and it’s true in the business world. However, these differences pose interesting questions.

If more men than women think systemically, does that mean current leaders, the majority of whom are men, are systemic thinkers, naturally more focused on the bottom line and a win/lose mentality than on the people involved in the organization? Did they reach the top because they excelled in the areas that comprise systemic thinking: construction and use of tools and mechanical systems; spatial memory; the ability to real social hierarchies with a focus on rank, power and wealth; a desire to compete to win; the ability to focus and tolerate solitude; and a focus on what team members contribute rather than on how they contribute or what they feel about their work. Or did these leaders reach the top because they were integrated — because they used a combination of systemic and empathic thinking? Were they also good communicators and empathizers, who were expert at understanding others and reading other people’s emotional needs and were able to build and sustain relationships through connection and collaboration?

Have women who made progress in corporate America succeeded because they were systemic thinkers or because they learned how to think more systemically or did the women who succeeded naturally have a combination of both systemic and empathic thinking?

Corporate America started waking up to the value of empathy and emotional intelligence in the ‘90s. However many organizational cultures still reflect more systematizing thought processes than empathizing ones. Catalyst, the most renowned organization for research on women in the corporate world, published its latest findings, claiming that women held only 16.4 percent of corporate officer positions in Fortune 500 companies in 2005, up only .7 percentage points since 2002. Catalyst predicts that at this rate it will take 40 more years for number of women corporate officers to equal the number of men.

What does this mean with regard to leadership? Do we need to teach more women to think systemically and teach more men to think empathically? My belief is that the best leader is an integrated one: he or she knows how to think systemically and empathically and knows when to use each type of thinking. Maybe that’s why leadership is so hard: an integrated thinking pattern only comes naturally to some of us and it requires the rest of us to reshape our thinking by literally reshaping the connections in our brains. The good news is that if our brains have plasticity, we can in fact become integrated and use the best of our systemic and empathic thinking.

Copyright © 2007 Ginny O'Brien All Rights

Ginny is the author of three books: Coaching Yourself to Leadership: Five Key Strategies for Becoming an Integrated Leader, (HRD Press, 2005); Success on Our Own Terms: Tales of Extraordinary, Ordinary Business Women (John Wiley, 1998; and, The Fast Forward MBA in Business (John Wiley, 1996)


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