Can Neuroscience Help us to Think and Learn Better?


You're a rational, balanced person, right? When you go to work you appraise each situation and conversation on its merits and respond in the best way to achieve your long-term objectives. You are both aware of and in control of your emotions like excitement, anxiety, joy or frustration.






You have a brain that is wired to appraise any situation not as a neutral observer but as someone who needs to survive and thrive. Your appraisal will contain a crucial emotional component, the purpose of which is to motivate you to act swiftly to survive or thrive.


You also have a brain that is wired to survive first and thrive second. So you are more responsive to a perceived threat than to an opportunity. And if you have learned a fear response to a person or a situation, you have a brain that doesn't forget it, even if it subsequently learns to recognise that fear and control it.


Still think you're a rational, balanced person? It gets worse!


Your brain has a preference for categorical, well-defined perceptions and thoughts even if the information coming in to your brain is highly ambiguous. This is advantageous to you if you need to do something fast, like avoid a potential threat or grasp an opportunity. It's disadvantageous to you if you need to update strongly held assumptions or inferences in response to new information or meet a new, complex challenge. It's disadvantageous to you if you need to reflect in a calm, evaluative manner in order to learn.


...and worse still!


Once you've made up your mind about someone and a situation you find it difficult to change your mind. When your brain is not occupied with specific problem solving activities like parking in a tight spot or checking the cost of the goods in your shopping basket, it doesn't switch off but tends to default to a neural network which creates stories or narratives about your own and other people's histories. Having created a narrative about you and another person your brain is now biased towards noticing only those new pieces of data that either confirm or strengthen that narrative4. Your narrative drives how you behave in subsequent conversations with that person, imposing your subjective view on the conversations and affecting the outcome of them.


The latest neuroscience research is showing us how the human brain is good at:

  • Sensing danger or opportunity and motivating us to act quickly
  • Thinking on 'autopilot' to conserve energy


... and not so good at:

  • Thinking through today's complex business challenges in collaboration with others
  • Updating strongly held beliefs in response to new information


What are the implications for people in business? We find it hard to:

  • Think and act big picture and long term
  • Anticipate change or respond to it
  • Grasp new ideas and innovate
  • Formulate sustainable solutions to challenges / problems
  • Interact with others to everyone's benefit


It's almost as if the human brain has evolved for a completely different set of challenges from those that business right here and now presents to us.


Thinking better in critical work conversations


Achieving a greater understanding of your brain processes could open up all sorts of possibilities for you by helping you to analyse better what's really going on in a critical work conversation or situation. For example, you might get an insight to:

  • Why you have perceived a person or situation in a particular way
  • How you could perceive that situation or conversation differently
  • A different behaviour you could deploy and a different outcome to a conversation or situation that might follow from that different behaviour


You might also become eager to learn about techniques that might make you more consciously aware of currently unconscious cognitive (thinking) or affective (feeling) processes in your brain so that you could better answer questions like:

  • How am I currently thinking about a particular conversation or situation? What are different ways of thinking about this conversation or situation?
  • How am I currently feeling about a particular conversation or situation? What are different ways of feeling about this conversation or situation?


And why would you want to think or feel differently about a conversation or situation? Well it might just give you more choices of action to influence how the conversation or situation develops and its eventual outcome.


What if you could...


...consciously identify the automatic affective brain processes that have been triggered to appraise this new situation and be aware of your current feeling?


...consciously identify the automatic cognitive processes you are using to appraise this new situation and be aware of your traditional thinking?


...consciously simulate the feelings of another person involved in this new situation in order to inform your conscious reflection, evaluation and decision making?


... be mindful of your feelings and thoughts in response to this new situation and deliberately reappraise it?


...practice new behaviours to deal with this type of situation until they become unconscious, effortless habit?


I suggest that if you could do any or all of the above you would be a better learner. Yes, most of us do a lot of this already, everyday, in multiple situations and conversations. However, my experience as a coach and trainer is that we could do a lot more of it to become better learners and better work colleagues.



Jonathan Chalstrey, June 2015


Jonathan's business and passion is leadership and team development. His first book 'Think Better, Lead Better: Transforming Your Leadership Through Understanding Your Brain' was published July 2015. Visit or



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