neuroscience and exercising

Humans are made to move 

Who wants to walk 12 miles with me today? Any takers? I didn’t think so.

It might surprise you to find out that early humans traveled as much as 12 miles a day (today people walk an average of less than one-half mile!). They did this to find food, safety, and to explore. For thousands of years, exercise associated as a result of exploring and traveling did much to improve the brain functions of early man, and it still holds true for humans today.

Oxygen is vital to brain nourishment. Exercise does humans a lot of good because it helps our brains get more oxygen. When the body is moving during exercise it pumps blood and oxygen throughout the body and especially to the brain. Nitric Oxide is a flow regulating molecule that through exercise creates more blood vessels in the brain in some pretty key areas. This process of neurogenesis helps improve our cognitive ability as a result of exercise.

For thousands of years while our early ancestors were being active, the cortex of the human brain was getting bigger and bigger, and as a result humans were getting smarter and smarter.

Don’t be a couch potato

University of Washington Neurologist and author of the book Brain Rules, John Medina, shows that our society gives us a lot of reasons be a couch potato. Things like television, computers, and video games often allow people to sit around for hours on end with little body movement. Couple that with fast food and you wonder why America is the world’s fattest nation.

John Medina goes a step further and examined some of our most institutional environments that we created for ourselves. I’m talking about classrooms and cubicles, the mainstays of our educational and professional systems. Sadly, these environments are “anti brain growth environments.”

Think about it, for eight plus hours a day our children and coworkers are often sitting motionless at a desk or trapped in some fabric-lined neural jail cell. For our brains to function optimally we as humans need to move, and move often.

Bring back recess!

Today’s society is test-happy, and unfortunately a lot of academic leaders believe testing is the end-all-be-all of developing knowledge. Sadly this misguided mindset has lead to physical education and recess being eliminated from the school day so that more time can be spent on core subjects.

Is that really the right thing to do? Neuroscience teaches us that exercise facilitates intelligence and boosts memory formation. The resounding answer should be NO, it’s not the right thing to do! For the sake of our children’s mental and physical well being physical education and recess should be reinstated in schools where it’s gone missing.

Active Performance 

It is important to note that exercise alone will not improve your cognitive ability, but repeated tests have shown a strong association to improved cognitive performance. In fact it was found that physically fit kids and adults had faster cognitive response times compared to their overweight counter parts.

Building upon the principle that exercise not only leads to a healthy body, but also a healthy mind, activity and exercise were found to reduce the risk of Alzheimer Disease by 60% and stroke by an amazing 57% in a person’s lifetime.

The great news is that you don’t have to run marathons or do crossfit to benefit from exercise (but they don’t hurt). All you have to do is walk about 20 minutes a day, three days a week, and be more conscious of your dietary intake. It really doesn’t take much.

Today, we have the same brains our early ancestors did that walked 12 miles a day. So be active and make the most of your brain. I’ll leave you with this quote from John Medina that sums up why humans are made to move.

“We were not used to sitting in a classroom for 8 hours at a stretch. We were not used to sitting in a cubicle for 8 hours at a stretch. If we sat around the Serengeti for 8 hours – heck, 8 minutes – we were usually somebody’s lunch.”

For more neuroscience information on exercise please check out Brain Rules by John Medina. You can see the cover in the bookshelf section of social-brain.

Your Social Brain and Your Happiness

It’s always nice when one of the most respected institutions in the world provides some research that’s right up your alley.

One of the most astounding facts neuroscience researchers have discovered in the past 20 years is that our brains are far more social than originally thought. Our brains are actually wired to connect with each other, like neural wifis. This ability to connect with each other has been and will always continue to be beneficial to human success and well being.

It’s no coincidence social participation can increase a person’s happiness. Over thousands, even millions of years, humans and our apelike ancestors that contributed to our evolution survived and thrived because of our intelligence and high level social behavior.

Today, mobile technology and social media monopolize our mental energy. Although our tools provide us with a technological advantage, we must avoid falling into a social deficit. Children, teens, adults, and professionals must place a premium on quality, in-person social interactions that are free from technological distractions. These quality, in-person social interactions will provide our brains the neural pathways for us benefit and get a sense of happiness from being a social participant.

We used to be smart, now we’re just frazzled.

As a college senior I remember sitting in my 400 level sales & marketing class, hearing the professor tell us how the internet is reshaping the field of professional sales because the consumer is becoming more intelligent as a result of easily obtaining information through the use of search engines. I enjoyed the thought that technology and knowledge could provide transparency to professionals sales – something the profession was in desperate need of.

 

I graduated from college in 2007. At that time Facebook was just getting off the ground, Twitter or LinkedIn were nowhere near mainstream, and the thought of iPhones and iPads were something from a sci-fi movie.  It’s amazing to think that was only five years ago. Those were different times then, and we were different people.

 

If in the mid 2000‘s the internet made consumers more intelligent, the addition of social media and mobile technology has made today’s consumer impossibly busy and extremely difficult to reach from a professional sales standpoint. Technology provides a cheap, quick form of communication, but one that is not emotionally stirring enough to drive buying behavior.

A majority of B2B sales professionals struggle to get over these new-age, technological hurdles that keep them from their potential customers. And even when sales professionals meet with potential customers, most are not equipped to deal with someone who is busy, stressed, over-communicated, and is short on attention.

 

The solution for sales people is not to become as complicated as the environment that surrounds today’s customers, but rather to cut right through the clutter using simple, effective communication. Here are some tips and tricks that my help you in a sales process with a frazzled, busy customer.

 

Simple is effective.

 

The human brain loves simplicity. The principle of Cognitive Fluency teaches us that the easier it is to think about something, the easier it is to act upon something. If your message is complex your customer will hesitate to take action, and nothing is worse than a customer who continually drags their feet.

 

If you’re sending a message in text keep it at three sentences or under. It’s far more likely to be read. Keep in mind most people read emails on a mobile device, and the small screen could make a two paragraph introductory email look like a novel.

 

One of the questions I like to ask is “can you summarize your entire message in a tweet?” Seriously. Thinking about your message from this perspective will allow you to trim the fat of your presentation and make your message more likely to be understood.

Be relevant or get the hell out of my office.

 

Always keep the focus on the urgent and most immediate needs of your customer. Undoubtedly you will discover other areas that you can make a difference for your customer in the sales process, but you must keep your eye on the prize. It’s important you gauge the focus of your customer and don’t get off track.

 

If your customer has several urgent and immediate needs, deliver your message one at a time when you see the timing is best. Although your customer might have 4 major needs they can’t mentally process them all at once and on the initial. Spoon feed them how you can make a difference for them one issue at a time.

 

Be Salient and Different.

 

Don’t be surprised when customers don’t return your phone calls and emails. I have best friends who don’t call me back. It’s nothing personal, it just speaks to a busy lifestyle. If you want to reach your customer you need to stand out and that might be winding the clocks back to a time before emails and text messages.

If you have a customer that’s worth the time there’s a variety of ways to get their attention. Once you’ve crafted your simple, relevant initial message you can try some of the below strategies. It’s always nice when I mailed a hand-written note to a customer and they call me back when they get it. There’s actual a scientific reason behind it. Thanks for reading and I hope this wrinkled your brain.

Is Technology Making Us Dumb?

It might be difficult for anyone above the age of 25 to wrap their head around, but social intelligence in our younger generations may be in jeopardy as a result of our growing dependence on technology. The above Harvard Business Review blog post may actually confirm it.

On the scale of “hippie to techie” I fall smack in the middle. I respect technology, but at the same time I am cautious of our growing dependence on it as a society. Speaking from a neuroscience standpoint I have great reason to be cautious. Technology may be undermining several key evolutionary neural responses that are essential for social development and meaningful communication.

Our Brain’s Evolutionary Roots

You might not know it, but the brain that rests in your skull has actually been a work in progress for millions of years. Humans had numerous apelike ancestors that shared brains that were very similar to our own. Over time our brains took shape to what they are today. Amazingly through our millions of years of evolution, language has only occupied a tiny sliver of space on that timeline – around 10,000 years.

To survive, our ancestors relied on social behavior and communication. Since language was not around most of that time our ancestors relied on more physical forms of communication. Millions of years of physical expression and communication have provided our brains with the unique ability to process mannerisms and facial expressions much faster than we process language.

The HBR blog is quick to point out that 55% of conversation is physical. Far and away the most important physical aspect of communication are facial expressions. Facial expression recognition is actually one of the most important factors in meaningful conversation, and is highly correlated with social intelligence.

It’s been said the face is a canvas of emotion. Our faces convey emotions that words simply cannot, and our brains pick up on it at lighting quick speeds. Evolution has defined the facial expressions we make and the way we perceive them. That is why facial expressions are the same across every culture.

could you accurately describe the emotion for each of these faces. believe it or not, many children struggle with this task and that is spelling trouble for communication later in life.

Back to the Future

Technology is not the devil, but it does rob many adults and children of attention and focus that is meant to be used in communication. My best advice is to practice as much  face-to-face, genuine communication as possible. That means turn off your Blackberrys, iPhones, and close the lids on your laptops. Take time to focus on the subtleties of the conversation.

All human cognition and behavior is set in place by the neural pathways in our brain that is unique to our own biology and experiences. That amazing 3lbs of matter is so efficient that if you do not consistently practice a certain behavior in youth it’ll be gone before you know it. Simply said, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” I beg you, please don’t let this happen to your ability to effectively communicate.

Can You Take The Hits? A Lesson in Resiliency

The Origins of Resiliency

Like all cognitive behavior, our neural pathways for resiliency begin to take shape at a young age.  Resiliency  is a combination of a biological predisposition and the environment that you’re raised in.  Because resiliency helps us manage our emotions and the emotions of others it is linked to social intelligence – which directly impacts performance later in life.

Alarmingly, a growing number of children today are raised in a manner that hinders resiliency and social intelligence.  Many parents have subscribed to the false theory that the best way to raise a child is to ensure perpetual happiness and protect their children from any and all stressors.  That’s why today children play sports where nobody keeps score and traditional gym class games like dodgeball are considered barbaric. Come on now!

Life is full of both good and bad experiences. The best way to raise children is not to protect them from the bad experiences, but rather to help our children understand how to navigate the negative experiences to return back to a positive mental state. If you don’t learn how to navigate difficult experiences in youth, it will only become more difficult as an adult.

Do you remember your first day of school? I bet you had butterflies in your stomach, and nothing is wrong with that because that is a common symptom of social stress.

Research has shown that at the start of the school year all children have increased stress hormone levels.  As the school year goes on, children who are more socially adept show a decline in stress hormone levels to their normal state.  For those children who have not had experience dealing with common stressors in life their stress hormones levels remain at a high level throughout the school year, hindering their social performance [Social Intelligence, Goleman]

Let’s flash forward 17 years from our first day of school to our first day work…

Resiliency at Work

Resiliency in professional settings grows from discomfort generated by the necessary pressures of work. We cannot control the stress we feel, but we can control the actions we take to deal with it. It amazes me the number of times I have seen adult professionals throw tantrums as a result of something not going their way. Don’t be that guy (or girl)!

Much of life and business is failure. You can’t hide from it, so you might as well embrace it – this is especially true for those of you who work in sales and marketing. That is why the best sales professionals and business leaders are those who are resilient, who see the bright side, and can “take the hits.”

The technological age we live in only makes the stressors of life and work that much more apparent. Good news travels fast, and worse news seems to travel faster through email and social media. Today, stress can spread faster than a plague started by a monkey bite. A hate email sent by a high ranking executive can derail an entire divisions motivation in seconds.

A message to the Managers

Great managers have to have an understanding of stress and resiliency. The best managers often serve as a buffer between unnecessary stress and their team. In my experience managing an 800 person field sales force I can tell you with great confidence that “happy sales professionals produce more results.”

The very nature of sales and marketing is stressful. So why would you add to that with unnecessary stress that will only hinder performance.  As a manger I would absorb a lot of negative messages and mandates to keep my team positive and performing well. This also will have you gain the trust of your team, and that is a great feeling.

as business professionals we can learn a few things from this wartime social marketing. no matter how bad things seem at first they're gonna blow over or better yet, you'll find a way through it.

However, not all stress is bad. Much like a flu shot, stress in small doses can help make you stronger over time. I highly suggest taking the time to understand each of your team members and their resiliency. This will help you coach and manage them to reach their full potential. Sometimes your team needs to be protected and sometimes your team needs to be challenged.  Quality managers will know when the time is appropriate for both.

I’ll leave you with this. It’s one of my favorite scenes from the Rocky movies. Rocky’s speech cuts right to the heart of why resiliency matters in everything that you do. Thanks for reading.

Do One Thing

Welcome to the new year ladies and gentlemen. I wish you all health and prosperity in 2012. Personally, I have never been big on new years resolutions, but since I’m writing this on the biggest football day of the year I wanted to spend some time tackling the subject (horrible pun intended).

Not surprisingly, 88% of all new years resolutions end in failure [Wiseman, 2007]. I believe this to be true because year-in and year-out we bite off more than we can mentally chew. This time of year the conversation always comes up about resolutions and you’ll hear from many people they want to do this, and that, and some of this, and that one thing. If you have more than one resolution, you’re setting yourself up for major failure.

The brain has a finite amount of mental energy. This is a fact. To accomplish tasks that require will power, like a new year’s resolution, you have to be economical with your brain’s energy. Try and do too much and your brain will perform poorly do to fatigue.

Contrary to popular belief the human brain is not good at multitasking. In fact, it’s quite bad at it. For this reason I urge you all to simplify your new year’s resolutions and pick one thing and focus on achieving it.

To get in shape you need to protect your brain.

Weight loss is the most common New Year’s resolution, so I wanted to spend some time on the subject . In a study conducted by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, several dozen undergrads were split into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to memorize. The other group was given a seven-digit number to memorize.

After the groups spent time memorizing their numbers they proceeded down the hall one at a time where they were presented with their choice of a bowl of fruit salad or a piece of chocolate cake. Not surprisingly the group that had to memorize the seven-digit number were 2x more likely to take a piece of cake to eat.

A tired brain does not have enough mental energy to support will power – something that requires a lot of brain energy. Spending most of my life in outside sales I can say that I saw the outcome of Baba Shiv’s experiment coming. When your brain is overworked, frazzled, and stressed you make poor choices and lack will power.

DO ONE THING

Like most things in life, the key to success is simplicity. Focus on doing one thing, and then do it really well. I saw this idea in action two years ago when I sat in the office of my former marketing professor and dear friend and mentor Dr. Terri Feldman Barr. She described me a movement she was starting at Miami’s Business School called “Do One Thing.” It was brilliant.

Students were urged to select “one thing” they wanted to commit to and then shared it with their peers to create social accountability. Some students went as far to create badges with their “one thing” written on it and wore them for all to see. If you’re one thing was recycling then everyone knew you were going to do your best to be environmentally responsible.

The end result of Do One Thing was a large group of students coming together to share their goals for better behavior and accountability. This year I ask you all to do “one thing.” My “one thing” is to compliment strangers. I want to make the environment around me better one smile at a time, and my “one thing” can help make it so.

What’s your one thing?

The Predictive Process of Perception

Let’s begin with this simple, yet little known fact: our cognition guides our perception. Our five senses are nothing more than receptors for photons of light, wavelengths, air pressure, and so on.

The truth is that we see, touch, taste, smell, and hear with that magical three pound mass between our ears. The brain, in the most efficient manner possible organizes our multisensory inputs to help form our perceptions. But what if the perception process began long before we gathered input from our senses?

The perceptual process of the brain is surprisingly predictive in nature, and a lot of times our predictions are guided by our unconscious. To gain a better understanding of the predictive process of the perception we’re going to step into a college classroom.

“Our teacher was a nice!”  “Our teacher was a douche bag!”  “Wait. Don’t we have the same teacher?”

same class, different perceptions.

A college class was told they were going to have a guest speaker for their class. As an introduction a piece of paper was handed out to each student describing the guest speaker’s credentials and a brief description of his personality.

What the students didn’t know is that there were two types of papers handed out in the class. The only thing that differed on the two papers was the description of the guest speaker’s personality. On one form he was described as having a warm and open personality. On the other form he described as having a cold and stand-offish personality.

Here’s where it gets interesting. All of the students sat through the exact same lecture in the exact same room at the exact same time. At the end of the guest lecture they were given a singular form that asked them to rate the teacher’s performance and overall demeanor.  Interestingly enough the students responded to the review form accordingly to the pieces of paper they were handed prior to the lecture.

Puzzled by Perception

Understanding the complexities of perception was one of the main reasons I chose to study neuroscience in college and continue to today. I have always been amazed by situations where two people can look at the same object, or partake in the same singular interaction and derive two entirely different perceptions. I guess that is the beauty of cognitive diversity; everyone has their own lens or cognitive predisposition that guides the way they perceive the world.

As a marketer I was intrigued by another mysterious form of perception. It was called “value”.  “Value” is a ubiquitous term that is thrown around in business today that suggests something is perceived as favorable and possesses great meaning. You can place value on anything: ideas, goods, services, even people.

However, if you spend the time examining “value” you would realize that on the front end value is nothing more than imaginary perception.  Once you break down the perceptual process you will find that value is completely subjective and relative. I know this to be true because as a marketing and sales strategist it’s my job to construct and create value on a client by client basis.

Using Jungle Fruit to Explore the Perceptual Process of Value

The perceptual process of value something is actually broken down into three stages:

Part 1: Predicted Value (Expected Value)

This is where we construct a prediction of how we will perceive something. The interesting thing about this stage in the process is that it’s completely subjective and often times hypothetical.

For example, let’s pretend I just came back from the jungles of Brazil and discovered a new fruit that has never been eaten before. I am bringing it back to the states and want you to try it before anyone else and tell me if you like it.

At this point you would be asking questions to familiarize this unknown fruit. What’s it taste like? What’s it look like? What’s fruit is it similar to? Do I like the fruit it looks similar too? My point here is that you can ask a million questions to familiarize yourself with the unknown tasting fruit, but in the end you’re going to form some type of perception that you’re tied to. So let’s say you expect the fruit to taste like a pineapple, and you hate pineapple.

Part 2: Experienced Value

This is the part of the perceptual process where you actually experience something. This stage is objective and real.

you either like or disliked this fruit long before you even took a bite.

In our unknown Brazilian jungle fruit example this would be where I sit you down and make you take a bite of the fruit that I smuggled out of Brazil and past customs. Before you even bite into the fruit I can see a grimace on your face because your predictive perception is that the fruit is going to taste like something you dislike.

You continue to grimace as you begin to chew your first bite, but then after few seconds your grimace turns into a wide-eyed smile. To your amazement the unknown jungle fruit tastes like a mango. You freaking love mangos.

Part 3: Overall Awarded Value

This is the final stage in the perception process where you decide how much you value something based on your expectations and experience. Value falls on a spectrum so your awarded value varies in degrees.

In regards to jungle fruit you feel value the fruit at a 7 on a scale of 1-10. Odds are that you would have rated the fruit a 9 or a 10 if you expected the fruit to taste like a mango. You went into the tasting weary but left pleasantly surprised.
The interesting part about the process of perception is that it’s overwhelmingly front-loaded and predictive. A lot of times we seek to justify our predicted value and aren’t even aware of it. The most important part of the process should be the experience, but our experiences are often guided by our predictions. Looking back at the college guest lecture scenario you’re able to see that the paper guided the predictive value of the guest lecturer in both sets of students.

The Neuroscience of Predictive Perception

From a neurological standpoint predictive sights and experiences trigger less brain activity, and physiologically speaking it’s actually a good thing to use less energy. The brain has a finite amount of mental energy and as a result is highly efficient in its use of it. Mental tasks like critical thinking and examination require our brains to burn up a lot of this mental energy and are normally reserved for the first time we encounter a new or salient stimuli.

The brains accounts for 2% of your body's mass yet 20% of your body's energy consumption. Our brains our predictive to help conserve energy.

To increase overall efficiency our brains predict the familiar leading into expected unfamiliar situations. That is the beauty and complexity of the human brain that is not only reactive but proactive as well. Constructing expectations is actually more mentally efficient in the short term. As a result of these physiological processes in the brain people can be “primed” for perceptions and behavior, and in some cases that leads to a mismatch in cognition and reality.

The region of the brain that allows us to construct our expectations for perception is the prefrontal cortex. This is a highly evolved part of the frontal lobe of the brain that allows us [humans] to think hypothetically. In essence our prefrontal cortex allows us to perceive with out actually perceiving, and then create an expectation from that process. A lot of times we then seek to validate our expectations.

Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

We have all heard the old saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” However, actually not judging a book by its cover is much easier said than done. We know the process of how we perceive and award value. If you know how to navigate this process you can begin to really focus on the objective experience instead of the subjective expectation.

Clear your mind before trying something new and try to shake free of what might jump into your head before you experience a stimuli or situation.  Sometimes our subjective predictions hold emotional weight. In these situations it will take more practice to detach from your expectations, but logic can override emotion and that control will serve you well in decision making.