Plasticity’s Pathways to Innovation

Have you seen good ideas crushed by bullies, cynics or naysayers where you work?  Before Michael Merzenich became the world’s leading researcher on brain plasticity, cynics with hard science credentials, insisted brainpower and intelligence was fixed. Simply put, people insisted that elderly brains don’t change much, for instance, and that broken brains stay broke. In contrast, my friend and colleague, Lisa Haneberg, executive at Management Performance International, inspires many of us for mind-bending innovations.

What you do in a day literally changes your brain

Lisa Haneberg, over at Management Craft, and I just had a fireside chat about how plasticity boosts brainpower for current challenges at work!  It was fun to learn from one another’s leadership approaches. Check out Lisa’s  podcast here, and share your ideas about brainpower, Century-21- leadership, and innovation. When brainpower fuels a workplace renewal results! How so?

Thanks to persistence, and the power of innovation,  it’s common knowledge now that learning not only increases what we know,  but it changes the very structure and operation of the brain itself. To learn at all ages is to increase your brain’s capacity to learn.

Plasticity opens a winning pathway to innovation, which is especially good news if you work in a broken system. How does it work? 

Neurons come with 3 cool parts

Connected to chemical and electrical circuitry that sparks innovative change or deepens ruts, are dendrites, cell bodies, and axons.

1). Dendrites –or  treelike branches attached to the cell body, receive their input from other neurons.

2). Cell body – fuels the life of each cell and contain your unique DNA pool.

3). Axon – like electrical wires that can be short or can be 6 ft long, & carry electrical impulses at speeds from 2 to 200 mph toward the dendrites of other neurons.

Neurons receive signals that either excite or inhibit. If a neuron gets enough excitatory signals from other neurons, it fires off its own signal. If it receives many inhibitory signals – it is less likely to fire.

Axons don’t quite touch nearby dendrites. They are separated by microscopic space called a synapse. When an electrical signal reaches the end of an axon, it triggers release of the chemical messenger, called a neurotransmitter, into the synapse.

The chemical messenger sails over the dendrite of nearby neuron, exciting or inhibiting it.

Neurons rewire in REM sleep, based on what you did that day

Neurons rewire nightly as you sleep – which means that changes occur at the synapse. Act calm under pressure, for instance, and you build new neuron pathways to calmly solve the next calamity that comes along. Either the change strengthens and increases the number of connections or change weakens and decreases the number of connections between the neurons.

It’s really a matter of neurons and dendrites that spark new synapses for change. Remember, a neuron‘s nothing more than a nerve cell, and your brain holds about 100 billion of these little critters.

Neurons build innovation with a few carefully crafted acts.

How so?

Neurons project extensions called dendrite brain cells – which connect and reconnect daily, based on what you do. Axons, in contrast,  relay information back from the body back to the brain. In a rather complex electrochemical process, neurons communicate with each other in synapses, and that connection creates chemicals called neurotransmitters. Chemicals release at each synapse, and these shape mood, open brains to optimize learning and stoke creative solutions to complex problems. Many mysteries still occur in the quadrillion synapses within a human brain, and yet wonderful benefits await people who act on what recent research suggests.

How will you change your brain today?

Here are 25 ways to add brainpower through innovation, by changing up  routines.  Apply novel approaches and you encounter ruts inside the human brain. Have you seen it happen? Transformation, especially ethical renewal that adds dividends for all,  takes risk! Try one you’d least like do in an ordinary day,  and expect  a mind-bending performance along plasticity’s pathway to innovation.

Further plasticity triumphs through personal stories

You can read more about dendrites, and discover their function for your workplace with Dr. Eric Kandel., who along with, JH Schwartz,  TM Jessell,  offers tips in the book Principles of Neural Science.

I was also intrigued by Dr. Norman Doidge’s new book, The Brain that Changes Itself. The book shows research and backs ideas with facts in a way that engages a reader to see why new ideas about the brain’s ability to rewire itself – really count.

What will you do differently today to optimize your brain’s plasticity? How will you ratchet up more brainpower to overcome challenging situations?

21 Comments

  1. Stuart says:

    Hi Ellen, great post,

    I agree with all you say, you also mention Dr.Norman Doidge’s book, The brain that changes itself, this is a great book, I read it sometime ago but still make reference to it. You make the point about neurons re-wire in sleep, I am definitely an advocate of “sleep on the problem”, things then seem to make more sense.
    The other thing I have now started to do is to always keep a note book to write down random thoughts as the pop into my mind, over time re-reading these thoughts allows you to make new associations you might have missed. Sleep is a key aspect in helping this happen along with the plastic change in the brain.

    Stu

  2. eweber says:

    Hi Stu and thanks for stopping by. One of my favorite stories in the book you mentioned is the story of a 65 year old stroke victim who recovered speech and walking because of his son’s persistence and unwillingness to listen to mainstream naysayers about the brain’s limitations.

    This work should be far more influential to shape winning business practices than it is. Why would you say it has not yet happened?

  3. Ellen, I love the new research that is coming out to show us that indeed, we “old dogs” can learn new things and make them stick, it gives us all hope. I am curious about recent research on repetition – what it takes to make a new behavior a “habit”. How does this fit into the picture of neuronal change and sleep? My clients can sometimes be discouraged by the time it takes to make personal/professional sleep. Does the research provide us with any clues about shortening that time?

  4. eweber says:

    Oh, Mary Jo — you always help us to think about deeper issues that impact work in wonderful ways!

    Yes, there are insights from current research – that can help us to create changes with repeated practices. Each time we do a thing, we take another step in the direction of rewiring for the new way. The longer you built habits into your brain’s circuitry toward any habit, the more newer patterns you’ll need to create.

    But look at the power of the brain to change and rewire itself – the the story I shared above. A 65 year old man learned to walk again, but his son started by literally teaching him to crawl first. The brain rewired for walking and the same thing happened to help him learn to speak again. Within three years this man was teaching again at a major university in NY.

    The key is to use brain friendly approaches to enjoy opposite practices in the areas you met with problems. Use classical music to help you sleep, for instance. Speak in inclusive ways to build a new relationship with a difficult person at work. Then test your new practices until you see positive results. If you fail to get results — change the practice again, but stay in the race until change occurs and until you wear the new approach comfortably:-)

    In the case of the man with a stroke, mainstream leaders got no positive results, gave up and suggested an institution for this 65 year old. It was his son’s interest and determination in the brain’s power to rewire – that turned his papa’s situation around and moved him to relearn walking and talking through plasticity. Thoughts?

  5. Stuart says:

    Ellen you said in relation to Dr. Doidge’s book….”This work should be far more influential to shape winning business practices than it is. Why would you say it has not yet happened?

    Simply, still today most companies are totally bottom line driven, so a blinkered approach, the driving need for immediate superficial results, a sort of business quick fix, I guess a sort of business addiction.

    A solution, stop, take a big picture view, find a new approach that is opposite to the quick fix. We now know that the plasticity of our brains means we are very adaptive and through patience and persistence we can make lasting positive changes, the same can be true if we create companies with an adaptive culture. Then no matter what the market place is doing, we can adapt and grow.

    Stu

  6. eweber says:

    Good point Stu, your ideas are not only terrific approaches here, but are also brain based and doable. Thanks!

    However, would you agree that the burden now falls on folks who model this truth to show how profitability is linked to new segues into rewired brainpower.

    The compelling task is on leaders who know and live brain based realities – to model it and share it so that its profitability is evident.

    On that note, I will be speaking to a large group of millionaires in Seattle in September and I plan to show how MITA leadership leads to sustained profitability with positive takeaways for each.

    People often choose faster to go in the direction of positive approaches that will be highly effective if they know what was going on inside their heads, to close the gap between inability to get results and leading highly effective organizations.

    What do you think?

  7. Stuart says:

    Ellen sounds a great opportunity in Seattle to get the MITA message across to a key audience.

    If an organization was driven by using the whole brain capacity of the company in a positive and open way, anything could be achieved, the problem is the vast majority of companies don’t encourage this, because they don’t understand this potential. They rely on the power of the system rather than the potential of the brain, in my view in brain based companies, systems and brain potential can work in synergy, 1+1=3

    For me what you started doing with your great posts is to put the recent neuroscience discoveries about our brains into business talk, so this is what you should know, this is why you should know it, this is why it is relevant and this is the outcome.

    Stu

  8. eweber says:

    Thanks for your kind words Stu, and your post brings a message I hear many times. Love your compelling challenges!

    If people could see how potent brainpower is to ratchet up their bottom line – they’d embrace it with gusto! I agree — who wouldn’t run with it if they could see its might at work?

    So my question to you is, “How can we inspire, motivate or challenge organizations to run with personal and professional brain based approaches?”

    That gap is real, it’s there daily – and it hides an answer in the brain based work we do.

    I’ve been sketching a post titled: Bring your Brain Back to the Brink at Work. It may contain a motivational piece that would compel a day of the brain each year! That’s really what we need to get attention of folks who could use more brainpower in their favor.

    By the way — there is equipment in the brain that explains why organizations default to ruts, just as there are brainpowered tools to leap forward and play ball at the cutting edges! If an organization is using either one – the others dies away by default! – Thoughts?

  9. Stuart says:

    You ask an interesting question Ellen….
    “How can we inspire, motivate or challenge organizations to run with personal and professional brain based approaches”

    You say “the gap is real”, I totally agree with you, but this gap starts in the education systems before we even get to work, I know you have covered this in previous posts.
    There is a massive lag between what we now know about how we learn, and how we are taught. On the plus side, at least now there is a much greater awareness in education, if not appropriate action.

    When it comes to business, I don’t believe we have even reached the awareness stage yet in the vast majority of companies, but more than even now the rate of change, and the global interconnectivity of business means you have to learn to be adaptive to survive, which needs all brains at work fully engaged in a creative and positive way.

    Perhaps we need a business slogan, “no brains left behind”

    Interestingly, when Daniel Pink wrote his book “A whole new mind” it was written as a business book, but the ended up being read more by educators, who are further down the brain awareness route than business people.

    Tony Schwartz new book “The way we’re working is not working” talks about the importance of napping and daydreaming to engage the potential of the whole brain, I totally agree. But if you go to the average company CEO and suggest your going to improve your bottom line by allowing your team to take the occasional nap and do a little day dreaming, I doubt it would get a positive reaction, and yet we know a stressed brian can not function effectively, but we continue down these ruts.

    I think as well as inspire, motivate or challenge, we also need to educate and demonstrate bottom line relevance, then we may perhaps get more attention, it will happen, its just a question of who will take the first move and demonstrate the benefits of being a company that takes brain based approaches.

    just my thoughts…

    Stu

  10. eweber says:

    Stu what you say makes sense at every level, and while the best leaders out there call for more openness to move with the brain’s capacity to win – rather than tradition’s comfort to perform routines, some leaders will move forward if they see enough motivation.

    I am intrigues by your concluding statement — “… as well as inspire, motivate or challenge, we also need to educate and demonstrate bottom line relevance, then we may perhaps get more attention, it will happen, its just a question of who will take the first move and demonstrate the benefits of being a company that takes brain based approaches ”

    Three points that come to mind about applying brain based leader approaches that improve bottom line:

    1). To demonstrate the relevance — is likely the motivation folks need. Much of the work we value is theoretically driven, without practically applied.

    2). MITA draws from 17 solid theories about leading and learning with the brain in mind – and these are all stated and summarized in in http://www.brainleadersandlearners.com/change/mita-brain-manifesto/. Yet the focus in business is on practical applications that move an organization to far higher visions – with measurable results of profitability.

    3). Stu, you are that one who can step to the front lines with confidence, and help to lead the charge. In any way we can, we’ll support your efforts 100%. We also agree it is tough to generate change (for many reasons that show how brains default to routines – even when these are broken.

    It takes a leader like you to persist and show that a better way could lead us all in a finer direction. Some go with you, and some support your every effort, but I have spent a lifetime in renewal – and while most of my friends are retired – I feel I have barely begun.

    Thanks for the way you move forward with what you believe, and I am keenly interested in ways our leadership renewal work could overlap with mutual strengths for business in a new world order!

  11. Stuart says:

    Hi Ellen,

    Thanks for the info and great link to the MITA info…

    I have a client in mind who has the kind of company culture that would support a brain based approach, I will move step by step and see what reaction I get, will keep you in the loop.

    Stu

  12. eweber says:

    Thanks Stu – what an exciting new era we are entering! One where innovation will reach a wider scope, talents and efforts will be far more showcased, and people will support one another’s offerings to reach a finer future!

    Love your notion of looking at the big picture here Stu, and of stepping forward with a deliberate direction in mind to reach the stars.

    Let me know if there are ways I can support you along the journey! Stay blessed!

  13. nilson says:

    Thanks for the post very nice site

  14. […] you are asking, but what about organizational change? The potential within tools from neuroplasticity – to rewire entire organizations for emphasizing and attaining more positive targets, is […]

  15. ok! very good!
    wonderful!
    you are right!
    thank you!

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  20. bwade says:

    May I use this information in a presentation i am putting together for a college forensics course? i will, of course, give appropriate credit. thank you.

  21. eweber says:

    Bwade, you are welcome to use this for your presentation — and all the best with your course. I also teach this materials at college – in Master level MBA leadership courses – and it is so relevant. Let us know how it goes! Ellen

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