Thoughts on Leadership: The Science of Your Brain

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels found me first at our HSF Affiliates headquarters in Irvine, California to attend alignment sessions—global and domestic for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices and domestic for Real Living Real Estate—where I shared our system of execution and goal-accomplishment with prospective brokerage teams. Next, I traveled to Nashville and it’s here, on the location of the 2020 Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Sales Convention where I find myself now.

After the blog post on mindset last week, I want to dive deeper into the mind, and particularly, how your brain plays a critical role to determine your mindset. In my presentations, I often talk about Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel, whose advanced research led to a new understanding about how the brain works. Before his groundbreaking discoveries, it was widely believed the functions that make up your brain structure just couldn’t be changed.

As TIME writer Sharon Begley put it: “For decades, the prevailing dogma in neuroscience was that the adult human brain is essentially immutable, hardwired, fixed in form and function, so that by the time we reach adulthood we are pretty much stuck with what we have.”

Dr. Kandel proved you can rewire your brain; new neural pathways can be created to form brand-new habits, new ways of thinking, new feelings and new actions. This idea is called neural plasticity and applies to the habits we can create, and the mindset we can form for success.

Neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone also proved neural plasticity can happen from physical or mental practice. He instructed a group of volunteers to play piano every day for two hours, keeping time with a metronome’s 60 beats per minute as best they could. He took another group of volunteers and asked them to simply think about practicing the piano exercise. They played the musical pieces in their head without touching a single ivory key.

When scientists compared the data from the two groups—those who played and those who just thought about playing—the region of the motor cortex that controls piano-playing fingers expanded in the volunteers who imagined playing the music just as it did for those who actually played the piano. These results helped show “the ability of mere thought to alter the physical structure and function of our gray matter,” writes Begley.

Applied to other activities, this means practicing the perfect golf swing, the perfect touchdown pass, the perfect presentation at a meeting will actually help improve your skills. Pascual-Leone’s study showed mental training can alter the physical structure of the brain. The mutable quality of the brain identified by Pascual-Leone and Dr. Kandel is called neuroplasticity and it goes a long way toward explaining how we can change our mindset. No matter what trauma, challenges or setbacks we face, the brain can still be rewired.

“In this sense, the very structure of our brain—the relative size of different regions, the strength of connections between them, even their functions—reflect the lives we lead,” says Begley. “Like sand on a beach, the brain bears the footprints of the decisions we have made, the skills we have learned, the actions we have taken.”

Yes, the brain can change the mind. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin Maddison helped prove it. He conducted an experiment with Buddhist monks—who often spend more than 10,000 hours of their lives in peaceful meditation—to see if mental training can produce “changes that underlie enduring happiness and other positive emotions.”

Davidson hypothesized that “we can think of emotions, moods and states such as compassion as trainable mental skills.”

In his study, he found a significant difference in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, the site where happiness neurologically lives. (Conversely, the right prefrontal brain is associated with negative moods.) When the monks generated feelings of compassion and happiness through meditation, “activity in the left prefrontal swamped activity in the right prefrontal … to a degree never before seen from purely mental activity.”

This same occurrence did not happen in Davidson’s control group of novice meditators. For them, there was no similarly observable difference in the left prefrontal cortex and right prefrontal cortex. Davidson’s findings suggested the positive state is a trainable skill.

So, what’s the message? Ideas about how the brain affects your mindset aren’t just innovative or interesting; they’re fundamentally related to how we can all take what science has taught us about the mind influencing our mindset to empower us to improve. Studies by Dr. Kandel, Pascual-Leone, Davidson and others prove no matter who we are or what difficulties we face, our brains can be rewired to create better, fuller and happier lives.

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