Don’t Ever Trust Your Mind

Posted by: csjacobs | Posted on: May 21 , 2013 | Category: BusinessGeneralNeuroscience

Given the way the brain processes information, we can't trust that our minds are giving us a faithful rendering of our experience. Streams of data from our senses are combined with our memories, expectations, and even desires before we become consciously aware of what's going on in the world.

And conscious awareness isn't all it's cracked up to be either. The pioneering work of Tversky and Kahneman on decision-making has established just how flakey our minds are. We are afflicted with biases, ignore basic statistical principles, and are overly influenced by the last piece of information we've been exposed to.

That's why scientific method is so important. It drives us to seek out objective sources of information, focus on hard data, and validate our assumptions. And nowhere is this more important than when it comes to formulating and executing business strategy. We need to compensate for our inevitable subjectivity, gather data, and formulate and test our hypotheses.

Neuroscience provides us with hard data about the tool we use to think about our businesses--the human mind. And it provides us with hard data about how we need to lead the people that are the business. But this new science is recently coming under fire for overreaching.

The latest salvo comes from Robert Shulman, one of the pioneers in neuroimaging. He argues that while we may have discovered the neural basis of consciousness, that doesn't mean we know anything about how it actually works. He believes such an understanding is beyond the scope of scientific inquiry.

I started my professional training as a scientist preparing to be a psychiatrist. But after a stint working in a state mental hospital with chronic schizophrenics, I quickly realized how little the science could elucidate the experience of my patients or alleviate their suffering.

So I turned to narratives, which I found far more enlightening and useful, and specialized in understanding how they're created and how they work on the human mind. I am a professionally trained literary critic.

Most cognitive scientists now agree that the mind works through narratives and that they are the basic "stuff" of consciousness. The recent discoveries of neuroscience and other related disciplines, like evolutionary biology, give us the mechanism by which narratives work.

Narratives are ways of structuring our experience over time. Of all the potential stories existing in the mind, we become conscious of the one that best fits our mental and physical environment. When we entertain the narrative, it then drives our thinking and behavior.

We make our decisions with both emotion and reason, as we can see from brain scans, and narratives, contrary to logical argument, address both. The unexpected in the form of dissonance stops the automatic processing of the brain and activates the network that allows us to see wholes, or the big picture if you will. This is a precondition for changing the way we make sense of the world and for changing our thinking and behavior. Narratives pivot on dissonance.

When we want to improve the performance of a business, we need to change how it operates, and that requires changing the thinking of the people that are the business. Neuroscience can give us the mechanism and explain how it works.

But neuroscience can't tell us what the narrative should be. It can't distinguish between powerful narratives and weak ones, or those that reinforce the status quo and those that fundamentally transform the way people look at the world. Those distinctions are the province of art.

Crafting and telling the story that will transform a business organization is a creative act, but one that the study of art enables us to execute with skill and discipline. 

Approaching the transformation of a business scientifically is a huge advance over just heeding the conventional wisdom. But it's not sufficient by itself. While science can give us the "what" and the "why," we need art to give us the "how."

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