The Skeptics Guide to Neuroscience: Three things you should know


Neuroscience or neurobabble

Does knowing the chemical formula for the reaction between octane and oxygen that takes place in the internal combustion engine help you repair a car? Will it help you win a Grand Prix? Perhaps not. Systems can be analyzed a number of levels from the quantum to the cosmic.  For information to be useful (not not just make you sound smart), the data has to be relevant at the level of the system where you plan to intervene. Understanding the quantum properties of the components of the LED monitor I’m using won’t write this article any faster.

I’m going to argue that when people use neuroscientific concepts to explain how phenomena in the macro world (business leadership and business strategy) work, they are largely engaged in “neurobabble”, a particularly clever-sounding kind of BS, but nonetheless, still BS.

The neuroskeptic view

“If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple that we could not.” (Lyall Watson)

Reading today’s neurohype, with lovely colored pictures of lit-up brains, you might conclude that the true path to great life and leadership is a course in neuroanatomy, or neurochemistry.  And unlike much pop leadership pseudo-science, some of what is written in neuroscience journals is good science. But although true (mostly), is it really useful to coaches, to leaders, and to business people? Does knowing that your cortisol is elevated help you deal with stress? Does knowing your amygdala is activated when afraid make it easier to cope? Does knowing the “love hormone,” called oxytocin, exists make you a nicer person?

I think not.

Although making a link between biology (neuroanatomy, neurochemistry), mind (thoughts, feelings, beliefs), behavior (actions), and business results is a great goal, we are not much closer to that than we are to interstellar travel.

Here is one quote from a well known neurocoach type author that had me reaching for the airsickness bag: “Effectively, by remembering that the amygdala is connected to the dlPFC, the mPFC, and the ACC, coaches can inform leaders that short-term memory, risk-benefit assessment, and attention are also disrupted by anxiety.”

Clever sounding stuff, eh?

Now read that sentence again starting with “short-term memory”. Does all the preceding guff help? No, it adds nothing, does not help the coach, nor the leader. It is trivially true that those parts of the brain are connected (many parts of the brain are involved in any complex activity), the information is practically useless. (Well it was useful to the writer, because it comes from one of the bestsellers on neuroleadership.)

Try this thought experiment. Imagine a couple in counseling working on their relationship. Would it be useful for them to discuss anatomical structures and biochemistry, or (more likely) would talking about those keep them distant? “Honey, when you don’t take out the trash, my amygdala becomes hijacked, my serotonin reuptake becomes inhibited, and increased GABA in my ACC means I lose my shit.”

So is all neuroleadership, neurocoaching, neuromarketing, neurolaw useless? Not quite – I’m guilty of somewhat overstating the case. It has helped us understand some of the biological limits to cognition; we understand better the interplay between emotion and reason (although I suspects poets understood it long before neuroscientists); we also know more about what works and what doesn’t for enhancing cognitive performance. Coffee does, brain training does not, exercise does.

For a fabulous treatment of applied neuroscience, try: Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience by Satel, Sally, Lilienfeld, Scott O. (May 12, 2015) Paperback

Among all the ten syllable words and grandiose promises, some neuroscience is useful. Below are three simple things I think business people should know that derive their some validity from findings in neuroscience.

1. Mindfulness rocks

Mindfulness conjures up images of saffron robes, or new-age hippiedom. Yet, in the world of self-help aphorisms, and things gurus advise, mindfulness stands way, way above the crowd. In contrast with its woo-woo image, there is more hard scientific evidence for the usefulness and validity of mindfulness than just about anything else in the self-help world. 

What do I mean by usefulness? It has been shown to improve depression, ADD, anxiety, and stress. But maybe you are not mentally ill, so what does it do for healthy people? It improves attention, focus, and emotion control. More abstractly, mindfulness strengthens our metacognitive, or executive functions. It makes you much better at observing yourself in action, and much better at self-correcting deficits in thinking, feeling and acting.

We are all mindful some of the time. Recall those moments of maximum clarity, focus and engagement. If you are, like me, borderline ADD, those moments are too few, rare even.

Brains benefit from training and that training is meditation.

Meditation is to mindfulness as practicing free-throws is to basketball. 

To return from distraction, lack of focus, and not being present, first you have to notice, then you have to come back. If you are like me, however, you can spend an entire morning distracted. The faster I notice, the faster I can return to my zen-like focus and being present. Sure, it will quickly disappear: “I wonder what is happening on Facebook.” But because I’ve practiced my mental free throws, I might notice more quickly, and come back more quickly. Or, perhaps not even get lost in the first place.

Wise leaders cultivate perspective, can handle stress, react less and create more, and are generally in control of their moods. People have often said that when you talked to Nelson Mandela, so great was his focus and attention on the moment that it felt as if you were the only person in the room. That kind of presence is part of the mindfulness package.

If you worry that it will take 10 years of an hour a day to “get there,” think again. In a recent study, some mood management and focus benefits were realized after just 5 days of 20 minutes of meditation per day.

Back in the day, we used to have smoke breaks. Perhaps, in the 21st Century, it will become commonplace for people in workplaces to say “I’m just gonna go sit for ten minutes.” Some companies are taking it seriously: Google runs a program, called Search Inside Yourself, that has mindfulness at its core. It has been a small part of the dozens of leadership programs I’ve run during the last decade, most of which have been for very senior investment bankers, whose steely gaze never strays far from the bottom line.

In The Science of Successful Organizational Change: How Leaders Set Strategy, Change Behavior, and Create an Agile Culture I debunk a great number of leadership and change myths and offer alternatives from 21st century research.

2. Inauthenticity stinks

Ever listen to someone saying something enthusiastic or positive, and it just feels wrong? While we are listening to words, our brain is processing micro-gestures, posture, tone, inflection, cadence and other non-verbal cues. We now know of a structure called mirror neurons that fire in synchrony when people do things as if we were doing them ourselves. That means that humans understand each other and relate at a deeper level than just language processing.

To communicate powerfully, to inspire and persuade, all of that must be aligned. That means you have to believe, at the deepest possible level, all you are saying. Pretending (that you are excited when dejected, or confident when afraid) works poorly. To boot, it can be hard work, under pressure, to keep the game face on.

This finding speaks strongly to another leadership buzzword: authenticity. Although the word is misunderstood and overused, there is fundamental truth at the heart of it. Inauthenticity smells, and the leader needs to do the internal work to align thoughts, feelings, and actions to produce an authentic presence.

3. A tip and a tool to make you smarter

The human brain is superb at processing, but poor at juggling numerous items in “working memory.” The more juggling you do, the less present, focused, attentive and sharp you will be when you need to be. Working memory can get clogged by to-do lists, calls, worries, and creative ideas. Tip: create the practice (or habit) of clearing out working memory and dumping all that into a safe place. Just doing this “mindsweep” thoroughly once a week can yield improvements in concentration and clarity of thought.

We call this “distributed cognition” and in today’s distraction-fest world, having tools at your disposal that enhance cognitive function, in this case easing the strains on working memory, is critical.

There are two information-overload problems solved by one incredibly powerful free app: Evernote. (Yes, there are others.) The first problem Evernote solves is multiple information sources: meetings, phone calls, websites, email, post-its, voice-mail, and social media. You want an app that with one-click will save and intuitively categorize it all in a snap no matter what it is. One click, wherever you are and it is saved, and indexed. Onto the next one.

The second problem is that we cannot afford multiple storage systems. If you make a note on your tablet, you don’t want to go hunting for it a few hours later when you are in a cab with just your phone. Evernote syncs your “dumps” and all those other inputs across tablet, PC, laptop and smart phone instantly. You now can safely park that great new product idea, knowing it won’t be forgotten, and attend 100% to the moment. You can insta-clip that website you bumped into (when you ought to be doing something else) and get back to what you were doing.

Neuroscience is in its infancy, but a deeper understanding of the brain can help leaders in daily situations such as these without having to learn arcane neurotransmitters and the names of cortical structures. These are just a few examples, so I am curious what students of Neuroscience and behavior would add to this list and what managers make of the usefulness of these concepts. Let me know in the comments!

I’m an author whose “beat” is helping business leaders use science and philosophy to make better strategic decisions, implement change, innovate, change culture, and create workplaces where talent flourishes. My most recent book, The Science of Organizational Change has been hailed as “the most important book on change in fifteen years.” The “Reboot” series, Reboot Your Career, and Reboot Your Life, are offer step-by-step practical guides for leaders.

For blogs, free chapters, workbooks, and videos please see

Between book projects, I’m a professional speaker, consultant, and coach – my most recent speaking tour included Microsoft, Google, and Kaiser. My talent consulting and coaching clients include Comcast, BP, Shell, HSBC, and KPMG. In addition, I serve on the board of the Institute for Enterprise Ethics.

One thought on “The Skeptics Guide to Neuroscience: Three things you should know

  1. Paul,
    A well written, refreshing take on much that is AFU with Applied Neuroscience in current leadership and management writing.
    Thanks for posting!

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