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Brain Science Will Change Human Resources by Joseph Coates
Human resources is primarily a set of activities within a company or organization directed at the mental functions of workers—aptitudes for work, team selection, job training, health, safety, and work assignments. Other related matters are difficult workers, addicts, and poorly motivated workers. In addition, the benefits package has to do with health and mental health care, compensation, and rewards with incentives and recognition. More knowledge of the function of the brain and its basic chemical, electrical, and physiological nature has been discovered in the past dozen years than in the previous eight decades. That knowledge will lead to better means of identification of actual and potential disorders and their treatment or prevention. The 1990s were designated "The Decade of the Brain." The large budgets that flowed into research and treatment have had bountiful results of new knowledge. The new avenues of understanding in brain science and where the knowledge will be applied to human resources are the subjects of this article. scientific research from psychology, genetics, and other biological sciences established that brain function has a profoundly significant base in genes, that is, in inherited capabilities. The old nature-versus-nurture argument can be roughly quantified: Genes determine about 80 percent of brain function, whereas the environment, both intrauterine and throughout the rest of one's life, determines the rest. To use a somewhat too-simple metaphor, genes determine the size of the vessel, and the environment determines how full it becomes. Despite the oversimplification, it is a convenient way to grasp the broad picture. We use the term "brain science" because researchers from many fields are coming together to create a new pool of integrated knowledge about the brain. Now the study of the brain belongs to no particular discipline but includes behavioral science, physiology, nutrition, immunology, psychology, biochemistry, pharmacology, genetics, and neurology, all melding for the first time to create unprecedented understanding of how the brain works. The human brain is by far the most complex entity in the universe. Not only does the brain influence our body, but the body also influences the brain in intricate feedback and "feed forward." Also, one of the now well established characteristics of the brain is that it operates both globally and locally. For instance, individual sites in the brain have specific functions. The amygdala, for example, a small almond shaped organ almost in the center of the brain, comes into play when we are presented with a sudden threatening situation. It prepares us for instant fight or flight. On the other hand, the brain simultaneously acts globally, that is, in an integrated way. It moderates that fight or flight choice so it does not happen instantly every time we face danger. There is a link from the amygdala to the cerebral cortex, which is the site of the higher brain functions, the so-called executive functions of the brain. The cerebral cortex in turn interacts with the amygdala on many if not most occasions to prevent fight or flight, to deal with the situation in a different way. The combination of global and local functions is also illustrated in the way things are perceived and stored in memory. There are no little boxes in the brain that record a full detailed picture of a scene, a person, a printed page, or an event. Rather, what we perceive is broken apart in the brain, to be stored separately. The parts come together as needed, on demand, in recall or in a dream. A major challenge in brain research today is deciphering how the mechanism for storage and reassembly works.
Factors Affecting Brain Function
The brain operates on a principle of "use it or lose it." For example, every person is born with the capability to make all of the sounds (phonemes) of all of the human languages. We each, however, live in a world in which only a portion of those phonemes is used. Consequently, the brain, at approximately age 10, begins to dump millions of brain cells daily from the language center, as we no longer have the need for their excess capacity to learn more phonemes. This dumping more or less thwarts any later capability to accurately make previously unlearned sounds. Adults who learn a second language usually learn to pronounce it imperfectly because they cannot manage the alien phonemes, and the capability to learn them has been lost. Another factor that affects capability is chemical use, for good or bad. Alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, prescription drugs such as Valium and Prozac, and recreational drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and LSD affect us mentally. The introduction of drugs into the body for therapeutic purposes is becoming more and more sophisticated:
UNDERSTANDING BRAIN FUNCTIONS
Knowledge of brain functions goes back to the mid-19th century when victims of accidents, disorders, and diseases gave some solid insights to the localized functions of the brain. Animal experiments begun in the early part of the 20th century provided further insights. Beginning in the 1930s, new tools such as the electron microscope, microelectrodes to monitor individual nerve functions, the CAT (computerized axial tomography) scan, radiology, techniques for monitoring the metabolism in the brain as a surrogate measure of brain function, and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) all contributed to a finer and a more detailed understanding of the functions of the brain down to the level of individual neurons (Le., brain cells1. In addition,
Brain Science Will Change Human Resources from Employment Relations Today (Winter 2003)
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or the result of difficulty in one's personal background. but women can tell whether someone is sad. In one study.. can tell whether a man's face is sad-but a woman's face has to be really sad for men to see it. Both men and women can identify happy faces. That discovery radically dismisses any social. ß ß ß To treat brain disorders with fewer and fewer side effects. Call 202-363-7440 or e-mail us at info@josephcoates. The women have generally more activity in the new and more complex parts of the limbic system involved with symbolic action. fears. Developments related to gene therapy under research today will lead in the next 25 years to effective treatments of many mental conditions. several diseases often have been incorrectly clustered into a single disease or disorder. environmental. or feel they need: ß A more positive outlook on the world. familial. and continuing to use drugs will turn out to have a genetic base.A reprint from Joseph Coates Consulting Futurist. but one does not want to go too far with the concept. which has traditionally been thought of as a moral defect. if not all common mental disorders. however. we do not punish people for medical conditions but rather attempt to treat them. to be less shy or reclusive. Men's brains are more asymmetric. for example. but it promises to be able to intervene to block or promote the expression of genes that control specific processes and disorders or to introduce a corrective gene into the body and so be able to fundamentally improve the state of mentally (or physically) troubled people. The men and the women used different areas of the brain. Almost surely alcoholism and even seeking. which has long been known to be associated with speech. however. The women used the same area as well as a portion on the right side. Those additional neurons are packed into the six outer shells of the brain in the region used to understand language and to recognize melodies. Although men's brains are 10 percent larger than women's. lateralized. Genetic Connections The genetics of underlying factors in diseases and disorders will increasingly make it clear that inheritance leads to or facilitates most specific diseases and disorders. For example. and proprioception and sends out responses and orders to the body. The cognitive differences between men and women are small.com www. To fit a specific person's problem and individual biochemistry with individualized drugs. tones. Looking at the brain primarily as an information-processing system is a sound approach to research. In a study using MRIs to monitor brain activity. political. The brain gets signals from the senses-sight. but extends throughout the body. physiological. The line between correction and enhancement is often fuzzy and is likely to continue to shift. the nervous system runs through the entire human body. On the other hand. An interesting recent example is kleptomania. Extensive studies of children have shown that girls are better on verbal and fine-motor tasks. The other differences may be quite important. Most people have heard of lateralization in one form-the right side of the brain tends to control the left side of the body. men and women were asked to read Brain Science Will Change Human Resources from Employment Relations Today (Winter 2003) Page 2 of 5 . Information Processing As is commonly known. For example. some failure of training or education. and vice versa. Gender Differences Gender differences will be an important factor in HR management. men were correct 70 percent of the time in deciding whether women were sad. and phobias. and speech. The men averaged higher brain activity on the more ancient or primitive regions of the so-called limbic system. some 6 percent of Alzheimer's disease cases have been established as genetic in origin. In our society. ß Improved memory. wanting. Research now makes kleptomania a biological condition and effectively medicalizes it (i. that is. Furthermore. there is no doubt that intelligence is fundamentally genetically based and yet strongly influenced by environment. and To improve or enhance rather than to merely correct. one sees intelligence as the means by which information is usefully managed. It is a generally known fact that the brain has two hemispheres. that is.com nonsense words and determine whether they rhymed. vision. hearing. women have about 11 percent more neurons. a special part of the brain recognizes faces. requires it be treated as a medical disorder). The men used a small area on the left side of the brain. whereas women were correct 90 percent of the time. the part associated with action. Gene therapy is now in its most primitive or early stage. but it does indicate that in the past. One of the sure consequences of unfolding genetics research coupled with better understanding of the functions of the brain will be increasing medicalization of many behaviors that were previously viewed as social pathologies. whereas boys are more proficient in spatio-visual tasks. economic. Men. Enhancements include treatment for those people who need. or ethical argument as to the origin of kleptomania.josephcoates. That has been radically changed by the discovery that there is a site in the brain that causes kleptomania. either for involuntary activities such as the operation of the gut or for voluntary ones such as moving an arm and a hand reaching out to catch a ball. Psychotic depression and schizophrenia are likely to be differentiated into several distinct disorders with specific origins and presumably specific therapeutic and even preventive approaches through genetics research.e. or ß Personality modifications. genetics research is also increasingly defining its relationship to deteriorative mental disorders. That is not to say the remainder are not. Inc. Playing with that notion. Genetics will promote more medicalization. ß Suppression of excessive and gratuitous worries. The brain is not locked within our skull. taste.
Psychological depression can result from prolonged stress. They find it difficult to deal with abstract concepts. adverse behavior that today is primarily treated as if it were of social origin will be more Brain Science Will Change Human Resources from Employment Relations Today (Winter 2003) Page 3 of 5 . 3. requiring shorter work periods. hottempered people. The aging brain has more difficulty concentrating and focusing. As with the rest of the body. which in turn leaves the body open to many kinds of disorders. Decision Making Decision making is increasingly important in contemporary life. Age-related brain diseases such as stroke are caused by aging of the brain's blood vessels. Knowledge grows as we live longer. The prefrontal regions. An increasing problem in society is the aging brain. and grammar are not affected. and aggressively argumentative people are all likely to reflect a strongly genetically based component in their troublesome behavior.com www. normal people are often unconsciously aware of improved choices of play well before they reach the conscious level. and emerging developments in brain science. or images into the brain. We are all familiar with the rapid growth of the mental functions of the infant and the small child. He was a victim of a newly identified brain disorder resulting in a craving for fine foods. As new developments occur. The problem is that excessive and uncontrolled stress can make people sick.A reprint from Joseph Coates Consulting Futurist. Aging may bring a loss of depth perception and reduced ability to locate objects in space and identify geometric shapes. comprehension. including neuron loss from the hippocampus. Blood flow and the use of glucose. that will be directly linked into the brain. They are overwhelmed by endless details that remain unforgotten. comes even close to operating the way human memory is currently understood to operate. Troubled employees. which fuels the brain. They have little sense of the future. dining rituals. Some samples of the effects follow. it is extremely unlikely that anything will be developed in the proximate future that will be able to directly link ideas. data. switched from his political beat to doing a column on fine dining. No artificial. one of the great continuing research opportunities in brain science is understanding how things are recognized and how the information is stored and then later reassembled. Call 202-363-7440 or e-mail us at info@josephcoates. which have the highest brain function. according to Restak. and that depression can be associated with changes in the hippocampus. 2. that is. The development of better understanding of decision making as a brain function lies in the future. and food preparation. Even personalities are becoming better understood in terms of the fundamental structure of the brain. show no changes in the elderly. Anxiety and depression are often associated with suppression of immune functions. 6. Nevertheless. concepts. and we are aware of the transition to maturity on the part of teenagers and youths. 7. Consequently. On the other hand. general information/ and comprehension. This is almost surely a basic phenomenon in posttraumatic stress disorder. 4. perhaps counterable by making learning sessions shorter. Effects of Stress and Aging Stress is too often seen as a negative. Brain science is showing that it is a subtle affair. 5. It is highly speculative whether we will have external memory aids. The subtlety of the brain is illustrated by the case of the journalist who. In experiments in gambling.josephcoates. people with prefrontal lobe brain damage suffer severely defective decision making. underlie the front part of the skull. primarily electronic. There is a slight drop-off in gathering and using new information. Richard Restak cites seven effects of aging: 1. aging does take its toll: 10 percent of those over the age of 65 and 20 percent of those over 80 have significant dementia. Testing of the elderly shows no change in the expression of the mind such as vocabulary. The brain also suffers from the deterioration of its supporting structures. but there is no question that some stress is essential to a healthy and effective life. after he had a stroke. no nonhuman system. The scientific consensus today is that the brain remains malleable throughout life and is open to continuous learning. new. Implications for HR Virtually every area of the HR function within the firm will be affected by recent. Problem-solving skills improve with age. Information Storage Memory is associated with intelligence. Language skills such as syntax. the brain goes through life stages. These brain functions often operate at a subconscious level. but that is a far cry from a memory bank that can extend and expand the human memory. Those rare people who have photographic memories live miserable lives. The cerebral artery in the right hemisphere of the brain altered eating behavior in the patient to make him preoccupied with shopping. We already have working tools to directly enter into the brain and influence its function. memory span and the rapid processing of information do decrease. On the other hand. addicts. Odd as it may seem. Motor learning is accomplished as readily by older people as by younger individuals. but memory for proper names decreases. having an imperfect memory is a biological necessity. Continued stress can have identifiable effects on the brain.com In his book Longevity Strategy. male or female chauvinists. alcoholics. Metaphors and poetry are lost on them. Inc. kleptomaniacs. As mentioned earlier. They will often continue to make poor choices even when they know correct strategies.
and also to carry that over into management functions dealing with individual workers and teams. and how to fit the communication to the situation and to the emotional and mental structure of the recipients. and compensation. The model of "I report. there are two aspects to consider. Creativity is not important to everyone in any organization and may not even be important to some classes of organizations.A reprint from Joseph Coates Consulting Futurist. In-service training will be influenced by the insights into different conceptual or mental styles. the block of knowledge that an older Compensation Benefits. We also know that communication is different among women than it is among men. Perhaps an economic analysis along this line would highlight the advantages or disadvantages of medicalization.com www. it will open up and define the values of simultaneous and sequence learning. As more general information develops about the biological and genetic origins of disorders and disease. into people in the succession plan. supervisor's estimates. even down to the level of small units. or a poison. One is probing the characteristics of the would-be employee. and more costly. We may move to a new period of trade-offs between compensations and other rewards and benefits. Why? Because of the scale at which the corporation provides benefits makes it likely that it will be able to provide specialized benefits more cheaply than can the individuals hunting them down for private payment. the spoken word. and the motivations of people. Knowledge of brain science can direct more effective rewards to employees and also provide new benefits to the dependents of the worker. As the needs change and new people are introduced and other people drop out. This implies a concept of shorter training periods. but the bigger payoff may lie in training management to be more insightful in conducting interviews and observing what goes on in an interview. seen as due either to a genetic condition or to some physical variable. the most important developments in the economy depend heavily on the creativity of individuals and the so-called creative organizations. how to communicate it. As noted earlier. The transmission of information is often the weakest link in and across large organizations. more extensive. Treating biologically based troubled behavior through medical approaches will become more important and in many regards will be more expensive. but also for younger workers. particularly medical interventions in their families. subtle responses of an interviewee. It may also be influenced by the relative age of the student or the trainee. We now have no clear means that I know of for doing the economic tradeoff between the cost of correction and the cost of continuing employment of a troublesome worker. Conventionally preferred environments. nominally those over 50. In relation to the long-term interest of the organization. you listen" and "You report. it is likely to make medical treatment of workers. How short is an open question. the notion of rewards in addition to traditional compensation opens up great opportunities for human Brain Science Will Change Human Resources from Employment Relations Today (Winter 2003) . We know too little about what circumstance or Page 4 of 5 extensively medicalized. It is obvious from the recent business scandals in the general press and the larger number reported in the business press that succession plans have often failed to put the best people in top positions. video. With regard to employee selection. more effective.josephcoates. We have already moved in a not helpful way by charging more medical costs to the worker. combined video and audio. Call 202-363-7440 or e-mail us at info@josephcoates. resources in understanding the mental makeup. As brain science develops. characteristics. Brain science is opening up new strategies for communication and new understanding of what to communicate. On the other hand. such as offices with windows. What might lie in the future is a much more positive element in which the corporation can offer a special brain analysis or related benefits to the worker and his or her family in exchange for some shift in compensation. new developments in brain science may lead to identifying and selecting the more subtle characteristics for the top executives and also offer new approaches to inculcating values. Productivity There is no question that the physical environment influences some people more than it does others. are the proper choices being made? Brain science will surely have primary inputs into team building and job fitting that goes beyond the mere expressions of wishes. and simple tests like Myers-Briggs and the Kirton Adaptation-Innovation Inventory. the screen. are still at a primitive stage. but both groups would benefit from more training to be able to identify and interpret the anxiety. and the role of tactile and other sensory input into training. but smaller on average. particularly corporate values. rewards. Teams are always troublesome because one never quite knows whether they are optimal. the printed word. Women generally read body language better than men do.com worker can absorb in a time interval is not different. Testing will improve to block out the capabilities and characteristics of a potential employee. a drug. are given out in terms of status in the hierarchy. Inc. Improved skills and training in reading body language would be helpful. Stretched-out courses might be more effective not only for older workers. intoxicating chemical. On the other hand. It might be far more effective from a productivity point of view to look at the layout of the facilities as linked to individual mental characteristics and thus optimize work performance. This creates communication problems between genders. the triad of expenditures and activities of human resources. and the second is understanding the strategies that interviewers bring to an interview. nervousness. I listen" is an extremely limited mode of communication.
Brain science promises to be effective in dealing with that issue. too much of the information about the creative corporate environment is anecdotal. As organizations globalize. The New York Times by Nicholas Wade. (Lyons Press. For example. The Science Times Book of the Brain: The Best Science Reporting from .. for example.Ways to counter jetlag using light therapy or other means o More effective training. chemicals.com A few enjoyable general references that can help in this endeavor are The Longevity Factor by David Mahoney. and quality of life o Work assignments and schedules that optimize individual employees' performance. Brain Science Will Change Human Resources from Employment Relations Today (Winter 2003) Page 5 of 5 . who has the capability to understand and respond positively to cultural differences. Individual companies or several companies in consortium or through a second organization may want to explore the subject of this article in depth and with a 20-year perspective. ultimately to enhance all of our capabilities. et al. John Wiley & Sons. including scheduling some employee training during several short daily sessions rather than during one all-day workshop to get maximum learning results o Benefits packages that include: ß Genetic testing ß Certain genetic therapies ß Counseling for employees with sleep problems ß Counseling employees on diet as it relates to mood. Ed. affecting every aspect of the HR enterprise over the next 20 years and will provide: o Ways to reduce stress in the office. and personality factors and specialized activities at work.A reprint from Joseph Coates Consulting Futurist. Inc. 1998). brain science can offer greater insight into who has the capability to work effectively in the new alien environments. and noninvasive analytical. for example: . emotional. and how one optimizes creativity from an organizational point of view.SAD (seasonal affective disorder). Techniques that involve genetics. Inc. 1998). which could cut absenteeism o Employee education and training programs on. and acoustic devices all promise to play an increasingly important role in the management of cognitive. including means of self-diagnosis and treatment .josephcoates. alertness. surgery.. Call 202-363-7440 or e-mail us at info@josephcoates. these techniques will include: o Genetic therapies for many neurological and psychiatric illnesses o Diagnostic testing for the presence of genes associated with various illnesses or conditions ranging from Alzheimer's disease to dyslexia o Better treatments for sleep problems o Drugs for enhancing memory o Better understanding of: ß The effect of diet on mood and memory ß The importance of sleep and dreams to consolidate learning ß The effect of individual SUMMARY New developments in brain research provide fresh opportunities for corporate leaders who are interested in raising the bar on the performance and competitiveness of their organizations. and The Scientific American Book of the Brain (Lyons Press. and who can modify his or her own behavior to optimize performance in a foreign environment. 1999). organizational conditions are necessary to unleash and promote creativity. tissue implants. knowing who functions best during evenings and mornings could help determine those best suited for shift work or help schedule the performance of different tasks A NEW WAY OF APPROACHING WORKPLACE PROBLEMS Research in brain science is leading to new long-term solutions to workplace problems and situations that can be characterized as mentally related. Regrettably. Richard Restak. electromagnetic. circadian rhythms on mood changes ß The connection between mental states and resistance to disease These capabilities will steadily unfold..com www.
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