Exercising the Mind

Mind spas sound like a Californian concept and indeed they are. But even cynical corporate leaders are coming to the conclusion that “brain fitness”, like bodily fitness, needs to be worked on. And as companies try to hold on to existing employees and plough money into retraining rather than recruitment, corporate brain spas could become the latest executive perk.

“You can jog in the brain,” says Crispin Tweddell of Piper Trust, a retail consultancy which advises leading High Street names on how to maximize potential. “Many executives go to gyms, but they need to get brain fit as well.”

Busy chief executives, he says, never seem to get enough time for quality thinking. “They are tearing from meeting to meeting. They have to take decisions and they’re not necessarily quality decisions.”

So Tweddell did some quality thinking and came up with the concept of brain fitness, which he is attempting to turn into a marketable work-out.

“Most business activities are analytical left brain activity,” he says. “But in the gym nobody suggests you should simply hop on your left leg you need balance.”

Tweddell believes that people within management teams have difficulty communicating because their brains react in different ways. One manager may be logical, rational and quantitative, whereas another is intuitive. If a company wants to get the best out of both of them it will need to move towards what Tweddell terms “whole brain management” and learn how to build well-balanced teams.

Piper Trust’s employees have been analyzed by the Herrmann Brain Dominance Institute, an American organization which has recently set up a branch in Cranbrook, Kent. The assessment, which costs Pounds 30, asks participants to agree/disagree with a series of statements, to select the adjectives which best describe themselves, list hobbies and evaluate their work skills and energy levels.

The results are returned from the UK institute, which is run by Sally Cartwright, with a written analysis and a visual display of the brain dominance profile. A financial officer would probably show dominance in the upper left quadrant (logical, analytical), a strategic planner in the upper right (imaginative, conceptual), a book-keeper in the bottom left (controlled, organizational) and a nurse in the bottom right (interpersonal, emotional).

It is not a test there is no right or wrong and it does not measure intelligence. But it can show that someone is unsuited for his job, unless, of course, he does some brain balancing exercises.

To strengthen the upper right quadrant, Herrmann recommends such activities as playing with clay, allowing yourself to daydream or inventing a gourmet dish. To work on upper left qualities, engage in logic games or learn to use a personal computer. If it is the bottom left you want to improve, try developing a budget or assembling a model kit by instructions.

Finally, if it is lower right skills you lack, try to play with your children the way they want you to play with them, allow tears to come to your eyes without feelings of shame or guilt and learn to “love” a pine cone or any other natural thing.

“That was for the American market,” Cartwright says. “I don’t think the British would want to love a pine cone, but there are other things they could try.”

IBM has recently launched a “creative and innovative thinking” program which involves brainstorming sessions and brain exercises. “We’ll do things like place a pile of rubbish in the center of a room and each person has to pick something and then discourse for a few minutes on `why is life like a… spanner’,” explains IBM’s Anne Fielder. “I think it carries back to their work. It changes attitudes and encourages positivity.”

The exercises Tweddell advises for his brain fitness program are somewhat different. They include copying a picture upside-down to get rid of any inhibitions about not being able to draw, and exercises in lateral thinking. He stimulates the brain with music therapy, awakens the sense of smell with blind tastings, and holds workshops on communicating quality thoughts for those who have learned how to have them.

“Some people might think this is a bit `fringe’,” he says, “and there is quite a blockage against it. Executives are considered too busy bringing in business to pick up drumsticks. If you can’t envisage the outcome there is no motivation. But this sort of work can create virtuous circles where once there were vicious circles.”

Experts are divided between those skeptical of “commercial exploitation of people’s weaknesses”, as Professor Thomas Sears, head of the department of neuro-physiology at the Institute of Neurology in London, considers these courses, and those such as Dr. David Jenkins, medical director of the Wolfson Medical Rehabilitation Centre, who has seen dramatic effects on brain-damaged patients after eight weeks on his Cognitive Communication Program.

“We help them with memory and intellect,” Jenkins says, “with a variety of techniques ranging from problem-solving to adventure games and memory strategies rather like some of those recommended for patients with Alzheimer’s disease.” If brain-damaged patients borderline cases, not severely brain-damaged, Jenkins emphasizes can improve significantly enough to go back to work after the eight-week course, there is no reason why brain exercises should not work for burnt-out executives, he says. “Our age limits are from 16 to 65, and although there is no doubt that the younger you are the quicker you improve, you can still make strides at the upper limit.”

Professor Jeffrey Gray, head of the department of psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital in London, says: “There is evidence that an animal’s experiences affect the growth of neurons in the brain. So far, however, there is no evidence that the `enriched experiences’ of the kind these businessmen are undergoing contribute to physiological regeneration.”

Dr. David Weeks, principal clinical psychologist at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, whose brain exercises for minimizing the effects of dementia are now in use in more than 275 units in Britain and around the world, cautiously welcomes the concept of mind spas although not the Californian kind, where people put on goggles with flashing lights and earphones playing nature sounds.

“That’s bunkum,” he says. “The idea of a brain spa sounds too restful brains need challenge and interaction. A weekly routine of brain exercises should be integrated into the working environment.”

Still, Weeks warns, there is little point in doing brain exercises if executives continue to smoke heavily and go out for boozy lunches: “That kills more brain cells than brain exercises build back.”

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