Better leaders through "brain hygiene"

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Part 1 in a 4 part series on what the Human Capital Community of Practice can learn from neuroscience

Are you fascinated by new research coming out about the brain? Do you wonder about how the new research could affect you personally, or the work that you do? The ASTD Human Capital Community of Practice is hosting a four-part blog series, “What the Human Capital CoP Can Learn From Neuroscience,” to serve up the latest interesting nuggets of neuroscience and show you how they relate to our work. Series guest blogger, Dr. Erika Tierney Garms, kicks off the series with the first installation, “Better Leaders Through ‘Brain Hygiene.’” Be sure to catch it! We encourage discussion about the topic each week, so please feel free to join in.

Innovative organizations are beginning to dabble in a practice once thought of by some as esoteric or ‘out there.’ Hard science now proves its value and you might be surprised who is both talking about it and using it—from global Fortune 100 companies to Ivy League university executive education programs. The practice is called “mindfulness” and it behooves professionals in our field to take note. “Mindfulness” is not a brand new concept by any means. In the late 1970s, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts to treat chronically ill patients. This sparked interest in the medical field, where it began to be used and applied to both healthy and unhealthy people. Use of the ideas and techniques continued to spread around the world, during which time two other advances were occurring:  1) psychologists created techniques to offer their patients the benefits of mindfulness training, and 2) increasing numbers of scientific studies were conducted on its results. Dr. Ellen Langer (Harvard University psychology department) touted the value of mindfulness practice and encouraged broader use in, “A Call for Mindful Leadership” in the spring of 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review. And if a Google search is any indication of a topic’s arrival into the mainstream, take a look at the results of searching on the word, “mindfulness.”  As of today, there are 3.5 million returns. So coming from the esteemed field of medicine, why the esoteric reputation? Mindfulness can be found in the teachings of Eastern religion, particularly Buddhism; but as applied today, it has no inherent connection to any religion and is often taught without religious or cultural context.

Broadly, the state of being mindful is achieved by regulating one’s attention—focusing attention on one’s thoughts and emotions in a curious, open, and accepting way. Dr. Dan Siegel refers to mindfulness practice as “good brain hygiene” that is as important as brushing our teeth. The actual practice of becoming mindful may look much like meditation to some. It could be something that is done in a quiet classroom or gym with a group of people and a facilitator; it could also be done at a desk or in an office when a few minutes can be carved out of a busy day. Some may begin to incorporate it into their lives using a cue, for example, at red traffic lights, just before each meal, or at certain times during the day. This use of cues can help the behavior to become an embedded habit over time.

Why is mindfulness gaining attention now? As we evolve our understanding of what it takes to be a good leader, we are finding that effective leadership requires self-knowledge, self-awareness, and centeredness. Additionally, the best leaders have some method to manage the constant onslaught of inputs and stimuli in order to maintain their presence of mind and good health.

What are the mental and cognitive benefits? They are many, and they are remarkable. Greater frequency of practice may yield greater benefits, but in even a handful of minutes each day of practice, we can:

  • Improve mental focus and reduce mind wandering.

  • Extend our attention span.

  • Discourage black and white thinking.

  • Assist in staying organized, managing time, and setting priorities.

  • Lift us from a constant, low level of panic and guilt.

  • Lower wear and tear on our bodies.

  • Toughen immunity.

  • Improve mood and emotional stability.

  • Build self-monitoring capacity.

  • Offer neuroprotective effects and reduce cognitive decline associated with aging.

How does this work? Neuroscientists have been able to show, through the use of magnetic resonance images (MRIs), that mindfulness is associated with changes in gray brain matter concentration in areas of the brain activated during learning and memory processes, emotional regulation, and perspective taking. Expect much more to come from neuroscience to explain how these changes occur.
Interested in the benefits of mindfulness for your organization’s leaders? Or for yourself? Remember that the “end in mind” is a continuous state of mindfulness. To begin to achieve that end, though, one might try mindfulness training exercises to help develop awareness of one’s mental and emotional pulses. Try associating cues with mindfulness training (such as the hourly chimes of clocks, crossing the threshold of doors). The practice itself could be nothing more than taking three deep and slow breaths while noticing one’s present state and accepting it non-judgmentally. As you develop new habits and see the effects, please share what you are discovering with this community of practice. CoP members who are interested in learning more so they can introduce these concepts to leaders, are also encouraged to let us know what you are seeing in practice.

If you don’t have time or energy to peruse the 3.5 million sources of information about mindfulness that Google can offer, you might try these to begin with:

The Institute for Mindful Leadership (, Wisdom at Work (, Mindful (,  and if you have 3 minutes to spare, view Dan Siegel explaining mindfulness at: .


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About the Author

Erika Garms works with leaders who need their teams to work, manage, and innovate smarter. As CEO of WorkingSmarts (, she uses her gift for translating powerful scientific theory to everyday workplace practice. Erika has played a number of consulting and leadership roles in her 26-year career, including serving as an internal consultant, an organization development unit manager, and an organization development/change/executive management consultant with two large, global management consulting firms. She also helped to establish start-up HR and IT consultancies. Erika has worked for and with public sector and private sector organizations across many industries – from food to finance, education to energy. She earned a BA and an MA from the University of Colorado, a PhD from the University of Minnesota, and completed a post-graduate program with distinction from the NeuroLeadership Institute/Sussex University.  Garms is the author of, “The Brain-Friendly Workplace: Five Big Ideas from Neuroscience That Address Organizational Challenges” (ATD Press, 2014) and is a regular speaker at conferences, company meetings, and management retreats across the U.S. and abroad.

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