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How Brain Imaging Can Help Us Work Better, Together

Janine Milne

Guest Contributor

The human brain is at once the source of our most basic functions, and our most intriguing biological mysteries. Christof Koch, the chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, has called the brain the "most complex object in the known universe." In fact, we know more about the deep oceans than we do about our own minds.

Needless to say, there's a lot to learn about how the brain influences our daily lives. Neuroscientist Dario Nardi, Ph.D., is at the helm of studying how our brains impact our work lives in particular: an expert in neuroscience and personality, his research focuses on identifying individual personalities and studying how personality impacts team dynamics.

We recently touched base with him to hear more about his research, and its potential impact on the future of work.

The Two CEOs

Nardi scans people's pre-frontal cortexes using electroencephalograms (EEGs) to see which parts of our brain—each corresponding to different personality traits—"light up" with electrical activity when we perform certain tasks. He sees the brain as a corporation with sometimes conflicting leadership: "The brain is like a company that has two CEOs. We've got to get those CEOs to cooperate in some way."

The "two CEOs" Nardi talks about are also known as the "left" and "right" lobes of our pre-frontal cortex—each with very different characteristics. You've likely heard of "left-brain" and "right-brain" people: The left side is goal-focused, logical and decisive. In contrast, the right side is creative, open-ended and curious.

While some people have brains with "CEOs" of relatively equal influence, for many of us, one side is heavily dominant.

Understanding the Way We Work

In the corporate world, understanding these differences can be critical to effectively interacting with different people. "If someone is more extraverted and goal-focused, they are going to be a very different leader than someone who is open-minded and introspective," says Nardi.

To negotiate with someone who is extremely left-minded individual, Nardi says, you should rely on points where you have confidence and the upper hand. To build rapport, you should talk about outcomes and how you can work with them to achieve goals. If you go in with a more open-ended approach, he notes, "You're going to get rolled over."

In his work with leadership groups in companies, Nardi has individuals practice interacting with someone with a different "CEO" dominance from themselves. In his mind, if executive teams know more about how their coworkers and employers operate, they are bound to have fewer conflicts and better team dynamics. A better understanding of personality types could also help companies place managers in situations that play to their strengths, and build their weaknesses. As he says, "You can look at the executive and focus on their shared strengths [or] where there are blind spots."

The Science of Self-Awareness

Of course, there are already psychometric tests that highlight emotional intelligence and personality traits, such as the Myers-Briggs test, but Nardi sees brain scanning as a much more accurate analysis of personality. As he wrote in a recent article for SHRM, tests like Myers-Briggs "rely on self-reflection or opinion and can miss key facets of who we are," whereas "brain-based assessments offer some objective and empowering answers."

While most of the insights from the EEG scans align with people's general sense of self, there are always one or two results that surprise the individual. "I think that can be empowering for people," says Nardi. "When people know more about themselves and have more accurate information about themselves, I think it creates a lot of options for clear decision making. They can make sensible choices about where they should work in organizations and what would be satisfying."

While neuroscience in the workplace is still in the early stages, companies are beginning to turn to brain scanning to inform workforce structure, particularly outside of the U.S. In the next five to 10 years, Nardi expect brain scanning to increase in popularity as the equipment becomes more widely available.

But he also sounds a note of caution: "Let's not just dive into it and hope for the best. I've spent nine years on it and I wouldn't be surprised if it takes another nine years before there's more widespread use. I'd rather see people doing it well, rather than because it's trendy."

Photo: Creative Commons

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