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So, What Does Neuroscience Have to Do with Business Psychology by Raymond L. Forbes Jr., Ph.D.

So, What Does Neuroscience Have to Do with Business Psychology by Raymond L. Forbes Jr., Ph.D.

Hint: They both are related to the operation of the brain.

A Little Brain History

Pioneering British neurophysiologist Sir Charles Sherrington imaginatively called the brain an “enchanted loom.” This comparative metaphor combined the mysterious (enchanted) with the commercial (a weaver’s loom). In the 1940s, when Sherrington first coined the phrase, relatively little was known about the three pounds of grey and white matter that constitute the human brain.

Currently many neuroscientists believe that we have learned more about the brain in the last fifteen years than in all previous history combined. Much of this knowledge has come from major institutional research initiatives such as the U.S. Library of Congress and National Institute of Health’s co-sponsorship of the “The Decade of the Brain” during the 1990s. The emphasis was continued with the White House’s funding of the BRAIN or “Building Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies” in 2013. Additionally, the European Union” is presently investing about 1.9 Billion Euros for its ten year “Blue Brain” research project to replicate a mammalian brain within a computer.

Historically, such intense scientific interest in the brain has not always been the case. The ancient Egyptians thought the brain was so insignificant that they removed and discarded it from the body prior to mummification of the dead. The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that the heart was the most central organ in the body. He thought that the heart and not the brain was primarily responsible for sensation and movement. We now realize the brain operates electro-chemically and is one of the most intricate and complex systems known to exist.

Just how complex is the brain?

For example, the wrinkled outer layer or cerebral cortex is composed of more than 86 billion neurons each connected to up to 10,000 others. According to some estimates, the range of possible interconnections exceeds 100 trillion or more than the number of known stars in the universe. It is also a very costly organ to operate. Although the brain is typically about 2% of total body weight it consumes about 20% of the available energy. Additionally, the brain generates sufficient power to illuminate a 20 watt light bulb and it continues to unconsciously control our essential bodily functions even while we sleep.

The convoluted cerebral cortex, if unfolded, is about the size of a table napkin and about as thick as a nickel. Following the work of American physician and National Institute of Mental Health researcher Paul MacLean in the 1970s, many prominent neuroscientists think that the brain has evolved over time in three stages. In the first stage of its development, the human brain is very similar to that of a reptile. The reptilian brain controls most of our basic life functions such as respiration, wake/sleep cycle, heartbeat, and level of consciousness.

The second stage brain resembles that of a simple mammal such as a mouse or a cat. At this level the brain is concerned with emotions, the fight, flight or freeze response, and many learning and memory functions. In its’ third or most advanced stage human brain structure is very close to that of our primate cousins the gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos. This most recent evolutionary stage, consists of major three lobes or sections, and contains much of what it means to be human including language, creativity, sight, audition, music, cognition, and problem solving. In practice, the three stages are highly interconnected and exist concurrently within the human brain case.

Additionally, we have learned that the three-layered physical structure of the brain hasn’t changed much in 10,000 years. It seems that we essentially have the same mental architecture as some of our earliest hominid ancestors. The brain appears to be geared to focus on survival in service of the continuation of our species through the passing on of genetic material.

Brain repurposing

The brain seems to be oriented toward maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain and is exquisitely sensitive to threat. Much of its original organization has been repurposed by evolution to meet the demands of a more complex and changing environment. For instance, many of the same brain circuits that register physical pain also react to social or emotional pain. The use of tools, language, and the development of artistic expression also appear to have significantly altered how our brain components are wired together. The brain’s immense power seems to arise from its plasticity, massive interconnectivity, and ability to learn and adapt.

The development of electronic sensing devices has greatly altered the study of the brain. Such instruments as functional magnetic resonance imaging scanners now can look at existing blood flow in the brain to see which areas of the brain are active for particular tasks and display it in colorful images. Sophisticated electroencephalographs can detect and display the brain’s weak electrical signals from multiple brain regions simultaneously as they occur.

Thus, we are now able to noninvasively, in near real time, depict what is going on inside the brain as it does its work. And, what scientists are seeing has greatly advanced what we know about the way the brain functions including how it attempts to solve business problems. Enterprising researchers have just begun to apply this new knowledge to various aspects of business.

Impact on business

The result of this explosion of new knowledge about the brain has resulted in a whole plethora of new business sub-disciplines. These specialties include, among others: neurofinance, behavioral economics, neuromarketing, and neuroleadership. Neu­ro­fi­nance is concerned with studying the nature of the mental processes engaged in obtaining, processing, and utilizing infor­ma­tion related to finan­cial deci­sion mak­ing. Behavioral economics focusses on the identification and consequences of decision choices on individuals and organizations particularly in relationship to allocation of resources. Neuromarketing studies the brain’s responses to marketing stimuli. Neuroleadership applies the findings of relevant brain research to the field of leadership.

What does it all mean?

What this means to the Business Psychologist is that understanding how the brain works is becoming essential professional knowledge. Some educational institutions have added this dimension to their regular business psychology curricula. This additional learning can be used to supplement, enhance, and extend the traditional business psychology disciplines of business and human behavior.

When you think about it, the brain is at the very core of who we are and what we do. The ongoing research and upsurge of information about mental processes and functions offer great opportunities to advance the field of business psychology and keep it relevant and current. Alternatively, the accelerated growth of wisdom about how the brain-mind works has yet another facet. It also brings with it a whole new constellation of questions and ethical issues to be resolved.

It will be fascinating to see just how the field responds to these new challenges that arise from linking neuroscience and business psychology.


Raymond L. Forbes Jr., Ph.D.
Chair, MS in Business Psychology
Franklin University

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