Is Our Brain The Key To Accelerating Our Adaptability to Change?

08/25/2017 10:13 am ET
Photo credit: Neil Conway

I was saddened to learn about the recent passing of Dr. Marian Diamond. Deemed a founder of modern neuroscience, Dr. Diamond made ground-breaking advances in the domain of brain plasticity. She discovered that our brains do in fact change over time and, what’s more, that they can be improved through enriched environments and activities. After studying parts of Einstein’s brain, Dr. Diamond observed that Einstein’s brain was far from being a fixed organ. Rather, it had a statistically significant greater number of glial cells compared to the average male brain. (Glial cells essentially protect and support our neurons.) This reinforced and correlated her prior findings around neuroplasticity and confirmed that the brain can and does adapt to a changing environment.

I never met Dr. Diamond, although I wish I had. I was introduced to her through the work of another neuroscientist, Dr. Wendy Suzuki. Then a young student at Berkeley, Suzuki was deeply influenced and inspired by Dr. Diamond. (She tells a great story of her first day in Dr. Diamond’s class in her book.) Dr. Suzuki went on to become a world-renowned neuroscientist at NYU, studying how we form and retain long-term memories.

For some time now, researching and exploring the human brain has been a growing personal passion of mine and has become an increasingly important facet in my line of work. I work with teams, managers, leaders, and individuals to better navigate complex change. It is abundantly clear that our ability to understand how we individually react to change – and our ability to lead others through change – will be what sets apart the winners from the losers. The primary driver of all human behavior, after all, is the brain. The notion that our brain can change (i.e. that it is responsive to changing conditions and environments) is intriguing as we’re faced with navigating change around us. Are there things that we can do to make us more adaptive to change? To perhaps handle it better? I believe there are.

There is still much to learn and as we seek to better understand the brain, but what Dr. Suzuki discovered is that there are conditions that can be constructed that will allow your brain to perform better. Specifically explored was the connection between exercise, mindfulness and taking action (the latter being a cornerstone of the work we do at Kotter) that creates conditions for the brain to perform better. In the case of neuroplasticity, there is a famous study that was conducted with London cab drivers. The details are very interesting indeed, but in the final analysis the researchers found there were more nerve cells in the back part of the hippocampus (that part of the brain largely responsible for memory) amongst the cab drivers who passed the professional examination testing their knowledge of London’s thousands of streets and landmarks, compared to those drivers who had failed the test. And these same cab drivers’ hippocampi were again larger when compared to bus drivers, perhaps because they didn’t have to think about the millions of navigation permutations - they drove the same route every day.

Think about the implications of this: in the words of neurobiologist Howard Eichenbaum of Boston University “…it really was the training process that caused the growth in the brain. It shows you can produce profound changes in the brain with training. That's a big deal.”

Ultimately, we have Dr. Diamond to thank for the early research in this field. At least for now, one of the major takeaways is the belief that perhaps we can teach our brains to be more adaptive, thereby accelerating our adaptability to change. That’s a really good thing, because with the volume and velocity of change today we need this capability more than ever before.


Russell Raath is the President of Kotter Consulting, the global consulting business of Kotter International Inc., the management consulting firm founded by Dr John P Kotter, world-renowned Harvard Business School Professor of Leadership and Strategy.

At Kotter International we are focused on unlocking the full power of an individual and an organization to achieve strategic, sustainable results faster than otherwise believed possible. Because we believe that together, so much more is possible.

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