How To Talk Your Way To Better Brain Health

I joined Lumosity this year–the web site that has exercises and games designed to strengthen your brain (based upon the latest neuroscience research).

I’m at the age (and with some family history) where I’m thinking more about how to be intentional about how my brain functions best and how to keep it operating at maximum efficiency and effectiveness.  As I perform these exercises regularly, I am actually charting my improvement in memory, problem-solving, speed, attention, flexibility.  It’s been fun and rewarding.

I was also excited to read an article in the Harvard Business Review yesterday about some surprising (even somewhat shocking) additional research on how to keep your brain “oiled” and running well.  It revealed some very hopeful and practical findings for all of us.

The University of Michigan conducted a study in which researchers took one group of participants, randomly paired people up, and instructed them to get to know each other by asking probing questions. After ten minutes of this kind of interaction, the participants were given a battery of cognitive tests.  Another group of participants were given brain teaser exercises and games for ten minutes, and then given the same cognitive tests.  A control group was given the cognitive tests without any precursors.

Guess what?  The group that engaged in social conversations outperformed the control group on the cognitive tests and tested the same as the second group who did the brain teasers and exercises.

These results are being confirmed by numerous other studies.  The point?

“The active perspective-taking one does in conversation involves mental gymnastics as demanding as any brain-teaser.”

Let me suggest three implications from this finding.

1.  What kind of social interaction strengthens your brain?

Active Listening.  The studies describe conversations that go beyond the surface chit-chat about weather.  The ones that strengthen the brain are those social interactions that involve getting to know the other person, asking questions, listening actively.  Turns out, this kind of exchange forces your brain to activate the parts of the brain that measure and evaluate and decode and file information.  As the article stated, these conversations actually involve mental gymnastics just like brain teasers.

If you refuse to let your mind wander during a conversation, and instead choose to actually engage your brain by listening intently, asking appropriate questions in order to learn more about the other person, you are “oiling” your brain and keeping it functioning effectively.

Collaboration.  The studies also reveal that the act of collaborating with other people in order to solve a need or problem has the same powerful affect on the brain.  You actually get smarter when you’re working together with others.

Think about what happens in your mind when you’re collaborating.  You’re listening intently to what others are saying.  You’re evaluating what you hear.  You’re weighing options.  You’re speaking your own ideas and figuring out ways to communicate them clearly.  You’re trying to synthesize disparate ideas, finding common ground.  You’re summarizing points.  You’re disagreeing and agreeing.  You’re paying attention.

What’s the brain outcome?  You’re exercising your brain muscles and strengthening its overall function with these mental gymnastics.

Refusing to let your brain go on auto-pilot.  Admittedly, we can’t keep our brains at a high level of intensity and activation every minute.  All of us, introverts and extroverts, need down times, quiet moments, stillness, mindfulness, meditation, mindlessness.  Our brains need that.

But too often there’s a temptation for us, when we’re with other people, to simply not pay attention, to let our minds drift on auto-pilot.  And when we do, we’re losing some of the great brain and overall wellness benefits deeper engagement provides.

So do your brain a favor–put down the book or iPhone and do active listening.  Probe.  Ask questions.  Be interested.

2.  What kind of brain impact does social interaction produce?

Besides “oiling” the mechanisms of your brain, intentional social interaction enlarges specific parts of your brain.

A fascinating study published in Nature Neuroscience demonstrated a causal relationship between positive and engaging social conversations and the size of the Amygdala–the part of the brain whose primary role is the processing of memory and emotional reactions.

Imagine that!  More meaningful conversation, bigger brain.  Bigger brain, better memory and positive emotional response.

Because of neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to actually reform and renew itself), the active perspective-taking you do in meaningful conversations is actually enlarging both size and capacity of your brain, especially in the areas of memory and emotional response (which increases your emotional intelligence–EQ).

3.  How can leaders facilitate better brain health in the people they lead?

With this research on brain function, imagine the opportunities leaders-managers-executives have in facilitating well-being and brain health in the people they lead.  Brain health leads to more engagement and effective productivity on multiple levels.

One, are you teaching and modeling healthy conversation practices with people by your own example?  Do you listen well?  Do you ask questions that go deeper than superficiality?  When you’re in a group, do you encourage people to interact with each other instead of you dominating the conversation?  Do you pay attention to the emotional content of a conversation and help it to be healthy and authentic?

Two, are you providing intentional opportunities for your teams to collaborate well together?  Are you making sure healthy teamwork and conversations are taking place?

Three, are you showing care and value for people’s healthy brains by providing coaching for effective communication styles?  Do you care about the social and relational culture in your organization?

Summary.  Central to the stewardship responsibilities of our brains is choosing to pay attention to the quality of our social interactions.  So why not do your brain and other people’s brains a favor–be engaged in your conversations.  Your brain will thank you!

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Looking for a Speaker or Coach?

If you or someone you know in your organization is looking for a keynote speaker or workshop teacher for events in your company, congregation, or association gatherings, I would be happy to come speak on this theme or others like it. And interested in strengths coaching? Feel free to email me at greg@gregorypnelson.com or look at the Speaking or Coaching pages of this site.