The emerging world of neuro-business

The way the brain evolved suggests that businesses will continue to become more team-oriented. That’s one of the important lessons for modern commerce that I picked up last week in Cambridge, England, where I listened to a variety of thinkers discuss human evolution and the brain.

The seminar, part of the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science and Religion, brought together thinkers from disciplines like anthropology, archaeology, biology and neuroscience. A theme that emerged was that the brain seems to have developed through social behavior – rather than being part of a drive towards DNA reproducing itself, the idea of the selfish gene and individual behavior that should be focused on the self, the brain appears more likely to have developed in response to group interaction. In other words, being part of the group was more important than individual stardom.

This flies in the face of hierarchy and star systems and empire building and other acts aimed at the self. It also flies in the face of intuition; people don’t want to be bees, after all, droning along nameless in groups. We’re also very early on in understanding things about our brain.

No theory covers every business situation; the potential methods are too rich. But this powerful idea that human organization emerged through cooperative interaction seems powerful. How to apply it to business? Does this, for instance, mean you should only hire team players? Probably not. But if you’re hiring people who are destructive to teams, that’s likely to work poorly in many circumstances.

Let’s think about this another way. Group interaction means information exchange. In fact, one of the researchers made the comment that human evolution was sparked by gossip. This doesn’t mean you should encourage your employees to hang around the water cooler for hours, swapping stories.  “Gossip” serves as a metaphor for information. So the comment suggests the more information workers, customers and suppliers have, the better the business is likely to do.

It’s also clear that about 4000 years ago, human societies developed values beyond mere survival. The archaelogist Colin Renfrew talked about Vana, a site in Bulgaria that features what may be the earliest examples of religious objects. Little wonder that the same sites also feature the earliest burial sites that include decorative gold objects. If people were able to develop a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves, like a religion, why shouldn’t they also imbue some objects with more value than others?

Values and belief systems are now inextricably entwined in business. Understanding that we are more effective when we work well with others, and that human value systems are now intrinsic, seem like good potential building blocks for most companies.

I will continue to look at questions of what our brain means for us. It’s clear from the books I get that this is an emergent theme in business thought.

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