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Mitch Waldrup - The Brain as a Metaphor for Organization

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The Management Secrets of the Brain
Lift the lid and take a peek at the messiest, most complex organization around -- the gray matter inside your head. You could learn a lot from something so well run.
By M. Mitchell Waldrop, October 2002 Issue

Take a sip of coffee. Say hello to a colleague.

Congratulations: You're a regular Jack Welch. If your brain were a gigantic corporation, its CEO would have just carried out an astonishing display of management skill. Those two simple everyday acts, neuroscientists tell us, are considerably more complicated than the supervision of a big company like General Electric (GE), which boasts more than 300,000 employees in 14 business units spread across 100 countries. That's nothing compared with the human brain, which has a staff of about 100 billion nerve cells shuffling countless messages to one another. It also has separate divisions for vision, hearing, movement, touch, and smell, at least two departments for language processing, a variety of committees for recognizing faces, and a working group for social relations.

Your brain is the ultimate example of a complex, decentralized organization. And because we (usually) behave coherently, smoothly integrating new circumstances as they arise, the brain is also the epitome of an adaptive organization, a learning organization, a shared-vision organization -- in short, the ideal modern company.

While "it's not necessarily how you'd want to organize a human social structure," says psychologist Jonathan Cohen, director of Princeton University's Center for the Study of Brain, Mind, and Behavior, the brain provides some interesting insight into how a well-run corporation can function.

For example, look at what the brain does: It must assess new information, resolve internal conflicts, and decide how to act. These chores are the basics of any organization. Except the brain's managerial duties are far more complex. That's why the first rule of management we learn from the brain is obvious ...

1. Never try to micromanage a large, complex organization.

Whatever consciousness is -- and that's a mystery that science is still a very long way from solving -- it does provide a comforting sense of unity, a conviction that your mind is under the absolute control of a single, executive you. And yet, the reality is that your conscious decisions and experiences represent only the tiniest fraction of what's actually going on in your brain. Before you can take that sip of morning coffee, for example, your motor cortex has to do a phenomenal amount of subconscious planning and coordination just to move your hand toward the cup. Before you can greet your colleague, your vision centers have to do an equally incredible amount of subconscious information processing just to recognize her face.

There's not enough executive attention in the world to micromanage this level of activity. And that's why the brain has evolved to carry out such processes far below the level of consciousness, using the equivalent of "standard operating procedures." Some of these procedures are subroutines that have been hardwired into the brain since birth, like our ability to see color. Abilities such as reading and walking are so thoroughly practiced that they might as well be hardwired. Either way, they allow us to conduct most of our daily routines on autopilot. But that doesn't mean that a sprawling enterprise can actually manage itself. In other words ...

2. Don't let bottom-up self-organization go wild.

Without leadership, after all, standard operating procedures are directionless and blind. In 1848, to take a famous example, an explosion at a construction site sent a tamping rod rocketing up through the cheekbone of the foreman, 25-year-old Phineas Gage, and exiting through the top of his head. He never even lost consciousness. Indeed, he was soon talking with his horrified co-workers in a seemingly normal way. But Gage wasn't normal. Not only did he seem oddly unconcerned about his injuries, which included the destruction of his left eye, but as time went on, it became apparent that he was no longer the sober, hardworking, widely admired foreman he had been. The new Phineas Gage was quarrelsome, irresponsible, and so obscenely foulmouthed that women were warned to keep their distance.

In modern terms, Gage's brain injury had caused a breakdown in impulse control: Whatever he felt like doing at the moment, he did -- regardless of the consequences. Similar symptoms have been seen in people who have lost or suffered damage to that same section of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, due to an accident, tumor, or stroke. Without the prefrontal cortex, which lies right behind the forehead, the impulses run riot and the brain runs amok. That CEO, if you will, is needed to set priorities and override those inappropriate impulses.

But how? Until recently, says Carnegie Mellon University psychology professor James McClelland, most scientists believed that the answer would be very complicated. Their basic idea was that whenever your automatic processes came into conflict or whenever you needed to behave in a new way, the prefrontal cortex would instantly take over. But this approach is micromanagement in the extreme -- the neural equivalent of the front office instantly sending in a Tiger Team to replace the paper in the photocopier. It's also grossly inefficient. "You'd have to maintain two completely different sets of abilities in the brain," McClelland says.

Just within the past decade, however, some neuroscientists have begun to advance a simpler explanation of cognitive control. Princeton's Cohen, who is one of the strongest advocates of an alternative view, offers a corporate metaphor: The prefrontal cortex simply communicates its intent and leaves subordinates to work out the details and execution. This would seem to imply that ...

3. The best way to control your subordinates is to just point them in the right direction.

This new model of cognitive control assumes that the prefrontal cortex has just one job, which is to generate a neural map of the brain's goals, strategies, and current situation. Call it a mission statement. The prefrontal cortex encodes the statement at the cellular level. At any moment, some of the nerve cells, or neurons, are actively firing off electrical impulses, while others are relatively inert. It's roughly analogous to the way a computer encodes a text file as a pattern of binary 1s and 0s. (There's no ethical way to see these activation patterns in humans, Cohen notes, but similar patterns have been measured by inserting electrodes directly -- and painlessly -- into the brains of monkeys.) Once this activation pattern is in place, the prefrontal cortex instantly and automatically broadcasts it to the rest of the brain. The region has nerve connections to just about everything -- another reason to consider it the brain's executive wing. This broadcast reorders the priorities of the standard operating procedures.

Got an itch? You scratch. But if it's caused by a mosquito bite, a new activation pattern is broadcast to suppress your immediate impulse to do something about that itch. In general, Cohen says, the prefrontal broadcast will bias your various impulses, strengthening some while weakening others, so that the desired activity can compete and win.

And where do these prefrontal "mission statements" come from? From experience, presumably. Somehow, the brain is learning useful activation patterns, storing them in memory, and then inserting them back into the prefrontal cortex as needed. But how does the brain know which experiences to record and which to ignore? This has been a difficult question for neuroscientists to answer, but the prevailing notion is that the prefrontal region would direct some of its biasing signals to a kind of data management center in the midbrain. There, a seahorse-shaped organ known as the hippocampus encodes memories for long-term storage in various regions throughout the brain. The signal would tell the hippocampus which memories to record, and those memories would later be retrieved and reactivated in the prefrontal cortex to guide its behavior in the future. In short, the prefrontal cortex would control memory, and memory would then return the favor. Or, to put it another way ...

4. Be careful listening to the voice of experience -- that voice could be your own.

Even if this picture of self-controlled memory proves to be accurate, it can't be the whole story. Sometimes a human brain -- or an organization -- has to break out of its rut and try a new approach, which is unlikely to happen if the prefrontal cortex and the memory system talk only to each other. That's a scenario for a brain (or a management team) that digs itself deeper into this rut by endlessly refining what it already knows how to do, but without ever learning anything new. What the prefrontal cortex desperately needs is a regular reality check from the outside. It needs an executive assistant.

That aide would have to keep outside disturbances at bay as long as the prefrontal cortex's strategy is producing the desired results, but let outside information come flooding in when things start to go poorly. Based on extensive experimental evidence, including brain-mapping experiments done with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners, Cohen and his colleagues think they've found this gatekeeper deep in the core of the brain: the anterior cingulate, the basal ganglia, and the dopamine system. All of them have dense neural connections to the prefrontal cortex. The dopamine system, for example, plays a role in pain, pleasure, and addiction, and seems to give our internal CEO a jolt of satisfaction when we think things through correctly, a kind of intellectual reward system. The dopamine system can also disrupt the prefrontal cortex with inappropriate input, which can explain many of the symptoms of schizophrenia, including the victim's disorganized thinking and inability to concentrate. (We wouldn't want to make this a management rule, but it would appear that when the CEO gets in trouble, the blame falls on the secretary.)

Researchers are still sorting out precisely which structures do what. But they consider it significant that these structures at the core of our being also serve as the brain's centers of emotion. Scientists are learning that cognition and emotion are much more closely intertwined than anyone ever thought, because the same brain structures responsible for the processing of information also manage our emotional control. Which suggests that ...

5. The organization can't succeed without passion.

It is, in essence, an answer to the age-old question that has troubled generations of philosophers and writers: Is it the head or the heart -- our romantic, emotional side -- that guides decisions? Now we're finding that most philosophers (as well as neuroscientists) who have held that the two are different and separate are, in fact, wrong. Unless we know what's important, what matters, then all the rationality in the world gets us nowhere. Just ask your brain.

And that, when you think about it, may be the brain's most important management lesson of all.

M. Mitchell Waldrop is a science writer based in Washington, D.C.

M. Mitchell Waldrop is the author of "The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal."


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 Your Gray Matter: An Org Chart 
How three key structures in the brain work together to keep you focused on the bottom line.

The CEO
Prefrontal cortex

This section of the brain develops "mission statements" that set priorities among various -- and often conflicting -- "standard operating procedures" run by other parts of your noggin. It's not the only structure with the power of cognitive control, but it is at the top of the brain's processing hierarchy.

The Executive Assistants
Anterior cingulate, basal ganglia

Along with the dopamine system, these deep-brain structures play an important role in an intricate feedback loop with the prefrontal cortex. They regulate the flow of information to the prefrontal cortex from other regions that process and store data, alerting the "CEO" to conflicts.

The Data Center
Hippocampus

Nestled deep in your head, above the brain stem, the hippocampus encodes memories for storage elsewhere. It may serve to link new associations between bits of data. For example, a specific goal, such as taking the kids to soccer practice, would be tied to specific circumstances, such as realizing that it's almost 3:30.

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Last update: 09/03/2003; 8:15:08 AM.