Body, Brain and Peak Performance - IEDP
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Body, Brain and Peak Performance

Insights from the neuroscience of our hunter-gatherer forebears that are both refreshingly simple and often overlooked


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As much as executives might jet around the world in well-cut corporate suits and make decisions that affect thousands of people and millions of dollars, we are still all hunter gatherers from the plain in terms of our body’s evolution.

Tara Swart is a medical doctor-cum-neuroscientist-cum-executive coach who teaches executives at MIT Sloan School of Management. She ran the inaugural session of her Applied Neuroscience for Executives at MIT in March, and will be doing so again in October. Swart brings a swathe of content and insight for executives around the management of our body and brain for achieving enhanced performance. Much of this would have been dismissed ten or fifteen years ago as too fuzzy or New Age-y, but today, particularly with the greater use of fMRI scanning, can now be robustly explained through hard science, something Swart does very effectively.

Her main premise is that executives are paid to perform, and as such they should be adopting behaviours and monitoring themselves, in just the same way that professional athletes do, to ensure their mental performance is optimised. Take decision-making, it is well understood now that we make better decisions when we are experiencing ‘the right amount of positive emotions’, Goldilocks like, not too much and not too little. She references dog-fighting as a basic example. When a dog wins a fight, its testosterone increases, and with it, its confidence. It swaggers when it walks, puffing out its chest and dominating its opponent, who will likely skulk away and try to disappear. The winner’s confidence leads it to take on other challengers, and also increases its chances of winning. Its perception of risk is thus decreased. Ultimately this continues until its bravado over-reaches itself and it takes on a challenge it has no possibility of winning.

Humans, particularly men, follow the same trajectory, with success comes confidence – and reduced aversion to risk. It is important therefore, for executives to be able to assess their, or more probably, their colleagues, winning streaks and attitude to risk, and temper that when it seems to over-reach itself.

Another sign to watch out for is perhaps much clearer – the executive paunch. Swart explains that as stress, particularly chronic, or long-term, stress is experienced, the hunter-gatherer body we inhabit interprets that stress as a threat to our environment, and thus our ability to eat sustainably; as such it ‘future-proofs’ itself against this possibility by laying down fat, particularly around the abdomen. This is a reaction identified as being spurred by the right ventro-lateral pre-frontal cortex of the brain, in response to increased cortisol levels, the hormone that is associated with stress. Swart says she can often tell which of her clients have had stressful months by whether they are sporting a paunch or six-pack! The stress-promoted executive paunch is often combined with an otherwise slim frame. “Look out for slim arms and legs, but central fat distribution” suggests Swart.

So what can we do to manage ourselves better? Swart’s suggestions are refreshingly simple and yet probably ignored by the great majority us, and intriguingly they are not too dissimilar to the solutions used by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In order to maximise our ability to perform at our peak we need to keep our brains, and the rest of our bodies, healthy. So regular aerobic exercise is important. The body sweats out cortisol, so mechanically reduces its build-up as well as the psychological benefits of lowering stress through physical activity by focusing on the present. Also be aware of ‘brain-friendly food’. Swart highlights magnesium supplements, as magnesium is depleted by stress in the body, but is a vital ingredient in repairing the body. It is difficult to boost magnesium levels (as opposed to maintaining them) through normal diet, so supplements are usually required, asserts Swart. Exercise and a balanced diet, weighted towards gathered rather than hunted food. Their cognitive reasoning and knowledge may have fallen some way behind the modern executive, but our hunter-gatherer forebears probably were better at maintaining themselves for peak performance than we are today.

Tara Swart is a published author, global key-note speaker, Faculty at MIT, guest lecturer at Oxford and Stanford and coaches some of the world’s most influential Leaders. Her book Neuroscience for Leaders, the inaugural book in the Palgrave ‘Neuroscience for Business’ series won the coveted CMI Management Book of the Year for Practical Managers 2016.

MIT Sloan is uniquely positioned at the intersection of technology and business practice, and participants in our programs gain access to MIT’s distinctive blend of intellectual capital and practical, hands-on learning.

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