Mind-Reading or Brain Imaging

Holly J. Culhane SPHR
May 21, 2008 — 2,204 views  
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Have you ever wanted to tell someone, “Hey, you know I can’t read your mind!”  Actually, I have to admit that I may have even said it aloud a few times to some of those individuals closest to me, but I think I’ve managed to just “think” it in the workplace while I was saying aloud (keeping it politically correct), “We need to keep the lines of communication open – so talk to me and let me know what’s going on.”  The point is we tend to view everything through our own filters and learning patterns, often ignoring that others may have very different views and backgrounds.  While they may simply assume that we should know what they are thinking and feeling, and vise versa, this generally is not the case and can lead to misunderstandings and disappointments. 

Obviously, communication is key; however, advancements in neuroscience are assisting in our basic knowledge of the brain and how people actually perceive, think, act, and feel.  Brain-mapping, the process of neuroimaging the living brain and then analyzing and projecting behaviors onto brain regions, has been around for more than a quarter of a century.  However, until fairly recently it was used mainly in the medical and psychological fields to assist patients with brain injuries and disorders.  Recently, this science has made the leap to the workplace, helping human resources professionals understand how employees learn and giving additional insights to training. 

As adults we all know that change is difficult, more so for some than others.  Brain researchers have discovered that as people learn new things the brain sends signals to release chemicals and we get a quick burst of dopamine and adrenaline, which of course makes us feel good.  However, when we have to recall current patterns and try to modify them with new information (resulting in change) the brain becomes distressed and experiences a drop in glucose leaving us feeling “let down.”  Therefore, learning brand new information leaves us energized and changing habits or patterns results in feelings of frustration and tiredness.  The key for trainers and human resources professionals initiating changes in the workplace is a healthy respect for the brain and its limitations when it comes to instituting adjustments.  Going slowly and introducing information in smaller chunks can assist in making the process more palatable for everyone involved.

In a recent article in HR Magazine, “The Brain at Work,” by Adrienne Fox, it is explained this way, “To make learning stick, the brain must move information from ‘working memory’ to the basal ganglia at the base of the brain.  Working memory is energy-intensive; your brain literally tires out after learning.”  The article also suggests that instead of entire day sessions introducing several changes, perhaps a series of shorter (i.e. one hour) meetings over several weeks could increase the success of new ideas.  Additionally, scientists have learned that sleep is extremely important as it helps the brain to incorporate the new proposal.  In fact, brain researchers say that the optimum time limit for introducing a new concept is 20 minutes, after which the brain gets tired and says “that’s it – I’m shutting down now.”

In practice, Maria Paine, Human Resources Director for a large Ford dealership in California says,  “When I conduct a training session, I try not to talk more than five to seven minutes and then interject an activity that keeps the employees engaged in the training.  If I notice the ‘shut down,’ I ask them to get up and stretch and maybe we do a totally unrelated fun activity to stimulate the brain back to training.”

Also important is keeping participants engaged in the process.  Instead of simply introducing new ideas, have people engage in some activity that gives them ownership into the changes. Paine explains, “When we are considering changes at Jim Burke Ford, we regularly get management and supervisor input and often times an employee focus group as well, as this creates a better reception of the change when front-line employees are involved in the process.” 

Additionally important, is having them do some type of “homework” so that before they climb into bed at night they once again re-visit the training and activate it in their minds before they drift off to sleep.  Keeping workers involved in more active learning techniques will help them retain new information.  Making sure they have some choices, even if they seem negligible, can make a huge difference in reducing the stress levels in the brain.

Remember, understanding the brain is an asset to training and developing individuals in the workplace.  Maybe you can’t read everyone’s mind, but knowing how their brains operate can provide a tremendous advantage in introducing new ideas and keeping the entire organization “wired” correctly.

Holly J. Culhane SPHR


Identified the need for human resource and organizational assistance for small- and medium-sized business­es and formed Profes­sional Administra­tive Systems in 1987. Now known as P A S Associates, this firm combines specialists in the fields of human resources, labor and employment law, affirma­tive action, and substance abuse policies and education, providing an unsurpassed Human Resource Center.