Sep 5, 2011

Cultural Neuroscience and Startups

Henry David Thoreau said, "As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives." The emerging interdisciplinary field of cultural neuroscience deals with daily social realities and how they can affect individual members of a culture—perhaps a startup culture.

At a recent World Congress on Positive Psychology Dr Richard J. Davidson from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shared research into the positive benefits of compassion and his work reminded me of the startup culture I'm so keen to encourage. Dr. Davidson effectively showed that mindfulness and compassion can enhance the prefrontal cortex—an area of our brain that helps us determine good from bad, controls our personality, and guides us toward our goals.

Previous research published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience showed devastatingly negative results both in the brain and even on organs when stressors are given to produce anxiety. So, if you work with people who are stressing you out or making you anxious then you may be hurting yourself mentally and physically. Ideally, you should work in an environment with compassion, mindfulness, respect, and good, healthy debate when it's needed.

Companies can be a vehicle for positive individual transformation. Startups have a unique ability to create a culture of compassion that helps us improve and in so doing, we are more likely to make a difference in the lives of others. It's possible to build a business, help people, and enjoy our work. How we approach our work is often as important as the work itself because the way we treat each other, our shared environment, and the way we cooperate shapes us as people.

Whatever your role is at the company you work for—whether you're an executive with many reports, or an individual contributor on a team, practicing regular, daily mindfulness and compassion will make you a healthier, more productive person. Additionally, the people you work with are going to respond better and do better work. The outcome is going to be a superior product or service, a happier user or client, and in the best case—a positive global impact.