Is the Brain-worship that we see nowadays in our business arena the new Psychoanalysis? Is the Neuro-explanation of everything, from leadership to marketing a good thing? Neuro-leadersip, Neuro-marketing and Neuro-economics, for example, have landed. They are becoming part of a normal vocabulary. Should we have a view?
Let me address this in 5 parts, one each day, not a pattern that I normally use in this Daily Thoughts, but one that is required for this topic.
But let me start with a personal story. I was a medical student in the early 70s, and I got my qualifications when I was 21. Spain was in pre-democratic turmoil, and the Universities were a fantastic ‘plaza’. ‘Occupy’ movements, such us the modern Occupy Wall Street, had not been invented, but, if they had, it would have been in the form of a reverse occupation: the police seemed to live permanently within our campuses.
The Faculty of Medicine of Barcelona was not an exception. Weak, or politically correct Deans, had consistently allowed the police to enter the long corridors of our big, old building. The police seemed to enjoy beating anybody wandering inside, whether the ones shouting ‘democracy’ or the ones asking each other, ‘what’s the next lesson and what classroom?’ It was surreal.
I was rescued more than once by friendly janitors, who knew me well as somebody who had set semi permanent camp in the Department of Psychiatry, and who dragged me into a Lab of some sort seconds before a stampede of white coats appeared followed by another one of people in grey uniforms.
On one special occasion that I have remembered since, I found myself in the safe space of a lecture theatre where the Spanish brain guru of the time, José Manuel Rodriguez Delgado, had been invited to give a lecture. Rodriguez Delgado was a professor in Yale, and was recognised as a maverick of the brain. From his multiple ‘experiments’ and innovations, the best known was the implantation of electrodes in animals as a way to control their behaviour. And from these series, the one with most publicity was the professor himself in front of a bull (with electrodes) running towards him in full attack mode. With a remote control, Rodriguez Delgado, could stop the bull just a meter in front of himself. The bull became as docile as a domestic cat at the pressing of a red bottom. Magic!
That day, he was showing us his slides with domesticated bulls, when we could hear a serious clash of students and police in the street. Some windows in the amphitheatre were open and we could sense a big problem outside, not the usual running in the corridors. Rodriguez Delgado must have seen our faces of anxiety, and the deviation of our eyes from the screen with bulls to the windows and the street noise. He stopped the lecture, and, very seriously, he said: ‘ If you are anxious and worried about what is going on, what you hear that is happening in the street, just think that that anxiety is not more than a blip, blip, blip in your hypothalamic area. That’s all it is’. And he continued with his slides.
That ‘blip, blip, blip’ explanation has stayed with me since. In fact, that was perhaps the first time that a Neuro-explanation of that kind was offered to me and, perhaps, the trigger for the antibodies I have now against reductionism of many forms and shapes, even the ones less grotesque than the blip explanation from the eminent Yale’s professor.
Tomorrow I will go back in history (quickly) and I will explain how our fascination evolved from the Mind to the Brain, how organization and business life have been fellow travellers of this captivation. And what it means for all of us.