Working Better: Brain Science in Business

Are there lessons from the behavioral and brain sciences that can be applied to help performance in business and organisations?

There are indeed many lessons from sleep hygiene to managing stressto creativity. I discuss some of these lessons of these below in an interview with Roddy Millar of IEDP – International Executive Development Programs.

Roddy Millar interviews Shane O’Mara (Cross-posted from Psychology Today – The Interrogated Brain and LinkedIn Pulsebrain-605603_1920 (1))

[Here’s the podcast]

Hello, I’m delighted to have Shane O’Mara, professor of experimental brain research with us here today. Hello to you, Shane.

Hi, indeed, Roddy. How are you? I am delighted to be here.

Shane, we’ve spoken a few times in the past. You’ve written for my magazine, Developing Leaders. Neuroscience is an area that I’m truly fascinated in, and I’m delighted to be speaking with you about this morning. Our understanding of how the brain works has advanced hugely since the turn of the century. This is largely due to better technology, particularly functional MRI scanning allowing scientists like you to see how the brain operates in real-time. In tandem with that, there’s been a growth of cognitive neuroscience, the interpretation of how our behavior is based on that new understanding of brain mechanics, if I can put it like that. This has led to much greater insight in how we operate and function in groups and, specifically, at work and organizations. What I was wanting to know is how necessary or beneficial do you think it is for leaders, managers, and team workers to understand the basics of the brain. Does it help or is ‘a little knowledge a dangerous thing’?

That’s a very difficult question, actually. To some extent, I think it depends on the manager themselves and the extent to which they’re willing to acknowledge the limits of their own knowledge, and to be able to work within those kind of boundaries. So, just like you’ve had over the past 100 years, you get a lot of naïve neuroscience out there. You get people going on about oxytocin, for example, being ‘the love molecule’ and it turns out that the story is much more complicated than that. And I think what people need to understand is a few simple principles rather than pretending that they need to know a lot of great detail about, for example, how particular molecules act within the brain.

All the connections that we read about between various parts of the brain, and it seems also that what we’re reading about has changed significantly in the last 10, 15 years in any case. There was a lot of focus at one stage around the importance of the amygdala of making these snap emotional judgments. Is there a benefit for workers to understand some of the philosophy behind that, do you think? Or is it too dangerous to oversimplify?

I think the problem here is a similar problem that you get in many domains and it’s this: the neuroscience — cognitive neuroscience, social neuroscience — can provide you with general case principles that are useful as frameworks to think about. But the particular issue you have is dealing with individuals and dealing with individuals in a social context. So, what you have to be very, very careful about is adopting an all-embracing explanatory framework from neuroscience, from social neuroscience, from cognitive neuroscience, whatever it happens to be, that forgets about the simple fact that we are dealing with individuals. What might hold true for a population at a high level may not be true of an individual in particular. Medicine has had this problem for generations. We know the diagnostics in medicine are done at a population level. New treatments, for example, for cancer, are done at a population level — you’re looking at thousands of patients. But, predicting individual response is actually something that continues to be very, very difficult. So, what would I say is people should be cognizant of the discoveries that are being made, but not the overly-rigid in the interpretation or application of those discoveries where any individual is concerned.

That makes lots of sense. I think it is probably important advice that we shouldn’t be trying to make our own diagnoses of individuals, particularly if we don’t really know the full story’s background. Taking this forward, your recent book, ‘Why Torture Doesn’t Work’, published at the end of last year, deals in great detail with the science of interrogation and how it debilitates mental capacity, particularly memory and mood. In the case of torture, it compromises the capacity to provide reliable information. Torture is obviously a very extreme application of stress, but we also know that, working in organizations, stress is ever-present in workplaces. Is it possible to extrapolate that sort of extreme understanding of stress and how it affects the brain into more long-term stress situations as people experience at work?

I actually think ‘yes’ is the answer and I can think of many examples, but let’s define our terms first. Stress isn’t necessarily bad for you and it isn’t necessarily good for you. When we talk about stress from a neuroscientific perspective, what we’re talking about is the extent to which you, as an individual, perceive what’s happening to you as being beyond your control when the outcomes are likely, in some way, to be extremely unpleasant and you’re not able to do anything to mitigate what’s going on. There are lots of example of this in the workplace. We know workplace bullying, for example, is terribly common and acts as a terrible stressor. We know that the demands of certain modern workplaces are terribly demanding and, again, acts as a terrible stressor. For example, Business Insider, over the weekend, had an article on the numbers of Japanese who were dying as a result of overwork because they’re putting in 18-hour days, seven days a week in a case of unremitting and unrelenting toil, and our bodies and our brains are not built to work like this. We need time on but we need time off and, to function optimally, what we need is some sense of control, some sense of autonomy, and some sense that we’re being stretched by the challenges that are being posed to us, but that the stressors that are in the environment are ones that, ultimately, we can exert some control over.

We see in your book people’s inability to recall effectively and it is ‘compromising the capacity to provide reliable information,’. Presumably, stress in the workplace also compromises your capacity to perform at a high degree.

Yes, and we know with a high degree of certainty that when people are put under extreme stress and that stress is unrelenting, they don’t have the capacity either in the workplace, or when they step away from the workplace to get a distance from it. Their ability to problem solve, their ability to be creative, their ability to go in refreshed every day, all of those kinds of things are terribly compromised.

You can demonstrate this in all sorts of work environments; extreme work environments that are experienced, for example, by combat soldiers; simpler work environments, for example, transport workers that have to regularly change shifts or work split shifts. All those kinds of things where people who are working as traders, where they have to make flash decisions, one after the after and the consequences of those decisions can be very, very costly.

Indeed, we have seen that with the terrible financial collapse that happened 7 or 8 years ago where lots and lots of bad decisions were made under great duress, often in people who were terribly sleep deprived and who, if they’d had a little bit of distance and a slightly different perspective offered by that distance, might have come to a better solution.

That, to a large part, is cultural as well, I presume isn’t it? That the organizations build that level of pressure on people to perform and in fact, it cuts in the other direction for them that it undermines the performance rather than enhances it. So it’s a long-term struggle, presumably, to shift that around?

Yes, I think this is actually one of these issues that it’s very hard to get an empirical sense of, because you can’t do randomize control trials, or you can’t do experiments. It is clearly the case that cultures vary within and between organizations, and that there’s a certain tone set by management in terms of how it is that an organization should prosper.

Some places are terribly high pressured. They have stacked ranking procedures where it ends up that you’re ranked on the curve against not how you’re doing against the competition, but how you’re doing against somebody down the corridor, and people get dismissed. People, clearly, under those circumstances are going to give as much loyalty to the organization as the organization gives to them, which is to say, not very much.

I think this issue of culture and how culture is established, maintained, and how it impacts on the individual performance is something that managers really need to think very, very carefully about. While we can be amused at a distance by a book titled ‘Only the Paranoid Survive’, is that really the way that we want our organizations to work? You might end up getting curious and interesting selection effects where people who like that kind of environment, will work in that environment, but other people who can’t or who don’t like it will move away from it.

You’ll end up with the loss of diversity in terms of the kinds of information that a company has access to, and in terms of the solutions that it can generate as a result of those kind of cultures. We’ve heard, for example, that Microsoft had all sorts of interest in devices back in the late ’90s, early 2000s which, subsequently, the other competitors to the market but were seen as too dangerous because of the processes that they had in place in terms of staff management.

Taking that forward with innovation in mind, is there a typical set of processes that occur in the brain that enable ideas and sense-making to occur or does it happen in a huge range and variety of ways? If there is a reasonably standardized way of ideas being created, can you, therefore, create environments where that is going to happen more effectively?

That’s a great question and we can answer it on multiple levels. One of the great discoveries of the last 10 or 12 years in neuroscience has been this idea that the brain is comprised of a series of interacting networks and, while we’re talking, a couple of those networks are engaged. What’s called the executive network — that’s the one sitting at the frontal lobes that allows me to pay attention to you — processes the information that you’re providing, and allows me to generate a response to you.

What was not appreciated was that there’s a countervailing network to that. It’s sometimes called the default mode network or the resting state network and this is a network that’s engaged when you’re doing nothing. If I asked you to close your eyes and not think of anything in particular, what we see is the brain is even more active in that daydreaming state than it is when you’re paying attention; a really, really remarkable finding.

A lot of neuroscientists now take the view that the wellsprings of problem solving arises from the interaction between this resting state network and our executive network, and we know this in popular parlance. We say it to each other: “I have a great idea. An idea has just come to mind. I just thought of something,” and what you’re actually saying is an idea has forced itself into consciousness and you want to articulate it. But where did that idea come from? It came from this network, and the job of this network is to probe your long-term memory to search out associations that might be useful in terms of solving the problem that it is that you’re trying to do; auseful piece of advice, especially when you’re trying to solve a difficult problem.

If you don’t have to solve it today, don’t solve it today. Think about it, feed these non-conscious parts of your brain with information. Go away and sleep on it. The phrase ‘sleep on it’ is meaningful. We know that when we give people difficult problems to solve, which don’t have good solution sets, the best solution set— if you’re buying a car, thinking about a house, some difficult problem at work — is usually to give you lots of information about what it is that you have to do and then tell you, “Go away and have a sleep and come back and solve the problem the next day,” and the solution will present itself. For those kinds of difficult, ill-defined problems, this part of the mind, this part of the brain, the default mode, is there happily working away in the background. So, let it do its job. Don’t feel that you have to solve the problem straightaway if you don’t have to.

That’s hugely comforting and hugely enlightening because I think there’s such a pressure on us to make instant decisions all the time. I suspect, intuitively, we do know that ‘slept on’ decisions or reflected-upon decisions are better ones. You mentioned that it allows you to access the long-term memory, is that where these more complex problem solving issues occur?

What you’re doing, in effect, is giving your brain the time to probe what are called the ‘semantic networks’, so that the parts of the brain that encode the experiences that you’ve had, and you’re giving the default mode network the chance to probe around these different parts of your brain in order to provide you with other potential solutions. I think we have a problem with how we work, generally, and how we conceive of ourselves. Our mental life is really crowded all the time. So, if I say to you, “Don’t think of a red elephant,” what have you done?

We know what picture was in my mind just then.

We know exactly. The answer comes to you quickly, swiftly. If I say to you, “How many children do you have?” Boom, you’ve got the answer straight away. What color is your car? Boom, you’ve got the answer straightaway. These are very straightforward, very quick things that are very simple problems to solve. It’s only one node down the network but if you have a much more difficult problem to solve like, how is it that I’m going to reorganize the sales force in the South West of England? They’re under-performing relative to the sales force in the South East. You can think of answers straight away, but are they the right answers? It’s a fuzzy problem. It’s not a problem for which your instant gut response is actually the right one necessarily. What you need to do is get lots of information in, talk to people, talk to diverse people, talk to people who are different from you, who have access to information that you don’t have, and think about it over a period of a couple of days. The solutions that you will come to with that kind of process will be different from the solution that the instantaneous response that you have will be .

I’m intrigued there that you suggest that we should think about it but how much of that is conscious thought and how much is somehow occurring without us pushing it, forcing it through so far?

An awful lot of it is non-conscious thought, in truth, which almost sounds like a contradiction in terms that you’ll be thinking without consciously thinking. But we do this for breathing, digestion, walking, seeing, hearing, all of these kinds of processes happen in the background and without us necessarily knowing that they’re actually ongoing. It’s not as if this is something that we’re entirely unconscious of. I’ll give you a little quote. I think this is worth thinking about because we get this from poets, artists, writers an awful lot. So, Graham Greene, the writer, was working on his book, ‘The End of the Affair’, and he says something very interesting that lots of new writing depends on superficiality of your days. You can be preoccupied with your shopping, your tax returns, whatever it happens to be, and then he says remarkably, “But the stream of the unconscious continues to flow, undisturbed, solving problems, planning ahead. One sits down, sterile and dispirited at the desk and suddenly the words come as though from the air, the work has been done while one slept or shopped or talked with friends.”

I think that’s really powerful, isn’t it?

It is.

Your work has been done whilst you’re interacting with other people.

Yeah, and that’s the key point. What you’re doing is feeding this non-conscious thought process with lots of information, and you’re just leaving it to do its own thing. Can you think of a more undefined and fuzzy problem than writing a novel? Possibly, writing a poem, or trying to solve a very, very difficult scientific problem.

We talked about Darwin just before we came on. Before he published ‘The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection’, he delayed and prevaricated for years. Why did he do this? He did this for lots of reasons. One was to test whether or not he was right, and he maintained an enormous correspondence with people all around the world who provided him information. If you look at his letters, he asks for very, very specific pieces of information about what worms were feeding on, what the environment these worms were in, what the adaptations of the birds to the burrows that the worms were making were.

He asked all of these kinds of very, very detailed kinds of questions so that he could test to the limit, the kinds of ideas that he eventually published in his world-changing book in 1859, I believe it was. He had been thinking about this for 15, maybe 20 years prior to publication, and what more ill-defined problem set could you work on and how it is that life ends up so varied, yet so connected and he provided us with a very elegant and not obvious theory for how this might happen. Lots of others have done this before. Lamarck, for example, his own uncle, Erasmus Darwin, lots of others but Charles Darwin, himself was the one who nailed it. He did it on this belief that you worry away, you think about it, you let it go, process in the background, and, eventually, when you’ve tested yourself to the limit with the information you can gather, then you’ve got the right answer.

You wrote a piece for us in the last issue of Developing Leaders where you explained how we all make snap decisions, particularly about people, and you were highlighting that our brains are ‘cognitive misers’ making these quick judgments about others. There was a really interesting part where you were saying that, in fact, the parts of the brain that we use to judge people is exactly the same as we use to judge commercial brands, and associate them with trust and value. But, it seems to me, from what you’re saying, that the complex thought and the way we judge people ought to be a complex decision and needs to be much more reflected upon. Are the things that we could be doing or should be doing to push back against those instant judgments, instant decisions?

I think there are lots of things that one could do. Let’s think about the problem, first of all. When we meet somebody for the first time, we make a very snap judgment about how that person is disposed towards us.

There’s presumably a reason for that, evolutionally. That’s a necessary thing for us to do.

Yeah, you need to make that call very, very quickly. You don’t have much time. Is that blob over there with the bow and arrow going to shoot the deer or is he going to shoot me? You have to make these judgments very, very quickly. You’re walking down a dark alley and there’s a guy with a bottle who’s drinking from that bottle. Is he going to have a go at you or is he not? So, these have to be very quick decisions, but the environment we find ourselves in where we’re making, for example, employee selection decisions, aren’t like that.

What we’re doing is making an investment in a person who’s likely to be with us for a very, very long period of time — months to years — and that person may cost money. So, what we tend to do is choose people who are like us because we like ourselves and we’re going to like people that are like us. But, actually, the decision that we make in those kind of employee selection situations is made on the basis of a very thin slice of behavior. You’ve got the person’s CV, you’ve got somebody comes in and has got a nice firm handshake, a nice warm smile, and you’re in love with them straight away. That person is then with you for the next X number of years, whatever that happens to be.

What we need to do is actively de-bias ourselves, and I think a great and salient example is to look at how orchestras behave. This is not an example original to me. It’s been used by a number of authors including Iris Bohnet and Malcolm Gladwell. If you look at the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1950, it was about 5% female. If you look at the Boston Symphony Orchestra now, it’s about 45-50% female, and what happened in that time? Well, what happened was very simple. The Boston Symphony Orchestra stopped choosing people on the basis of open auditions and it went to blind auditions behind the curtain, and you find yourself then, not choosing the musician who plays the cello that you like because he looks a bit like you and he sounds nice and he’s got a big baritone voice or whatever it happens to be. You’re making the decision coldly on the basis just of the music they’re playing, and the quality of their musicianship, and that de-biases your decision.

I think this is what we need to do an awful lot more of in the work environment. We’re swayed by salient but extraneous factors that may be useful when you’re making a snap decision over somebody that you’ll never meet again. But when you’re making decisions about people that you’re going to work with, what you want to do is choose the person who’s the best possible person for that job, and we have to de-bias the networks that force us in this direction at the start.

The challenge with that, of course, is that you can probably, in a pretty quantifiable and objective way, measure their technical competence but in fact, what you’re really saying though is it’s their ability to work with others that is going to be the critical factor, and that’s much more difficult for us to assess.

Google have given us a great example of this. They have done some fantastic work on choosing people that will work well within Google. They famously had these advertisements where you had to solve a complex mathematical problem, and they chose people on the basis of grade point average, the university that they attended, all of those kinds of things, and it turns out none of those are predictive of on the job performance at all. The best predictor of how you’re going to perform on the job is past performance at the technical components of the job. So if you want to choose somebody who’s a coder, don’t ask them what university they went to, don’t ask them what GPA they got. You won’t get very far with either Zuckerberg or some of the other tech people by asking them about their GPA because they dropped out. Get them to do a bit of coding, and see what happens, and it turns out those are the kinds of variables that are actually important rather than “I went to such and such an Ivy League University” or whatever it happens to be. Forcing ourselves to think in these kind of terms is difficult but it actually, ultimately is much more rewarding because we end up with better people to work with, who are more competent, and who will teach us things that we don’t know.

It’s that theory of wanting to not be the best person in the room,but have someone brighter to lead you on.

Well, that means taking your ego out of things and being humble.

Yeah. Which is very hard to do. We all know that the brain is massively complex with billions of connections being made all the time. It’s also extraordinarily efficient though, isn’t it? I was reading somewhere the other day about how the computer had beaten that grandmaster at the game of Go a couple of weeks ago, and someone was making the point that in fact, the grandmaster’s brain was using up a 10th or a 100th of the electrical energy to keep it going.

Probably even less. When I see these things, I always think it’s hilarious. I’d be worried about computers being better than us, and being able to substitute for us when we can design a computer that can design another computer to beat us. At the moment, the Go machine is very, very good at doing what it’s doing because it has the combined input of 200 years of mathematics, and computing a theory behind it and then hundreds of brains that actually design the damn program.

And half a power station to run it too.

And half a power station to run it. It may well be the case that we will get to these kinds of autonomous systems that are capable of self-reflection and saying, “Well, I can’t beat that guy at Go, but I can design another one of me that can,” and that’s what we’ve done. I think we shouldn’t care too much about the achievement of the computer and we should spend a lot of time thinking about the achievement of the individuals who designed and programmed that computer.

How much do we understand about the brain? How far down that journey are we and how long do you think it will be before we get there? I suppose we’re only just beginning that journey with the brain.

Where are we? I actually think, in many respects, we’ve done a great job, depending on the level of analysis that you want to go to. For example, we have a couple of marvelous, popular books which summarize much of what we’ve discovered in terms of our biases where thinking is concerned. I would pick on Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’. That’s a very, very good example of a compendium of the kinds of problems that we have. An equally superb book is Richard Nisbett’s ‘Mindware’, and I think books like that have the effect or have the capacity to materially change how it is that we behave.

You become aware that in our thinking we have a real problem with a confirmation bias. This is our willingness to select information that supports our point of view and ignore information that’s contrary to our point of view. If you don’t try to build in fail-safe procedures where you ask people to assemble the evidence that’s contrary to their point of view, then you will end up, as a result, with better decision-making. This is one of the reasons I think science has worked so well, and has been so successful is because material, when you publish in paper, whatever it goes through peer review, and people test you in terms of what it is that you’re saying, and then it goes through a whole process of replication. You have to stand up in scientific conferences and say what it is that you think you’ve found and people take great pleasure in trying to find the holes in your argument, and it’s a very chastening kind of experience, but it’s a good way of getting us toward a position of having slightly more certain knowledge.

I think just in everyday decision-making, if we get better at things like understanding what the biases that we have are in terms of our thinking, I think that that’s fantastic. In terms of something a little bit more relating to brain function, I think the general idea that our brains are plastic and remain plastic throughout life and to my mind, is a really profound and important one, possibly the most important one that we have. I think, while it’s difficult for people to maybe take it very seriously, it is the case that the brain is changed by experiences, it’s changed by our attitudes, it’s changed by how we talk to ourselves, and we really do need to be conscious of the fact that because this happens to be the way we are doesn’t mean the way that this has to be the way we will always be. So, just take those two different poles. Those, I think, would be the two things that I would pick on.

Okay. There are a couple of questions I always like to ask at the end of these conversations and I think applying it from a brain perspective is going to be really interesting. We always like to ask whether people have particular routines that sets them up for the day, and I wonder if you do and, if so, what that is. But also, I wondered if there’s a reflection you might have about how that sort of building a routine can help or, indeed, can hinder how you operate from a brain perspective.

That’s a hard question. I suppose, during school term, my routine is determined by the school run in the morning. But beyond the school run, it really depends on the jobs of the day, and the tasks that have to be achieved. So for example, when I was writing the book that we talked about earlier on, and to do that properly, you need two to three hour blocks where you’re left alone, and where you resist the temptation of the computer in terms of emails and Twitter and all of those kinds of things.


Distractions. Exactly. So, timetabling blocks of time where you know that people can’t find you so that you can actually write or read in order to write is hard, and figuring out those kinds of times is difficult. I must say I found, when I was writing the book, that the easiest time to write was during the summer when most of the undergrads are not around so I only have my own research group to work with and at night. What I would do is a lot of preparatory things during the day, reading this, that, and the other, making notes on this, that, and the other, and then actually getting down to business of writing in the evening. Actually, I’ve always found when I’m slightly tired that I think most clearly or at least I think most creatively.

Does that go back to what we were talking about earlier? That there’s perhaps less executive function getting in the way at that stage?

That’s exactly the point. Your internal censor isn’t working very efficiently when you’re tired which is good, but you have to go back the next day to recuperate yourself and figure out was what you were writing, was it absolute garbage or was it okay? But I think, again, that the trick there is to force all judgment. Don’t judge yourself on the material until a little bit of time has passed, and that makes life a bit more easy. I actually find, to be honest with writing research grants, which is the lifeblood of any research group. I find writing at night easier but it also means that I don’t watch television.

No idea what’s going on in Game of Thrones in that case?

No. I’ve heard of it but I don’t know what it’s about.

It’s filmed just up the road from here. Is that partly because you’re a night owl, though, as well? Is there a personal sort of circadian part to that or no?

Yeah. It’s just that there’s a bit of a me that is a bit of a night owl and I like reading and thinking at night because it’s quiet, there are fewer distractions around, but I think also there’s a part of me that just enjoys how you’re free to follow your own thinking that hour. You don’t have that internal censor. I hate rising very early in the morning, I must be honest.

I’m entirely with you. My co-host, Mark, is very much an early bird, and I’m very much not.

I think that brings us to something that actually we haven’t touched on, and this is something I want to say out loud. We, in the developed world, don’t respect sleep enough. I have a long chapter on sleep deprivation in my book, in experimental populations, sleep deprivation; to be chronically sleep deprived is a very, very bad thing for you. We know chronic insomniacs have parts of their brain are shrunken as a result of the lack of sleep and we know that when you’re chronically sleep deprived, you don’t think as clearly, your memory doesn’t work as well, you don’t consolidate the events of the day. So, people who go around boasting that they only need four hours of sleep should be despised, should be cast out of normal society because they try and define what the rest of us are like. But actually, what we need is somewhere, for the average person, between about 6.5–7.5 hours of sleep per day, whether that’s in one cycle or two cycles, it doesn’t really matter. We do need that.

So the siesta is acceptable, is it?

The siesta is totally acceptable and in fact, if you look back through history to medieval times when most of us would have been farmers, what would have happened in those days was you went to bed when night came, and after four or five hours, you would get up, milk the cows, take three eggs from the chickens, you’d do a number of jobs, and then you’d go back to bed for three hours. This modern pattern of having a single 7–8 hour block of sleep is actually something that’s only happened in the last hundred years. It’s not the pattern that we would have had.

It comes with factories and electric light, basically?

Exactly, and this is why I think if people need to nap during the day, they should never feel guilty about this. It’s perfectly reasonable that if you’re tired, you should close your eyes for 10 minutes. Your subsequent work performance will go up dramatically rather than sitting there trying to force yourself to keep your eyes open under some misplaced sense that you shouldn’t have a nap. If you want to do it most efficiently, there’s some great data from the Transport Research Laboratory in the UK showing that what you really need to do is have what’s called a coffee nap. It takes caffeine about 20 minutes to peak in your bloodstream. So, have a good, strong espresso, turn the light out in your office or wherever it happens to be, close your eyes for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, you’ll get a very refreshing sleep, and you’ll be back to full performance.

And when you wake up, the caffeine will have kicked in?

Absolutely. The coffee will wake you up after 15 minutes. It’s a really good way of preventing you from having a very long period of sleep but it gives you a good, refreshing boost.

The caveat with that, presumably, is that it is a standard U-curve across people about how much sleep they need. So, whilst most of us need 8 hours or so, there are some people who can get by on 4 or 5.

But they’re very unusual. They’re only about 1–2% of the population at large. There really aren’t many of them around. This is a very asymmetric curve. When you look at people across the population at large, the vast majority, 98% of us, need somewhere around 7–8 hours.

But then, presumably, there’s a number of people also on the other side of the curve who are needing 10 or 11 hours sleep.

There are. There are some people who do.

I frequently feel as if that should be me.

Yeah, I have that same feeling as well. But, there are some people who are like that, who do actually need a bit more. Again, they will be a slightly larger fraction than the 1–2%, the one that need 4 hours.

Is that right?

Yeah, there will be something of the order of maybe, if my memory serves, about 5%.

The natural bias that we see in the population as people tend to think, “The average person needs 8 hours but I’m probably just on the shorter side of that,” whereas in fact, the chances are that most people are probably on the longer side of that.

It’s possible, yeah. It’s entirely possible but sleep is a remarkable restorative. We know this. Your cognition is much clearer, much less cloudy when you’ve had a good night’s sleep. You don’t spend as much of the day fighting periods of sleepiness, your memory for things that have happened to you improves dramatically, and the best way of thinking about chronic sleep deprivation is that it’s something similar to a mild state of concussion. It does cause a dramatic dip in performance, and sleep debt has to be repaid. There’s just no two ways about it. It’s one of those things that you can’t do anything about.

Do you encourage people to sleep in your work environment? Is it something that you actively promote?

I do it myself. If I’m exhausted after a meeting or a series of meetings and teaching in the morning or whatever, I’ll have a strong cup of coffee, I’ll turn the lights out, and then I’ll take 15 minutes. I’ll feel much, much better for the afternoon. I think it’s perfectly reasonable. Now obviously, people shouldn’t be coming into work to sleep. You have a duty to come in as refreshed as you can and all of those kinds of things, but I think having a 10- or 15-minute nap during the course of the day is perfectly reasonable, and the world will be a better place if people did.

Last question: what’s the advice you’d give to your 25-year-old self?

Well, I’ll tell you the advice I give my 25-year-old self. It’s very simple. It’s to borrow as much money as I possibly can and buy as much of London as I possibly could. Then, I would say to my somewhat older self, sell it all now.

Well, we all wish we’d done that, of course. Excellent, Shane, it’s been, as ever, highly entertaining and very instructive speaking to you. Thank you very much indeed. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation.

Thank you, Roddy. That was great.

But wait…there’s more?!

This post has been adapted from The Innovation Ecosystem podcast. Listen here for the full interview and the story of Shane O’Mara and to download a PDF version of this entire conversation.

Subscribe to The Innovation Ecosystem via iTunes and connect on Twitter.

About Mark
Mark has spent much of his 20+ year career seeking out people and resources to help him innovate and grow businesses. He has worked at BP, The Hay Group , and most recently Syngenta, where he led the creation and development of a $2B Specialty Crops business unit. Wherever possible, he tries to learn from other people’s experience, especially if they bring a fresh perspective to a situation. Follow Mark on Twitter at @markehb.

About Roddy

Roddy Millar is editorial director of IEDP Developing Leaders, which he set-up in 2004. Developing Leaders is the leading European magazine exploringleadershipdevelopment in large organizations – and has great relationships with the top business schools around the world that research these topics.

In 2013 he co-founded Ideas for Leaders, where he is CEO. Ideas for Leaders takes the best leadership and management research and makes it concise, accessible and digestible for executives and intrapreneurs around the world. 

Follow Roddy on Twitter at @RoddyMillar.

Shane O’Mara is Professor of Experimental Brain Research at Trinity College Dublin, and was Director of the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience from 2009-2016. He is also a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator and a Science Foundation Ireland Principal Investigator. He is a graduate of the National University of Ireland, Galway (BA, MA) and of the University of Oxford (DPhil). He is an elected Member of the Royal Irish Academy (MRIA), and a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (FAPS). His research interests include investigating the brain systems supporting learning, memory, cognition and decision making; the brain systems affected by stress, anxiety, depression andmotivation; and applying brain and behavioural science to organisations. He has published more than 120 peer-reviewed papers in these areas. His new book is ‘Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation’ (Harvard University Press; November, 2015).

Author: Shane O'Mara


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