Better Meetings Through Brain Science

Applying insights from neuroscience can do more than fine-tune your meetings- it can transform them.

For his 2009 book, Your Brain at Work, business consultant David Rock interviewed 30 leading neuroscientists and drew on research from more than 300 academic papers based on brain and psychological studies, and then applied insights from neuroscience and psychology to the business world.


As co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Summit – an annual conference that links leadership development with neuroscience and psychology – Rock also applies those scientific insights to the business of meetings. The following excerpts from Your Brain At Work explain the science behind the unorthodox structure of the Summit, which – unlike many conferences that pile on conference sessions and topics in an effort to give attendees value – limits the number of sessions to just four a day and breaks all the rules about breaks. That’s because research has shown that the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that makes decisions and solves problems, is easily overwhelmed.

From the book: The mental stage is smaller than you might expect. It’s more like a stage in a child’s bedroom than the one at Carnegie Hall. It can hold only a handful of actors at a time. Put too many on, and others get bumped off. With so little space available, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and make mistakes.

So just how much space do you have up there? This question has perplexed scientists for some time. You’ve probably never heard of George A. Miller, but you may have heard of the outcome of a study he did in 1956. Miller found that the maximum number of items a person can hold in mind at once is seven. The trouble with Miller’s research being so well known is that it is wrong, or at least often misinterpreted.

A wide survey of new research in 2001 by Nelson Cowan, at the University of Missouri– Columbia, found that the number of items you can hold in mind is likely not seven. It’s more like four, and even then this depends on the complexity of the four items. Four numbers, no problem. Four long words, and it starts to get harder. Four sentences, unless the sentences are familiar – a memorized prayer or an advertising jingle – are very difficult to keep in mind. And the participants in these studies were young adults. Think about it. Four sentences. That’s not a lot. No wonder meetings often seem so chaotic. No one can make sense of what’s going on.

It gets worse. A study by Brian McElree at New York University found that the number of chunks of information you can remember accurately with no memory degradation is, remarkably, only one. While you can obviously remember more than one thing at a time, your memory degrades for each item when you hold a lot in mind.

Clearly this is a limitation worthy of respect. Yet for some reason a lot of people want to buck against it.

At the Summit: Not all sessions or breaks are created equally, because your brain uses a lot of energy. There is a half-hour long break in the morning, when your brain’s capacity is at its peak. In the afternoon, the break stretches to an hour.

From the book: The prefrontal cortex chews up metabolic fuel, such as glucose and oxygen, faster than people realize. The stage uses up power quickly, and as the lights dim, it gets harder to hold actors in the right place and stop others from getting on the stage. This tendency means scheduling the most attention- rich tasks when you have a fresh and alert mind. This could be early in the morning, or perhaps after a break or exercise. The prefrontal cortex has much in common with other energy-hungry body parts such as muscles. It tires from use, and can do a lot more after a good rest. Making a tough decision might take 30 seconds when you are fresh and impossible when you’re not.

At the Summit: Networking is not something that fills in spaces in the program – it’s a centerpiece. More than four hours a day are devoted to structured and unstructured conversation. Making friends at conferences, and talking with them about ideas, helps your brain perform at an optimal level.

From the book: Being connected to others in a positive way, feeling a sense of relatedness, is a basic need for human beings, similar to eating and drinking. Surrounding yourself with friends not only helps you think better, it also enables you to see situations from novel perspectives, by “looking through other people’s eyes.” In the same way, having people you trust around can also help bring about insights, by broadening thinking and helping you to see your own thinking.

Having friends helps you change your brain, because you get to speak out loud more often. One experiment showed that when people repeated out loud what they were learning, the speed of their learning and their ability to apply that learning to other situations increased. When you speak to someone about an idea, many more parts of your brain are activated than just thinking about the idea, including memory regions, language regions, and motor centers. This is a process called spreading activation. Spreading activation makes it easier to recall ideas later on, as you have left a wider trail of connections to follow.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.