There are so many facets of neuroscience that I often find it challenging to articulate its application to leadership and performance. In any situation where you struggle to communicate a large concept effectively, distilling the information down into consumable chunks helps.

I find it helpful to think about the neuroscience of performance and leadership from three core neuroscience principles.

Most of what I teach about the neuroscience fall into one of these three principles. To better help you understand and apply the most recent science to your work, look for ways to integrate these principles.

Your Mind Controls Your Brain. Your brain is an organ, but it has a master. That master is what is often referred to as your mind. As humans, we have a unique ability to step outside of our brain function and tell it what to do and how to function.

But this idea has limitations. One limitation is your brain’s autonomic functions via your sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, which control heartbeat, respiration, organ function, immune system, digestion, and hormone balance, among many other automatic functions that you don’t have to think about.

This doesn’t discount the fact that you have more control over your brain function, thinking, and behavior than you likely realize. Our consciousness is found in our mind. It’s the ability to stop, reflect, think, and determine the best way to interact with our environment to get the outcomes we desire. However, we have to practice this ability. The more we do it, the more we can control the aspects of the automatic brain that create thinking and behavior that harm us.

The new field of epigenetics is a great example of how our mind controls our brain. Epigenetics studies how our thinking, behavior, and environment turn on or off genetic coding. The data from this area of neuroscience reveals that we have great control over disease, illness, addiction, and mental and physical health. You will be hearing much more about this in the coming years.

Neuroplasticity is another application of your mind controlling your brain. Thirty years ago it was thought that you create all the brain cells you will need throughout life by the age of 30 and then you fight to keep as many as you can throughout your lifetime.

Today, we have visual evidence that shows neurons being reproduced in the brains of people late in life. We can create new brain cells well into old age. This process is known as neurogenesis. Numerous studies show that people who keep their brains active by using mental challenges, games, and reading and have healthy social connections have healthier brains and live longer and more fulfilled lives in their later years.

Your brain is wired to be social. The second principle is one we can see from the minute a human is born. We all need help learning, growing, caring for, and reaching our full potential.  None of us can reach our highest level of achievement or potential by ourselves. Research also shows that we don’t live as fulfilled or thrive if we don’t have healthy social relationships.

When the leaders at Google analyzed their employee data to determine what characteristics would statistically predict high performance, they found nothing. But when they looked at the data differently, from an environmental and social perspective, they found that the team a person is on can predict with statistical accuracy whether or not they become high performers. Google named this project Project Aristotle as it supports Aristotle’s belief that “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

This neuroscience principle reminds us that being and doing our best in life requires social support. If we want to be our best, feel our best, and function at the highest level, we must be in social environments that support our progress and goals.

Your brain can be lit up to thrive. The third principle of neuroscience I use to apply the neuroscience of leadership (and indeed not the last principle) is your brain lights up when it is in full and positive engagement. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans show that when you are in an optimally functional state, your brain is lit up with electrical activity. Different regions of the brain are connecting and interacting with each other to create greater power and efficiency. It signifies a state of neural coherence and integration.

When the brain is lit up, it’s not just due to enhanced functioning. It’s a combination of both function and feeling. This is due to two fundamental operations. The first is the coordinated activity of various brain regions, including the prefrontal cortex (involved in decision-making and emotional regulation), the limbic system (associated with emotions and motivation), the sensory cortices (responsible for processing sensory information), and the reward pathway (which responds to pleasurable experiences).

The second operation is supported by the first. It’s the natural release of neurotransmitters. Enhanced brain function triggers the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. Dopamine, in particular, is associated with motivation, reward, and reinforcement, while serotonin contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness. And, of course, Endorphins act as natural pain relievers and mood enhancers.

So, when multiple areas of the brain light up, and someone experiences optimal function, it reflects a state of neural harmony, efficient communication, and integrated processing, contributing to a sense of positivity, well-being, and optimal cognitive performance.

In conclusion, by distilling complex neurological concepts into three core principles—mind control over the brain, the importance of social connections, and the potential for neural flourishing—we gain actionable insights into optimizing personal and professional growth.

By understanding that our minds have a significant influence over our brain’s functioning, we grasp the power to shape our thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. Also, acknowledging the inherent social nature of the human brain underscores the indispensable role of supportive relationships in fostering individual and collective success.

Finally, recognizing that the brain thrives in states of positive engagement highlights the potential for achieving optimal cognitive performance and emotional well-being. As neuroscience continues to unravel the mysteries of the brain, integrating these principles into leadership practices promises enhanced performance and a deeper understanding of human potential and fulfillment.