Posted on: 21 July 2016
Why organizations can learn about team performance from neuropsychology
The field of UX is intimately concerned with how people think, feel and act, and how to leverage those behaviours to create a better user experience. It should be no surprise that the bedrock of UX practices is science and neuropsychology.
Hemispheric Specialization Defined
I am fascinated with “hemispheric specialization”. It is a fancy name for a body of work often referred to as right-brain left-brain research.
I did my undergrad thesis around this topic but I had not picked up or followed the progression of this field since.
Recently, I picked up a book called The New Executive Brain – Frontal Lobes in a Complex World by Elkhonon Goldberg.
A large portion of the book is dedicated to hemispheric specialization and how our understanding of this field has changed over the years.
Dr. Goldberg’s work spans 40 plus years in neuropsychology research and he takes the reader on a long journey of learning about the brain.
Up till the 1980s, most brain scientists thought the brain was ‘modular’ in nature – where specific areas were responsible for specific functions.
That was my understanding as an undergrad. As time moved on, brain scientists like Goldberg challenged that view. In those days, hemispheric specialization could be simplified to this:
|Linguistic abilities, verbal
Pop psychology also relates the left hemisphere to logic and reason.
|Spatial abilities, non-verbal
Pop psychology also relates the right hemisphere to emotions, music, and art.
Figure 1. The traditional ‘modular’ understanding of the hemispheres of the brain.
However, this understanding could not explain some observations. If modularity were true, and left hemisphere was for language and right was for spatial abilities, then why was it that children with right hemispheric damage were almost always completely debilitated, losing more than just their spatial abilities, but children with left frontal lobe damage were not as compromised?
Why did the right hemispheric damaged children lose more than just their spatial abilities? Why were the effects so severe?
More puzzling was that the opposite was true for adults: when the right brain was damaged in adults, they were not as affected as when their left frontal area was damaged. Only a few decades ago, scientists were limited to observing patients with brain damage and testing them with various tasks.
Revolutionary Observations for Brain Research
What Goldberg and his cohorts found is revolutionary for brain research in general and also for our understanding of hemispheric specialization.
In short, we no longer think of the brain as ‘modular’ in nature – but ‘interactive’. The brain is not static. There is flow.
Specific parts are not responsible for specific functions. Through earlier brain damage observations, advanced imaging, and through neural networks techniques, brain scientists and psychologists now think that the right brain is the ‘novelty’ centre that helps us learn quickly, and passes the learning on to the left brain – which is the ‘routinization’ hemisphere.
In his book, Goldberg describes the right and left hemispheres in different ways
|Actor (one who carries out)||Critic (one who decides)|
|Knowledge conservation||Knowledge acquisition|
|Clustered, deeper grooves||Distributed, looser, shallower grooves|
Figure 2. The current ‘interactive’ understanding of the hemispheres of the brain.
This explains the children-adult studies and phenomena quite well. The right brain damage for children was devastating because that is where we first learn about our world. For adults, right brain damage to the ‘novelty’ or right side had minimal effects because they already have a lifetime of information in the ‘routinized’ or left side.
The figure below shows how information is seemingly passed from the right-brain to the left-brain with practice and as information is consolidated.
Figure 3. This is Figure 6.3 in Goldberg’s book, showing “changes in regional brain activation as function of task familiarization. The right hemisphere is particularly active when the task is novel (A), but its activation level decreases with practice (B).”
Likewise, neural network simulation results below show that the left hemisphere is more modularized and has deeper more clustered grooves and the right hemisphere is less modularized with shallower, looser grooves.
Figure 4. This is Figure 6.2 in Goldberg’s book, showing “the difference between network organization in the left and right hemispheres. Neural network is more modularized in the left hemisphere (A) and less modularized in the right hemisphere (B).”
What is even more intriguing is that traditionally, music is associated with the right brain.
More recent research associated with the brain as an interactive organism shows that the right hemisphere lights up when music is played for novices. However, for professional musicians, it is their left hemispheres that light up.
Organizational Merit to A New Understanding of the Right & Left Hemispheres
I find this new direction in understanding the right and left hemispheres interesting from a neuroscience perspective in and of itself. But I also think it can have organizational behaviour merit if we think of the brain as an organization, metaphorically.
At least, I think organizational behaviour can gain insight into how we can optimize our team performance. How so?
- A mix is needed. In any organization, we can bet there are those with left-leaning hemispheres and those with right-leaning hemispheres. There are also those who straddle the centre.
In any group, it is healthy to have a mix of individuals with both sets of attributes: novel and routine, naïve and practiced, critic and actor, knowledge acquirers and knowledge conservationists, distributed, looser, shallower-grooved individuals as well as the deeper-grooved individuals.
- Recognize the strengths of both. Having a good mix of characters is not enough. Teams should also recognize each other’s strengths.
Those strong on the novelty side should recognize the intrinsic value of those with routinized strengths. For example, any team or organization should have a deep practice where work has clear processes, routines, a rhythm, templates, a shared idea of when something is done, rules, decision trees, quality expectations, etc.
These traits are there to help the organization function efficiently, have repeatable success, and make money. On the flipside, those who are routine-leaning and standardized should also recognize the importance of the novelty-leaning individuals and the “evolutionaries”: those who can navigate vague situations, who can find their way and invent new routines along a murky path, those who like to go where no one has gone before.
These traits can help a team get better at what they do, increase the team’s creativity, and find their way out of hairy unforeseen dilemmas.
- Facilitate the hand over and integrate. There is a centre in the brain called the corpus callosum. It is here: deep and near the centre of the brain. The corpus callosum is dense with fibers and rich in neural activity and synapses. It is here that information is passed from the right to the left hemisphere. It is here that an idea goes from being novel to becoming routine.
In the same way, every organization should have a well-formed corpus callosum – an area where there is a handing over of exploration that becomes routine and standardized. This makes for a learning, growing, and healthy organization.
What does a mature UX team or consulting firm look like?
It often means the organization has standardized practices and methods. For example, whenever a usability test or research project starts, the team knows exactly which templates to use, the procedure, how to recruit, and have standardized forms and checklists in place. This characterizes the ‘left brain’ function of the team.
The team also has the flexibility and creativity to make new paths and solve new problems, including inventing new UX methods and deliverables as required. This characterizes the ‘right brain’ function of the team.
A mature UX team or consulting practice also understands the need for practice integration, where new knowledge or innovation then becomes consolidated and routine, and gets added to the team’s repertoire. This last function characterizes the ‘corpus callosum’ of the team.
Reference: E. Goldberg, The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World. (Oxford University Press, 2009).