Recalibrating for Complexity – A neural perspective

Recalibrating for Complexity

Robert Ziegler, editor of the Oxford Leadership Journal, 2011.

Studies show that, 85 percent of the time, mothers across cultures prefer to hold babies on their left side. The easiest explanation – the predominance of right-handedness – is not borne out by investigation – left-handed mothers also tend to cradle babies on the left side. Instead, it is more a matter of hemispheric specialisation – the right brain in most mothers is specialised for emotional information, like crying and laughter. Because the left side of the body (and the left eye) are connected to the right side of the brain, the theory suggests that the left-to-right pathway is more often the most direct and reliable for sensing the baby’s needs.

Flash back a few thousand years to ancient Egypt. I am told that, in the carvings of the day, mothers are generally depicted cradling babies on the right side. Now there are many possible explanations for this fundamental shift in behaviour over a few thousand years, but here is my favourite, following on the hemispheric-specialisation line of thinking. My suspicion is that the ancient Egyptian women (and men, for that matter) were never taught to read, so the modern-day hemispheric specialisation never happened. Their brains were organised differently than ours.

Flash forward to 2011. Recent research suggests something very surprising – and this is no joke – that there are measurable and statistically significant differences in the brains of self-described conservatives and self-described progressives. Assuming the research survives scrutiny, it still leaves open the question of what causes what – does brain structure influence political choice, or do political choices affect brain structure?

Now, I am a big believer in the latter, broadly described as neural plasticity – the tendency of human brains to adapt to circumstances throughout our lifetimes. Scientific honesty obliges me to admit that neither of the above examples says much that is definitive about neural plasticity, one way or the other. Still, the likelihood that brains adapt their structure and function to conditions and training is very important to consider.

In particular, if literacy would have affected the ancient Egyptian’s hemispheric specialisation, what effect is modern complexity, turbocharged by the digital revolution, having on our brains? The question is both very important and very basic – if the speed and complexity of modern work were causing changes in your brain (and mind), wouldn’t you want to know about them?

No doubt, modern technology would make the ancient Egyptian’s head literally spin. And my guess is that the complexity of modern life is making our heads spin. On a personal level, so much of leading, managing or simply working in today’s society is about managing the complex web of interaction, communication and information flow that surrounds our lives.

So what do we mean by complexity? And is it a good thing or a bad thing? Both questions are critical for any leader or manager to address, but neither question is easy to tackle.

Complex systems do not behave like simple mechanical ones. In a complex system, big changes in conditions can yield negligible effects, and small changes in conditions can have transformative effects. Systems seem to have “a life of their own,” often surprising us. In fact, the world is complex, but not in the way that chess is complex or an automobile is complex. One improves performance in chess or car mechanics through deeper and deeper analysis – understanding the whole through understanding the parts. Complex systems defy such analysis – we can do our best to understand them, but in the end, we have to rely on some mixture of insight, intuition, imagination, rules of thumb and values. It is a different playing field with different rules. We all need to recalibrate our understanding and sensitivities so that we are more aligned with the non-mechanical realities that surround us.

Or perhaps our brains are already recalibrating for that complexity.



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