I spend my days working with senior business leaders—CEOs who are determined to bring their very best into their roles as organizational leaders. Trained as a physician, I now focus my attention almost exclusively on a single organ: the magnificent human brain.
Mother Nature designed us to be successful.
Sadly, our understanding of our own brains and, hence, our ability to optimize this powerful asset is sorely lacking. In fact, most of the time, our lack of personal mastery over our unique neurobiology leaves our brains working against us, limiting our success instead of boosting it.
Much of my work focuses on the cognitive brain: the massive cerebral cortex that hosts the faculties of thought and reason. This is Mother Nature’s greatest gift and differentiates us from all other living creatures, including early (and intelligent) mammals like dogs, horses, and dolphins.
Only when we understand the potential of the cognitive brain, which is under our complete voluntary control, can we contemplate success. The end point of this mastery is a profound state of self-belief. When we attain this, we invite prosperity in its broadest possible interpretation.
Most of my executive clients would be satisfied to stop here, but I always urge them to journey further in search of even deeper personal power. You see, Mother Nature gave us another major gift, also housed within our complex brain, one that we seldom think about in the context of our professional aspirations. When we understand the science of our emotional brain, we can unlock the power of love, with very tangible benefits both at work and at home.
Before we explore these synergistic endowments, let’s contemplate the lives of our reptilian ancestors, who lacked both of these brain parts and their associated benefits.
Snakes and lizards are cold-blooded creatures with tiny heads. Mother Nature programmed their primitive reptilian brains with instincts for fight and flight. The currency of the reptilian brain is fear, and it sends messages of alarm down the spinal cord, ensuring the appropriate behavioral response from remote body parts.
The reptilian brain is alive and well deep inside of our advanced human brains. It’s our default mode in times of stress. You know the feelings well; if you’re anxious, scared, or angry, your primitive reptilian brain is hard at work. That’s okay for short bursts of survival-related activity, but when prolonged, it has disastrous consequences for your health and happiness.
Several hundred million years ago, Mother Nature became frustrated at the enormous waste inherent in the reptilian design. Reptiles give birth to huge numbers of tiny babies, hoping desperately that a few will survive. Hundreds, even thousands, die before reaching adulthood. Those that are lucky enough to survive to adulthood live isolated lives, surviving on their individual skills.
These creatures were programed to stay away from others to survive; by design, they are ruled by fear and suspicion.
The design solution seems obvious through the lens of retrospect. If they could be programmed to have an affinity for each other, then reptiles would acquire two functional advantages: First, they would nurture their offspring. This would enable them to have fewer babies, investing more time into raising complex, competent progeny with a much higher survival rate. Second, they would collaborate with other adults. They would team together, pooling resources to enhance group survival. They would become vastly more efficient and effective.
Although the social advantage was easy to envision, upgrading their underlying biological design was far more complicated.
The obvious solution was to build the emotional brain, a new section of the brain that hosted the capacity for affection. More importantly, the emotional brain needed to be connected with the rest of the body, linking the command center with the arms, legs, and organs that would act out the new, loving behaviors.
To do this, Mother Nature constructed two biological bridges: one chemical, using hormones that spread through the bloodstream to distant sites, and the other electrical, using a brand-new system of nerves specifically designed for non-urgent signaling.
Hormones are particular kinds of chemicals—proteins, actually—that are produced by specialized glands and secreted into the bloodstream. Once in the blood, they circulate throughout the body. Certain tissues and organs have receptors designed for these chemical messengers, inducing very specific actions at the target sites. It’s an effective way to diffuse custom signals deep into our body.
One of the emotion-related hormones is oxytocin. It induces a range of positive feelings, such as affection, trust, and empathy, while reducing fear and anxiety. These benefits allow us to enjoy social proximity with others, leading to the colloquial name for this powerful chemical: the “love hormone.” More than this, oxytocin is intimately involved in procreation—in bonding, birthing, and nursing.
Mother Nature didn’t stop there. She also empowered oxytocin with some very important responsibilities with significant impact on our overall health. This magical hormone also suppresses levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, the chemical messengers that promote degeneration and decay. By moderating the fire of inflammation, oxytocin promotes healing and regeneration—two critical elements of well-being. That’s right: Love and the act of loving fight degeneration and decay, making us not only happy but healthy, too!
The second enhancement designed to bridge our new and improved brains with our obedient bodies was an upgrade to our nervous system. You remember the nerves of fear that travel through the spinal cord to the body? They are collectively known as the sympathetic nervous system and enable flight and fight.
The upgrade introduced an opposing wiring known as the parasympathetic nervous system that carries messages to invoke relaxation along a giant chemical pathway known as the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve slows us down. Under its command, our gastrointestinal system stocks up on vital energy and nutrients, and the cells of regeneration and repair get to work restoring our vital tissues. This physical state takes us off the high alert induced by the sympathetic nervous system, thus favoring social connectivity.
The vagal override that takes place only in mammals has recently revealed even deeper benefits, including profound changes in the activity of genes that regulate inflammation and immunity. Feelings of deep emotional well-being (known as eudemonic well-being to distinguish it from a more superficial feeling of satisfaction, known as hedonic well-being) activate genes that promote healing, recovery, and a healthy immune system and switch off genes that promote disease-causing inflammation and degeneration.
The overt purpose is simple: When we’re in danger, we may need inflammatory cells to cope with acute injury, and we can’t waste energy in long-term restorative processes. But, when there is no danger, under the influence of the vagus nerve, our bodies get to work fighting cancer, preventing degeneration, and restoring healthy tissue in vital organs like the heart and brain.
Why is this complex science important to busy, results-driven CEOs?
It’s simple. The adrenaline- and fear-based drivers of performance are excellent in stimulating survival and short bursts of high performance. And self-belief driven by cognitive competence remains the pillar of human performance. But enduring success requires that we regenerate vital resources and reserves at least as much as we consume and destroy them. We neglect the role of the emotional brain and that critical vagus nerve at our peril.
So, my overall guidance to leaders who aspire to long-term success includes this surprising advice:
- Breathe deeply, with prolonged exhalation. Deep breathing, especially with the prolonged exhalation that is a common meditative practice, stimulates the vagus nerve.
- Get down on your knees and pray, or if you don’t want to pray, then get down on the floor and do yoga, stretch, or meditate. Self-effacing, respectful postures like bending, bowing, and kneeling all stimulate pressure receptors in the vagus nerve, inducing its downstream benefits.
- Sing out loud. Singing, chanting, and praying out loud are all common elements of many religions—probably because their early practitioners discovered empirically that all those activities stimulate the vagus nerve!
- Play a musical instrument, especially a brass or wind instrument.
- And, love without restraint!
When you get this right, you won’t only do better; you will also feel better. More importantly, you will be better; you will substantially reduce your risk of devastating disease and premature death. In doing so, you avail yourself of the full package: professional success, health, happiness, and longevity. It’s a no-brainer!