Amy Brann| Interview | Podcast | Maria Franzoni | MFL Global

Interview with Neuroscientist and Founder of Synaptic Potential, Amy Brann

This week Maria’s guest on the show is Amy Brann. Amy is a visiting lecturer to Manchester Metropolitan University, teaching the neuroscience of leadership on the Master of Sports Directorship Programme. She is the founder of Synaptic Potential, working with organizations to strengthen their strategy, culture, and performance. Amy is also the author of three books, Make Your Brain Work, Neuroscience for Coaches, and Engaged: The Neuroscience Behind Creating Productive People in Successful Organizations.

Amy Brann talks to us about the brain. She tells us why she thinks children should be taught about how the brain works and how it would benefit in the workplace. How we can shape our brain, why not to reply on willpower and why sleep is so important for our memory.

Maria:

This week my guest is Amy Brann. Amy is a visiting lecturer to Manchester Metropolitan University, teaching the neuroscience of leadership on the Master of Sports Directorship Programme. She is the founder of Synaptic Potential, working with organisations to strengthen their strategy, culture, and performance. Amy is also the author of three books, Make Your Brain Work, Neuroscience for Coaches, and Engaged: The Neuroscience Behind Creating Productive People in Successful Organisations. Amy, you’re very welcome.

Amy Brann:

Thank you, Maria.

Maria:

Listen, I’m really excited about this one because I am literally going to pick your brain to make my brain more efficient. Is that OK?

Amy Brann:

Absolutely.

Maria:

Fantastic. Let’s start. First of all, though, where did you become interested in science? How did that happen?

Amy Brann:

I think I was always interested in the social side of sciences from very young. I was quite an overweight, a fat kid, and I think to sort of survive you’ve got to have some additional skills, and so being interested in people and sort of being a good listener seemed to work for me and got me through. It wasn’t until I was about 13 and I realised that in order to get into medical school, which is what I’ve decided I wanted to do, I had to be good at science. At that point I was just average at science, but then I just dedicated a lot of time to becoming good at science.

Maria:

That’s really interesting, actually, that you decided to go to medical school, and also the fact that you’ve said you were overweight, because I mean, I know you and you’re tiny.

Amy Brann:

We can all change, can’t we?

Maria:

Wow. Well, we’ll talk about that a bit later on. When I was at school, we didn’t learn about the brain, and I don’t know, is this something that you think people should learn about early on?

Amy Brann:

Absolutely and I think so many organisations would be in a better place now if their employees had learnt about brains when they were children, so from a child’s perspective, if they knew how they learnt, then they could become better learners, more intentionally. They would be able to protect their own mental wellbeing and development more intentionally. They would understand how different networks in the brain work, which could mean that even though our national curriculum doesn’t really give the time and energy to creativity that perhaps others in the world do, but if a child sort of understood the value of being creative and how that worked, then they could make sure they were building that into their life, so I think there’s huge benefits to children being taught about how the brain works.

Maria:

And, also, obviously for us as adults, so that’s amazing. You said earlier you can change, and I’ve heard you talk about, “You can shape your brain.” How do we shape our brain?

Amy Brann:

Physiologically we’ve got all of these pathways, all of these connections between the fundamental cells in our brain, and everything that we do, everything that we think, everything that we experience is physically shaping our brain and that physical structure is changing. Most of the time it’s changing unintentionally, and the invitation is to be more intentional in how we’re journeying through life, what we’re doing, what we’re practicing, to physically, structurally change our brain so that then it becomes easier for different behaviours to manifest.

Maria:

Is that how mindfulness works? Because there’s a lot of talk about the benefits of mindfulness. Is that brain shaping as well?

Amy Brann:

Absolutely. Yes, so mindfulness will typically activate a few different networks, the default mode network, the salience network, the central executive attention network. Research has shown that it strengthens connectivity between different regions of the brain and that’s something that we’ve come to understand now as being really, really important and something that through the teenage years is really a main focus of what’s happening, the increased connectivity between these different regions. So as an adult, if you’re wanting to be better able to regulate your emotions or to even think better or to remember things better, because that all depends on how the information is going in and being stored in our brain, then practicing mindfulness is one of those things that can really help us.

Maria:

You see, now you’re converting me because you’re talking about all the things I’ve got issues with, and I don’t currently practice mindfulness. I’m going to listen because you’re really talking my language. One of the things I really struggle with is willpower, so when it comes to chocolate or wine or getting out of bed to exercise, my willpower is not great. How can I improve that, do you think?

Amy Brann:

Wherever possible, don’t rely on willpower, because willpower is one of these things that we don’t fully understand yet. There’s a couple of different schools of thought. One school of thought is that it gets depleted, so if we’re doing a lot of executive function work, if we’re thinking a lot, if we’re working hard, so perhaps towards the end of the day it would be predictable that our willpower would take a real nosedive. That often is when people reach for the glass of wine or the chocolate bar, and so if we don’t have to rely on willpower, that’s the ideal scenario.

But the other flip side of the coin is that you can strengthen your willpower. One of the famous experiments is the marshmallow experiment where they invited children to look at the marshmallow placed in front of them, and do they have it now or do they wait for the second marshmallow in 15 minutes? While children typically have that challenge with delayed gratification, which willpower is often linked to, as adults we can still strengthen that by practicing it.

Maria:

But, I mean, can you teach an old dog new tricks, though? I mean, I’m not that young. Can I learn willpower?

Amy Brann:

Absolutely. You can learn new skills. You can strengthen existing skills, so you can get better at exercising willpower, and wherever possible I wouldn’t rely on it, so if you can only have chocolate in the house when you want to eat the chocolate, the same with the wine.  Or utilise nudges is another thing that we often talk about, to trigger behaviours so that you don’t actually have to think about it and you don’t have to use your willpower to drive you to do it or to overcome something to do it. But it’s almost you’ve made this advanced decision and then your environment is shaped to nudge you into doing things.

Maria:

I like that. I’m going to do that. You talked about memory as well, and I find that I have a real issue with information overload and I think that affects my memory. Can I do anything to help my brain to remember and pull things out of my memory?

Amy Brann:

Well, I think there’s a couple of things around that. I think it’s great that you’ve got the awareness that there’s an information overload. Many of us are in this space. In order for something to be stored in the brain, then it’s really important how it goes in, so we’ve got to pay attention to something in order for it to be catalogued. So, the first step is, well, how can I create an environment where I can pay attention to whatever I need to do to get it into my head?

Then sleep is really, really important for consolidating memories. I know it’s none of the news that anyone wants to hear, but unfortunately yes, the best thing then, if you put some information in your head that you’re going to rely upon, is to have a nap or go to bed and then the next morning it’s more likely that you’d be able to recall it.

The other really great thing for memory consolidation is to recall the information frequently, so they talk about stepped recall, so after an hour, after 24 hours, after a week, after a month to try and call that information back to the front of your mind.

Maria:

Actually, do you know what? This is really good advice when somebody books a speaker in or has some training in, to say, “Let’s find a way of revisiting the content over and over again,” because more often than not people don’t do that. Is this advice you give to clients when you go in and do a speech?

Amy Brann:

One-hundred per cent, yes. I think a lot of times clients are not thinking about the long-term. They’re thinking about one off events and getting the keynote speaker in to deliver that and then it’s done, but actually for their conference, for their event to stand in people’s minds, you want them to be embodying and working on the information that they’re heard, so the best thing they can do or one of the best things is certainly to ask any speaker to provide small chunks of recapped information. It doesn’t have to be new content. It could be recapped content in different mediums that they can then drip feed to their audience over a period of time. It’s a brilliant, brilliant idea.

Maria:

Love it. Love it, love it. I also like the idea that you can learn new things and expand your brain, and I’ve heard that as you get older, if you learn to play a musical instrument or learn a new language, that really helps your brain. Now, I know that you play the Tenor Saxophone. Did you learn that for your brain or was that something that you’ve always done?

Amy Brann:

I learnt that when I was a teenager. I was brought up playing the flute but always wanted a bit more of a trendy instrument, so learnt the Tenor Sax and I play now because I enjoy it and because I know it’s useful for my brain, but you might be able to see some Spanish words behind me. I have a five-year old daughter, and part of the reason for learning Spanish is because I think it’s a good language for her, it’s an enjoyable thing for us to do together, but even more so, I know it’s fuelling my brain. I found it really enjoyable and learning new things these days is so easy. We have it so good with all these apps and different resources. The world is ripe for learning.

Maria:

It’s true. It’s true. You’ve touched on languages, and you can also do British sign language, can’t you? Did you learn that because somebody in your family couldn’t hear or was that just something that you thought, “I’m just going to go and do it”?

Amy Brann:

It was the latter, so again it was when I was about seven. My mum brought home an alphabet card and I just thought it was a really amazing concept, that we could communicate using our hands, so I started to dig deeper into the language and built up my vocabulary just teaching myself at home, because then there weren’t any classes for younger people. When I was 16, then I was able to go to a proper course and studied there. I started then learning more about the grammar, and the sign languages, they’re so beautiful the way they have far fewer words than us, so the vocabulary is much smaller, but every nuance or facial expression and how you make a movement, your hand position as you make it, they all convey such meaning. I often look at speakers and see how intentional they are with using their bodies to communicate, and yes, it can be a really powerful additional stream that we have available to us.

Maria:

Wow. That’s amazing. So, with all this continual learning. Do you think, because we’re all scared of losing our minds as we get older, and we’re scared of things like Alzheimer’s and senility, can we postpone that? Can we help ourselves by continuing to learn?

Amy Brann:

The research is mixed on this front, so you can have a genetic predisposition to something that I think no matter how much you work at this, you may still succumb to one of these diseases and it can be horrendous. You know, my grandmother-in-law has recently got into a home because her mental capacity has decreased, and it’s very, very sad to see. And some of the other research does give us hope and does encourage us to keep doing all of these things, and I believe through her activities she’s staved off this process until much later than it would have deteriorated otherwise.

One of my favourite pieces of research looks at nuns, and nuns are a great group to study because they’re very sort of isolated in terms of the factors that influence them. These nuns were all living to over 100 and none of them were getting the dementias, the Alzheimer’s, and so they left their brains to medical research. When their brains were investigated, it looked like the brains of people that should be exhibiting these dementias. The researchers were really puzzled and couldn’t quite work out. Then it sort of dawned on them the reason that they believe that these nuns weren’t having the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, even though their brains were living for a really long time, was because idleness was a sin and they kept doing things, so they believe that they’d built in extra capacity in their brain, like they got spare neuronal pathways that then they were able to rely on those, so they didn’t get the symptoms.

Maria:

So, idleness is a sin. That’s good to know. I also like the fact that, as they say, use it or lose it. I think that’s, the whole body, you’ve got to use the whole body or you lose it. I think that it’s good advice. Let’s go back to your speaking. I mean, obviously you and I work together, and I book you as a speaker. Tell me what clients are asking you to come and talk about specifically in relation to their businesses.

Amy Brann:

It’s quite wide ranging, so sometimes it’s about engaging people and they understand that there’s a neural correlate, there’s stuff going on in the brain when people are engaged versus when they’re not, and that can be quite complex, but they’re also asking us to talk about resilience and peak performance. They get quite excited when we share the good news that actually, resilience and peak performance, they’re very closely related and you’re not going to get to peak performance unless you’ve got some of the neural underpinnings for resilience, so that’s exciting and they’re often happy about that.

But then the other thing is whatever kind of result they’re looking for, our first step is normally to help them really identify what that result is, because say they want peak performance, I always reflect back to them, “Peak performance in what”? Because the networks in the brain that are required for innovation are quite dramatically different from critical thinking, so if you want peak performing critical thinkers, then you want to create a physical environment that’s quite different from innovative thinking.

Maria:

Yes, very good point, actually. Very good question to ask. Okay. Cool. Obviously, we’ve talked about your brain, you mustn’t leave it idle, you have to keep using it, and I know that you love to read and you keep your brain going, and you’re always loving to learn. What book would you say has had a huge effect on you?

Amy Brann:

Well, it’s a book called The Holographic Universe, and I always recommend it to people. It’s by Michael Talbot, and I read it probably 15 years ago. It’s not necessarily that all of the thinking is correct or has been proven, but I think the way it’s written really stimulates curiosity. And one of my favourite things to talk about and to help people embed in their culture in their organisation is curiosity, because if you can think differently, if you can think more open-mindedly, if you can sort of be saying, “Well, how does this work? Could the universe be holographic in nature? Could our brain be holographic in nature?” then we’re really starting to open up questions and we can learn more. Apart from that one, then anything by Roger Penrose because he’s amazing.

Maria:

That’s wonderful. That’s a lovely note to leave everyone on. I’m going to go and throw out my chocolate because I haven’t got willpower. Amy, thank you so much for your time.

Amy Brann:

It’s a pleasure, Maria.

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