The Human Brain: a summary of recent research and theory

The tools of Neuroscience
Our understanding of how the brain works has greatly increased over recent years due to advancements in brain imaging technology such as MRI scans (magnetic resonance imaging) which can track changes in brain structure and function. Videos can now be taken to monitor the brain activity when people are engaged in a task, thinking about something or experiencing a particular emotion to identify which parts of the brain are activated.

The three parts of the brain (the triune brain)

A simple model for understanding the structure of the brain is to see it as consisting of three parts. At the head of the spinal column is the reptilian brain, the governor of our instinctual responses and our automatic functioning such as breathing and the beating of the heart. Wrapped around the reptilian brain is the limbic system. This part is divided into almond shaped halves called the amygdala. The amygdala is the gateway to the emotional system, responsible for receiving and sending emotional signals. It assesses every single stimulus, every sound, smell, glimpse, piece of information for its emotional loading and then attaches a feeling to it. If the stimulus is recognised it is assigned to a pre-existing emotional track. If it is unknown, a new emotional track is created. All of this takes place in nanoseconds (Brown and Brown 2012) . Habitual responses take place when emotional tracks get used again and again, for example, if as a child you enjoyed shopping trips and every time you entered the store you encountered the smell of fresh bread, then it is likely that you will attribute a feeling of pleasure to any future incoming stimuli linked to the smell of bread. It is the limbic system that encodes such experiences and attaches feelings that create meaning. Marketing and advertising is built on the premise that decision are mostly based on emotional rather than rational responses to stimuli and so try to re-create such associations. The third and outer part of the brain is called the cognitive brain, the cerebral cortex. This receives and integrates signals from the other parts of the brain to make sense of both the outer and inner world. The cerebral cortex is wrapped around the two amygdala. The largest part of the cerebral cortex is the neo-cortex which is responsible for functions such as reasoning, planning, language and conscious thought.

The cerebral cortex and the teenage brain

The cerebral cortex has four lobes. The purpose of the frontal lobe is to inhibit emotions that may cause problems in social interactions, to enable us to stand back, to notice, observe, gain critical distance and consider the consequences of our actions. According to McGilchrist (2010) it also enables us to empathise by attempting to understand rather than just react to people. In adolescence the frontal lobe undergoes significant restructuring, reducing in size, eliminating synaptic connections that no longer suit the environment. These changes may go some way to explaining why adolescents are more self-conscious than adults yet less inhibited around risk taking as well as struggling to weigh up the consequences of actions (Blakemore 2012) .

Growth and change requires relationship and emotion

Neuroscience has discovered that change and development mainly happen through the limbic system, the home of our emotions and feelings. The infant brain arrives with no templates of meaning, only the potential to create meaning. As the infant experiences an event they will experience a primary emotion. It is generally accepted that there are eight of these – the survival emotions of fear, anger, disgust, shame, sadness (FADSS), the emotion of startle/ surprise and the two attachment emotions of excitement/ joy, and love/ trust. The relationships around the infant will influence what secondary feelings (a combination of the primary emotions) are attached to the event and therefore the meaning associated with it. “What the infant brain needs to get it working is to be structured and organized by another functioning brain” (Brown and Brown 2012:5) As we grow, the templates are built and habitual ways of experiencing and interpreting the world are formed. These are often referred to as our personal constructs and can be deeply embedded. Therefore whilst the rational part of us may recognise that we ‘should’ change, some rewiring is needed at the limbic level to create the energy and motivation to bring about actual change. Just as relationship was critical in the initial wiring of the brain and construction of meaning, it is also key to any future rewiring. In the field of psychotherapy and counselling, the core conditions of empathy, unconditional regard and congruence have long been seen as essential for learning and growth, a belief that now appears to be supported by neuroscience. A client’s amygdala will pick up cues from the coach that go beyond mere words – the subtle body language and tone created by the coach’s own emotions. The amygdala is highly attuned to signals that elicit fear, the normal response being to protect the self. In contrast, if there are no fear eliciting signals but ones that elicit the emotion of trust, then the client’s limbic system starts to open up to new possibilities (Brown and Brown 2012). In the business world, strategies for change that rely solely on reason are regarded as insufficient by emergent change advocates such as Kotter and Cohen (2002) . They argue that people’s hearts and minds can be captured by building a vision that appeals to the whole brain, that can be felt, seen, touched. It appears that, in both individual coaching as well as organisational change, the key to winning the mind is first to win the heart.

The left/ right brain division

The two halves of the brain exist for a reason although there is some debate as to what this is. Traditionally the right hemisphere is seen as mostly focusing on the emotional system, imagination and originality, the left for language, facts and what is known. The whole brain integrates these two elements to make rational sense of the inner and outer world. Whilst there is truth in this division, it has latterly been regarded as a bit simplistic an explanation. According to McGilchrist (2010) imagination requires both hemispheres as does reason. Yet there are differences in how they operate – each hemisphere offers us a different version of the world which we then combine. We use the left hemisphere for a narrow focus and sharp attention to detail. To create such a focus requires a reductionist approach, a simplified version of reality arrived at by taking data out of context and honing in. We use the right hemisphere for a broader kind of alertness and for making connections with the world. This hemisphere takes into account context, implicit meanings, understands metaphor and notices body language. Like our peripheral vision is it never fully graspable. Western History has moved from a place of balance to one where the left approach is valued over the right to our own detriment (McGilchrist 2010; Brown and Brown 2012)

How much of our brain do we actually use?

The idea that we only use about 10% of our brains is widely acknowledged myth. Modern brain scans reveal that most of the brain is active most of the time (Jarrett 2014) with the result that even minor brain damage can have devastating effects.


The idea that by the age of three our brains are fully formed is also a myth. In fact our brains impose no clearly defined biological limit on our learning potential: “our brains are certainly more ‘plastic’ when we are younger, but their connectivity, function and even structure can change dramatically in response to learning throughout our lives” (McGurk 2014:6) “It takes a long time, right up through adolescence, with a wide variety of social influencers adding onto the original parental input, to get the whole system effective”(Brown and Brown 2012:58).

Bounded rationality – the reaching of a satisfactory decision

Most decisions are not made through reason alone as rational decision making cannot cope with large amounts of data or take into account the complexities of a situation. “Although our minds can take into account of a host of different factors, and although we can remember and report doing so, “it is seldom more than one or two that we consider at any one time” ” (Shepard 1967:263 cited in Gigerenzer and Goldstein 1996:664) Therefore the phrase bounded rationality (Simon 1991) is frequently used to acknowledge that most of our decision making is concerned with arriving at a satisfactory and sufficient result rather than with the perfect answer. We often use short cuts or heuristics, problem solving methods such as rule-of-thumb or intuition. Research indicates that these heuristics can be very effective and time-efficient in solving complex real-world problems and, when applied in the right niche, often lead to better decisions than more complex decision making methods (Banks 2014) . Once the decision is made in the emotional part of the brain, the cerebral cortex then makes sense of it, justifying or rationalising the decision.

Intuition and Analysis: the dual process theory

(Evans 2008, Kahneman 2011, Lieberman 2007, Stanovich and West 2000). The dual process theory posits two contrasting but complementary modes of thinking (ways of thinking: System 1 – Intuition: slow to learn but fast in operation, effortless, automatic, spontaneous, using shortcuts or heuristics to form judgements, holistic, may be influenced by emotional responses to an event (gut feelings) System 2 – Analytic: quick to learn but slow in operation, controlled, effortful, consciously controlled, using logic and analysis of information to reach a rational decision, free from emotional response

The ‘two minds’ model (Sadler-Smith 2014:13)

Analytical Mind – Narrow band-width

Intuitive Mind – Broad band-width

  • Effortful processing
  • Step-by-step analysis
  • Conscious
  • ‘Talks’ in the language of words
  • Recent/System 2
  • Features in management education and training
  • Automatic processing
  • Whole pattern recognition
  • Unconscious
  • ‘Talks’ in the language of feelings
  • Ancient/System 1
  • Ignored in most management education and training

Banks (2014:10) argues that these two modes should not be seen as competing forces as “the automatic, unconscious process typically supports the slower, conscious decision-making process”. The intuitive method cuts through vast amounts of information to hone in on what is most important. This makes decision making via analysis more manageable.“Choosing between intuitive and analytic modes of thinking is not a dilemma; typically they are both used at the same time”(Banks 2014:11) The key to effective decision making is to become aware of system 1 and system 2 thinking and to use both effectively, for example, using analytical tools to reflect on and check decisions reached by intuition.

Informed intuition
According to Gladwell (2005) , intuition is a mental process whereby the brain rapidly thin slices through multiple cues or vast amounts of information to arrive at insights (the ‘ah ha’ or eureka moment). A military general in the field does not have the time to weigh up all the options, but makes a snap judgement. This snap judgement is still an informed decision in that the intuitive process takes into account pre-existing knowledge and experience combined with any new cues picked up from the immediate environment. Likewise the artist of any profession has had to have undertaken initial technical training, learning processes and acquiring knowledge in order to gain the confidence and informed risk taking required for innovative practice (Schon 1987) It is important to remember, that although expertise can provide the raw materials for innovation, it can also lead to tunnel vision or grooved thinking (Sadler-Smith 2014:8) . Therefore it is important to continually revisit and challenge the assumptions that underpin our decision making.

The importance of mood
A positive mood state facilitates creative and spontaneous processing (divergent thinking) whilst a negative mood state promotes a more careful approach (convergent,thinking) (Bolte et al 2003 cited in Sadler-Smith 2014).

Gender differences and types of intuition
As far as the stereotype of female intuition is concerned, there don’t seem to be substantive differences between men and women in their use of intuition in general; however, it might be the case that women have a better developed social intuition (Myers 2004 cited in Sadler-Smith 2014). A number of researchers have argued recently that there may be as many as four different types of intuition: – expert intuition is linked to decision-making and problem solving – social intuition is linked to reading other people’s motives and intentions – moral intuition is linked to the gut feelings which serve as an internal ‘moral compass’ – creative intuition is linked to ideation and connects insight and intuition.

The limits of neuroscience

Neuroscience has provided significant insights into how the highly specialized areas of the brain work. However, no-one yet really knows how the system works as a whole (Brown and Brown 2012).


Banks, A. (2014), Cognition, decision and expertise Part 2 of 3: Neuroscience and learning. CIPD Research insight

Blakemore, S.J (2012) The Mysterious workings of the adolescent brain. TED lecture.>

Brown, p. and Brown, V. (2012) Neuropsychology for Coaches. OU press.

Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink, the power of thinking without thinking. Penguin

Jarrett, C. (2014) Great Myths of the Brain. Wiley Blackwell.

Kotter, J.P and Cohen, D, S. ( ) The Heart of Change. Real Life Stories of How People Change their Organizations. Havard Business Review Press.

McGilchrist, I. (2010). The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

McGurk, J. (2014), Fresh thinking in learning and development, Part 1 of 3: Neuroscience and learning. CIPD Research insight

Sadler-Smith, E. (2014) Insight and Intuition. Part 3 of 3: Neuroscience and learning. CIPD Research insight

Simon, H. (1991) Bounded Rationality and Organizational Learning. Organization Science 2 91): 125-134.

The tools of NeuroscienceOur understanding of how the brain works has greatly increased over recent years due to advancements in brain imaging technology such as MRI scans (magnetic resonance imaging) which can track changes in brain structure and function. Videos can now be taken to monitor the brain activity when people are engaged in a […]