Enter the field of neuroscience. When we understand how the brain functions, we can implement simple strategies to help our brain to function optimally. We build up the one “muscle” we use in our profession, our brain, so that we can do our best thinking, learning, and creating.
That’s why we need to put neuroscience front and center as we design developmental programs and learning opportunities, as well as determine how to structure work, feedback, compensation, and organizational culture. We will get the results we want when we tend to the internal computer that makes it all possible — our brain.
Neuroscience: The Science of Change
At its core, neuroscience studies the structure and function of the brain. Neuroscientists look at a variety of disciplines, including biology, anatomy, physiology, psychology, and others to understand how the brain works.
The brain isn’t simply another organ in our body. Our brains control the thoughts we think, the feelings we feel, and the actions we take. Specifically, the field of behavioral neuroscience looks at the impact of the brain and nervous system on key performance indicators such as focus, understanding, motivation, learning, performance, problem- solving, and memory.
In our positions as lawyers and legal professionals, it’s foundational to apply neuroscience (even if we don’t call it that) as we lean into the many facets of our roles: development, effectiveness, diversity (including neurodiversity), performance, motivation, engagement, and so many more.
All we have to offer is what our brains create. We don’t get paid just to create tangible items. We don’t get paid to attempt great physical challenges. We think. We interact. We are “knowledge workers” and “mental athletes.” It only makes sense to understand and prioritize the organ that does our thinking— our brain.
Neuroscience: A Primer
Epigenetics suggests a new understanding of our genetic code. While remaining fairly stable throughout our lives, our genetic code can be influenced by a number of factors. For example, if we have inherited the genes for a certain illness (including depression or anxiety), those genes can be activated if we endure certain adverse conditions. But those same genes can also be deactivated, and we can experience a return to health. Long-term stress is one of the strongest activators of such genes. Cultivating positive emotions will help turn those same genes off again.
Neurogenesis refers to the brain’s ability to heal itself by creating new neurons from stem cells. Neuroplasticity is one of the bestknown areas within neuroscience. As its name suggests, our brain is malleable and “plastic-like.” It can be changed through the creation of new neural pathways. Our existing neural pathways were established largely through repetition (aka “neurons that fire together, wire together”). Some of our pathways serve us well, while others don’t.
When we try to learn, change, adapt, or develop new habits, neuroplasticity is at work. Learning literally requires us to change our brains by forging new neural pathways. When we learn, our brain is diverting from its well-worn path of neural connections based on how we have historically done things. Learning creates new neural pathways through new habits and ways of thinking. Over time, those new neural pathways become the well-worn path, and the new habits and ways of thinking become familiar and feel easier.
But it can take conscious effort to build new neural pathways. That is why change can feel so hard. Our brain prefers certainty, predictability, and consistency. It likes its familiar pathways. But change and learning require neuroplasticity, and we are all learning, growing, and developing all the time in our profession.
For example, repeatedly thinking that you don’t relate well to your colleagues can create a heightened sense of isolation. However, it is possible to create new neural pathways that serve you better. You can consciously change your thoughts of isolation and rejection to “I know how to be a good friend and colleague, and it’s worth it to me to put effort into creating meaningful connections at work. I’ve got this.” With practice and repetition, we can learn how to rewire our negative-thinking brains and create a more positive mindset instead.
The same neuroplasticity practice works for anything we need to learn or changes we need to make. If you have studied the concept of a “growth mindset,” you may see parallels here. All learning was once new learning. We may not have called it neuroplasticity, but that’s what it was. Instead of telling yourself, “I’ll never be able to do this,” tell yourself, “I’m learning how to do this, and I’ll be patient with myself as I grow.” This prevents you from giving up on yourself. Here are a few more strategies and tips for using neuroscience to enhance your performance and well-being.