The Brain of an Entrepreneur

The Brain of an Entrepreneur

As science unlocks more and more of your brain’s secrets, learn how
harnessing the power of your greatest asset can create a more
productive, more persuasive, more competitive business.

By Mark Henricks
  |   Entrepreneur MagazineJanuary 2006

sun rises as you leave work and head for an early breakfast. You smile
cheerfully at the server and decline coffee. While waiting for your
food, you glance through a business magazine and mentally file several
items for further thought later on. You and your sales and marketing
vice presidents have just pulled an all-nighter preparing a
presentation, and the client meeting is in two hours. It’s a new
prospect and a new market, and none of you had heard of either before
yesterday. But you feel relaxed, alert and confident that if the
business can be won, you and your team will win it.

Can this
story be true? After staying up for 24 hours, you should be sleepy,
jittery, irritable and anxious for more caffeine to add to the buckets
you’ve already gulped. You should have trouble reading, much less
memorizing pages of text. Your employees should feel the same. And you
should never count on any marketing effort to work, especially one with
less than a day’s worth of preparation behind it.

But this story can
be true. All you have to do is take note of recent strides in
understanding how our brains control sleep, learning, memory and other
functions, and–even more important–how we can improve these
faculties. Improved brain imaging has opened windows into how we learn,
remember, recover and rest. Coupled with new insights into the genetic
underpinnings of brain development as well as new products in
neuropharmacology–brain drugs–it is a revolution in brain management.

long, staying awake for extended periods while effortlessly learning
new material and remembering large chunks of information may seem
normal for entrepreneurs and their employees. We–as well as some of
our competitors, unfortunately–may have new ways of marketing to
prospects and customers that make our efforts more effective than
anyone had dreamed of before. Our brains may go from being our biggest
constraints to being our biggest competitive advantages.

The Origins of New Brain Science
By now, everybody’s heard of the antidepressant Prozac and other new
drugs and supplements that tinker with brain workings. Many of us have
had MRI scans of our body parts, if not of our brains. Some of us have
heard of neuromarketing, which aims to craft marketing efforts that
overcome obstacles and exploit loopholes built into our brains.

may have been missed, though, is the fact that Prozac’s latest
successors are the leading edge of a new wave of drugs and supplements
that do far more than lift blue moods. They actually improve memory,
ease learning and banish sleep. Neuroscientists use MRIs and related
scanning technologies to discern areas of activity in the brains of
people doing such things as recalling recent memories. That reveals how
specific brain structures are used in different tasks. And
neuromarketing, while doubtless containing some hype, may well be the
revolution its proponents promise.

Brains, in short, are hot. One
reason is that Congress declared the 1990s the "Decade of the Brain,"
and pumped tens of billions of dollars into brain research. That
generated advances now beginning to bear fruit. Annual federal
neuroscience funding still tops $4 billion. And private sources
including VCs are getting into the act, funding startups to
commercialize drugs and procedures for modifying our brains and the way
they work.

Joel Garreau, an editor and reporter at The Washington Post and author of Radical Evolution,
a new book about applying technological advances to human bodies and
brains, says the turning point came when we began directing our
curiosity inward, rather than outward. "Now, for the first time," says
Garreau, "our technologies are going through a wholesale process of
being aimed inward, modifying our minds, memories, metabolism,
personalities and what it means to be human."

may be something special about entrepreneurs’ brains. Many have a
condition called attention-deficit disorder, or ADD. "There’s a very
high incidence of ADD among CEOs in small companies," says Daniel G.
Amen, M.D., a brain researcher and director of Amen Clinics Inc., a
group of four brain-imaging centers in the U.S. "These are people who
take risks, need people to help them stay organized, don’t like working
for other people, have a lot of energy and are good at multitasking."

even the most finely tuned entrepreneurial brain runs up against human
limits. Take sleep. Most people who use caffeine to try to stay awake
for long periods find it makes them jittery and anxious, and interferes
with concentration. The same goes for prescription stimulants such as

But new anti-sleep drugs dispense with side effects
and actually allow you to focus better. Modafinil, for example, was
developed for patients with narcolepsy. When healthy people take it,
they can stay awake 80 hours or more without losing focus or
concentration. "If you can stay awake with your cognitive functions
thriving for a week, think of what that does," says Garreau. "Imagine
lawyers with photographic memories who never sleep."

memory may come from other drugs. Tim Tully is a scientist who studied
the gene that controls memory and learning in fruit flies. Helicon
Therapeutics, a Farmingdale, New York, company he founded in 1997, has
developed a drug, now in trials, that may help humans learn faster and
remember better. When given to mice with age-related memory problems
similar to those that older humans experience, the drug, HT-0712, works
well. "Old mice, roughly 50 years in human equivalents, have the memory
capacity of young mice, roughly 25 years in human equivalents," says
Tully. "And the potential is there to enhance memory for all of us."

The Employee Brain
Entrepreneurs can also improve employees’ memory, alertness and
concentration by making work a brain-enriching place to be. Amen
recommends offering employees opportunities to educate themselves,
including cross training for other functions in the company as well as
learning that goes beyond work. "A learning brain," he says, "is a
happy brain."

brain listening to music is also a happy brain, and one that enhances
learning. University of California, Irvine, researchers found that
people who listened to Mozart before taking a pattern-recognition test
improved their scores 62 percent after two days of practice. Those who
spent the time in silence improved just 14 percent.

While piping
in Mozart may not be all that practical at the office, removing
brain-damaging elements is imperative. Be alert, especially for toxic
chemicals. "I can’t tell you how many indoor painters and cabinet
refinishers we have looked at, and their brains look terrible," Amen
says. "Make sure there is good ventilation if [people are] going to
work around toxic materials."

Pay attention to workplace food and
drink, too. "We kill people’s brains by bringing in doughnuts," says
Amen. "I have a policy in my office that people are not to have candy
dishes on their desks. People eat it, get blood sugar spikes and
crashes, and then they’re stupid." He also recommends against workplace
coffeepots, because caffeine interrupts brain blood flow and impairs

Stress from overwork also affects sleep, and experts say
fewer than six to eight hours of sleep daily over the long haul is bad
for brains. "Chronic stress kills the memory area of the brain," Amen

Encourage physical exercise, which increases brain blood
flow and reduces stress. You might even sponsor meditation classes,
suggests Martha Farah, director of the Center for Cognitive
Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Says
Farah, "Meditation and mindfulness programs have been shown to enhance
brain function."

brain research has spurred as much business interest as the studies of
marketing and brains. The hope is that we’ll learn to market in ways
far more effective than anything anyone has come up with yet. Early
results are promising.

A couple of studies did MRIs on people
exposed to celebrity faces and brand images. One found Coca-Cola’s logo
triggered impulses in the midbrain, an area that sits between the
primitive hindbrain and the more developed forebrain. A Pepsi logo
didn’t have the same effect. The study suggests a brand’s image can
drive behavior in a way that neither instinct nor conscious thought

These and other findings are being translated into
practice by Patrick Renvoise, co-founder and president of SalesBrain
LLC in San Francisco. Renvoise, co-author with his business partner,
Christophe Morin, of Neuromarketing: Is There a "Buy Button" Inside the Brain?,
says we should rethink marketing to reflect current brain
understanding. To start with, marketing should be more visual and less

Areas of the brain controlling vision are much older than
those for language, Renvoise says. That has implications for anyone
attempting to influence decision makers. "A lot of entrepreneurs talk
about their benefit or solution and don’t use a strong visual
metaphor," says Renvoise. "And it’s very hard to convince people using
words when their organ of decision is primarily visual."

addition to strong visuals, marketers should present their solution in
sharp contrast to other options. To Renvoise, brain research says too
many entrepreneurs rely on "me, too" marketing slogans such as "We are
a leading provider…" when they should be finding ways to say "We are
the only provider…" It’s a critical distinction. "Without contrast,"
he says, "the brain cannot make a decision."

It’s also important
to tell the truth, because customers’ brains are better at detecting
untruths than even they know. Renvoise’s book reports on one
neuroscientist who had people play games with decks of cards rigged to
produce unfair results. Players were occasionally asked whether the
games seemed fair. After a number of rounds, players started reporting
the decks were stacked. But skin-conductance tests revealed that they
became nervous when reaching for rigged decks well before the knowledge
reached their conscious minds.

Another study Renvoise quotes
asked people to accept money for placing a large billboard in their
front yards. The success rate was more than seven times higher if the
homeowners had first agreed to display a much smaller postcard in a
window. The moral: Don’t underestimate the power of starting small.

Brain Boundaries
Brain understanding appears to open up limitless possibility.
Brain-based business, however, has costs, limits and risks like
everything else. For instance, Amen says pre-employment screening using
brain scans will likely become common practice in several years. But at
the current price of $1,000 per MRI scan, these tools will be used only
by wealthy companies filling high-value positions. Brain drugs aren’t
free, either. Modafinil costs about $3 a dose, and newer drugs are
likely to cost more.

neuromarketing may not match promoters’ claims. "There’s only one area
of real importance," says John Philip Jones, a professor of advertising
at Syracuse University in New York. "It destroys the supposed
differentiation between rational and emotional advertising." To Jones,
brain studies suggest that most ads need emotional appeal to get people
to pay attention long enough to get in the rational selling
proposition. "That’s the key thing, and there’s nothing more to it than
that," he says.

There are also side effects. Modafinil apparently
has few-except that it allows people to do without sleep. And doing
without sleep, while a major short-term productivity booster when
you’re facing a crunch, is ultimately bad for the brain when engaged in
long-term. "Sleep deprivation is a real trap for the ambitious," warns
Farah. "You might think the extra hours on the job are helping, but in
many ways, you’d work smarter if you were rested."

While it may
be possible to change your brain, it’s not inevitable, says David
Weiner, an entrepreneur and science writer who authored Reality Check: What Your Mind Knows But Isn’t Telling You.
Weiner says practices such as thinking positive thoughts will actually
change brain structures, but not without a lot of repetition. He says,
"Your brain is stubborn and doesn’t change easily."

Brain Futures
The idea of fielding a work force equipped with enhanced memory, never
needing to sleep and able to learn any subject quickly and easily, may
sound like utopia, but brain boosting probably won’t create
super-employees or super-entrepreneurs. Nor will just anybody be an

Thomas Harrison is a cellular biologist as well as CEO of Diversified Agency Services and author of Instinct: Tapping Your Entrepreneurial DNA to Achieve Your Business Goals,
in which he shows how highly successful people use genetic advantages
to overcome their own weaknesses and exploit competitors’.

bottom, Harrison says, we are who we are. While we can change much
about ourselves, we can’t change everything. He says, "You have to be
genetically inclined to do what you want to do."


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