Resilience, Neuroplasticity and Sustainability

A record combination of multisyllabic words, but a very interesting conversation I had with my friend Marsha Shenk yesterday on my BlogTalkRadio Show.  Marsha refers to herself as a “Business Anthropologist”.  That’s just a taste of Marsha’s style –  provocative questions are the core of her consulting practice, and the way she lives her life.  As an anthropologist, Marsha looks for the “timeless” practices that have underlain human commerce since the development of language itself.  She has distilled these into a methodology she calls the Master Moves(R). These timeless practices are a series of inquiries into human concerns and desires, and the promises and actions required to satisfy them.  The questions stay the same over time, but the answers are the source of all our innovation.  So, the process is both timeless, and completely up to date.

Marsha challenged me on the use of the term “sustainability”.  She said that five years ago, sustainability was a good word, because it provoked reflection.  Now it doesn’t anymore, it’s become old hat, and when you use the word people think they get it.  This is a loss, since provocative questions and inquiry are at the source of innovation and new thinking.   The term Marsha likes, and a term that has come up for me in several conversations – including the one with Michael Brownlee about community, cited earlier, and a conversation I’m having with Don Beck of Spiral Dynamics fame – is RESILIENCE.

Resilience is a term that is used to describe any system – whether a body, a mind, a family, a community, a company, an economy – that is able to adapt, thrive, rebalance, and innovate in the face of changing circumstances.  Sounds like something we need more of these days, what?  Resilient leadership that sees the big picture, builds healthy collaboration and connection, and finds sources of renewal and inspiration.

Marsha made the comment that a Resilient Leader never makes a statement when a question will do.  Think about that….

Which leads us to the $5 word of the day, NEUROPLASTICITY.  Neuroplasticity has been the subject of several international conferences in the last year or so.  Brain science tells us that the typical “adult” mind functions by re-running tapes from the past in order to determine how to deal with challenges of the present.  This is useful if the environment is relatively stable.  As you may have noticed, ours is most definitely not stable.

On top of that, we have all been trained in school and at work to “have the answers”.  But, being in a conscious state of “not knowing” and inquiry is a key to having a youthful mind that can imagine new possibilities. And this is the way for business people to add value at a time when the rules of the game are continuously changing.

What gets in the way of neuroplasticity? Stress, naturally.  Multitasking, which degrades our ability to focus. And the big kicker for business leaders – concern for status. If you’re a high status individual, you might be worried about losing it, not seeming to be on top of things.  And likewise, if you’re a low status individual, you keep telling yourself a story that your ideas and actions don’t matter.  Either way, you’re not really confident and open.

How to promote a state of neuroplasticity? Marsha suggested practices like exercise, mindful breathing, meditation, creative play – as well as a practice of never making a statement, never having an answer when a question will do.  That resonates with my experience – being comfortable holding a question is a skill we can develop, that keeps us open, in literally in a state of wonder.

You can download the full hour-long interview at


One Response to Resilience, Neuroplasticity and Sustainability

  1. Thanks for this. Fascinating how the world of words and ideas constantly adapts to prevailing trends — a much faster evolution than anatomical evolution!!

    When we do something that requires focus, the nucleus basalis, the deeply-nestled region of the brain that governs attention, secretes acetylcholine – this is the trigger for the hippocampus to “fix” the memories being formed. (In cases of even mild cognitive impairment, the nucleus basalis doesn’t secrete any acetylcholine.)

    When we do something that also challenges and rewards us, the brain releases dopamine, too. Acetylcholine and dopamine together stimulate new neural growth and brain plasticity.

    So, if we focus our attention on a task that tests and challenges us in a positive way, and makes us feel good when we master it, we’re stimulating highly effective and powerful plasticity. That’s why multi-tasking, stress, and ‘auto-pilot’ activities are terrible for personal improvement and brain exercise.

    With well-designed brain training software we can enjoy enormous benefits — increased focus, memory, well-being, and even higher intelligence.

    My company uses a training protocol designed by Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl for their study on Improving Fluid Intelligence by Training Working Memory (PNAS April 2008). I was so impressed by their work that I contacted them and turned the protocol into a commercial software program.

    Mind Sparke Brain Fitness Pro

    Martin Walker

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