The Red Herring Of Neuroleadership

THE LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT INDUSTRY often feeds fads to the corporate world, cashing in on lazy thinking. Addicted to the quick fix, managers tend to favour formula or template responses when faced with workplace dysfunction. This opens them up to novelties like transactional analysis, personality testing, generation profiling, and so on. Now, advances in neuroscience have spawned the ultimate fad, whereby the prefix “neuro” bestows on any discipline a pseudo-scientific aura that demands docile head nodding.

The application of the prefix to leadership was inevitable, but prospective buyers should note that in the related field of neuro-marketing, efforts to embellish the scientific credentials of market research have been disappointing. Investment by industry leaders like Nielson in the field has not sparked the anticipated revolution, and the Advertising Research Foundation in 2012 warned of a significant gap between the science and its application in marketing.

It is, of course, natural to see the brain as the centre of consciousness. Brain damage impacts mental processes, and the nervous system controlling bodily functions is obviously connected to the brain. Moreover, there is evidence to associate certain mental functions with specific areas of the brain, though it now seems certain that the simplest of tasks requires the brain to work as an integrated unit. Unfortunately, the peddlers of neurofads make claims way beyond what is warranted by the science.

The human brain has 200 billion neurons, each connected to around 1000 others, making it the most complex entity known. It is, moreover, an integral part of a body also marked by mind-boggling complexity. The illumination of an area of the brain on an fMRI scan does not mean that other parts are inactive, and neuroscientists have no definite understanding of the implications of what they see on the screen in experiments entailing very artificial conditions.

Neuroscience is an immense enterprise that has inspired some of the most ingenious scientific work ever done, and it has been going on for much longer than the general public supposes. It is also a far more complex field than most people think it is, covering disciplines like neuroanatomy, neurochemistry, neuroendocrinology, neurogenetics, neuropathology, neuropharmacology, and many more.

Neuroscience enables a growing understanding of the structure and functions of the brain, shedding light on sensation, perception, memory, imagination, and affection, and it offers hope of remedies for afflictions currently beyond our ability to treat. However, the most essential human realities lie beyond its scope.

Questions like “What is mind?” “What is consciousness?” and “What does it mean to have a body?” are not empirical, but conceptual. Only metaphysical reasoning can provide the conceptual grasp of data acquired through the experimental method, helping to ensure that interpretation is insightful and valid. It also brings clarity and precision in articulating questions about what is not yet known. PET and fMRI can scan brains, but not read minds.

Consciousness is a mystery science is no closer to solving than it was fifty years ago, and the re-emergence of the mind-brain controversy has exposed a perverse obstinacy among those who claim the mind can be reduced to a lump of wet grey matter. They cannot explain intentionality, i.e., mental states directed at or representing things beyond the subject, or qualia, our subjective experiences of colours, tastes, sounds, and so on. Moreover, they have no answer to the fact that while sensation and imagination might be explained in terms of material processes, the same is not true of activities of the intellect or mind, i.e. abstract thinking and the formation of universal concepts.

There are three reasons for this. First, sensations and images are concrete and particular, while concepts formed by the intellect are abstract and universal. When you imagine a triangle, you have an image of a particular triangle, equilateral, isosceles, or scalene, and so on. On the other hand, to think about triangularity, you must mentally grasp not an image, but a universal concept applicable to countless triangles.

Second, images of complex objects are vague and indistinct, while concepts of complex objects are precise. Descartes explained that while we cannot form a mental image of a chiliagon distinguishable from a mental image of 999-sided polygon, our mental grasp of the difference is perfectly clear. We can’t picture it, but we can comprehend it.

Third, the intellect understands abstract ideas that cannot be represented as mental images, for example, mind, consciousness, free will, love, democracy, justice, economics, law, and logical notions like cause and effect, premise, judgment, inference, validity, and many other realities that an fMRI scan will never throw much light on.

The brain, like other bodily organs, is not a substance like humans, apes, dolphins, and so on, but is only part of a substance. It is only intelligible in relation to the organism of which it is a part. Abstracting the brain and seeing it as a substance that perceives, chooses, and directs, is a category error. Going further and insisting that realities like meaning and purpose, mind and free will, do not exist because neuroscience reveals no evidence for them, compounds the error by begging the question.

The Mechanical Worldview of modern philosophy cannot explain consciousness. And conceptual thought entails an intentionality that in principle cannot be reduced to material processes, which the Mechanical Worldview itself insists are inherently indeterminate. The fact that the latter point of view is determinate, as conceptual thought generally is, underlines the folly of trying to account for the human mind in material terms.

The experiments of Benjamin Libet supposedly demonstrated that brain events occur before we become aware that we are making decisions. The facile conclusion was that the brain makes a decision, which the mind, poor soul, then erroneously takes to be its own. A farrago of flummery from academia and the media followed, but was soon rebuffed. The conclusion rests on the unwarranted assumption that increased blood flow in a part of the brain is identical with the decision of a person. Correlation is not identity, and reducing thought to neural activity is, as the logic of radical materialism itself shows, impossible.

In 1986, philosopher Patricia Churchland brashly predicted that the unresolved questions of philosophy would be answered by neuroscience. Many scientists and philosophers still embarrass more sober-minded peers with similarly outrageous claims that serve only political and funding agendas, all the while undermining the raison d’etre of both science and philosophy – understanding reality, knowing the truth.

Central to leadership is a deep understanding of the human condition. The latest fad promises easy answers and a quick fix based on “the latest science”, but deep understanding only comes through expanding one’s knowledge of people in different times and different places, and developing empathy and compassion.

The core responsibilities of leadership are vision, virtue, and vigilance, all dependent on conceptual thought, and reflected in the human needs of the people who follow. For a deep understanding of the human condition, I’d take Goethe’s “Faust”, Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”, or Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” ahead of the dubious conjectures made on the evidence of an fMRI scan anytime.


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas.

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