A Social Brain Is a Smarter Brain

Harvard Business Review

It is well established that brain games and puzzles act as calisthenics for our brains, expanding their capacity and improving their overall health. More surprising are the findings of a study led by researchers at the University of Michigan. It shows that just as effective in building cognitive strength are social interactions.

The design of the study was simple – the researchers took one group of participants, randomly paired people up, and instructed them to get to know each other by asking probing questions. After ten minutes of such interaction, the participants were given a battery of cognitive tests. In parallel, participants in a second group were given challenging brain-game activities to perform, also for ten minutes, and followed by the same cognitive tests. A third group served as the control and took the tests with no prelude. The result? The social interaction group outperformed the control group on the cognitive tests, and did not differ from the brain games group. For the researchers, this suggests that the active perspective-taking one does in conversation involves mental gymnastics as demanding as any brain-teaser.

I find it fascinating that a good way to keep your brain “oiled” is simply to spend time talking with people. I’m also happy to note that this makes the case for open innovation even stronger.

Open innovation projects (where organizations facing tricky problems invite outsiders to take a crack at solving them) always present cognitive challenges, of course. But they also force new, boundary-spanning human interactions and fresh perspective-taking. They require people to reach out to other people, and thus foster social interaction.

Two other recent studies underscore how deeply social an activity open innovation is.  The first, from Newcastle Business School in the UK, looks directly at knowledge exchange between higher education institutions and industry (a typical exchange in open innovation challenges) and concludes that its success depends upon the social processes that facilitate the collaboration. The second, from the University of Lapland in Finland, explores what executives who sponsor open innovation challenges value most about them, and finds that the broader benefits of the multidisciplinary social interaction outweigh the concrete results of getting specific solutions.

In my experience, the “solvers” of challenges also recognize the value of open innovation as social exercise. Take one of the teams that recently responded to the GE/NFL Head Health Open Innovation Challenge, which NineSigma managed. GE and the NFL were looking for fresh approaches to diagnosing concussions, and someone at The University of Akron saw a connection to “neuromarketing” work being done by the school’s Suarez Applied Marketing Research Laboratories. But they recognized they would also need to address other angles, so they assembled a team drawing on the University’s Department of Sport Science and Wellness Education, its Statistics Department, Akron Children’s Hospital, and NE Ohio Medical University. These groups had never before worked together on a common solution, or even imagined that their research could be combined into a larger solution.

As it happens, the solution they proposed didn’t win the challenge. But the University of Michigan research suggests the team members themselves got smarter in the process. Maybe that’s why they are eager to maintain the connection, and have collaborated in other ways since.  And I would go a step further and posit that GE and the NFL built their brainpower, too – not just because they got a smart solution to their challenge but because they expanded their networks. Every time we run a technology search for an organization, proposals pour in from world-class solution providers – usually more than a dozen, and often many times that amount. When our clients reach out to these submitters, they make new connections that sharpen their thinking – even more so if the interaction persists after the immediate search is concluded.

On this point, I can’t help recalling yet another interesting study, published in Nature Neuroscience in 2011. It demonstrated a positive correlation between the size of the amygdala – a part of the human brain that performs a primary role in the processing of memory and emotional reactions – and the size and complexity of a person’s social network. In other words: Bigger brain, greater social interactions. It’s a correlation, and the first assumption people make is that the larger amygdala supports greater emotional intelligence and better memory, allowing the individual’s social network to expand. But perhaps the causality also goes the other way, and interacting widely with others – as companies do when they use open innovation – grows the capacity of brains.

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