Keep Calm and Grow Your Brain

Forget the studies that say our brains stop growing. New research shows that getting older can’t keep a good mind down.

Inflatable furniture. Pogs. Platform boots worthy of the Spice Girls. These things were in fashion in the 1990s but became hopelessly outdated once the 21st century got rolling. Add this one to that list: the theory that the brain stops growing after a certain age.

Jennifer Jones, an entrepreneurial psychologist, said new research revealed that although most brain growth does take place during childhood, some parts of the brain continue to develop well into adulthood and beyond. It’s a fragile process, however, so chief learning officers need to make sure their employees are ripe for such neurogenesis.

As adults, we grow the branches of neurons that reach out and connect with one another — making our brains at their most effective — as well as birthing new brain cells.

“This is a big discovery because it means that not only can you become better at what you do, you can also have brand new possibilities in different areas of your life,” she said.

Most of this adult neurogenesis occurs in the hippocampus, the part of the mind Jones describes as “the Google search of your brain.” Among other functions, it’s where information is consolidated when we learn new things.

However, it’s also the most susceptible to stress — all kinds of stress.

“Neurologically, we don’t differentiate much between screaming at someone in the car because of bad traffic and major, life-threatening trauma,” Jones said. “This is (why it’s) important to choose what you want to be upset about, because the more that happens to you, the neurogenesis just won’t happen.”

Now factor in the average workplace, where deadlines, relationships and interactions can potentially create massive amounts of stress. Jones offered a few ways companies can prevent the stress that stagnates brain growth.

  1. Toss the tea and coffee — at least after the morning rush.The majority of people are dehydrated, something that caffeinated beverages can’t fix. Water, however, flushes stress hormones out of the body.
  2. Let employees take a stand by encouraging them to take walks or giving them standing workstations where they can be active while working. 
  3. Encourage people to do teamwork with colleagues they don’t know. Give them new roles. Make them sit in different places during a meeting. Anything that can force them out of their comfort zone gets the mind moving.
  4. Encourage employees to try new things. “Whatever we don’t use just dies,” Jones said. So if a computer engineer never does anything but programming, the parts of the brain prepped to spin discs like a 1990s DJ completely fades out.

“Employees will not do it unless you mandate it because they feel like you want them to sit all day at the desk,” Jones said. “Any time you can enhance employees’ lives you enhance your company.”