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How Neuroscience Can Help Corporations Maximize Motivation

Researchers are studying brain function to better understand why and in what circumstances workers feel satisfied with their jobs.

Plugged into Emotiv neuro-computing sensors
Plugged into Emotiv neuro-computing sensors
Paul Molga

MARSEILLE — The operator of a shipping company is concentrating hard on his computer screen when suddenly it talks back to him. "Would you like some help?" it asks. "You should take a break!"

Throughout the day, the man tracks freight quotes to move thousands of containers around the ocean. The work requires flawless concentration, but the cerebral monitoring sensors he has been equipped with have spotted a rise in stress and a drop in attention. He risks making mistakes that could be costly to his business, and the computer knows it.

The machine's advice comes from an artificial intelligence program designed by the American company Emotiv, a specialist in customized neuro-computing solutions. It analyzes brain signals recorded from next-generation, intra-ear sensors similar to headphones.

Neuroscience is going to revolutionize learning.

To obtain the encephalograms, researchers usually cover their subjects with flexible helmets equipped with dozens of electrodes. But, to shrink this equipment down for use (it has only two electrodes), the company had to cross-analyze tens of millions of tracks to locate two useful signatures that would measure in real-time the cognitive and emotional state of an individual.

That's not all. Equipped with a Bluetooth connection, the headsets transmit the data directly to a cloud where their employee profile enriches company behavioral knowledge of employees and their work.

"Our goal is to enable organizations to harness the power of large-scale contextualized neuro-informatics by leveraging information collected in real-world work environments from thousands of people," says Olivier Oullier, neuroscientist and president of Emotiv.

EMOTIVE headset testing during the presentation — Photo: @emotiv/Facebook

Ouillier's company has just joined forces with the SAP software publisher to develop an application for professional training.

"Neuroscience is going to revolutionize learning by providing personalized interfaces that take into account the user's emotional state to get the most out of their attention," says Alexander Lingg, SAP's user experience manager.

Thanks to advances in brain imaging, neuroscience has recently seen dramatic developments that reveal the mechanisms of learning, memory, motivation, commitment, attention, decision-making and leadership, all of which interest the business world.

"They highlight the parameters that the brain needs to flourish," explains Pierre-Marie Lledo, director of the neuroscience department at the Institut Pasteur (and a regular columnist at Les Echos).

Lledo's work on neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to reshape its connections according to the environment and experiences), mirror neurons (those of empathy and imitation learning), and the social brain (relationships with others) convinced him that science can help create "neuro-friendly managers' who can organize their own work and also help their team. In doing so they can help reduce stress and stimulate creativity.

"It's about adapting the world of work to brain function rather than the other way around," says the researcher.

The American neuroscientist David Rock gave birth to the concept of "neuroleadership" in 2006. In a related book, Neuroleadership: Le cerveau face à la décision et au changement (Neuroleadership: the Brain Facing Decision and Change), neurologist Philippe Damier and teacher James Teboul extend Rock's work and highlight some of the management errors discovered by advancements in neuroscience.

They argue, for example, that there is no point in drowning your team with a flood of key arguments if their working memory can only retain three. Also, creating excessive competition between employees puts the brain system on alert. It then controls the secretion of hormones such as cortisol to prepare our body to defend itself.

Only 6% say they are motivated by their job, compared to 20% who say they are totally disengaged.

"Neuroscience comes to companies after they have made intensive use of processes whose characteristic is to demotivate the human," says Pierre-Marie Lledo.

The researcher draws on lessons that he distilled from senior managers of top French companies, from Danone to L'Oréal, where a Gallup study of September 2018 showed that the engagement rate of French employees is among the lowest in the world: Only 6% say they are motivated by their job, compared to 20% who say they are totally disengaged.

"The brain is destroyed by routine and feeds on change," is one of the messages Lledo wants managers to hear. "Do not expect great creativity in automatic processes," is another one. "Give employee real breaks," he also urges. "These are precious moments of intellectual wandering and ebullition that bring out creative ideas."

Traditional performance models are being challenged with the arrival of new generations. "One of the biggest problems is how we are ranked based on test results during the recruitment phase," says Olivier Oullier. "Our cognitive, affective and neurophysiological states are constantly evolving. This is why our working conditions must be based on factual data and be dynamically adapted to our feelings."

Recognition is key, say researchers, especially as it has a physiological reality. That's because recognition activates the neurological reward circuits on which motivation, trust and social cohesion are based. There's nothing more stimulating than a "neuro-benevolent" work environment, one in which employees enjoy both autonomy and delegated responsibility.

As Emilie Letailleur, chair the "think and do tank" Circle Embelys, explains, it's all about stimulating positive emotions. "Successful leaders have a high level of emotional intelligence," she says.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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