MIT Brain Scans Show That Entrepreneurs Really Do Think Different

A brain scan study at MIT suggests that entrepreneurs are more likely to use both sides of their brains when making decisions.

Your widgets are selling slow and steady. But the kids are demanding widgets with Wi-Fi. Should you bet the farm on a new product line or concentrate on incremental improvements in widget production?

Our brains have two basic problem-solving strategies. Exploitation means taking advantage of what you already know, concentrating deeply on a current task to optimize performance and efficiency. Exploration means taking a step back from the task at hand to allow your mind to roam flexibly among alternatives. Leadership in the age of flux calls for "ambidextrous" minds that can switch back and forth between the two strategies when called for. A new study from MIT suggests that one component of this ambidextrousness involves tapping your creative and logical sides at the same time.

Researchers from the neuroscience department and business school collaborated to scan the brains of 63 subjects, divided between self-described entrepreneurs and managers, when engaged in a game. The game involved virtual slot machines; to maximize returns you had to decide when to keep playing the same machine (an exploitative choice) or try a new one (an explorative choice).

The entrepreneurs in the study, perhaps surprisingly, weren't any more likely to engage in exploration. But when they did, they were more likely to activate both the right and left sides of their frontal cortex. Managers mainly stuck to the left side, which is associated with logic and structured thinking. The right side, on the other hand, is associated with creativity and emotion.

Successful decision-making isn't necessarily about doing more exploration than exploitation. It's in the timing—knowing when to shift between the two forms of thinking. A question for further research is whether entrepreneurs' brains function this way because of the kind of decisions they're used to making, or whether people with these more coherent brains are more likely to end up as entrepreneurs. "It’s a nature versus nurture question," said Professor Maurizio Zollo, the lead author of the study.

[Photo: Flickr user laimagendelmundo]