Who do you think you are?
More specifically, when are you most who you are?
According to National Geographic Channel’s Emmy-nominated Brain Games, your thoughts and behavior are dictated by your environment, culture, and neural pathways—things that, when tweaked, can enhance your mood, productivity, and creativity.
So it was only a matter of time before Jason Silva, 32, the show’s peripatetic philosopher host, began adapting his brain insights to business. Between Brain Games tapings, expanding its ideas on his YouTube channel, Shots of Awe, and TED talks, Silva instructs executives at Google, Microsoft, IBM, Adobe, and Lockheed Martin, among others, on how to use these tools to improve employee culture.
“Dissolving boundaries, using technology to extend mental capacity, finding cognitive ecstasy,” are the kinds of things Silva was exploring, and “as a creative person and artist,” he says, “I never thought I’d have something to say to business people. But flying around the world, talking to companies, has shown me I’m on to something.”
Brain Games uses hidden camera social experiments to reveal surprising, sometimes uncomfortable, truths about subjectivity and how perceptions are subconsciously influenced. Now in its fourth season (note rerun and streaming guides), the show finds Silva delving more into the real-world issues, like productivity and creativity, moral relativism, and conformity.
A life-long knowledge seeker, Silva moved from Venezuela at 18 to study philosophy and film at the University of Miami, joined Al Gore’s now-defunct Current TV after his 2005 graduation, and began posting his brain musings on YouTube in 2012. Those landed him the Brain Games gig, which lead to corporate speaking.
Following are some of the concepts Silva has cultivated through Brain Games and Shots of Awe that can translate to the workplace.
“Everything we design, designs us back,” says Silva. “There’s a concept called ontological design, which considers how context and environment shape our ideas. We did an episode, In Living Color, that looked at how certain colors made people more creative. You’ve also seen companies like Google design playful spaces with toys and hammocks for employees and programmers to brainstorm new ideas and approaches. But because companies have different objectives, they need to decide their intentions and build spaces that occasion those intentions. Design can be used to script subjective experiences.”
“In the episode Common Sense, we talk about how the brain uses something like 20% of our body’s energy, so it tries to be very efficient—often at the price of accuracy and ability. The quicker our brain fills the [expected] pattern, the less is taken in and observed. Taking employees out of their routine or comfort zone disrupts established thought patterns and presents novel situations where new revelations can take place. It fires up dopamine levels that connect the dots in new ways.”
“An extreme type of disruption is awe. A Stanford University study found that awe expanded people’s perceptions to the degree that they needed to reconfigure their mental maps of the world to assimilate the experience. After the experience, they had feelings of increased well-being, compassion, and creativity.”
“One of our episodes on sleep shows how the behavior of high-functioning individuals deteriorates when they’re kept up for 24 to 48 hours. So many companies have this dismissive attitude, ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead.’ If you don’t sleep, you’ll die faster. It’s silly bravado. If companies could place as much emphasis on getting enough sleep as they did on productivity, productivity would rise automatically.”
“For an episode on morality, we set up hidden cameras in a coffee shop where a barista serving coffee was rude to some customers and nice to others, deliberately returning too much change. The pissed off customers would not return the extra change. These might be perfectly honest, moral people in other situations, but their behavior changed when they felt mistreated. If you apply this to the workplace, how you treat your employees will impact how much love they put back into their jobs. The same thing with customers, who are more likely to do business with you. Your interpersonal relationships will shape the outcome of those exchanges. Companies that treat employees and customers with respect, as human beings, that don’t intimidate or set up a culture of fear.”
“The extent to which money influences the brain depends on the degree to which people will go for a bargain. For example, people tend to add value to more expensive items. In the episode Expensive Taste, we have people try pieces of what we told them were from $5 and $50 cakes. Though it was actually the same cake, they liked the expensive one far more. In that case, they weren’t tasting with their tastebuds, but their brains.
“You improve your relationship with money by treating it in a different way. It’s about whether the employees are getting paid what they’re worth for the job they’re doing. If someone is more connected to their work, has purpose, or the job has more incentives or a more accommodating culture, then the money almost becomes a bonus vs. people being paid well for something they hate to do. Then they feel like they’re sacrificing for what could be a lot more money.”
“As with money, the perception of time can drive people to be more efficient and productive at work. When you can lose yourself in work, you go into a flow state, a period of heightened performance normally attributed to athletes and performers. That’s when your inner critic goes away and self-imposed limitations go silent, and your inner talent can emerge.”
Awe and positive disruption can have a desired effect in this arena, too. Remember the Stanford research mentioned earlier? Here, one of the researchers explains how these feelings can actually expand people’s perception of time.
“We live in a world where we outsource our memory to devices—in essence, distributing cognition. We shouldn’t be concerned about this. Socrates thought that if we wrote things down, it would prevent us from remembering. But whatever tool you use, biological or non-biological resources, can become part of our system.”
And finally, how easily can nonsensical policies take effect? Just watch this.
“Companies need to get over myopic perspectives, tribal behavior and mirror reflections, and encourage independent or out-of-the-box thinking,” says Silva. “Because those are the ones who might contribute something different, that no one’s thought of yet.”