October 5, 2022

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“Popcorn brain” and Leadership

“Popcorn brain” and Leadership

With near constant access to information and media, I’m often struck by the way that content from many different sources surfaces. How two very different pieces of information meet and spur a thought process is interesting, and sometimes surprising.

Take, for instance, a CNN piece on “popcorn brain” and an NPR program discussing leadership. At first blush, they seem unrelated. But if you take the time to read the full speech by William Deresiewicz that was delivered to the plebe class at West Point last year, the connection is obvious. Deresiwicz’s point is that real leadership requires knowing oneself, and having the courage to follow through with ideas and thoughts and actions that might not be popular. And that sort of resolve cannot be acquired without introspection, and introspection requires being alone with our thoughts.

The CNN piece goes over ground that I’m sure we’ve all heard before: that all of our electronic devices deliver a jolt of instant gratification, a newness that satisfies some pleasure centers in our brains. Both pieces mention something I’ve long railed about: humans are not really capable of multitasking.

From Deresiwicz’s speech:

That’s the first half of the lecture: the idea that true leadership means being able to think for yourself and act on your convictions. But how do you learn to do that? How do you learn to think? Let’s start with how you don’t learn to think. A study by a team of researchers at Stanford came out a couple of months ago. The investigators wanted to figure out how today’s college students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. How do they manage to do it, the researchers asked? The answer, they discovered—and this is by no means what they expected—is that they don’t. The enhanced cognitive abilities the investigators expected to find, the mental faculties that enable people to multitask effectively, were simply not there. In other words, people do not multitask effectively. And here’s the really surprising finding: the more people multitask, the worse they are, not just at other mental abilities, but at multitasking itself.

And from the CNN piece:

Clifford Nass, a social psychologist at Stanford, says studies show multitasking on the Internet can make you forget how to read human emotions. When he showed online multitaskers pictures of faces, they had a hard time identifying the emotions they were showing.

When he read stories to the multitaskers, they had difficulty identifying the emotions of the people in the stories, and saying what they would do to make the person feel better.

“Human interaction is a learned skill, and they don’t get to practice it enough,” he says.

So multitasking impairs your ability to think, and furthermore, you have trouble reading human emotions–both of which are pretty important skills to have in leadership.

This isn’t a post demonizing social media, or gadgets. It’s about carving out time to think and mull things over. It’s about being present at a talk, not half-listening as you try and type on your smartphone. It’s about understanding that those who choose not to be on social networks, or those who choose to limit their time on such, are not Luddites that need re-education. In fact, they might just be the best thinkers in the room.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the Director of Marketing Communications for CARMA. She is also the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for more than 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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