This is an extract from an article with the same title in the Harvard Business Review authored by Adam Waytz and Malia Mason.

brain at workNeuroscience which is the science of how the brain works has been around for a long time but it has taught us surprisingly little about how the mind works. The few things it has taught though have been articulated very well.  This article is about those few things. These are the default, reward, affect, and control core neural networks.  The role of these networks  and their implications for people managers are now starting to be understood.

The Default Network – innovation and Creativity

One of the most exciting discoveries in neuroscience in the past decade is that the brain is never truly at rest. During wakeful periods when your brain is not focused on any particular thought (when your mind is wandering or you’re just plain “zoning out”), a distinct network of brain regions still fires up. This is called the “default” network or the “task negative” network because it fires when people aren’t concentrating on a task. The mere discovery of this network has been groundbreaking because it means the brain spends considerable time processing existing knowledge, not just new information from the five senses.

The default network is also responsible for one of our most prized abilities: transcendence. The capacity to envision what it’s like to be in a different place, a different time, a different person’s head, or a different world altogether is unique to humans and most potent when the default network is highly engaged. During transcendence, people’s brains “detach” themselves from the external environment, meaning they stop processing external stimuli.

This discovery implies that having unfocused free time is an important (and underutilized) factor in breakthrough innovations. That notion obviously calls to mind the “20% time” policy at Google, under which the company’s engineers get a day a week to work on whatever they want. Other companies have followed suit: Maddock Douglas, a marketing firm, gives employees 100 to 200 hours a year to work on anything that interests them.

The ways people can detach themselves from the environment include disconnecting from email and the phone, going on a trip away from the office and colleagues or perhaps meditation.

You may have experienced the power of the default network in a “Eureka!” moment after you walked away from a problem.

The Reward Network – Incentives

Neuroscience now shows that the reward network activates in response to things that evoke enjoyment and deactivates in response to things that reduce enjoyment.

Using electrodes and other invasive techniques, scientists identified what appeared to be neural reward networks in animals decades ago. Their reward systems activated when they were given food, drink, or other items with clear survival value. But it wasn’t until the late 20th and early 21st centuries that neuroscientists demonstrated that in humans this network is sensitive to secondary rewards not necessary for physical survival. Most notably, to money. The network also responds to immaterial rewards that can as pleasurable as money to people. That idea is consistent with what is now known to be true: that non-financial incentives can be as effective – and sometime more effective – as financial ones in motivating employees.

The non-monetary rewards that are likely to motivate like status and social approval are well-understood. But some are not that well-known. One example is fairness. Researchers have shown that when people are allowed to divide up small amounts of money between themselves and others, the reward network responds better. Even people who are part of the privileged few are demotivated by inequitable systems.

This finding suggests that companies that maintain a reasonable level of internal pay equity would do well to publicize that information among employees. Conversely, widespread knowledge of skyrocketing executive pay is sure to turn off the reward network. But it’s not just fair pay that matters. When people feel left out of strategy sessions despite being qualified to participate, for example, they become demotivated. The withholding of information also creates an inequitable environment between those in the know and those not in the know — which is why transparency is so important.

The Affect Network – Instinct

As the brain encounters events, choices, and people, it tags them with emotional significance. When people later have similar experiences, the brain accesses the tags as a shortcut to producing the appropriate feelings — doubt, anxiety, happiness, excitement. Say you tried habanero peppers once, and their heat was painful and ruined your night. Later the sight, smell, or even mention of habanero peppers (or the restaurant where you ate them) will cause the affect network to produce unpleasant feelings that make you avoid them. The important point is that you don’t have to do any rational analysis to decide whether to eat habaneros the next time they’re presented to you.

Physical changes attend these feelings, including increased heart rate, beads of sweat, the production of cortisol and other hormones, flushing of the skin, and gooseflesh. Often these changes occur preconsciously, before we detect them ourselves.

Leaders tend to push away feelings in making decisions because they think it’s best to be dispassionate. But a mounting body of neurological evidence suggests that emotional impulses should not be ignored. The affect network fast-tracks decision-making and helps us process information that may include too many variables.

neuroscientists became aware of this by examining the behavior of people with damage to their affect networks. Deprived of the biasing function of feelings, they’re forced to decide on all matters, no matter how mundane, by employing a long and involved cost-benefit analysis.

So hunches are extremely useful in helping us bypass complex and laborious analysis. Should we always trust them? Absolutely not. A strategy that promotes blindly following one’s gut discounts the value of reason. And it overlooks important limitations of the affect network. For one, the feelings produced by it are inexact and somewhat blunt. They can be wrongly overpowering, especially negative feelings like fear and anger. It’s easy for people to misidentify the cause of a hunch and to misunderstand its significance. Context is complicated. The brain may ascribe a feeling to a situation that is similar to a previous event but in fact not the same. The embarrassment felt after a poor presentation may lead us to dread the next one, even though we have practiced and are better prepared. A moment’s reflection on how much practice we’ve put in can help us overcome that feeling.

Nonetheless, the neuroscience of emotion shows us that although hunches are fallible, it’s worth exploring them more than we do. Particularly in situations involving risk, negative gut feelings can prevent leaders from making overconfident or overly optimistic decisions. In a world of markets and numbers and data, leaders have so much information that instinct seems immaterial and abstract and therefore hard to use. But hunches are indispensable.

The Control Network: Create Achievable Goals

Although we can execute many everyday activities on autopilot, we also have a remarkable capacity to override our habits and impulses. We can decide to sit in a different spot at the 1,001st staff meeting even after sitting in the same place for 1,000 meetings prior. If we believe it will help us get a promotion, we can choose to work in a remote and dreary corner of the world away from loved ones.

The control network is responsible for this flexibility. It aligns our brain activity and our behavior with our goals. Much as a CEO might reallocate a firm’s resources from a failing market to a growth market, the control network shifts blood flow away from brain regions emitting competing or inappropriate signals and toward regions that help us achieve our objectives. CEOs may review and reshuffle resources each budget cycle; the control network does this constantly as our circumstances change and our needs and aspirations evolve.

We’ve purposely arranged this article with the default network first and the control network last. Research has shown that they’re essentially countervailing forces: The more engaged the control network is in distributing resources to achieve goals rooted in the real world, the less engaged the default network is in detaching from the real world and imagining alternative realities, and vice versa.

In a sense the control network is tasked with policing all the brain’s other networks. By suppressing the default network, the control network ensures that our minds can anchor themselves in the present moment and won’t wander all the time. By restraining the reward network, it helps us resist the lure of costly indulgences and check the impulse to act on immediate needs ($5 today) at the expense of more-important, long-term objectives ($10 a week from now). By regulating the affect network, it reins in our emotional reactions and ensures that our actions are not dictated solely by fleeting feelings or hunches.

The control network also helps us deal with our many competing goals. In a world of pinging e-mail, buzzing phones, and people bidding for our time, we need the ability to prioritize the most important tasks and shut out all the other distractions.

Recent discoveries about the control network reinforce what the best leaders say about outexecuting the competition through focus: Companies should limit the number of strategic initiatives they undertake to a manageable few. Asking people to pursue numerous goals fragments their attention and makes engaging in any mindful work difficult. With too many objectives to maintain and monitor, the control network spreads its limited resources thin, and we struggle to give enough attention to any of our responsibilities.

E-mails, meetings, texts, tweets, phone calls, news — the unstructured, continuous, fractured nature of modern work is a tremendous burden on the control network and consumes a huge amount of the brain’s energy. The resulting mental fatigue takes its toll in the form of mistakes, shallow thinking, and impaired self-regulation. When overwhelmed, the control network loses control, and our behavior is driven by immediate, situational cues instead of shaped with our priorities in mind.