Neuroscience and Leadership: Can You Regulate Yourself and Your Responses?


Dr. Kevin Ochsner is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University. Kevin’s research interests include the psychological and neural processes involved in emotion, self-control, and person perception. All of his work employs a social cognitive neuroscience approach that seeks to integrate the theories and methods of social psychology on the one hand, and cognitive neuroscience on the other.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: We think that a lot of this is just other people pushing us or sharing with us ideas that they have, but I think it’s when we actually spark ourselves in connection with what someone else is doing that, I guess what you are calling social cognitive neuroscience, actually begins to help us make decisions. Is that fairly accurate?

Dr. Kevin Ochsner: Sure. Social cognitive neuroscience is a discipline that tries to understand how we do that. What it is about the social relationships that we have with other people and even with ourselves, that enables us to function in an adaptive and productive way in our daily lives.

The interest in how the brain gives rise to our emotions and enables us to have various kinds of social interactions is not new, it has been around since the time I think people first realized that the brain is what gives rise to our behavior. What is really new is our ability to study it in healthy, adult individuals or even children. Prior to the last few years, the only way we could study the brain basis of  social and emotional behavior was through the unhappy accidents of nature. Someone crashed their bike or a car, or has an unfortunate accident on the football field and they end up damaging some part of their brain; critical parts of their brain that influence their social relationships, their ability to understand themselves and have normal emotional reactions. Interestingly enough, the parts of the brain that are involved in emotional and social behavior, often aren’t clearly or specifically damaged by those kinds of injuries.

Now that we have a tool like Functional Brain Imaging, we can peak inside the brain of an individual that is totally neurologically normal and healthy and see what parts of their brains are active, while they are having various thoughts and feelings. It’s called Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging or FMRI for short. That really jump started the emergence of social cognitive neuroscience as a field that you can think of as a child of two parent disciplines: one being classic social psychology which has been concerned for over 40 years with people’s attitudes, how they perceive each other — pretty much any aspect of individual our group behavior on the one hand. The other parent is what is called cognitive neuroscience which was the study of the brain basis of anything you would think of as cognitive; thinking, reasoning, memory, problem solving, but importantly, leaving emotion out of the mix.

Now we have the foundation that has been laid by two parent disciplines, we have a new technology of functional imaging that has come into the mix and we have the right climate for a new discipline like social cognitive neuroscience to emerge. It’s really been in existence for only about the last 8-10 years maximum.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Can you also tell us now that you have that as a foundation, how this new functional MRI works so that we understand how that takes your research on the subject of social cognitive neuroscience even further?

Dr. Kevin Ochsner: Think of it as involving a big radio antenna and a big magnet. Basically what you are doing is you are asking someone to lay down inside a large box that looks like a gigantic plastic doughnut. They are slid on a little table into the center of that doughnut and it has a very, very strong magnetic field, so strong a magnetic field that it is probably as powerful as any one of those electromagnets that can pick up a car. Because we are not ferromagnetic, it doesn’t really affect us in any adverse way to go inside the field.

What it does do, interestingly enough, it changes the orientation of certain molecules in your blood stream that are carrying oxygen; the red blood cells. You change their orientation in this magnetic field. When someone is having a thought or a feeling or you are asked a particular question, you likely have a visual image in your minds eye.

When you do that, parts of the brain in the back of the brain at the base of your skull that are involved in vision, would have become a bit more active. When that part of your brain becomes more active, it needs food to support its activity. Oxygen and blood-sugar are the two main ingredients that the brain cells eat. What we have is increased blood flow to the part of your brain that is creating the mental image for you. The scanner picks up signals from those parts of the brain using what essentially is just a radio antenna. You don’t need the specific physics of how that works exactly, but suffice it to say what we are picking up on are the parts of your brain that get more blood flow. The parts of your brain that are getting more blood flow are the ones that are doing the thinking or are responsible for the feelings that you are having at a given moment in time.

With that simple logic, what we can do is experiments where we ask people to recollect emotional events from their personal lives or show people emotionally charged video clips or photographs that elicit strong feelings in them. We ask people to relive those events or to live those events that we are showing them in the moment in different ways.

What we want to see is parts of the brain that trigger the emotional response to begin with, change as a function of how we are trying to ask people to think about the meaning or cognitively regulate their emotional response to the memories or the pictures or videos that we are showing them. What we can do is pick up activity in different parts of the brain, the parts of the brain that are getting different blood flow. We see these interactions between parts of the brain that trigger the emotion to begin with and those that are responsible for regulating that emotion after the fact.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Let’s zero in: I know you work a lot around cognitive regulation or emotional regulation. One of the things that we have been able to distinguish is the Amygdala being the emotional part of the brain, but maybe you could talk more about that role and the function of the Amygdala that would especially apply to leader or any individual, that emotional part of the brain.

Dr. Kevin Ochsner: The Amygdala; that word Amygdala means almond in Greek. The Greek’s named a lot of the parts of the brain just based on their visual appearance when you would dissect parts of the brain. They thought it was a little cluster of cells that looked about the size and shape of an almond. It’s buried underneath the surface of your brain and its evolutionarily quite old. We actually share, in many ways, the Amygdala with lower mammals because virtually every mammal has one. You can also see what looks like a primitive Amygdala even in reptiles.

The Amygdala seems to be critically important for learning what things out there in the world could cause us harm. It has special access to our body’s physiology, to change our respiration, to change our heart rate, to change our blood pressure, even to change our skin temperature; whether we are sweating. It has special access to behavior so that it can short-circuit in some ways our higher order reasoning and problem solving functions if we think that there is something out there that could be a threat.

This brain system you could think of  as constantly surveilling the environment to see if there is something out there that could be potentially threatening. If it is, it will alert us to it, draws our attention towards it and stores it in memory so that the next time we encounter it we can quickly recognize that this is a potential threat, or in some cases, a potential good thing for us, as well.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: How does some of your research help us understand how we can control emotion and conflict and what steps can someone use who is just an average listener here in the business world to control their emotions and to perhaps be more effective when this happens.

Dr. Kevin Ochsner: Let me give two answers to that. The first is to just give a sense of the different kinds of strategy somebody might use and then I want to zoom in on one of them and tell you about how we understand how that works in the brain and what information that might give to people in a work context that might help them use that strategy effectively.

There are four kinds of things you might do to regulate your emotion:   

  1. Change your situation. So if there is a co-worker who is bothering you in some way you might try to change either when and how you interact with that person or how you behaved towards that person, your interaction with them. 
  2. Change how we are attending to it; change what aspect of a person or a problem we are focusing on, which is called: Attention Deployment. So you could try to focus on the positive things rather than negative things for example.
  3. Try to cognitively change your interpretation of the meaning.
  4. Change your expressive behavior. Your old adages and aphorisms like: never let them see you sweat, or keep a stiff upper lip; are meant to describe this kind of regulatory strategy and while it is effective in the short term in a strategic setting where you don’t want to let somebody know exactly how excited you might be about something or how upset you might be, that strategy it turns out has all kinds of pernicious consequences.

The strategy that turns out to be the most useful in every context and can be deployed anytime and anywhere, is the cognitive change strategy. We use the term reappraisal, which implies that you reinterpret or reflect differently on something that just happened.

Learn more about Kevin’s research about the psychological and neural processes involved in emotion, pain, self-regulation, self perception, and person perception. Want to find out what a cognitive change strategy is? Listen to the complete recording of our discussion, without commercials, above.

Thank you for joining us,


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