Neuroscience & Leadership

Schwartz - Jeffrey2

Dr. Relly Nadler: This week we have Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz who will be talking about brain neuroscience and leadership. Dr. Schwartz is a research psychiatrist at The School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. He’s one of the world’s leading experts in neuroplasticity and we’ll get him to define that.

Decades ago he began to study the philosophy of conscious awareness, the idea that across the actions of the mind have an effect on the workings of the brain. Jeff’s breakthrough work in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, OCD as it’s called, provided the hard evidence that the mind can control the brain’s chemistry. He has lectured extensively to both professional lay audiences in the US, Europe, Asia.

He has a few books. One is The Mind and The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Focus. Then also Brain Lock: Treat Yourself form Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which is a seminal book on OCD.

He has been a co-organizer of a conference, The Conference on Neuro Leadership. Jeff is based in Santa Monica. Jeffrey, welcome to the show.

Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz: Hi Relly and Cathy.

Dr. Relly Nadler: We are going to ask you some extensive questions in a moment.

Dr. Schwartz is an MD and Associate Research Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and a Fellow at the International Society for Complexity, Information and Design.

He is a seminal thinker and researcher in the field of self-directed neuroplasticity. He is the author of almost 100 scientific publications in the fields of neuroscience and psychiatry, and several popular books. His major research interests are over the last two decades have been brain imaging, functional neuroanatomy, and cognitive behavior therapy, with a focus on the pathological mechanisms and the psychological treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder, OCD.

Dr. Schwartz received honors in philosophy from the University of Rochester and in the 1970s began to immerse himself in the Buddhist philosophy in particular the philosophy of mindfulness, or conscious awareness. This is the idea that the mind is an active participant in the world and that when actions of the mind have an effect on the workings of the brain.

It became his goal to find a scientific underpinning for the belief that mindfulness affects how the brain works. In the 1990s at UCLA he made a key discovery that this four step cognitive behavioral therapy, which we will get a little more information about, he pioneered is capable of changing activities in specific brain circuit of patients with OCD. He did this with some of the PET scans.

After publishing his findings in scientific journals in the mid-90s, Dr. Schwartz uses this discovery which is becoming widely utilized treatment for OCD and has been corroborated by other research teams as a basis for his best-selling book, Brain Lock, which leads readers through the four-step cognitive behavior therapy that he devised.

Dr. Schwartz’ breakthrough into OCD provided hard evidence that the mind can control the brains chemistry. He has lectured widely through the US, Europe, Asia, to both professional and lay audiences.

Dr. Schwartz’ most recent academic writing has been in the field of philosophy of mind, specifically in the roll of volition in human neurobiology. He has been a devoted practitioner of mindfulness meditation in the Pali Buddhist tradition for over 30 years.

His strongest current interests are the philosophical theology of Detrick Bon Hoffer, in the role of Christian meditation in enhancing mindful awareness and its effects on mind/brain relations.

Dr. Schwartz welcome to the call.

Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz: I just want to make one correction. More for institutional than personal reasons, believe me when I tell you that. My actual title is Research Psychiatrist, University of California, Los Angeles.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: My former friend and ex-husband, Dr. Deter Stecklass used to be the researcher in the Department of Psychiatry at Supulvadia Hospital. I understand how these things are important and I also understand a little bit about the brain and really want to learn a lot more from you today.

Can we talk a little bit Jeff, about you and you came to work in the field that you are in now. Thirty years is a long time to be dedicated to the field of brain science and behavior.

Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz: Yah. In the last couple of years it’s really started to feel like a long time. Let’s just say, there are a lot of different directions that you can go with that. I just will say up front I know we are going to try to keep all the psychology positive and that’s a good thing. But 30 years ago, actually the field of brain research was a little bit more, shall we say, aligned with my beliefs then and my beliefs now, than it’s been let’s say in the last 10-15 years. Maybe later on we could talk a bit about what has happened, and why, at least my take on that.

I started doing neuropsychiatry right in my first year of medical school, which is 1974 I started medical school. It’s getting to be 35 years. I got an honors degree in philosophy as you said, and I certainly from my youngest days was particularly interested—actually is funny to say triumvirate—if you are going to make a transition from adolescents into sort of young adulthood with me, the first thing I ever really, really knew other than my bar mitzvah service when I was 13, because I was bar mitzvahed as an orthodox Jew and I that had a big influence on my brain and a very positive one.

I do like to say that. The study to do an orthodox bar mitzvah at the age of 12 and then when you turn 13, and as long as we are talking about neuroplasticity gives me an opportunity to say a word about that.

I think that learning the Jewish practice and rituals and the Hebrew, even though at that age I didn’t really understand what it meant; learning it anyway. So somebody might say well, you know, how could it be so important if you don’t even really know what it means?

Well, it just goes to show you that a lot of things are important even though you don’t understand why. Maybe that’s a big message for young people right there.

That act of learning the rituals and learning the text and learning them in the kind of detail and learning how to chant or to use the Jewish Rodovenum in the proper way, and going to services every Saturday for years in preparation and looking forward. All of those things have a big effect on you focus of attention.

I would say perhaps the earliest positive aspects of neuroplasticity in my life were the preparation for Orthodox bar mitzvah.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Jeff, I went through a similar process, got bar mitzvahed also, and it was a whole new learning process. Learning a different language, and at that time I would much rather have been out playing sports than studying Hebrew. But from the learning standpoint, maybe for our listeners, how would you define neuroplasticity?

Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz: You’re right, I used that word. That’s a very good point because that’s a word that you kind of see around now. You see a lot of words around that don’t quite get used properly, and I’m sometimes I get to be a bit of a stickler especially among the people who call themselves Buddhists now a days, you see a lot of that.

Neuroplasticity is a term that really is actually pretty old one. It’s been around for quite a couple of decades now in neuroscience. What it means in animal neuroscience research and in some aspects, obviously of human neuroscience research. But in all aspects of animal research have some applicability to human neuroscience research. What it means is that in the traditional understanding is that if you change the environment of an animal and you change basically, the context, the behavior in which an animal is acting, you can see brain changes that happen because of that.

So in animal neuroscience, basically the long study of molecular biology there has been a very large, very, very micro-study of neuroplasticity in animal research. Basically what you are looking at there is the effect of the environment and effective changes in environment on how the brain works. So it’s extremely well documented that if you make changes in the context in which behaviors occur, you will get changes in brain structure that basically are caused by changes in essentially environment.

So that part of it is extremely well established and intensively studied, but the part that I think is much more relevant to business and certainly to the issue of leadership, is that I basically took what was already a well developed field over 10 years ago and it has become even more developed in the last decade, decade and a half. But I have applied a important change in that for specifically human beings, for people. I coined this term, self-directed neuroplasticity. That is really important because that as uniquely human people, we don’t have to just depend on environmental change to have our brain change, we can change our own brain.

This really is the big, big, big point. The fact that environment changes the brain is interesting and it is important too, of course it’s important. But what is even more important is that you can change your own brain by creating your own environment very much including internal environment, and the key point turns out to be focus of attention rewires the brain.

So focus of attention is the big dynamical tool and the word dynamic means power. So the big tool of power is the power is in the focus. That can be for good or for bad. It’s really important to remember that. If you focus your attention on things that are good and helpful and conducive to good leadership, then you’ll wire your brain to be a good leadership brain. But, the opposite it also true. If you waste your energy and focus your attention on this and that and have a wasteful utilization of your intentional resources then you are going to wire your brain in the other direction. The longer you do it the harder it is to overcome.

So, neuroplasticity in a leadership context really does mean how you focus your attention changes how your brain works, for good and for bad.

Listen to the complete interview above.


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