Mind Games


My interest in how the mind works has it’s unfortunate roots in the fact that my mother was struck with incurable brain cancer. Her rapid deterioration into a childlike state would have been fascinating had it not been devastating. This in itself underlined the extreme delicacy of our internal systems which may, unbeknown to us, be working to destroy us at this very moment. Alongside this, the pervading reality that the mind is everything. It is our only reality. The brain is responsible for memories, imagination, thinking. When it’s functioning well we experience the World as we were meant to. If this vital organ is damaged or impaired it is often very confusing and sometimes even frightening.

Her death only created many more questions, the most pertinent being why? Although there is not an answer which could satisfy me, my search in itself was enlightening. I first read The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke. Meghan’s mother also died of cancer and the book chronicles her decline. While extremely well written, it was the wrong choice and far too painful.

Next I picked up The man who mistook his wife for a hat by Oliver Sacks. Sacks, an eminent neurologist, brings both sympathy and humour as he shares some of his most fascinating cases. Whoever thought that a loss of such a specific function of the brain would cause a man to be no longer able to see faces, and see faces on objects which had none. This amazing case is of course where the book gets its title. Sacks reflects my search for answers when he says, “Constantly my patients drive me to question, and constantly my questions drive me to patients”.

I’m not the only one fascinated with the brain and the mind. I see on social media a proliferation of “neuro” related courses and articles, alongside the condemnation of the over-use of the prefix. Marketers wishing to enhance the pseudo-scientific credentials of their wares would be silly to ignore this trend. Yet why the sudden obsession?

If we examine it again we will see it is not so sudden. The outcome of our thinking is behaviour, which is clearly far more observable and perhaps for this reason has a longer standing historic connection to HR practice. Now we want to go further, into the source itself. The very reason for this is why – why do people do certain things? The ultimate then being to predict how people will react.

We all believe we know something about how the brain works and human behaviour, merely because we all possess those faculties. To a certain extent this is true, yet in itself brings limitations. As the book I’m currently reading (“The Story of the Mind” by James Mark Baldwin) says “We ourselves are not indifferent spectators of this play, this come and go of processes. We are directly implicated.”

This is an important learning opportunity for HR that could bring a wealth of new insight. However, my quest for knowledge has in many ways merely enhanced my personal experience that the brain is complicated, delicate, individual. HR does not need to go this alone – starting with an almost blank page in such an arena is utterly ridiculous. It is reminiscent of sitting with a phrenology head on our desks and professing to know all about the brain. Let’s graciously accept the offer of help from the neuro experts and see what results this collaboration can bring.

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