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What's right (and wrong) with Obama's brain

Dr. David Rock
David Rock coined the term Neuroleadership and co founded the Neuroleadership Institute. He also heads up a global consulting firm, RCS, is the author of four books, and lectures around the globe including at Oxford University's SAID business school.

I study leadership through the lens of how the human brain functions.While I haven't studied Obama's brain directly, from watching his mannerisms I have a hunch that Obama's brain is different to that of our earlier commanders-in-chief. These differences may have both an upside and a downside to Obama's ability to lead. I also sense that the American people may not have much experience (at least recently) in dealing with a leader with Obama's type of brain, which may be the source of some uncertainty and fear Here's my take on two of his possible neural peculiarities.

The upside and downside to strong social circuits

In his role as community advocate, an unusual pathway to a presidency, Obama had years of practice holding multiple points of view in mind, especially involving lots of other people's goals. As a result, I would guess that Obama has a well-developed medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). The mPFC is central to the 'self and social circuitry'. This region is involved in accurately knowing oneself and others, and becomes active when we hold a representation of other people's minds in our own mind.A well-developed mPFC may explain why Obama is more of an alliance-builder and mediator than some previous US leaders. (It perhaps explains why he's a good poker player too: good poker players read their opponents, not just play the cards).

Here's where it gets interesting. The circuits involved in thinking conceptually, like doing math or planning a campaign, reside in a different region of the brain, the outer or more 'lateral' part of the prefrontal cortex. When this region becomes active, we tend to switch off the mPFC circuitry.

Many leaders, both political and business, have not had cause to think deeply about their own and other people's goals and instead have spent years planning and strategizing, in business or in law. If we have spent our lives as lawyer, and never thought hard about human experience, we may have great circuitry in one region of the PFC but our mPFC could be lacking. Obama on the other hand appears to have good circuitry in both. This is unusual in a leader, and his resulting style could easily make people used to another style nervous. Small changes, even tiny uncertainties, can create a strong threat response, whereas the brain is attracted to certainty.

Which style is best in a leader today? We now live in a multi-polar world. The use of force is less realistic as a diplomatic option, and we need global collaboration to solve global problems like energy and climate change. In this environment, it's hard to argue that the world would be a better place if more world leaders had circuitry that enabled better collaboration.

Now, here's the bad news. Having strong self and social circuitry may make it harder to be single-minded. When you can see so many perspectives, it's harder to stay blindly obsessed by one idea. Experiencing too much empathy could make it hard to make tough decisions. When determination is needed, a less socially intelligent but more stubborn leader sometimes may achieve more. Then again, history has shown us the dangers of having a leader being doggedly attached to the wrong strategy too.

The uses and perils of good self-regulation circuitry

The town hall meetings during the recent election were the one time you could see how McCain and Obama really functioned. Only so much of this could be scripted. I noticed that in the heat of the moment McCain would often lose his temper. The camera would then pan to Obama, who would be quietly chuckling to himself. This chuckling is a sign of someone taking a moment to self-regulate, to buy time to reflect instead of react.

This technique is called 'reappraisal'. Reappraisal is a critical tool for reducing the impact of otherwise emotional experiences. Allowing strong negative emotions to be experienced makes us less able to process complex ideas, and reduces the number of options we can perceive. (Letting out anger also generally makes us more angry overall, not less angry.)

Leaders experience 'power stress' , or stress from three functions that could each overwhelm an average brain: having too much to do, dealing with uncertainty, and being seen by others. High stress reduces the capacity to think clearly, and reduces people's ability to come up with creative solutions to complex problems.

World leaders have to make difficult and vastly complex decisions that impact millions of people. We need more leaders who have a strong capacity to regulate their emotions, rather than those who easily fly off the handle. Obama appears to have better self-regulation capacity than any political leader I have observed. It would be interesting to find out how and where he developed this capacity. I expect part of it is his spiritual tradition and partly it comes from the challenges he has faced. The phrase 'Whatever doesn't kills us does make us stronger' does have some truth when it comes to regulating emotions.

If I had a brain-assessment to 'test the mettle' of future political leaders, one of the first things I would look out for is their ability to regulate emotions. (Hey, I say pilots and doctors are tested for competence, why not leaders too?) We want leaders with the mental toughness to land a plane on the Hudson, not those who are likely to take increasing vacations when the going gets tough.

Unfortunately there is a dark side to people who regulate their emotions a lot. At times when a bit of emotion might help, perhaps when showing sorrow or anger, a well-regulated leader can become a little out of practice at allowing feelings to surface. I think that's what we saw recently, with people wanting Obama to 'get angry' at BP. We're used to leaders who showed their anger, who let their feelings surface, and it may be easy to misread Obama's strategy here. Perhaps Obama could be adaptive, and allow himself to experience stronger emotions. I expect he fears unsettling the delicate balancing act that allows him to stay cool under pressure every day.

Obama's job isn't easy at the best of times. These are the worst of times. For the US and the global community to succeed, I believe we need more leaders who are good at collaboration and who can stay truly cool under pressure. Leaders like this seem to be rare: let's not trash this one just because we are out of practice at reading his mind.

By David Rock

 |  August 16, 2010; 11:26 AM ET |  Category:  Decision-making , Presidential Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Will Obama be ready for the next crisis? | Next: 'Women's Progress is Global Progress'


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Boy are there some angry people in America . I thought it was only us here in Africa where we are pissed off by our non leaders. Now I know I don't have any right to make a comment as an American but as I am a citizen of the world and America's influence has an impact , still and for the time being,timing is a major factor in the perception of success. Obama took over when America was and still is, by economic measures, on the the way down. But I digress. Rocks "observations" are extremely interesting from a Neuroplasticity perspective. This is a "new" area of study and is bound to take criticism. The fact that it enraged so many people is interesting . I wonder what his comments would be on the areas of the brain in these responses that were being activated. Can only think that the area which is controlled by fear must be working overtime . What remedy would he prescribe to get a constructive response that would lead to a problem solving attitude

Posted by: peterwomersley | August 28, 2010 8:20 AM

Obama quotes - "Make no mistake"...."This a what you call a teachable moment"....Some of the cliches are going to be classics....Personally we have 2 more years to really judge the outcome of Oboma's presidency...as for the ability to predict how Obamas brain is working...or how he is thinking....this article contains opinions ... not facts..so its alot of bull !

Posted by: flipper7 | August 19, 2010 5:41 PM

Rock writes: "While I haven't studied Obama's brain directly, from watching his mannerisms I have a hunch that Obama's brain is different..."

Now, has Rock ever studied ANY brain directly? Otherwise, of course, all of this is just bunk.

Posted by: HumbleEmpricist | August 18, 2010 9:14 AM

What brain?

Posted by: georges2 | August 17, 2010 5:58 PM

This is nothing more than obsurd pseudoscientific drivel from the state-controlled media.

Do you really want to know the truth about Comrade Barry's brain?

In the third line of his Inaugural Address, Clueless Comrade Barry stated,

“Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath.”

Actually, forty-three Americans have taken the presidential oath. The reason why Comrade Barry is considered president number 44 is because Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms and is thus counted as president number 22 and 24.

You can maybe, sort of, make the excuse that Comrade Barry was tired and misspoke with his "we’ve now campaigned in all 57 states" remark but his statement: “Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath" is still posted at Whitehouse.gov.

We're 18 months later and he still doesn't know who Grover Cleveland is!

There can be no doubt. Clueless Comrade Barry has less than a schoolboy's understanding of American history.

And this is a mind that you admire?

What we have is nothing more or less than an ignorant, incompetent, narcissistic Marxist miscreant - the living embodiment of The Peter Principal in (Affirmative) Action – who the media refuse to hold accountable for anything.

Nevertheless, the American people are beginning to catch on and all the state-controlled media propaganda in the world will not change this fact.

Posted by: PauvrePapillon | August 17, 2010 5:44 PM

Obviously some of the comments posted here criticizing the president are completely ridiculous. Sense it is hard to objectively rate a president's performance how about comparing him to the prior president? So, you Obama bashers why don't you compare his record to that of the prior Bush? Who left our country in debt, 2 wars, divided, had a net loss of jobs, and is largely seen as incompetent by folks on both side of the aisle.

So, you repubs need to get real. Obama inherited a flat out mess and he has responded in a rational way to our crisis. David Rock's take on Obama's brain is excellent and makes sense.


Posted by: bjerome | August 17, 2010 12:03 PM

There is nothing wrong with BO's brain . One has to understand, it is cluttered with welfare folks, and government agencies, creating a complex welfare state. Not easy to keep all that straight, with two pesky wars going on, and scores out of work, and your popularity heading for the toilet. One issue I give him credit for, is his ability, to block main street, out of his mind.

Posted by: dangreen3 | August 17, 2010 11:52 AM

Oh spare us.. I read a blog article by a psychiatrist, who also hasn't examined Obama, but she based her opinion on substantive, established facts, and she considers the president to have severe psychological problems. I'd rate her diagnosis as having more basis in reality than this bit of twaddle. We've had presidents with military leadership backgrounds, and they had the capacity to focus on more than one area/issue at a time, and they weren't given carte blanche to lie to us, violate the constitution, illegally expand their authority, etc..

The Post has to be scraping the bottom of the barrel, perhaps it's time for the paper to close up shop, as it isn't serving the public interest in any way.

Posted by: jenn3 | August 17, 2010 11:52 AM

Are you kidding?
What haven't you learned yet that you need to explore further?

Posted by: swavde | August 17, 2010 10:18 AM

Yet another biased Post article - Obama has "problems" with his leadership, but it's not him, it's the public that is wrong. He is cool and cooking with that "developed" brain and it's not his fault if the little people aren't sophisticated enough to appreciate his gifts. We're too insecure to respond warmly to a "new" kind of leader.

Actually, I think a majority the public "gets" Obama just fine. One Obama Homer Simpson moment after another. Bow so low to a foreign leader that you could put a tray on his back. Add 30 million people to a broken system (instead of fixing the system first and THEN adding the 30 million.) Have the wifey take an expensive foreign vacation (instead of spending the money in the US) and then spend a nice chunk to dash down to the Gulf for a two-minute photo op (but only by the White House photographer cuz you gotta maintain the dignity of the Office of the President, right?) Endorse the building of a Muslim community center? Mosque? The building of which has been called for by a senior leader of Hamas (slated a terrorist organization by the US State Department.) All these decisions emanated from that "cool" brain.

Posted by: Georgetowner1 | August 17, 2010 6:13 AM

Really an hysterical article. He may have been cool, but he flat out lied in the debates, like saying he would veto any bill with earmarks, and he would deal with guatanamo, and the wars, etc etc. Obama is a community organizer, which means he gets to through bombs at others but he doesn't expect anything back. It's not that we don't understand him, we do, and we don't like what we see.

Posted by: termiteavenger | August 17, 2010 3:09 AM

let's not trash this one just because we are out of practice at reading his mind

See? It's not that Oboobma is incompetent, it's that you small people just don't understand his peculiar genius. (You bitter clingers!)

Spare me. Oboobma clearly lacks any emotional intelligence, but that does not mean he's too expert at regulating his emotions, or that he should get angry more. It means he has far too little real-world experience dealing with different kinds of people to understand what makes them tick.

And the suggestion that Oboobma is some kind of "alliance-builder and mediator" is patently laughable. That's how he was marketed in the campaign, but since taking power he has been single-minded in ramming through his extremist ideology. As a result has turned out to be one of the most divisive presidents ever.

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Posted by: zhangwenxiang | August 16, 2010 10:50 PM

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