How our brains and bodies respond to workplace culture and environment

Clive Hyland | 20th April 2018

Never underestimate the impact of workplace culture and environment on our performance as human beings. We are designed to respond to that which is going on around us. It’s a fundamental principle of evolutionary success that we adapt to the environment in which we aim to survive. Whilst we may broadly recognise this, I doubt whether we adequately understand the weight of significance here. It is also important to recognise that this dynamic largely operates at the unconscious level and is only marginally influenced by our conscious minds.

Human sensing-system

To understand this better we need to look at how our human sensing system works. Firstly, let’s clarify what we mean by culture and environment in this context. In most cases, the word “environment” would suffice for me but there is a danger that people may assume I am then solely talking about our physical environment. I am not. Whilst the physical environment is an important aspect, I am also including here the people who operate around us, something which may more often be referred to as “culture”.

The reality is that our brains are always hungry for external information. After all, the ultimate role of the brain is to keep us alive but it has to do this from a dark chamber we call the skull. Most of our experiences in life are created in our brains. We sense stimuli from the outside and convert this into meaningful information we can make sense of. Sound is a classic example: there is no sound in the universe; we sense alterations in external pressure waves and convert these into internal experiences we call sound. Although the stimuli are different, the same principle applies for all the rest of our primary senses of sight, taste, touch and smell: they are all there to bring information in from the external world so that we can understand it and respond in a way that best supports our chances of survival.

Sensing our environment

Yet, when it comes to sensing our environment this goes much deeper than our primary “brain senses”. Our sensing mechanisms go right down to the cellular and molecular level of our bodies. We would do well to remember that we had bodies before we had brains! This seems a strange statement but whilst our brains have always been a part of our human form we have not always been human. If we trace our evolutionary path to pre-mammal, pre-reptile and take ourselves right back to when we were simple cell structures living in the sea or on land; here the survival depended on the ability to sense the environment, to withdraw from threat or move towards opportunity.

We can see this in our cell behaviour today. The red corpuscles in our blood system “sense” when there are either toxins or nutrients in our blood system. They will engage with (absorb) nutrients but withdraw from toxins to protect themselves. Our brains only came along later in our evolution as the sophistication of the information we were having to process increased. We needed a central intelligence hub to integrate this information.

What is the relevance of this insight to the modern working environment?

The point is that even today our brains are reliant on and are influenced by this sensory cellular network, known as the somatic network. Collectively this network operates like a sea of energy: when we are at peace the sea is calm but ripples appear when we sense either threats or opportunities around us. These “ripples” trigger signals to the brain informing it of the need to investigate and to give attention to the matter. Our conscious mind will get involved at this stage to try to make sense of the situation. Yet the dye has already been cast: the chain reaction based on sensing in the body has already been triggered.

This principle of sensing works through energetic resonance. We are instinctively tuned to energy vibrations around us. Our bodies react to the physical environment: to light, colour, noise, materials, smells and tastes. These can lift us and make us cheery, put us on high alert or drag us down. This is going on incessantly. Yet, probably the biggest effect is that caused by the people around us. The emotional system of our brains is designed to energetically connect with others. We have sophisticated internal circuitry for sensing and interpreting the mood of others. Their energy can excite us, make us feel welcome and safe, or it can disturb us and drain us of our own energy resources.

Final thoughts for business leaders

A critical part of the role of organisational leaders is to examine and understand the energetic impact the collective environment and culture is having on its workforce. This is no secondary matter. Intuitively, we know this for ourselves: we have probably all experienced the difference in environments that lift us up or drag us down. This strikes at the very heart of who we are and is a fundamental source of energy depletion.

Many of the insights were taken from Clive’s new book “The Neuro Edge” – which brings the complex world of neuroscience into everyday relevance for those engaged in leading, developing and supporting people in organisations.