clock mechanismI’ve been reading a lot about development in brain science lately. It is in preparation for a white paper on how our increasing understanding of neuroscience and psychology can inform the work of leaders. On the reading list have been Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow; David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain; Srini Pillay’s Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders; Maria Konnikova’s Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes; and Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald’s Blindspots: Hidden Biases of Good People.

While there have been many revelations, I’ll save those for the white paper. What I want to share is how the latest in science is confirming some of those old bromides that are often met with a roll of the eyes. Here’s a sample:

Take a walk to clear your head. Konnikova reveals that spending as little as 10 minutes observing nature can help relax and focus the mind. Pillay cites research showing that physical movement can affect thinking: Getting into a box-like structure and then stepping out actually improves your ability to get creative and think out of the box.

You win some, you lose some. Kahneman demonstrates that with decisions you face repeatedly, you get better outcomes when you approach them as a portfolio rather than individually. Focusing on wins and losses one at a time induces risk aversion and risk taking at just the wrong times. “Thinking like a trader,” that is accepting some losses as inevitable and measuring overall performance, stimulates better decision making.

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Our brains are full of hidden biases and stereotypes. Banaji and Greenwald show that it is possible both to default to those stereotypes even while denying their validity. The mind is a natural categorization machine and once a attributes are assigned to a category, they are difficult to remove. The author’s cite several instances where an implicit association test showed, for example, black people having more negative views of blacks than they do of whites, or gays having more negative associations with gay than straight. It takes work, not simply will, to overcome these innate biases.

Let me with that for a bit. Konnikova also discusses the power of contemplation. The brain between our ears is the ultimate supercomputer; sometimes we need to pause in feeding it to let it sort through information, find patterns, and focus. She notes Sherlock Holme’s description of a particularly thorny conundrum as a “three pipe problem.” While you may or may not want to indulge in tobacco, it really does pay to put down your smart phone to just sit and reflect.

I can’t decide…flip a coin. We all wrestle with decisions, particularly where data doesn’t point a clear pathway. One job candidate has better credentials but another overflows with innovative ideas and great questions. Which to choose? According to David Eagleman, a simple coin flip may help. When you flip the coin, pay close attention to your reaction: If you are relieved at the side that lands up, you are likely confirming what your unconscious mind was trying to tell you. If you long for a do-over, your inner mind wants to steer you toward the choice.

Leaders would do well to set aside the latest CEO memoir and pick up a neuroscience journal. It turns out that some tried and true wisdom is indeed tried and true.