The sun rises as you leave work and head for an early breakfast. You smile cheerfully at the server and decline coffee. While waiting for your food, you glance through a business magazine and mentally file several items for further thought later on. You and your sales and marketing vice presidents have just pulled an all-nighter preparing a presentation, and the client meeting is in two hours. It's a new prospect and a new market, and none of you had heard of either before yesterday. But you feel relaxed, alert and confident that if the business can be won, you and your team will win it.
Can this story be true? After staying up for 24 hours, you should be sleepy, jittery, irritable and anxious for more caffeine to add to the buckets you've already gulped. You should have trouble reading, much less memorizing pages of text. Your employees should feel the same. And you should never count on any marketing effort to work, especially one with less than a day's worth of preparation behind it.
But this story can be true. All you have to do is take note of recent strides in understanding how our brains control sleep, learning, memory and other functions, and--even more important--how we can improve these faculties. Improved brain imaging has opened windows into how we learn, remember, recover and rest. Coupled with new insights into the genetic underpinnings of brain development as well as new products in neuropharmacology--brain drugs--it is a revolution in brain management.
Before long, staying awake for extended periods while effortlessly learning new material and remembering large chunks of information may seem normal for entrepreneurs and their employees. We--as well as some of our competitors, unfortunately--may have new ways of marketing to prospects and customers that make our efforts more effective than anyone had dreamed of before. Our brains may go from being our biggest constraints to being our biggest competitive advantages.
The Origins of New Brain Science
By now, everybody's heard of the antidepressant Prozac and other new drugs and supplements that tinker with brain workings. Many of us have had MRI scans of our body parts, if not of our brains. Some of us have heard of neuromarketing, which aims to craft marketing efforts that overcome obstacles and exploit loopholes built into our brains.
What may have been missed, though, is the fact that Prozac's latest successors are the leading edge of a new wave of drugs and supplements that do far more than lift blue moods. They actually improve memory, ease learning and banish sleep. Neuroscientists use MRIs and related scanning technologies to discern areas of activity in the brains of people doing such things as recalling recent memories. That reveals how specific brain structures are used in different tasks. And neuromarketing, while doubtless containing some hype, may well be the revolution its proponents promise.
Brains, in short, are hot. One reason is that Congress declared the 1990s the "Decade of the Brain," and pumped tens of billions of dollars into brain research. That generated advances now beginning to bear fruit. Annual federal neuroscience funding still tops $4 billion. And private sources including VCs are getting into the act, funding startups to commercialize drugs and procedures for modifying our brains and the way they work.
Joel Garreau, an editor and reporter at The Washington Post and author of Radical Evolution, a new book about applying technological advances to human bodies and brains, says the turning point came when we began directing our curiosity inward, rather than outward. "Now, for the first time," says Garreau, "our technologies are going through a wholesale process of being aimed inward, modifying our minds, memories, metabolism, personalities and what it means to be human."