The Brain of an Entrepreneur

The Entrepreneurial Brain

There may be something special about entrepreneurs' brains. Many have a condition called attention-deficit disorder, or ADD. "There's a very high incidence of ADD among CEOs in small companies," says Daniel G. Amen, M.D., a brain researcher and director of Amen Clinics Inc., a group of four brain-imaging centers in the U.S. "These are people who take risks, need people to help them stay organized, don't like working for other people, have a lot of energy and are good at multitasking."

Eventually, even the most finely tuned entrepreneurial brain runs up against human limits. Take sleep. Most people who use caffeine to try to stay awake for long periods find it makes them jittery and anxious, and interferes with concentration. The same goes for prescription stimulants such as amphetamines.

But new anti-sleep drugs dispense with side effects and actually allow you to focus better. Modafinil, for example, was developed for patients with narcolepsy. When healthy people take it, they can stay awake 80 hours or more without losing focus or concentration. "If you can stay awake with your cognitive functions thriving for a week, think of what that does," says Garreau. "Imagine lawyers with photographic memories who never sleep."

Better memory may come from other drugs. Tim Tully is a scientist who studied the gene that controls memory and learning in fruit flies. Helicon Therapeutics, a Farmingdale, New York, company he founded in 1997, has developed a drug, now in trials, that may help humans learn faster and remember better. When given to mice with age-related memory problems similar to those that older humans experience, the drug, HT-0712, works well. "Old mice, roughly 50 years in human equivalents, have the memory capacity of young mice, roughly 25 years in human equivalents," says Tully. "And the potential is there to enhance memory for all of us."

The Employee Brain
Entrepreneurs can also improve employees' memory, alertness and concentration by making work a brain-enriching place to be. Amen recommends offering employees opportunities to educate themselves, including cross training for other functions in the company as well as learning that goes beyond work. "A learning brain," he says, "is a happy brain."

A brain listening to music is also a happy brain, and one that enhances learning. University of California, Irvine, researchers found that people who listened to Mozart before taking a pattern-recognition test improved their scores 62 percent after two days of practice. Those who spent the time in silence improved just 14 percent.

While piping in Mozart may not be all that practical at the office, removing brain-damaging elements is imperative. Be alert, especially for toxic chemicals. "I can't tell you how many indoor painters and cabinet refinishers we have looked at, and their brains look terrible," Amen says. "Make sure there is good ventilation if [people are] going to work around toxic materials."

Pay attention to workplace food and drink, too. "We kill people's brains by bringing in doughnuts," says Amen. "I have a policy in my office that people are not to have candy dishes on their desks. People eat it, get blood sugar spikes and crashes, and then they're stupid." He also recommends against workplace coffeepots, because caffeine interrupts brain blood flow and impairs sleep.

Stress from overwork also affects sleep, and experts say fewer than six to eight hours of sleep daily over the long haul is bad for brains. "Chronic stress kills the memory area of the brain," Amen says.

Encourage physical exercise, which increases brain blood flow and reduces stress. You might even sponsor meditation classes, suggests Martha Farah, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Says Farah, "Meditation and mindfulness programs have been shown to enhance brain function."

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This article was originally published in the January 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Gray Matters.

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