Entrepreneurs' brains: researchers reveal increased cognitive flexibility

June 18, 2023

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Entrepreneurs' brains: researchers reveal increased cognitive flexibility

In a pioneering study involving both entrepreneurs and managers, a multidisciplinary research team from universities in different countries, found evidence of increased neuronal connectivity in the brains of entrepreneurs, which may contribute to their distinct cognitive attributes.

Using resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fMRI), the study showed that serial entrepreneurs have higher connectivity between the right insula (associated with cognitive flexibility) and the anterior prefrontal cortex (a key region for exploratory choices), compared to their fellow managers. These results, published in the journal Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, suggest that serial entrepreneurs possess greater cognitive flexibility, enabling them to alternate effectively between exploration and exploitation, a balance that is crucial to their success.

Unlike the traditional fMRI approach based on tasks submitted to the subject, the rs-fMRI on which this study is based observes the brain at rest, in the absence of cognitive tasks or presentation of stimuli. This constitutes an innovative approach to improving understanding of the entrepreneurial mind. Forty entrepreneurs and managers took part in the study.

What the researchers say: "This study represents an important advance in our understanding of the entrepreneurial mind. It highlights the potential of neuroscience and how this approach complements the traditional tools used to study entrepreneurial cognition,” explained the lead author. “By highlighting the difference in cognitive flexibility, it also offers a new perspective to inform the design of training or professional development programs aimed at improving the cognitive flexibility and entrepreneurial spirit of individuals within organizations.”

"In a world of rapid and unpredictable change, organizations need to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset and foster cognitive flexibility within their teams, qualities recognized by the OECD as a 21st century challenge," notes a co-author.

So, what? This latest collaborative, multidisciplinary study illustrates the concept “neuro-entrepreneurship,” the integration of knowledge in neuroscience and the world of entrepreneurship. It also shows how neuroimaging techniques can help to better visualize the neural networks involved in “cognitive flexibility,” which enable an entrepreneur or leader to adapt to a constantly changing business environment.

My problem is not with the study as it is. Just that it ends where the interesting parts start (at least interesting to me as a behavioral neurogeneticist). From the study, we see that there is a difference in brain function between an “ordinary” manager and an entrepreneur (or intrapreneur for that matter). But why should this difference arise?

To start with, from an evolutionary perspective a hunter-gatherer band on the savannah of Africa composed of a maximum of about 100 people lived in an unchanging environment. There would be little need for entrepreneurial talents except in times of rapid change (largely due to climate change, or a sudden shift in prey migration patterns). Therefore, only about 2-5% of members of the band would need to have “entrepreneurial cognition”—about the same percent as today’s successful entrepreneurs.

If this is the case, then the difference between an “entrepreneurial mindset” and a managerial mindset must be genetic in origin. Probably this means that you can’t “train” someone to be entrepreneurial (or intrapreneurial)—at least not without some difficulty.

From previous research detailed in an earlier edition of TR we know that all leaders, managers and supervisors have a set of genes which set them apart from non-leaders, managers and supervisors. These genes (about 5 have been identified) give the possessor the drive to be a leader of others. Genes do not make a person a good leader (according to a Gallup study over 90% of leaders are in the wrong job), just predisposed to become one.

My assumption—which needs to be tested—is that the same sort of genetic coupling leads to “entrepreneurial cognition” and for a person to have the drive to become an entrepreneur. That, perhaps, is where the research needs to go next.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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