For centuries, philosophers have inquired about the nature of consciousness. In the last few decades, scientists and social scientists have entered the fray, attempting to understand or codify consciousness, and trying to determine which beings “have it” and at what stages of life And even more recently, computer scientists, mathematicians and ethicists have been debating whether humans could create AI-powered machines with consciousness, and what we should or could do about it. Yet, researchers and practitioners in leadership have largely avoided this topic, which admittedly, can seem rather academic and theoretical at times.
Now, however, as neuroscientists dig deeper into the mechanics of consciousness in the human body (and in other creatures’ bodies), what we are learning may increasingly have implications for how we live, work, and lead. A leading UK-based neuroscientist, Anil Seth, has just published a new book entitled, Being You, in which he explores the current and near-recent research, theories, and findings while also positing his own hypothesis for what consciousness may be and how we may learn to better understand it.
The book is rich with science, philosophy, concrete examples and stories. From reading it, I have gleaned at least three implications for leaders that we can consider and contemplate today in our work. Each of these could be a post on their own, but I will at least explore the general terrain of these implications at a high level. And, a heads up, most of these emerging insights are counter-intuitive to our day-to-day lived experience.
1. Understanding and working with what we observe (and what we don’t)
It’s Monday morning, you walk into your home office with a mug of green tea in one hand and your laptop in the other. You put both down on the desk with slight “klunk.” Your fingers feel for the power button on the laptop so you can wake it up and the screen lights up; and you hear that familiar start-up tone. You sit down in your chair and feel the cushion under the seat. Your five senses are hard at work, observing your environment and sending those signals to the brain, right? Well, yes and no.
In fact, everything you are experiencing in that moment is a perception in consciousness, and current research suggests that while our senses are capturing data about our environment, the brain is using that data to confirm or deny the predictions it already made about what you are experiencing; what Anil Seth refers to as “top-down” perceptions. In fact, he terms these perceptions, controlled hallucinations.
He writes, “The idea is that the brain is a ‘prediction machine,’ and that what we see, hear, and feel is nothing more than the brain’s ‘best guess’ of the causes of its sensory inputs. Following from this idea, we will see that the contents of consciousness are a kind of waking dream—a controlled hallucination—that is both more than and less than whatever the real world really is.”
“One important implication of this principle is that we never experience the world ‘as it is,’” says Seth. Furthermore, we never perceive the world in the exact same way as any other person, either. You have probably had that experience many times, you see or hear something that the person sitting right next to you does not. That is because “our perceptual experiences of the world are internal constructions, shaped by the idiosyncrasies of our personal biology and history,” notes Seth.
This new understanding of how we perceive the world goes a step further when we consider our actions in the world. Seth theorizes that we are not just acting on our perceptions, but that we are acting to shape our perceptions–we are making our own reality, in a sense. He writes, “Action is inseparable from perception. Perception and action are so tightly coupled that they determine and define each other. Every action alters perception by changing the incoming sensory data, and every perception is the way it is in order to help guide action. There is simply no point to perception in the absence of action. We perceive the world around us in order to act effectively within it, to achieve our goals, and—in the long run—to promote our prospects of survival. We don’t perceive the world as it is, we perceive it as it is useful for us to do so.”
And 2600 years ago, the Buddha basically proposed the same theory. The late Rob Burbea is his book, Seeing that Frees, writes, “As the Buddha discovered, not only appearances, but the ‘whole show’ is fabricated, including the mind with its various factors and its consciousness,” and he adds his own interpretation, “We could say that the way of looking in any moment is constructed from the total mix of assumptions, conceptions, reactions, and inclinations, gross and subtle, conscious and unconscious, that are present at that time.”
So what?! What are the major implications for leaders? Can we close the gap of mis-aligned perceptions between people? Because our view of any situation, from the micro to the macro, is our own perception, and it is fabricated in our mind, naturally others will often not see it the same way. This gap in perception may be small or it may be large. What can be done?
Pay closer attention: We can train our attention to notice more details about any moment, conversation, challenge or decision. Too often, however, we are moving too quickly, and forming perceptions based on a quick surface-read of what is actually going on. Committing ourselves to stop multi-tasking, to bring more intentional mindfulness to the task or conversation in the moment, and to intentionally note or outline what we are observing can help us to notice key facts that might otherwise have been missed.
- Acknowledge the perception gap: Bring it into the light where it can be worked with. Remind yourself in any moment that you can’t and won’t have the complete picture. Develop comfort with uncertainty; practice “don’t know mind.” Create a culture where differences in perceptions and views are welcomed, discussed, and debated. Seek out the gaps in understanding.
- Listen with curiosity: Most of us have heard in training or courses on communication that we need to practice “active listening” and not use the time when others are speaking to be forming our own response. How often do you actually do that? It’s really hard. However, for me, the acknowledgement that others, by way of nature, won’t see the situation in the same way that I see it, provides a new motivation to listen; and not just listen, but actively get curious about how they are viewing the same situation. What do they see? hear? notice? feel? think? How is it different from my own perceptions and views?
- Spend more time building a common language: We can’t make everyone think the way we do. But we can reduce misunderstanding through the intentional creation of a structured, common language for our work. Doing so makes it easier to spot gaps in perception, and to remind ourselves of shared commitments and values when they arise. I elaborate more on this process here.
2. How the perception of time influences the time pressures we feel at work
Hardly a day can go by without at least one post showing up in my LinkedIn feed about time management, meeting burnout, long work weeks, work/life balance, the pressures of deadlines or quarterly reporting, and so on; in sum, the dysfunctional relationship between time and work. There never seems to be enough time to do everything we want, or are required, to do.
Meanwhile, each of us has enough experience with time to recognize that it is a perception or even an illusion. Sometimes, it seems to crawl along–we can’t wait for this meeting to end; and then the same 60 minutes flies by when we are having lunch, or at the gym, or watching a movie.
Anil Seth and his colleagues at his lab have been investigating time and how the brain and our consciousness perceives it. They have learned more about how our brain shapes our perception of what we call time. “There are “no ‘time sensors’ inside our brains…What’s more, setting aside the circadian rhythm, which provides us with jet lag among other things, there is no evidence for any ‘neuronal clock’ inside the head which measures out our experiences in time.
His colleague Warrick Roseboom believes based on his research experiments “that we infer time based not on the ticking of an internal clock but on the rate of change of perceptual contents in other modalities.” Like our sense perceptions, time is also a “best guess,” a prediction. Therefore, the more change we perceive in our experience, the faster time seems to flow–which aligns with many of our intuitive experiences.
On the surface level, we understand that how time is measured is constructed and agreed by convention. In fact, throughout history there have been many different attempts by different societies and cultures to use different calendars, different ways of grouping days, weeks and years. Yet, when we are ensnared by our calendar and its conflicting commitments, we take this time pressure as something “real” as opposed to “fabricated.”
There are at least three implications for leaders to use the perception of time to our advantage.
- Consider how you and your team measure time and progress. You can’t ignore the calendar that the rest of the world uses if you want your organization to be able to interact with the world. However, you can be more thoughtful about the cadence your own team and organization uses to plan, work, and assess progress.
- You can choose NOT to structure the organizational day around eight, nine, or ten 60-minute meeting blocks.
- You can choose to measure progress on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, annual, or longer calendar. You can be more intentional about aligning the right duration for the right metric; not all work–and not all change–can be perceived and measured in the same increments. Daily sales might be perfect metric for a food truck but not for a professional services business. Quarterly OKRs may work well launching a new product based on a repeatable process–but not for your innovation strategy or your equity initiatives.
- Your team could also experiment with work periods when time stands still. You could schedule time blocks, for example a week, where you will not “produce anything”. You might dedicate this time to learning something new, or freely experimenting, or deeply conversing with clients or thought leaders, etc.
- Play with speeding up and slowing down your perception of time. The next time you are bored in a meeting, or slogging through a tedious, but required task, and time is crawling–use your perception of time to your advantage. The science says if you can experience more sensory perceptions that are changing, time will go by faster. So instead of mentally checking out, check in. Pay closer attention to all the subtle changes in your environment: who is speaking?, how are others are responding? (or doodling, or checking texts), how are the screens you can see changing?–pay attention to anything to increase your awareness of “time passing.”
Or alternatively, feeling like things are moving too fast? You can also slow it down but paying deeper attention to one thing in your experience and letting go of your awareness of all the other changing experiences. For example, paying closer attention to just this one meeting, this one person in front of me right now–instead of watching all the other slacks and emails go by and thinking about all the other meetings you have after this one–might slow time down as you reduce the perception of so many items changing in your experience. And it will have the side benefit of increasing your ability to listen with curiosity (as noted above.)
Oliver Burkeman, in Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, also points out a teaching by American Buddhist teacher, Shinzen Young, which “is to pay more attention to every moment, however mundane: to find novelty not by doing radically different things but by plunging more deeply into the life you already have. Experience life with twice the usual intensity, and “your experience of life would be twice as full as it currently is”—and any period of life would be remembered as having lasted twice as long.” Again playing with the perception of time by modulating how we use our attention.
- Reflect on the fact that time is not a resource. You ARE time. In a recent interview on the Sam Harris podcast, Oliver Burkeman, author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, makes a strong case for letting go of the misconception that time is a resource to be managed. He and Harris discuss the trap of spending time to simply complete an item on our to-do list because there will always be more items to be added to it. In fact, they highlight that making a decision to do anything in this moment, means deciding not to do an infinite amount of other things. As Burkeman says, “We are time; we are a portion of time…[so what we are doing] has to matter now…It must be in the present where meaning must be found.”
These ideas reflect what Dōgen was writing about a thousand years ago in his famous treatise, Being-Time. (I write about Dogen here.) In there authoritative book on Dōgen’s work, Being-Time: A Practitioner’s Guide to Dogen’s Shobogenzo Uji, Shinshu Roberts writes, “When Dōgen equates time and being, he shifts our erroneous notions of time from time outside the person to time as the person.” Later, she gets to the heart of this issue, “If each moment includes everything, then we should not feel that something is lacking….Yet we do…Time seems to obstruct our ability to get enough done. Or we feel a person [or thing] is getting in our way. Open inclusiveness gets lost. Dōgen teaches us to stay grounded in the being-time of our life at just this moment.”
Even as I write this section, I am aware of my mind racing ahead to publishing it and the next zoom meeting I need to have, and what to do about lunch. That is not experiencing time as me; and it creates a subtle (or not so subtle) amount of stress and suffering. If I can sit back and accept that this is all that I can be doing right now. Thinking about how time works, finding the links for this post, writing the paragraphs. I am released from that stress, all without changing anything about what needs to or could be done next.
Try it. And expand on it. Organizations live in a perpetual state of ambitious planning to tackle more projects that it has the people, money, and “time” to do. How would the entire field of leadership shift if our only goal was to keep our team and organization present–right here–optimizing what we can do for maximum impact, right now.
3. The illusion of the self and how it affects how we show up to others (and vice versa)
Anil Seth outlines in a comprehensive manner how the perception of a self (I, me, my) is a complex perception as well. He describes how the concept of “me” is really a set of several inter-related perceptions including the embodied self (the body, emotions etc.), subjective self (the first-person perspective), volitional self (intention and action), narrative self (identity and history), and social self (how we think others perceive us).
In his words, “The self is not an immutable entity that lurks behind the windows of the eyes, looking out into the world and controlling the body as a pilot controls a plane. The experience of being me, or of being you, is a perception itself—or, better, a collection of perceptions—a tightly woven bundle of neurally encoded predictions geared toward keeping your body alive. And this, I believe, is all we need to be, to be who we are.”
In the organizational context, it’s the perceptions of the volitional, narrative and social selves that show up most strongly. In their arising, they have a significant impact on leadership, team dynamics, culture, and our own job satisfaction. The organizational context presents significant opportunities for conflict borne out of the mix of motivations at play. In principle, most people claim to be offering ideas, effort and decisions in the service of the mission and objectives of the organization and/or to meet the needs of its clients and stakeholders. However, it is inevitable that each person is also looking at this context through the filter of their own self-perception. Each person is interpreting the events, possibilities, and stories of organizational life in light of what it means for their own actions, motivations, identity, career and peer-standing.
Ethan Nichtern, author and mindfulness teacher, recently tweeted, “Objectivity does not exist. Self-aware subjectivity—in both what you choose to cover and how—is the highest ideal.” He was tweeting about journalists, but it applies equally well to organizational leaders. We can’t be truly objective–because, as we have seen, we are a collection of perceptions–unique to each of us. So, all we can do is bring more awareness to our own subjectivity and use that awareness to investigate decisions and actions for where our own self-interest is at work. This can lead to an increase in empathy and compassion that cultivates not only improved employee engagement, but also deeper customer satisfaction and a more integrated, purposeful and beneficial impact on the community, society and the planet.
So, how can we work with these perceptions which are so ingrained that we rarely notice them?
- First, make an intention to notice them. It is possible, with attention and practice, to become aware of these perceptions. You may find that asking questions such as “what is the primary motivation for this action, right now?” or “in making this decision, will it have an impact on how I perceive myself, or how others perceive me? if yes, what if I let that motivation go?” Your answers to these questions may help illuminate the presence of a “self” that is influencing your actions for your own benefit instead of purely in your team or organization’s best interest.
- Look for strong emotional content or self-judgment. When these are present, it is usually because the view of the current experience has narrowed significantly–with a focus on the impact on the self, the identity, the story of my future. Rob Burbea recommends stepping back and broadening the perspective. When working with others, he suggests “If it becomes our shared basis for understanding, then two people having a difficulty can become two looking together at the dynamics of their relating, on the same team untangling the dependent arising of a problem, rather than two accusing, two at war.”
- Try a thought experiment. Renowned meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein likens the perception of self to a river. The river has a name, a location, and a geologic history. We can agree to meet by the side of a specific river, and we would both know where to go. The self is the same. It has a name, an identity, a history of certain thoughts, actions, emotions, relationships etc. But just like the river, the contents of “the self” in this moment is not the same as it was last year, last week, yesterday or even 5 minutes ago. So, when I am in a tough spot, I bring this simile to mind. I explore some prior leadership crisis, and my role in it. Where is that crisis now? Is that person the same as this person dealing with this challenge? Or I play it forward; will the person making the decision right now be the same person who gets the feedback on it tomorrow? What about a year from now?
Now the point here is not abdicate our responsibility, or delude ourselves into thinking that our actions and decisions don’t have an impact. They do. The value of this experiment is in the wider perspective we gain from it. And with that perspective, we might see the broader context? Can we operate from a less anxious or worried frame? Can we make a wiser decision?
Neuroscience is still unlocking the secrets of the mind and consciousness; what it is; how it works; what influences it, etc. As they do, new practical implications will emerge. I suspect those implications will have a deep and lasting impact on how we work with other human beings in work, society and in our lives. For now, we can create a bit more space to experiment with our own understanding and perceptions and learn now to shape the intentions of our mind for the highest aspiration in our work.