As a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, cognitive neuroscience researcher Jessica Payne felt like her career could use a little spark.
“I love science,” she told me, “but it gets to the point after a while that even if you have this great breakthorugh or this great idea, there’s so much emphasis on methodological rigor. Which there should be, but sometimes the big ideas get lost or they’re not appreciated. It gets frustrating.”
That was back around 2008. At the same time neuroscience research, like the sleep, stress and memory work Payne conducts, had just started gaining traction in the corporate world.
“It was the most fortuitous thing,” Payne reflects. One day her overbooked advisor asked her to cover for him at a seminar where Harvard researchers shared their work with Fortune 100 company executives. She gave a talk titled “Sleep on it! There’s more to it than just the old adage.” Payne laid out the links between sleep, productivity, and creativity.
“I gave that talk,” she remembers, “and then my phone started ringing. ‘Will you come give that talk at my company?’ and ‘Will you come give that talk at my company?’” Since then she’s been invited to talk at nearly twenty more business leader conferences, and consults with companies across the U.S.
“Optimal leadership really boils down to understanding three neuroscientific principles,” Payne explains, “which are good sleep, moderate stress (you don’t want too little but you don’t want too much), and positive affect, positive emotion.”
She lectures on the neuroscience of leadership decisions, how small breaks from work (which she calls “sleep proxies”) can improve memory, and the role of sleep in performance.
Payne has given talks and workshops for PR firms like Ketchum, health insurance providers like Humana, and technology companies like Nokia Siemens.
“They’re really hungry for an understanding of the brain and the brain at work, and how to lead with the brain in mind,” she says. “I think what’s happening is they’re very interested in these principles because there’s something about standing behind brain data that makes some of the things that everybody already knows a little bit more believable.”
Businessman David Rock coined the term “neuroleadership,” the application of findings from neuroscience to the field of leadership. He founded the NeuroLeadership Institute in 2007, with which Payne partners.
Payne, now an assistant professor at Notre Dame, says this intersection of neuroscience and business provides the perfect “big picture” neuroscience compliment to the her more detailed research work. “I’m able to take some of the findings from my lab and other people’s labs and apply it more broadly and get the message out,” she says, “so it’s been a really rewarding.”
Her biggest challenge? Balancing her business lectures with her academic work. Despite the seductiveness of the corporate world, she remains loyal to her goal of tenure.
Photo: David Rock
Correction: This article originally described Payne as a cognitive psychologist, when her actual title is cognitive neuroscientist. 6/8/12