Having arrived at the world renowned Royal Institution, we made our way to the library and eagerly settled at a table, surrounded by hardbacks as old as the wisdom within. The room soon filled with a plethora of budding professionals biting at the bit to gain insight form one of the world’s leading scientists. Set up as a breakout area with numerous tables and rooms, it wasn’t long before we were joined by a lady who’s office was based around the corner from Featherstone Street, and a man who worked in FX. What were the odds…? A mere coincidence or decisions based on gut instinct?

We streamed into the Faraday Theatre, notably where electricity was first demonstrated almost 200 years ago. The founder of the London Business Forum introduced Lord Winston with an entertaining anecdote, spawned from a question posed at the time… “Faraday this is all very interesting, but what use is it?”

Lord Winston was every bit the character you would expect, particularly if you have seen any of his television series, notably ‘Human Instinct’ on the BBC. As the theatre filled, he sat modestly on the stairs. Within minutes of being introduced we were all mesmerised by his great anecdotes ranging from Nobel Prize winners to politicians, neatly referenced as he began his story of Evolution and its link to the rather controversial subject of Evolutionary Psychology. His presentation told a captivating story and we have relayed the key topics and concepts below:

Topics and Concepts

  • Evolutionary Psychology
He started by drawing a time line of Evolution, of how the human brain has increased in volume by 3 times over the past 100,000 years and then explained the exponential development of tools and inventions over the relatively short past 400 years. This was epitomised by playing a piece of Beethoven’s string quartet opus 131. Suggesting had it been written just 25 years earlier, it probably would not have been listenable or as comprehendible as it is by our modern brain. We continue to innovate today but do not really fully understand the psychology of human instinct. It is clear however, there is an evolutionary basis to much of how we behave.

  • How we learn
The structure of the brain is composed of billions neurons, each of which has thousands of connections. The process of learning involves rearranging these connections and bridging gaps; however making a connection is not trivial matter. A good analogy made was that it is similar to crossing a large ravine, the first crossing is hardest but subsequent crossings get easier and easier until we establish as solid pathway and we can then cross whenever we like. We have finally learnt something.

Mirror neurons in our brain enable us to mimic the behaviour and sensations of others, feeling the frustration of a footballer missing a penalty, joy when people share a joke and stress when caught between two disputing colleagues…

The interesting thing is we can overlay instinctual behaviour with the learning process and overcome such things as phobias and the instinctual behaviour to freeze when we are confronted by fear. Later in the talk we were shown in simulated experiments how the ability to lie and even form false memories could be affected by the learning process.

A footnote to the learning process is the use of visual metaphor, a technique that Lord Winston has honed to an art. By thinking of a problem in different ways (which is a method of overcoming instinctual reactions) we can often find innovative solutions, an important technique in both science and business.

  • Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
By scanning blood flow in the brain via MRI it is possible to examine how the brain reacts to emotion. Using the 6 classical facial expressions pioneered by Dr Paul Ekman it has been possible to measure how we recognise Anger, Fright, Disgust, Surprise, Happiness and Sadness. We share these very expressions with primates and a number of experiments have shown that we can recognise these instinctually with 30 milliseconds in the brain, which in context is faster than a batsman can detect a fastball at about 1500 milliseconds. Our ability to trust someone is strongly driven by instinct.

  • Instinct and the incubator twins
Our instinctual feelings are deeply rooted and by no means fully understood and Lord Winston best depicts this in the story of Brielle and Kyrie. The twins were born prematurely and as is standard medical practice were put in separate incubators to recover. Brielle was not doing very well and was fading, she couldn’t eat, she had problems with her lungs and was likely to die. Kyrie on the other had been stable and doing relatively well. A midwife in the hospital saw this and against all medical practice decided to put the twins in a single incubator. Admittedly not fully understood but beautifully captured, Kyrie instinctively (the stronger twin) put her arm and Brielle and almost immediately began to improve, stabilise and recover. This could have been a coincidence but it is also likely we communicate on a level that we do not fully understand or can rationalise.

  • The Eugenics movement and Gene Sequencing
Francis Galton who was a highly respected scientist and cousin of Charles Darwin was interested in the concept of the survival of the fittest. Today regarded as extremely controversial and rather unsavoury, he proposed that people who were ‘unfit’ should be discouraged from surviving and instead we should encourage the ‘fit’ to breed. He proposed research on family trees of both desirable and defective genes, commonly known as the Eugenics movement. Although much of his research was flawed, by the use of biased subsets of family trees for example, his work was made the basis of Nazi propaganda and remains a blight on the history of scientific research.

Interestingly, Lord Winston then began to speak about the human gene sequencing today and an Observer article by Carole Cadwalladr who had her entire genome sequenced, much of which he found to be over inflated in its value and not something he thought was terribly useful. He then spoke about epigenetics and how environmental factors effected our bodies, using the example of how an area in Glasgow had a male life expectancy of 54years old that was lower than that of Malawi and Mozambique, where as less than 10miles away another area of Glasgow had male life expectancy at over 75years old. There is a strong relationship between experience and how our bodies function. 

  • Laughter & Reassurance
A final video showed the behavioural aspects of laughter and its importance to human interaction. In the experiment children were made to watch a cartoon, initially on their own then in pairs and then in a group. The research showed children seemed to laugh more when in pairs than on their own and even more so when girls were mixed with boys. It showed we use laughter as a social tool and laughter appears to be a collective experience. Laughter can often be a form of reassurance, showing that everything is OK.


To Conclude

In conclusion, there is strong evidence to support that so much of our behaviour has been shaped by evolution and our decision-making is quite often based on instinct. If we understand the underlying mechanisms then we are better equipped to modify our behaviour and stand a greater chance of success in life and business. Lord Winston also advocates making business decisions primarily on a rational basis but on the other hand also suggests that making a choice based on instinctual feeling is also very important and something we do more often then we would like to admit. Although we’ve built up highly complex societies, managed to grow synthetic cells and explore space, we are nothing more than mere mortals (albeit highly intelligent), driven by simple needs like every other living organism on the planet. These drivers have a huge effect on the way we conduct ourselves in the work place. What does this mean to us in the business world? Ultimately we are driven by powerful triggers in our subconscious, of which we shouldn’t try to suppress, more try to understand.
Vincent Carbonare