What is Brain?  

CHW LogoOne of the worst episodes of the original Star Trek series was one called “Spock’s Brain.”  I can’t recall all the details (although – nerd alert – I undoubtedly had the entire script committed to memory at one point in my life).  But it involved a technologically backward planet where the males and females lived separate lives: the men (called “morg”) lived on the surface in a sort of late Ice Age existence, while the women (“imorg”) lived in a comfortable underground city, though the whole place apparently ran on autopilot, since both morg and imorg had the intelligence level of 8 year olds. (When asked the whereabouts of Spock’s brain – don’t even ask why – one of the imorg, confused, replied, “Brain and brain! What is brain?”)

Many of the episodes from the 1960s had a hidden – or sometimes quite blatant – moral message, but I could never figure out what it might have been in this episode.  Given how bad it was, maybe there wasn’t one.  But a couple of recent articles shed some light on a possible allegory.

One study examined the ability of randomly created groups of 2-5 members to perform a set of tasks.  Success was only minimally correlated with several hypothesized factors, such as average or maximal IQ, or group cohesion.  The three factors most strongly predictive of success were equal distribution of speaking turns, average social sensitivity of the group, and the proportion of women. (Most of this last effect was mediated by the greater social sensitivity of women, but there was an independent contribution from femaleness itself.)

Other work examines gender differences in decision making.  In low-stress situations, men and women approach decisions similarly, gathering information and weighing risks and benefits, and their average overall risk appetite is the same.  But a series of studies demonstrates that under conditions of stress (physical stress, anxiety), decision-making strategies diverge.  Men tend to take larger risks for larger potential gains, while women tend to go for surer but smaller rewards.  Moreover, when asked to evaluate their strategies, men were less likely to recognize their riskier approaches as actually riskier.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that men are a bunch of insensitive adrenaline junkies.  And the data don’t say one style is better or worse.  But teams with a diversity of approaches will likely outperform one with a single-minded risk-averse or risk-taking strategy, and this is also borne out by evidence.  A review of 2400 large global companies showed that those with at least one woman on their board outperformed those with all-male boards by 26%.  (You might argue that we also need to see how a large global company with an all-female board would compare.  Sigh.)

Working in pediatrics, and specifically at children’s hospitals, for my entire career, I take this sort of balanced approach to work groups for granted.  But too many organizations are like that planet where the morg live above ground, the imorg below, and both suffer as a result.  Brain seems to require both.

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