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April 21st, 2022

Your Brain At Work LIVE – S7:E03 – Dissecting Downtime: The Impact of Gender on Rest

Over the past few years, we’ve learned that downtime is a necessity for avoiding burnout. But there are several factors that make prioritizing our downtime difficult. Key areas that don’t get enough focus are deeply held unconscious biases about gender, race, and identity that affect us all.

In this episode, we look at how these biases and expectations impact our ability to get the rest we need. We discuss how organizations can create more inclusive cultures and practices that take these unique challenges into consideration.

Episode Transcript





[00:00:02] SW: Welcome back to season seven, episode three of Your Brain at Work podcast. Over the past few years, we’ve learned that rest is a necessity for avoiding burnout. In this episode, our internal team members will dive into a conversation, exploring gender parity as it relates to downtime and rest. Panelists will discuss how to create inclusive cultures and practices that take into consideration the unique challenges of gender, race and identity. 


I’m Shelby Wilburn, and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work from the NeuroLeadership Institute. We continue to draw episodes from our weekly Friday webinar series. This week, our show is a conversation between Dr. David Rock, CEO and Co-Founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute; Christy Pruitt-Haynes, Consultant and Facilitator at the NeuroLeadership Institute; and Dr. Emma Sarro, Researcher at the NeuroLeadership Institute. 




[00:00:54] SW: Hello to all of our viewers across the world, and welcome back to another week of Your Brain at Work Live. I’m your host, Shelby Wilburn. This week, as we move forward into Women’s Month, we’re continuing to explore different themes around women in the workplace. For today’s episode, we’re also connecting back to a popular focus at our summit this year with a bit of a spin; Dissecting DowntimES: The Impact of Gender on Rest. 


So before we get started, hello to everyone, as always, our registered Zoom participants and all of our friends streaming across our social platforms. Now, for our regulars, it’s great to have you back. For those of you that are new to Your Brain at Work Live, welcome to the party. For some context, it is the title of one of the bestselling books by our CEO and Co-Founder, Dr. David Rock. And it’s also the name of our blog and podcast. 


And before we get going, I want to introduce today’s speakers. So our first guest for today is a public speaker who engages on a variety of topics surrounding DE&I leadership and women in the workplace, not to mention her TEDx talk on banishing Miss Congeniality complex. She’s also an author of the book Would the World Be Better If We Were All Alike? Her expertise in leadership development, diversity, strategic planning and HR led her to join NLI, where she is on the external, client-facing, consulting and facilitating teams and serves an internal role developing and growing NLI employees in North America. A warm welcome to our consultant and facilitator at the NeuroLeadership Institute, Christy Pruitt-Haynes. Thanks for being here today, Christy.


[00:02:27] CPH: Of course. Thanks so much for having me. 


[00:02:29] SW: Wonderful. Our second guest is a Researcher at the NeuroLeadership Institute, where she focuses on translating cognitive and social neuroscience into actionable solutions for organizations, as well as helps communicate relevant research in an accessible manner for the public. Previously, she served as a professor at Dominican College in New York University, and as a researcher at the Nathan Kline Institute. She holds a PhD in neuroscience from New York University and a bachelor’s degree from Brown University. A warm welcome to NLI Researcher, Dr. Emma Sarro. Emma, thanks for being here today.


[00:03:03] ES: Thanks, Shelby. Really excited to be here.


[00:03:05] SW: Wonderful. And our leader for today’s discussion, an Aussie turned New Yorker who coined the term neuroleadership when he cofounded NLI over two decades ago. With a professional doctorate, four successful books under his name, and a multitude of by lines ranging from the Harvard Business Review, to the New York Times, and many more, a warm welcome as I pass the virtual mic to cofounder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute, Dr. David Rock. Off to you, David.


[00:03:31] DR: Thanks, Shelby. Thanks for your warm welcome. Great to be here with you, Christy and Emma. And I know we have a huge podcast following. I think we’re up to about 400,000 listeners now. So excited to get this out to the world. 


So the session today, we’re going to dig into something that we talked a bit about at the summit. And the reason we talked a bit about this at the summit was because we wrote a piece about downtime, and it kind of exploded. Everyone was talking about it, sharing it. It had a huge, huge readership. And it kind of pointed us to something that was really kind of fascinating, which is – Particularly in the hybrid world and the kind of world we’re going to move into as well, there’s some challenges that were maybe not obvious. And it turns out these challenges may affect women even more so. And particularly, with International Women’s Month, it was important to kind of dig further into this. 


So we’re kind of following the energy of this, both the energy of the science and also the energy of kind of what people are interested in. And we’re going to dig deeper into this whole question with Emma on the science and Christy talking more about the social issues and biases and things like that. 


But for those of you new to us at NLI, our vision is making organizations more human through science. And our mission is changing weeks, not years. And we’ve been having some amazing case studies through the summit in the last few weeks, showing just what that looks like. But the core of our work is original research. And then we’re advising over 61 of the top 100, and from a very global perspective. And what many folks don’t know, we also advise many, many government agencies and government themselves, over 120 large government agencies in more than half a dozen countries applying at work in different ways. 


So let’s dig into this question. And you might say, how do we go from kind of downtime to DEI? Well, you’ll kind of see it in a few minutes. But just to kind of lay the foundation, we’ve been thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion, all three, for a long time. We published the first piece in 2015, seven years ago, after three years research. And we’ve now published eight significant pieces of research in this space. And on the bottom right, one of the more recent pieces that I’ll talk about towards the end of the session is about gender itself. And a really important paper – I know we have a whole session on that paper coming up sometime in the next month or so. But this session will definitely draw on some of that research. So let me start with kind of a foundation. And Christie and Emma, I’ll be curious to hear kind of your perspectives on just this framework. 


And some of you may remember, there was an update to the food pyramid a while ago. I fact, it was 10 years ago, maybe 11 years ago now. The US government said, “We don’t think the food pyramid is quite right.” This was during the Obama era. We’re going to come up with a food kind of plate. And they changed the dietary suggestions of kind of what we used to have. 


And at the time, I was looking at the research and collaborating a bit with Dan Siegel. And we had this whole conversation about there are things more important to your health, particularly brain health, than diet, and things more important to your overall health and longevity, it turns out, than diet. For example, your social connections have more of a variability in your length of life than your diet does. 


So we were looking at this and we came up with the healthy mind platter. And we published a big piece on this that looks at the seven types of attention that your brain needs to be healthy. So we’ve got the healthy mind platter. And the paper is really worth digging into. If you’re a corporate member, you’ll be able to access that easily and all sorts of assets around it. 


But I’ll give you the essence of it. These are all really different types of cognitive processes. Sleep time, there’s all these really deep processes that have to happen to kind of clean out the brain. Physical time, the actual movement, literally moves around networks. Does incredible things in the brain. Very, very important to have that physical time. Focus time is what we have a lot of, and it kind of expanded from six to eight hours in the old days, to 10 to 12 hours for many of us, where we’re goal-focused, doing things. It’s actually good for us to be focused. It builds those deep connections. My kids kind of lost the ability to focus for a while because they’re doing so much online stuff. And I said, “You’ve got to maintain the ability to do one thing. Pick one thing you’re going to keep focusing on.” And they chose reading books. Just reading for a while. So focusing in itself is not bad. But that’s kind of taken over.


Connecting time, social time, that turns out to be really important for brain health. Not having social interactions is not just a negative, that having social interactions is actually a positive. And it does all these important things to our brain itself, where, really, the brains really built as a social interaction machine. You take that away, and it’s not as functional. 


Playtime is novelty. So that’s the unexpected things. That’s the positive experiences. It’s pretty much about bringing novelty. And then downtime is none of the above. But it’s not necessarily what you think. It’s not meditating or being mindful, which is more time-in. That’s reflecting. It’s literally being un-goal-focused. So you’re not trying to do any of these things. You’re actually resting. And you’re resting the brain but not asleep. And it’s an interesting thing to understand. And that’s what we’re going to dig into. 


And it turns out that it’s something huge that we’re missing in the current landscape. We’re getting a huge amount of focus time. Physical time probably went up. Sleep time probably went up. Time-in maybe went up a little bit for a lot of people. But downtime really, really suffered in this time. 


But let’s hear from you, Christy, first, maybe Emma, just kind of on this framework. Any comments you’d like to add or shape to this you’d like to bring? Thanks, Christy, first.


[00:09:23] CPH: Yes, absolutely. So what’s interesting, David, and just to really underscore a point you made, is that downtime is separate from all of the other categories. And when, traditionally, we think about downtime, most of us, particularly women, and we’ll talk about this more in a bit, tend to do that with other people. We think of things like we’re going to go out and get our nails done. But for us, that’s oftentimes a social activity. So we never have that opportunity to truly disconnect and truly focus on not focusing, if you will. Because so often we like to multitask. And we’re all wired do that in many ways. Unfortunately, we’re not great at it. And downtime is just one of those moments where it presents when we are trying to mix activities and do other things while we’re relaxing. Then we never truly shut down. Our mind doesn’t get the rest that it needs. And we don’t enjoy the privileges, or the benefits, rather, of downtime in the same way. So it really requires us to make that distinction between what’s truly downtime and what fits in one of these other categories.


[00:10:30] DR: Right. Yeah. No. Absolutely. And I think we can pull that apart. And then we’ll hear from Emma. That, like, if you look at it for a second, not downtime. Like doing exercise is not a downtime. Doing the dishes while listening is necessarily a downtime. Binge watching from Netflix, as much as you might think it’s downtime, it’s not downtime. Mindfulness is not downtime, because all of these things – And social media scrolling is not downtime. All of these things make your brain actually more noisy with the exception of mindfulness. Your brain’s going to be quite noisy. And you’re not going to activate a particular network, particular circuit, that’s really central to this. 


Whereas downtime could be going for a walk in the park. Just doing the dishes, nothing else. And just kind of mind wandering. Showering, again, when your mind wandering, not doing anything else. Doodling, staring out the window, just kind of wandering about the world. These kinds of things are downtime. You’re not goal-focused. You’re just kind of letting your mind wander. And that’s a really important frame. So yes, getting your nails done without doing anything might be quite a nice downtime, in that your mind can actually wander. And that’s a really important thing. 


Emma, tell us a little about this from your perspective, the platter and also this mind wandering piece.


[00:11:40] ES: Yeah. I mean, I think before we get into some of the science of it, I think it’s important to bring up the idea that it’s going to be different for everyone. And getting your nails done might be exactly what is perfect for some person, some people. But maybe taking a shower is what’s important for somebody else. And I think what the science shows is that you don’t need more than 10 or 15 minutes. It doesn’t have to be like sleep, which is maybe six to eight hours you need for sleep, which is like the important to get through all the cycles of sleep. But downtime could be 10 minutes in between meetings, if you have that time, or driving to work in the car and not listening to music, whatever you have available to you. 


So I think it’s important to keep that in mind when you think, “Oh, I don’t have time to fit this in because I have all of these things to do.” I don’t think it has to be any one thing. Every person can have their own structure downtime, and the benefits will be the same.


[00:12:35] DR: Yeah. No. That’s good. And to Savannah’s question, walking in the park with your kids it’s probably not downtime, because you have to keep aware. You’re very goal-focused at that time keeping them safe. So it’s not going to be really downtime. Maybe walking gently in the park on your own where you’re feeling safe and you’re not trying to exercise, you’re not trying to get anywhere specifically, you’re not checking your phone, that could be downtime. And to Mary’s comment, yes, it’s a very American concept. You’re going to be doing something. There’s nothing wrong with just sitting. Absolutely. 


Let’s dig a little bit to the science. This is fascinating research. And there’s a reason that downtime itself is important. And actually, just before we do one question, the mind platter – I’ll go back here for a sec. The healthy mind platter is it’s not supposed to be everything to be healthy. It’s everything in terms of the kinds of attention that you need, or the kinds of activities that you need for your mind to be healthy. So it’s intentionally leaving out a diet, because that’s an entire area. And it’s covered by the food platter that they did. It’s intentionally about the things that are kind of attentional for us. So how we focus our attention on the kinds of tasks that we do. 


But let’s dig into why this is important. Emma, talk to us about the default mode network and downtime, and kind of give us a bit of an education on what this is and why it matters.


[00:13:48] ES: Yeah, thanks. So the default mode network is what we consider to be active when we’re really kind of not goal-oriented. It’s this massive network. It involves a lot of areas that reflect, that integrate, that kind of integrate our memories and our social experiences. And all of the benefits that we see from downtime and engaging in those come from engaging in this area. 


And it is kind of a quiet area, too. So that’s one of the reasons why you can’t also interact with all of the other pieces of your platter while you’re engaging in this. You won’t really hear those signals. And they’re incredibly important for these major – These benefits that you see on the slide right here. 


So when we think about engaging in this default mode network, we see improvements in things like cognitive flexibility, which is a really critical piece right now. We’ve actually seen that it’s dropped over the course of the pandemic. And what this trait allows you to do is it allows you to pivot better in the face of unforeseen challenges. To adapt faster to things that come at you that you’re not expecting. It also allows you to engage in better insights. 


And so we know that individuals don’t have their best ideas necessarily in front of their computer screen. you have them when you’re driving to work, or when you’re in the shower, or you’re not away from your screen. And it almost makes it critical for us to walk away from the screen and not engage in something goal-oriented. These ideas are forming when we’re engaging in this network. 


And then somewhat tangential to this is this idea of shared experiences. Because this network is also integrating our social experiences, too, over the course of time, we’re actually better able to communicate when we’re engaging in this network. So in fact, studies show that there’s like a synchronization in this network as individuals are telling stories to each other. So the better this network synchronizes across individuals, the better the communication is. It almost seems critical right now as we’re kind of going back to work in these new social environments.


[00:15:55] DR: Let’s give people a little bit more kind of a tangible zeitgeist of what this is. And I’ll just kind of round it out a bit. And sometimes I’m not a lab person. So I don’t necessarily use all the right technical terms. But I’ll try and sort of bring it light. 


So one of the ways you know you’re activating the default mode network is that you’re doing something called mind wandering. And the signal for mind wandering is you’re not trying to think. It’s almost like – I think of like it’s almost like your brain catches and does its own thing. When you’re sort of lying in bed and you’re thinking about stuff, you’re like, “What time am I getting up?” That’s thinking. And then you stop thinking, and your mind just kind of does its own thing, and you watch it, right? That’s mind wandering. 


And what’s interesting about the name of the of this network – I mean, firstly, it’s kind of in the middle of the prefrontal. It’s the medial prefrontal. It’s kind of the center of it. But what’s interesting, it’s called the default network, or the default mode network, because scientists discovered I think more than a decade ago that this network switches on kind of automatically as the background hum when you’re not doing an active task. 


So essentially, what time do I need to get up? This switches off. And then when you stop thinking about that, your mind wander. It switches back on. And then when you think about, “Oh, my gosh, I’ve got this problem with this friend,” and you start getting anxious. Again, the switches off. Your threat network comes up. Then when you start being anxious, this will switch back on. So it’s the default network that’s actually always on. It’s always on in the background, unless you’re activating another kind of cognitive task. So working memory, memory itself, motor tasks. Just paying attention to something. Just being goal-focused at all, right? Anytime you’re just goal-focused at all, you switch off the default network. 


Maybe bring a little bit more accuracy to that for me, Emma, of just kind of why they called it that and what they found.


[00:17:46] ES: Yeah, absolutely. And I think what’s really important here is that just by engaging in this network, the more you do it, it actually – Because it communicates with everything else we do with our brain, by engaging in this more, you actually see better cognitive performance in other aspects of your life. So it isn’t that we’re being lazy. We’re actually helping all of the other pieces of our platter by engaging in this and allowing ourselves to mind wander. You’re allowing these like quiet ideas to form and that that will inform other parts of your platter, I think. And so that’s I think important to keep in mind as we give ourselves maybe permission to do it, which is so hard for us to do. In fact, you’re actually helping yourself by stepping away for 10 minutes at work.


[00:18:32] DR: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think Hannah asked, is this the same as kind of ruminating? And ruminating is slightly different, because you’re activating your anxiety networks, your threat networks. It’s not a kind of positive experience. Generally, the default mode network is kind of neutral to slightly positive experience. You’re just kind of exploring things. Whereas as you start to feel anxious, that’s really activating the threat network, and you’re doing something else. Can you speak to that, Emma?


[00:18:59] ES: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, so it will actually pull some of those resources away from this network. And you won’t actually hear those quiet signals. But I would say that, also, because I think of this as an integrator, it’s like kind of taking in signals all the time and constantly updating what you sense of yourself as you go through life. That sometimes those negative thoughts do kind of help you form your sense of self. So it is important to kind of keep that in perspective.


[00:19:28] DR: Yeah. I mean, it’s a complex question. I want to say one thing about this, and then we’ll go to Christie, her perspective on the gender issues around this. It’d be really interesting. And then we can maybe come back to more science. But one thing that really helped me understand this network is that – And it came from when we worked with Lila Davachi, who’s one of the world’s leaders in memory research at NYU. And we develop the AGES model. And we were digging into kind of how memories form. 


And what’s really important in what she taught us was that, for memories to be things we can access later, they need to be in a schema. They need to be in a kind of story. I mean, the G and AGES, which is generation, is literally about making connections, or generating connections between new ideas and existing ideas. But between new schemas, which are maps of information and existing maps of information, what’s fascinating is that scientists saw that this requires activation of the default mode network. That, literally, just kind of like making sense of something activates this network as well. So it’s really the network for connecting ideas into schemas. It also happens to be the network for understanding yourself and understanding other people, and how kind of we all fit together. So it’s been called the social network as well. It’s kind of the brain social network. So when you’re not doing math, or scheduling, or planning, your brain goes into this idle mode of thinking about you and other people, and how you all fit together. And that’s essentially what happens in mind wandering. We kind of process through stuff. So hopefully, that’s helpful. 


But let’s change gears a bit and talk about kind of this issue and gender. And Christie, tell us some of your perspective on mind wandering and gender. What we’re seeing in the research? And then maybe we can come back to some of the gender challenges or the brain challenges with this. Christie, over to you.


[00:21:15] CPH: Absolutely. And just to also address one of Hannah’s questions, and I believe Stephanie’s as well, is you bring up a very valid point. And for a lot of people, that happens very easily. One thing that can oftentimes help is a change of environment. So what I found is, if I’m in my house, and my mind starts wandering, unfortunately, I do the same thing. And I go to this place where it actually becomes very anxiety-inducing for me. 


What I have found, though, was if I go outside, get in a swimming pool, and literally lay there and float, my mind wanders and just processes things. And I get all of the great benefits that downtime is truly designed to do. So sometimes – And again, I think Emma mentioned it earlier, everyone is different in what’s really going to trigger this for you and what’s going to – If you will make it click. But oftentimes, it can be something as simple as a location change, because we all have reminders constantly around us. So if you look up and you see a sink of dirty dishes, it could be harder to truly engage in downtime. If you remove yourself from that environment, you then are more likely to get that full benefit. And as Emma and David mentioned, it doesn’t have to be for hours at a time. A quick 15-minute walk around the block can sometimes do it. So just from a sort of real-world or implementation perspective, that may be one way to think about it. 


And then to now switch gears a bit and talk about gender. And I know Emma, actually, I would love for you if you would share just a bit about some of the data behind it. You mentioned a statistic earlier that I think really ties in well. Then I’d love to come back and talk about how that plays out socially.


[00:22:57] ES: Okay. Yeah. Right. So the development of this area. What’s really interesting about this network is that what scientists see is that only about 23% of its overall development is due to what you inherit. So that means that the rest of this is due to experience. And when these connections are being made, as you’re developing, these connections are being made primarily during your adolescent years, when we’re also socially developing. And so I don’t know if I want to hand this off to Christie now, and you can you can talk to this?


[00:23:33] CPH: Yeah. Thank you. So what’s interesting when we think about this from a gender perspective, and we oftentimes think back to our adolescent days and how we felt, we were fit so much information about both who we were and what our role would be in the world. So when we think about being a woman or a female in the world, and I’ll speak specifically to this country, because there are absolutely gender differences depending on your location and where you grew up. But what we typically find is that the socialization of women is very different than man. 


When we think about little kids, if you were to see a group of little boys running around outside being loud, and playing, and getting dirty, kind of roughhousing, if you will, people tend to say the statement, “Boys will be boys.” When we see girls doing the same thing, oftentimes, there’s a very different response. That sends a subtle message to that girl on what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. Instead they’re told, “Oh, you should go inside. Play with your baby dolls. Braid your friend’s hair.” Things like that. They’re placed in a caretaker role. Playing with a baby doll is just mimicking taking care of someone else. Braiding your friends’ hairs mimicking taking care of someone else. 


And we see that throughout our adolescence and into adulthood are women tend to describe themselves in terms of their relationships to other people, whereas men tend to describe themselves in terms of activities that they engage in. So for example, I will often say, “I’m a wife. I’m a mother. I’m an aunt. I’m a sister. I’m a daughter. An employee, etc.” All of which are true. But if that’s how I see myself, then in order to feel successful, I have to feel then being successful in those roles and in those relationships, which means when I take downtime and step away from those, sometimes it can feel guilt. I can feel guilty. And really question, “Am I supposed to be doing this?” 


The flipside being, oftentimes, men are socialized to think of describe themselves in terms of their activities. I’m a baseball player. I am an executive at this organization, things like that, and things that are very focused on them as individuals. So taking time by themselves to let their mind wander feels very natural. And I think one very real example of this that we see so often is, I have yet to hear anyone use the phrase, “Oh, I need a house that has a woman cave in it.” But we hear people say all the time, “I need a man cave.” So the man can go and just kind of sit and let his mind wander and sort of veg out. And that’s okay, and socially acceptable. 


But unfortunately, we don’t always get that same thing for women. So it makes it much harder to separate ourselves in those relationships and really think about what do I need as an individual without bringing that guilt. And as several of you have mentioned in the comments, without bringing some of that anxiety with us. 


And I think another time we’ve seen this is very much during the pandemic. And I’m sure both David and Emma can speak to this some as well. We saw so many people leaving. So many women, specifically, leaving the workforce to go and take care of others. And we didn’t see that happen in the same numbers with me. And because, again, we took on that responsibility. And if your primary job now becomes being a caretaker to kids who are suddenly being homeschooled in a very different way that none of us saw coming, it makes it very difficult to step away, because you’re now engaged in that job 24 hours a day. 


David, I’m sure you can speak to that some, too.


[00:27:14] DR: That’s so interesting. And I’d love to hear, Emma, from you in a second about the kind of what we know from the brain about these differences as well. But I think about if a woman’s work is also the emotional labor of taking care, then there’s infinite amounts of work. There’s always something to do. And if you’re primed to feel that your primary job is caretaker, and you’re doing the emotional labor, you might never get some downtime. You’re might be just constantly goal-focused. How does this show up in the research, Emma? Tell us a little bit about that.


[00:27:43] ES: Yeah. This is a really great lead into some really interesting work on the ability of men and women to actually even engage this network. We know this network is important in downtime. We know, to get the benefits of it, you need to engage in it. When you ask men and women to engage in this network in the face of like external triggers, like work, or family, or things like that, women are more likely to suppress this network and jump out and attend to those things on the outside. And men have an easier time staying in it, essentially, or engaging in this network longer. So does that mean that women aren’t getting enough downtime? Or that they can’t actually enter at all? Either way, they’re just not able to get the benefits of it. And so maybe this is what’s leading to those numbers that we’re seeing, the higher rates of burnout and things like that. They’re just not getting enough of the downtime.


[00:28:36] DR: You know, I don’t know if it’s just me. But I want to hear that again. Can you crystallize that for me? I want to just process that. It’s such a big statement. Give us the punchline of that.


[00:28:45] ES: Well, I would just say that women have a harder time staying in downtime or getting into it. Like we know, we need to engage this network. But we have a harder time doing that. We’re more easily jumping out and attending to those things on the outside.


[00:28:59] DR: Right. Right. Taking care of other people or other things. 


[00:29:02] DR: Taking care of other people. Yeah. 


[00:29:03] DR: Thinking about that. Yeah. No. That’s really interesting. Let’s change gears a little bit and then we’ll come back. There’s going to be, I’m sure, some interesting questions. One of the areas that downtime is super important for is the moment of insight itself, is the creative breakthrough. And this is something that we’ve published on a lot. We’ve published on this issue a lot and kind of told the story. I think it’s an important thing to understand. There’s a very, very specific brain state for having more insights. And we published way back in 2008, I think it was, 2008, 2009, how insight happens, learning from the brain. And then more recently, why insight matters. And both of these papers and a lot of other research we’ve done point to this realization that, essentially, insights happen when your mind wander. Put it simply, when you activate this default network. 


And Mark Beeman, who did a lot of the original research with FMRI, with insights, tells a story of bringing trained meditators who have like 10,000 hours of meditation training coming in and trying to see if they could have more insights. And he found that they actually had fewer insights than people who didn’t have meditation, mindfulness meditation training. And he was trying to understand it. And he asked them what they were doing. And they were focusing on being mindful. And that focus was actually inhibiting insight. And he instructed them to focus on being unfocused. Like literally create a condition in your mind of being unfocused and try to hold it. And then they had a breakthrough number of insights, right? So it’s a really important thing. 


And now, all of this correlates to this connection, or this insight about insight, that insights involves being able to notice quiet signals. And quiet signal means like a weak electrical signal, a weak dopamine spike. And these things happen when we have these quiet moments when we’re not doing something, when we’re able to look inside. So literally not seeing or hearing. When we’re limiting the external threat and focusing on positive. And also, we’re not actually trying to solve the problem. So we’re doing that effortless kind of mind wandering. So mind wandering is the best description of the state that radically increases insight. And it’s also the thing that happens in the shower when we’re exercising, when we’re waking up. Like it’s the thing that happens when we feel safe. 


So if you think about this and gender now for a minute, what we’re saying is that women, being primed socially, and potentially, and neurologically, and having as many minutes a day of literally being able to solve complex problems with insight. They’re having to kind of push through and fight against problems. They’re not able to be as creative with this kind of environment. Emma or Christie, do you want to comment on that a little more?


[00:31:42] CPH: Well, I’d love say yes, something. And also, that relates to a few things we saw in the chat. People were asking about the concept of more caring organizations, and how that links to, David, exactly what you just shared, as well as how women are sort of looked at and viewed and treated. And I think that Tracy’s comment in the chat really helps us to understand that in a wonderful way. That, traditionally, people who take that downtime have sometimes been considered to be less productive. 


Obviously, what we’ve learned through this conversation and through all of the research is the opposite is true, we need this downtime in order to perform at our peak level. However, because that assumption has existed, it’s called some people, women in particular, but people in general, to shy away from downtime at different points in their lives. However, when we think about organizations being more caring and more accepting, which several of you have talked about in the comments, what that really becomes is, hopefully, now realizing the importance of downtime and encouraging your employees to take that, whether it’s walking around the office for a few minutes, or just stepping away from things. 


So I think that’s how the two of those correlate. And the hope would be, as organizations move to becoming much more caring, or much more empathetic, I know we’ve talked a lot in the past. And David, you’ve spoken a lot about empathetic organizations and leaders and how that is so very needed right now. Then we get to the point where employees who do step away and take that time are no longer viewed as less productive, as less ready for promotion, and instead are viewed as really focusing on what is going to allow them to perform at their peak level.


[00:33:28] DR: Oh, my gosh. A comment just came in from Jessa that just captures this so perfectly. Thanks, Christie, for your comment. So I have to jump into this. She says, “My husband often describes having times where his brain just goes offline. Like he’s not thinking anything at all. It just turns out. Never experienced this! Is this right?” That’s literally what we’re talking about. Yes. 


So it’s when someone is not actively thinking about anything. It’s kind of tuning out and just letting things flow. Not trying to think. Not trying to do anything at all. As Jessa said, she just doesn’t have that. Never experienced it even. It’s quite a statement. I think that kind of brings this alive in a really big way. Emma, any comments from you before we dig further?


[00:34:08] ES: Yeah. I mean, just to tie in a little bit to what Christie was saying about that perspectives and other people’s perspectives, but also your own perspective of yourself. I mean, how do women get past this barrier of, “I need to do all of these things to prove myself to myself, or to prepare myself, or to compete, or whatever it is against the roles of myself,” is I think there is this piece of having self-compassion towards yourself, to give yourself permission. 


And in fact, women are worse at self-compassion than men are, in that they are more judgmental towards themselves. They see themselves different in terms of having the same ability to fail, to feel inadequate, to succeed. And they ruminate more often on their failures in the past. And I think maybe that’s a doorway forward. Maybe If we work on having more self-compassion, realizing that we are the same. Because cognitively, we are the same. Our brains are the same. A male and female brains are the same. There really shouldn’t be any differences. But we aren’t giving ourselves that permission to. And maybe we ruminate too much on the past. So we don’t have this like growth mindset forward, moving forward, and not being so judgmental towards ourselves.


[00:35:24] DR: Interesting. Can you dig into that a little more? Like the self-compassion and women? Just go into that? 


[00:35:30] ES: Yeah. Yeah. So self-compassion is really interesting. It’s made up of three major components. The first component is this idea of self-kindness, which isn’t the same thing as self-care. Like it isn’t the same thing as getting a massage or whatever. It’s really just like not judging yourself differently compared to others. And the second part is this thing called common humanity, which is really interesting, in that it really places yourself on a field with everyone else. Everyone succeeds. Everyone fails. And everyone feels inadequate sometimes. So we’re all the same in that. 


And the third piece is a mindfulness piece. But it’s really about taking failures with perspective. So when you fail, you can feel upset, because that’s the normal response. But then not staying in that feeling, moving beyond that, and maybe taking on a growth mindset in that you are using that as a push forward. But significantly less in terms of women don’t have the same levels of self-compassion that men do. And that can be maybe holding us back in that sense.


[00:36:34] DR: Interesting. Interesting. And Christie, do you want to call in on that in relation to people of color and others? And what do you think is going on there?


[00:36:42] CPH: Absolutely. And I think this ties in very well to women in general, particularly women of color. There is an expectation of perfection that I think we’ve been socialized to really take on and believe in. I mentioned earlier about how so much of this is formed during our adolescent years. So if we think about how we typically socialize, again, girls and boys, during that time, that’s when girls become very critical of themselves, because they see images from society, and particularly on social media, that you’re supposed to look a certain way and perform a certain way. 


And then when we take it a step further and think about people of color, there is, unfortunately, this feeling of an internal feeling of I need to be perfect in order to measure up because of bias that exists. And it’s very real. Oftentimes, there’s less forgiveness when mistakes are made by those in marginalized communities. That can be gender. That can be race related. That could be certain religion. So it plays out in a number of ways. But when society has sort of taught us that there’s less of a margin of error, we take that onto ourselves, which ties in exactly, I think, to what Emma was just talking about, and that we don’t have that same level of compassion. We don’t forgive ourselves. And we don’t allow ourselves to take a moment to just step back and do nothing, if you will, because we feel as though we’re going to be judged much more harshly than others would be.


[00:38:09] DR: Yeah. It’s a double whammy there. It’s an interesting challenge. I mean, for me, it’s so helpful to have the language, like a granular language for these different mental states, so that people can see like, “Oh, folks have the time to do this. They don’t have the time to do this.” But it’s such an important thing. And so distinguishing this state from, say, mindfulness from, say, sleep. Like it’s such an important statement. Now you can see in the comments how much this isn’t a part of a lot of people’s lives. 


I want to address the seven-year-old question, “How do I introduce downtime to my seven-year-old?” I taught this to my kids really early. And I taught the concept of – I think the language I used at the time was like impulses versus instincts. And I said, when you look inside your own feelings, you can detect two things. You can detect an impulse, which is quite strong and loud, like to hit your sister when she says something. That’s an impulse, right? Or to steal that candy. That’s an impulse. It’s quite strong. An instinct is acquired a signal, and you won’t hear it if your brain is busy with an impulse, or if you’re busy trying to do something. So you actually need to be in a quiet state to have this moment of insight. 


And I taught this really early, like five, six-years-old, seven-years-old. And it was really funny, my kids throwing this back at me, but you in a good way. I remember one time we were walking. I was trying to ask my daughter. I think she was maybe eight, seven or eight at the time. I was like, “Do you want to come sailing with me? Do you want to go – Join in the pool?” And I was asking her. And then I was like sort of impatient. I asked her again. She said, “Shup up, dad. I need to listen to my instincts for a minute. I don’t know. Like, let me just listen.” 


Knowing that you’ve got to activate this mind wandering to hear these deeper instincts is really important. So an instinct is another – In my language, was just an insight. It was a quiet signal in that way. But I think giving kids language to do differentiate between these different things is really important. Not to mention, people in organizations, language to differentiate these things. So you do really need these different states. Yeah, Christine?


[00:40:12] CPH: If I could add one thing, as many people of color, who, we were children, were told we had to be twice as good. And I think the full phrase, and most people will probably agree, we were told twice as good to get half as much, which is unfortunate. But that’s what so many people are now bringing with them into their adult life. So to tie that into the question about children, I very deliberately raised my girls in a very different way. I encouraged them to be selfish to an extent with their time. 


And David, I love the language about instinct, and really tying that in and teaching them language so they can listen to what they need and set those boundaries as they need to to allow them to have that downtime so they can really regenerate. What I’ve started saying is downtime isn’t just bubble bags. It’s boundaries. And I think that’s something that all of us can really keep in mind. 


Oftentimes, it’s setting the boundaries to not allow other people to sort of infringe on that time, but also not allow ourselves to feel guilty about taking it. So sometimes we have to have those parameters in place that says, “For these 15 minutes, I’m going to do nothing. And that’s okay.” And set those boundaries for yourself. And not only do you need to make sure other people respect them, but give yourself permission to respect those yourself and carve out that time because it is so critical.


[00:41:33] DR: Yeah. No. That’s great. Boundaries, not bubble baths. Let’s change gears a little bit. I know we’ve got about five minutes left, and we should wrap up. But let’s change gears. I want to lift this up a little bit and just share – And I’ll share the screen a bit. And just share a little bit of thinking on gender itself, and gender bias in particular. So those of you who know our work know that we think in a very particular way about bias. We’ve got the SEEDS model, which is similarity, expedience, experience, distance and safety. I think I’ve got that here somewhere. But with SEEDS, we’re looking through the lens of, in particular, putting in place if-then plans or preventative measures, even better, to reduce bias at the source. 


We wrote this paper, and we published it in 2018. Honestly, it was about two and a half years’ work to produce this. And the reason it took so long was it was very hard to find something actually helpful in the research that wasn’t just incredibly noisy. Like there was a lot of noise. Not much signal. 


And as Emma said, like if you’re looking at the neuroscience, in many ways, the brain is really similar. There’s not a lot of difference in the male and female brain. So what we came to – And we’re going to have a whole session on this in a few weeks with some of our scientists. But I just want to kind of give you a primer for this. It’s such an important insight. What we saw is that everyone seems to think that men are better leaders, including women. Like when you focus on gender, people think men are better leaders. It turns out, if you’re focusing on the actual data, women are better leaders. Like if you’re looking at competency assessments, on average, women are better leaders. But everyone thinks men are. 


And the more you focus on gender, and the more you kind of make gender salient, the more that bias just comes in. And it’s not that men are better leaders. It’s that they do have a stylistic difference. They have a different style on average. But individual variation ends up being far more important than gender variation. So individual variation is much more important for leadership effectiveness than gender. Gender doesn’t play a big role. 


But what happens is the more we focus on gender, the more everyone unconsciously thinks that men are actually better leaders. So there’s this weird kind of issue where you sort of got to treat everyone the same in a way. And now that’s of course contentious, because we’ve just spent the last hour saying women have these challenges. So it’s a really complex area. We don’t have any easy answers to this. But I think having accurate language for what’s going on and kind of understanding what’s happening is really the foundation. Emma, do you want to comment there? Anything you want to add there?


[00:44:00] ES: No. I think that’s great. I mean, I think that may jump back to what we talked about in the beginning, and just that the brain is so sensitive to our earlier experiences. And if we’re starting off early life with these different roles that we’re placing on our children, then that’s going to feed into later on. And as you mentioned, both women and men see women and men differently. If you place a bunch of resumes in front of both women and men without – And the same resume has a female and a male name, they will hire the male. And maybe female, the same exact resume. So it happens across both genders. So that’s something that needs to maybe be addressed early on.


[00:44:40] DR: Yeah, yeah. No. It’s a really interesting challenge for. So one of the things that we’ve been noticing in the last couple of years is just kind of how much science there is particularly around the DEI space. And honestly, I can’t keep up sometimes with our own research just to kind of how much we’ve done and kind of where the studies or whatever. So we been talking about this for the last few weeks. But I wanted to spend like another minute on this. We’ve decided to put together what we call a practitioner masterclass starting with DEI, diversity, equity and inclusion. And this is an opportunity to spend six months actually walking through the science of DEI. And what we’re looking at is diversity, equity and inclusion. And with each one, understanding the foundational research. So really understanding the brain basis of these things. And then looking at how do you make that issue, whether it’s D, or EI? How do you make that a priority? How do you build the habits that are necessary in that? And then how do you transform the system. 


So you’re going to see some information coming out in the next few weeks on this, but it’s a six-month, fully online program. Although some synchronous components to really dig in. I’m excited about this, because I want to actually be able to see the syllabus and see all the content and be able to kind of dig in as we’re thinking about this space. So this will be the first time we’re kind of organizing what is probably 200 pieces of research and content and studies we’ve done into kind of one experience. So that’s something exciting coming up. 


Let’s kind of wrap this. Christie, closing comments? Christy, Emma, closing comments as we think about downtime? What are your big insights from today as you think about downtime and kind of the gender challenges? What are your big reflections? I’ll give you a moment to reflect.


[00:46:18] CPH: I think, for me, it’s just really focusing on the importance of it and reminding ourselves. And sometimes, especially when we’ve been socialized to think of downtime as a negative thing, really reminding ourselves of the why. We aren’t just relaxing for the sake of relaxing. We’re relaxing and we’re allowing our mind to wander, and we’re taking that step away from everything else that requires our attention so we can then perform at our peak level. The reality is, for so many women, we have to move past feeling guilty about it. And that’s easier said than done. So one of the ways to potentially help mitigate that guilt is to remind yourself, “You’re doing this so you can show up as your best self in every other area of your life.” And hopefully, after you find the way that works for you, find the location, find the method, and keep in mind the why, it become second nature, and you’ll see the benefits overwhelmingly appear in your life in so many areas.


[00:47:17] DR: That’s great. Thanks, Emma, what about for you?


[00:47:20] ES: Yeah, I mean, I would agree with everything Christie said. I would say start small. If you’re trying to fit something like this into your life, give yourself 10 minutes. And then you’ll start seeing the benefits. Just as Christie said, you’ll start developing that habit around the rewards that you’re seeing. And you’ll see yourself showing up better for all of the other pieces of your platter. So I would just say this is not a huge step. Just 10 minutes extra on your day, and you’ll see some of the benefits.


[00:47:47] DR: Thanks, Emma. That’s great. I love the comment from Rebecca, the dog walks have suddenly take on more relevance that – Yeah, absolutely. Walking your dog without a goal. Just enjoying the morning. Being there. That can be great mind wandering time, and probably better than the cigarette break on the whole. But yeah, there’s some interesting things that hopefully you’ve noticed. 


Emma and Christie, just thank you so much for your thoughtful comments today putting this together. And I think you’ve inspired a lot of great insights for people. Thanks so much for being here. 


A couple of quick announcements. Empathy came up a lot. We are launching CAER, the neuroscience of quality connections, as opposed to quality conversations, which is CONNECT. So CARE, the neuroscience of quality connections, is based on our new framework for empathy; notice, understand, act. And that’s now starting to happen. And we also launched CALM, the neuroscience of de-escalation, in response to the chaos happening out there in the world, particularly in retail and public-facing organizations. That’s another solution that’s scaling. 


Join the Insider if you’re from an organization. Join the Insider community. It’s an amazing community. We meet once a month to just brainstorm together on things. You can go to neuroleadership.com/insiders. That is exclusively for people from organizations. Not external consultants. But that’s something to consider. And then I think that’s all my announcements. Shelby, I hand back to you for a couple other things. Just thanks very much for your hard work behind the scenes, Shelby, pulling this together. Thanks, everyone, for being here. And look forward to seeing you again next week. Back to you, Shelby. Thanks.


[00:49:17] SW: Great. Thanks so much, David. Again, thank you, Emma and. Christie. Such an insightful conversation with a lot of gems we are looking forward to sharing. As we always say, please take a look and let us know how NLI can help you in the future. And we are also going to be sending out our survey. We’d love to hear your feedback. We love when you guys share in the comments. But also, we’d love to hear that feedback through our survey, too. So if you’d be willing, and we’re going to drop the link in the chat as well. 


For Insider change, just to reiterate, if you enjoy Your Brain at Work and you are in a senior leadership position, we’re looking to have people join an exclusive community where you can hear about new research, have roundtable conversations. So as David mentioned, visit the website for more information on that. Again, we’re hiring. So if you are injured Stage and joining the team and working with us on the backend, check out our careers at neuroleadership.com/careers for open positions. 


We are super excited about this episode. And then this is where we officially say farewell. On behalf of our guests today, as well as the team here at NLI, thank you for joining us, as always. We really appreciate you. And we will return here next week, on March 18th, for our episode; Hybrid Work Update: Navigating the Pitfalls of Going Back to the Office. So have a great weekend. And we will talk to you soon. 




[00:50:37] SW: Your Brain at Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us make organizations more human by rating, reviewing and subscribing wherever you listen to your podcast. Our producers are Matt Holidack, Mary Kelly, and me, Shelby Wilburn. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky. And logo design is by Catch Wear. Thanks for joining us. And we’ll see you next week.



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