Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Management Benefits the Brain

By Stephen Luntz

Working in management expands the hippocampus, potentially protecting this vital area of the brain against Alzheimer’s disease in later life.

Dr Michael Valenzuela, Leader of Regenerative Neuroscience at the University of NSW School of Psychiatry, and colleagues took MRIs of

151 people aged 75–92. These were used to measure the size of the subjects’ hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for the consolidation of memory and other functions such as spatial navigation and smell recognition.

Participants were asked to divide their careers into decadal periods and record the largest number of people they managed for substantial portions of each period.

“We found a clear relationship between the number of employees a person may have supervised or been responsible for and the size of the hippocampus,” Valenzuela says. The relationship remained after controlling for factors such as level of education and mental and physical activity in retirement.

“This could be linked to the unique mental demands of managing people, which requires continuous problem-solving, short-term memory and a lot of emotional intelligence, such as the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes,” Valenzuela says. “Over time this could translate into the structural brain changes we observed.”

Valenzuela acknowledges that not all managers display high levels of emotional intelligence, and admits the explanation is “more speculative” than the finding itself. However, he believes that “if you are leading a large team it will at least be demanding of emotional intelligence, and this may act to expand this section of the brain”.

“The hippocampus is important because it is the main memory processing centre and is targeted preferentially in Alzheimer’s,” Valenzuela says. He encourages those not offered management positions to “keep on challenging yourself with mentally demanding things, particularly after retirement”.

The research was reported at the Brain Plasticity – The Adaptable Brain conference, which examined many examples of the new wave of evidence demonstrating that environmental factors alter our brains to previously unsuspected degrees.