Neuroscience_Brain Waves

Head Mistress

Victor meets Dr Tara Swart, the Corinthia Hotel’s neuroscientist-in-residence, for a lesson in lifelong learning.

London’s Corinthia Hotel likes to do things differently. Guests at Whitehall’s most glamorous address won’t find the latest etchings from an artist-in-residence gracing the walls but something altogether more practical: from beds to spa treatments, it has engaged the services of an official neuroscientist to oversee a top-to-toe offering designed to promote a positive mental attitude.

A world-first hire in the hospitality industry, Dr Tara Swart’s remit is not restricted to nipping and tucking the details of your stay – though measures like blackout blinds, sleep-inducing lavender sprays and mindfulness massages all have their place in the programme. As might be expected from a medical doctor who combines her role as a senior lecturer at MIT with a leadership-coaching consultancy, her role also includes an academic element and she will be publishing a report on the mental states of 40 members of hotel staff at the end of her tenure. “I make myself do things that are hard for my brain,” she says.

With a career spanning continents, Swart is well qualified to advise the globetrotting CEOs and UHNWI entrepreneurs that come to her for help on how to manage their jam-packed schedules. Specialising in sectors facing unusual levels of stress, hers is a big-picture approach that considers how we might make a meaningful impact on our environment at the same time as adapting to it: “What’s going on in the world now that we need to change for?” she asks.

When under stress, she advocates a combination of simple measures like choice reduction – the reason why Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is only ever seen in a hoodie, for example – with adopting a mindset that sees change as a positive influence.

Exposing your brain to new things, like learning a language or travelling, is what keeps it flexible – so it could be argued that a CEO’s lifestyle can help rather than hinder their wellbeing when approached in the right frame of mind.

According to Swart and her MIT colleague Carol Dweck, author of the bestselling Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, the key is understanding the difference between a fixed mindset and a learning mindset. People with fixed mindsets are successful up to a point, after which they usually plateau. Those with learning mindsets, however, tend to be more receptive to new endeavours because they are unconcerned by the risk of failure. For the fixed mindset, such a situation is to be avoided; for the learning mindset, it’s part of the process.

If the prospect of a mental MOT sounds daunting, Swart is keen to stress that adopting a fixed mindset is more about improving 10 small things by one percent than one big thing by 10 percent. Up to the age of 25, brains are particularly receptive to change but what about those aged 25 to 65, and beyond? After all, the average CEO tends to come from (how to put this?) more mature stock. There is hope: “You can change pathways in your brain,” she says. A good starting point is to remember what it’s like to be that open-minded kid you once were, and to play around with your brain to see what you can do with it.

It also pays to be aware of what’s known as generational diversity stereotypes. “Interact with people who think differently to you,” Swart says, and suggests hanging out with someone 20 years younger than you and someone 20 years older as an easy way to achieve this. Another piece of advice, and one that might also be applied metaphorically as well as physically, is to start a “vision board” on which to pin pictures that create a way forward in your head: “To change your luck, you need to change what your brain sees,” she asserts.

Taking a break from our alwayson culture helps too. A classic high achiever, Swart admits that she was a slave to the demands of her smartphone until she took a digital detox. “That first time I did it, I couldn’t believe how much time and space I had,” she says, and now regularly reaches for the off button. “I almost became addicted to that instead.”

For Swart, the brain fascinates because so much of it remains uncharted – not knowing everything is exciting. “One thing you learn as a doctor is that miracles do happen,” she says, and it’s perhaps this combination of intellectual rigour and wide-eyed wonder only a curious mind can bring that has led to her own success. The brain’s ability to change means there’s plenty more to discover, which means plenty more work to be done. Despite this ability to change, of course, humans have in other ways remained unchanged for millennia. “In terms of evolution, sometimes I think we haven’t got that far,” she says with a smile.

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