New MaastrichtMBA students during the MBA Introduction Programme

Learning Something New Every Day

Twelve new MaastrichtMBA students from all walks of life gathered in a classroom at Maastricht University’s campus in the first week of December. It was their introduction weekend to the MBA programme. Although they had only just met, a warm and open vibe of togetherness was already present, turning the session about Leadership & Learning into a very lively one.

Exploring brain capacity

Sonja Zaar, lecturer and researcher in the field of organisational behaviour and educational sciences, introduced herself to the group and promised a mix of information and entertainment, carried by the group itself via active participation in the various assignments she had planned. A first series of questions balancing myths and facts evoked amusement and laughter, as the group discussed whether people would use their left or right brain primarily. “It’s a myth, of course!” Sonja explained when curiosity for the correct answer grew bigger, “because the two sides of the brain are intricately co-dependent.” She supported her claim with an illustration mapping out some of the functions of our brain and body that definitely needed both sides of the brain. Another myth or fact kept the group bouncing off ideas and thoughts with their immediate neighbours in the room, as Sonja instructed. Do we use only 10% of our brain? “I sure hope that’s a myth,” Maurice Zeegers responded, and again the group burst out in laughter. Sonja Zaar had no trouble convincing the group of the fact that we actually use our entire brain, but due to internal and external factors we don’t make use of the full 100% all the time.

The myth of multitasking

The myth of multitasking was next. “My colleague Suzanne Dieteren will elaborate on this subject in her workshop this weekend, so I will keep it brief,” Sonja Zaar stated. Opinions differed, which even resulted in a banter between genders, when Robin Richardson said that women could definitely handle more tasks simultaneously. After this rather playful warming-up for the brain cells, it was time for a more serious approach of matters. “It is a fact that we can grow our brain,” Sonja continued. She asked the group for input. Suzanne de Vaal was the first to respond: “We can build a network with multiple connections.” Dimitriya Bozukova, who holds a PhD in Chemistry added: “Maybe blood vessels can grow when the brain is stimulated.” Sonja Zaar then pointed out two major facts. “The brain forms new cells throughout life, it’s called neurogenesis. The brain has the ability to change and adapt, and you can have control over it. That’s called neuroplasticity.” An illustration of a dendrite, which is a short branched extension of a nerve cell, showed that dendrites only grow with new information and new experiences. “If you don’t practice what you learn, there are no new dendrites”, Sonja Zaar concluded. Maurice Zeegers posed a question about creating a neuro network for practice. “Do we have to apply it or are neurons already growing?” Khalifa Almuttawa had his own thoughts about this new knowledge: “Longterm memory is like a hard drive then. Is it ever full?”

The group was focused on everything Sonja Zaar shared about the capacity of our brain, about neuropathways and the automated process that functions like a drawer for a domain. Or how a path can be reactivated to access knowledge. There’s the downside of creating habits, which results in bad habits like addiction. Addiction stems from a neuropathway with a physical impairment.

Different cultures means different understandings of reality

Sonja Zaar moved on to mental models, and the way we see the world. She asked the group to each draw an elephant and in advance she said that each drawing would show a different elephant. And it did. Her next assignment was for the group to form small teams, and for each team to think about a certain project. Each member would have a different point of view, and the goal was to be explicit about what each team member had in mind and to express those different views. The example of the half empty or half full glass was given. Is there fluid and if so, is it transparent? Does it have to be water? Why is it water, is it blue? Ahmed Mongeal liked the comparisons and expressed his realisation that everyone in this group comes from different cultures and as such, different understandings of reality.

Leadership at the core

Sonja Zaar created yet another level by inviting the group to think about the brain and its need for patterns, which easily might lead to optical illusions. The conversation entered metaphysical and philosophical domains before it reached the core essence of this session, namely leadership. “Leaders need to find the strong points of their team, for nobody has the same skillset in life. They need to look at what is the most workable for their team members.” The session then ended with some practical guidelines to benefit both brain and body and how to be receptive towards new ways of looking at things.