The Science of Brain and Behavior, explained through LEGO and using Square Wheels images for anchoring ideas and concepts

Neuroscience is “hot” right now in the leadership development and organization improvement literature and I got one of those “doctorate thingies” in behavioral neurobiology* from UNC-Chapel Hill a long time ago, before this “brain science stuff” became popular as a solution to business and training problems. The basic reality and an insight to some training people is that the brain is actually involved in learning and memory and a variety of other human behaviors. We have actually known this for a long time… 😀

Scott Simmerman quote on neuroscience (grin)

Wikipedia defines Behavioral Neuroscience, as the application of the principles of biology to the study of physiological, genetic, and developmental mechanisms of behavior in humans and other animals. The American Psychological Association publishes Behavioral Neuroscience®  for original research articles as well as reviews in the broad field of the neural bases of behavior. They are seeking empirical papers reporting novel results that provide insight into the mechanisms by which nervous systems produce and are affected by behavior.

Me, I don’t publish many empirical papers these days… I design team building games and use cartoons and I blog and try to publish readable, actionable thoughts on people and performance issues. But I DO study behavior and I do know about the brain and so I thought to elucidate a couple of understandable pedagogical conceptualistic  frameworks that underpin my use of stupidly simple illustrations and how they relate to things like communications, engagement, learning, facilitation, creativity, change and quality. My one word to describe the underlying key principle is “perspective.” Change perspective and you change a lot of things.

Generating change is a complicated thing to accomplish and there are some great books written about it, with “Immunity to Change” by Kegan and Lahey (2009) being a really solid work and a good read. I think that perspective is also key to Daniel Kahnemann’s book,”Thinking, Fast and Slow.” And I still like the elegant simplicity of Peters and Waterman’s “In Search of Excellence.” All these books (and so many others) work by generating a more objective view of behavior and the working environment around it, much like what behavioral counseling is designed to accomplish (“Please, tell me about that…”).

Let me use LEGO to show you how the brain works:

First, we have a whole big bunch of input from all of the senses, information that comes in all at once with little structure or organization. It looks a bit like this:

LEGO Neuroscience 1 - How the Brain Works using LEGO

If that looks too complicated and confusing, maybe flipping it upside down will make it clearer?

Scott Simmerman LEGO Model of NeuroscienceWhatever…

Anyway, what all that electrical activity you have heard about really does is to allow different areas of the brain to add some structure and pattern and “brain-shape” to the information, prioritizing some information and ignoring other input. It uses the brain’s learned preferences, along with some innate / cognitive biases, for putting things into categories and cubby holes and relating one thing to another, something we call categorization and association. Memory storage is based on link new information to old and creating some blocks.
(Note: biases and storage link to lots of explanatory info on Wikipedia, if you want to click through…)

Structuring looks like this, which is not so confusing:

A LEGO Model of how the brain sorts information

Once the brain has learned a few things, which actually happens pretty early in life and which continues for most people their entire lives  is that we begin to see some patterns in things. Alzheimer’s, dementia and some other cognitive disorders are generally disruptions in information storage and retrieval, where these processes no longer work smoothly. Over time, more and more gets linked and related based on personal experiences and memories. This is normal learning; over time, more and more things get linked and the flexibility of sorting information decreases as these biases filter out more and more. Their behavior becomes more rigid and some tunnel vision can affect their perceptions.

If people start using a new model or framework through which to filter information, we can change how things are viewed and sorted. If they learn the metaphor of Square Wheels, for example, new information sorting can take place. Square Wheels can be framed in a metaphor about things that work but that do not work smoothly. Now, you can see them scattered among the blocks below, representing some new categories for how information can be filtered:

Square Wheels LEGO model of brain functioning

For those of us that are focused on process improvement and doing things more better faster, we will also look to identify some best practices or other choices that we might then label Round Wheels. Generating peer-level discussions of issues and opportunities and resorting and re-categorizing can refresh the learning process and generate more active involvement and engagement.

When there is something that is thumping and bumping along as a Square Wheel, most of us will think about ways to improve it. Seeing the gap between the way things are and the way things could / should be is motivating for most people, who will consider ways to close that gap. Leon Festinger discussed this kind of approach in his theory of Cognitive Dissonance. That might then look like this as they begin to consider some Round Wheel possibilities:

Round Wheels already exist

Now, obviously, your brain is not built from LEGO, at least for most of us, and I am being relatively simplistic in my descriptive model of basic neurophysiology. There are underlying structures in the brain that handle information in different ways, adding speech and comprehension and motor skills and all other sorts of output processes to the input of information.

But the basics DO apply, in that people’s brains focus on repetition and patterns and things that mesh in with past learnings are more readily integrated into what we know — ideas that are radically different are paradigms that are simply ignored. (See Joel Barker’s work video on Paradigms (from my pals at Star Thrower), based on the research of Thomas Kuhn and published in the 1960s.

Okay. Enough already on The Brain. How about some ideas on people and performance and how all this applies to the workplace!

Okay. The use of my Square Wheels images is really well-grounded in a variety of principles of learning and thinking that you might find interesting. So, I will try to share some of the underpinnings as to why such a simple approach can be so powerful and effective. Think about it!

NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP) is a tool that helped me understand more of the links of behavior to how the brain handles information. My training took me to the Master Practitioner level and I led ASTD’s NeuroLinguistic Network for a couple of years a long time ago. It shares some interesting tools, like the Information Sorting Styles approach to thinking patterns. NLP focuses heavily on using dissociation as a tool to generate perspective. I call it, “stepping back from the wagon” in my simple approach and frame the concept of collecting ideas and generating participative involvement like this:

Don't Just DO Something, Stand There

Only by stopping the action and looking at how things work can you possibly identify new or different ways of doing things. By dissociating from the current reality, it is possible to see new relationships and gain new perspectives. Plus, if this is done with a shared approach, with more than one person adding ideas and viewpoints, the impact can be more better faster and the ideas can have more breadth and depth.

Dissociation and perspective also serve to decrease the emotional aspects of managing and leading change. In counseling, being able to simply view the situation without all the heavy emotional hooks is a desired outcome. The same thing occurs in the workplace. Talking about the THINGS that do not work smoothly is much less emotional than addressing issues that might be taken as a personal attack and thus generate defensiveness and active resistance. This is another reason why using Square Wheels as a metaphor is so effective.

Most of you are familiar with inkblot tests, properly called Rorschach tests. The visual has no reality but people will project their ideas onto that image based on their own information processing. (Look, a squirrel!) A related psychological test is the Thematic Apperception Test, which has situational drawings and people are asked to tell a story based on what they see happening. Both of these tools push people to put personal viewpoints and frameworks onto the images, which have no “internal construct” of their own. They are not pictures, but images that allow for differing perceptions and interpretations.

We do the same thing. Heck, this LEGO block is not even a wheel; it is actually a window! But it works for us as an image to use on the wagon, and if we calONE Yellow Square Wheel SWs LEGO 70l it a wheel, it must wheely be a wheel, right? (And I remember the time when I presented the illustrations to a software development group, who identified the Square Wheel as the Windows platform they were programming on! That was a hoot, as well as a surprise…)

Perception is a key to understanding. And people benefit by having a language on to which they can hang ideas. If the word for it does not exist, it is really hard to categorize it. That is another reason why Square Wheels work in the workplace, since they give everyone a common anchor point against which to pull and push around ideas for improvement. By its very nature, it could and should be improved and something that gets labeled a Square Wheel sets itself up for improvement.

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend” is a relevant quote from Henri Bergson. Having an image against which to overlay systems and processes allows for a better understanding of the issues around performance improvement.

There are two other aspects to perception that link to the theme of motivation. One is that having some vision, preferably shared with others is important. Knowing where you are going is beneficial. The second is ownership, in that having a sense of active involvement and engagement is important. I can illustrate with another of the Square Wheels images along with one of my most favorite organizational development quotes.

The View at the back of the Square Wheels wagon

The View at the back of the wagon is not motivating



Metaphors such as the Square Wheels / Round Wheels dichotomy are easily remembered and incorporated into workgroup language. The simple basic concept of a Square Wheel, something that works but that does not work smoothly, combined with the perception that the Round Wheels already exist in the wagon sets up a motivation for continuous continuous improvement **

Stepping back from the wagon allows a sense of decreased emotion while expanding perceptions, and often “considered alternative choices.” The latter are critical in order to conceptualize a different future. If you cannot see alternatives, you cannot choose from them. Simple.

Daniel Kahneman Illustrated Quote with Square Wheels and LEGO


Square Wheels LEGO image ALl of us know more

My goal was to present our simple concept of organizational involvement and transformation, the Square Wheels theme, which is general and flexible and adaptable to a wide variety of personal and organizational development situations. People have a generally favorable memory of LEGO and play, and the links to the issues of combining different perspectives on issues and opportunities lend itself to improved communications.

I will switch to this metaphor to close this out:

Caterpillars can fly lighten up round

I think we can all improve all things if we just take the time to lighten up and look at things from a different perspective,


For the FUN of It!

Dr. Scott SimmermanDr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.

Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at

Scott’s quips and quotes on Poems on The Workplace is here.

Square Wheels® is a registered trademark of Performance Management Co.
LEGO® is a trademark of The LEGO Group

* back before we became enlightened, we called it “physiological psychology.” Heck, the whole department is now called, “The Department of Psychology and Neuroscience” even though the website is still so go figure… I might as well try to move into the mainstream of popularity.

** Idea from the Department of Redundancy Department and the concept that the Round Wheels of Today will, invariably, become the Square Wheels of Tomorrow. Failure to continuously improve is a design for disaster. Think of land-line telephones and MySpace.