Neuroscience and law departments – working memory and the challenge of change

“Working memory” is the term for where perceptions and ideas are first handled by the brain. When working memory is in use, such as when a law firm partner tells you next quarter’s budget, the brain shows neural activity in the pre-frontal cortex. The basal ganglia, by comparison, are invoked by routine, familiar activity, like typing or minimizing Free Cell when the Deputy GC walks in. In the basal ganglia, located near the core of the brain, the brain forms and stores the neural circuits of habits.

A provocative article by David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz, “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” Strategy + Business, Summer 2006 at 71, explains that “the basal ganglia can function exceedingly well without conscious thought in any routine activity. In contrast, working memory fatigues easily and can hold only a limited amount of information at the ready.”

Much of what we are accustomed to doing is handled unconsciously by the basal ganglia; to reroute these deep grooves of familiarity and habit requires deliberate attention, which is difficult and irritating, as it puts stress on attention and working memory. So neuroscience helps explain why we avoid change.

For more on neuroscience and lawyers, see my post of March 18, 2005 on intuition and decisions; and in 2006 of Feb. 12 on the amygdala hijack; March 23 on pharmacology; April 19 on our hardwired attraction to systems over personal interaction; and April 27 on CLE and brain longevity.

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