The chemistry of inspiration

I have long felt intrigued (and somewhat threatened) by the fact that small shifts in the chemistry of our brains can lead to major shifts in our behaviours and attitudes. Recently, I felt I should investigate further (particularly around brain chemistry and meetings) and I found some fascinating connections and implications for the topic of inspiration.I share my conclusions here, but offer them in the context that I have no expertise in neurochemistry – I just hope to inspire people to:

a) think about the implications for creating inspiration in their own meetings

b) check these things out further and continue the insight and the debate

… please therefore, if you have a better understanding than I, feel free to use the comments space to correct any misunderstandings I may have. And if you have any thoughts on this, please throw them into the pot.

The gist of my current understanding is that, when we are working with others in a positive ‘space’, brain chemistry creates an amazing reinforcement of the dynamics between us which fosters collective enthusiasm, creativity, trust and empathy. I have tried to reflect this reinforcement in the diagram on the right (and I have copied some of the key references which support this model, below).

Essentially, there are three positive neuro-chemicals at play:

  1. Oxytocin, which stimulates feelings of empathy and trust
  2. Dopamine, which stimulates a sense of motivation and energy
  3. Serotonin, which helps stimulate calmness and learning

These neuro-chemicals enable us to find it easier to feel confident within the group, and more likely to listen to ideas and build on the positively, and to have the courage to propose ideas and more ambitious strategies. As a result, we create an environment for others in which:

  1. the connections we make and the care and compassion we express produces oxytocin
  2. the recognition we give to others by listening and building on their ideas produces serotonin
  3. and the progress that we collectively make as a result, rewards us with the production of dopamine

In other words, there is a self-reinforcing chemical system which serves to help us to work together to be creative, productive and caring. To feel inspired, and to inspire others. So why don’t all meetings feel that way?

Sadly, not all neuro-chemicals are about feelings of well-being and building trust. There are other neuro-chemicals which stimulate feelings of anger, mistrust, anxiety and defensiveness. Neuro-chemicals such as testosterone, cortisol and norepinephrine which are produced when we encounter aggression, dismissal, or feel undermined or threatened. These other neurochemicals can be generated in fractions of a second and disrupt the production of the positive neuro-chemicals.

In other words, one set of bad behaviours (particularly from the leader) can immediately disrupt the positive reinforcement and throw it entirely into reverse.

In evolutionary terms, there are good reasons for this. Calmness and self-fulfilment are of little value to someone trying to survive a surprise attack – fight or flight are a far-more sensible strategy for genetic survival. But the result, if not moderated, can prove totally counterproductive to meetings where engagement, creativity and trust are likely to generate benefits that are not available through division, hostility and self-interest. And while we may not act out the tensions created by the negative chemicals physically, the simple shift in mental focus is sufficient, in itself, to undermine the flow of ideas, engagement and inspiration which build the commitment necessary to deliver a positive way forward.

So what does this mean for your meetings? I would propose three things:

  1. Provide people with the time and the space to ‘arrive‘ at the meeting. Some may feel pressured by rushing from one thing to another, or by unrelated events immediately before the meeting. Give them time to pause, reflect, and settle into a better neuro-chemical mix.
  2. Talk to your team about the concepts behind ‘meaningful conversation‘ and take time at reasonable intervals to ask people to pause and check what sort of chemistry may be going on in their brain, and whether they are feeling open or closed to others.
  3. Do what you can to reward and recognise people througout the meeting and to stimulate the production of positive neuro-chemicals within them.

If you want to explore other aspects of the topic of Inspiration, please join us in the Inspiration@Work linkedin group.


The following are some of my notes (and links) from exploring this topic.

  •  – What Is Oxytocin?   Oxytocin is a powerful hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. It regulates social interaction and sexual reproduction, playing a role in behaviors from maternal-infant bonding and milk release to empathy, generosity, and orgasm. When we hug or kiss a loved one, oxytocin levels increase; hence, oxytocin is often called “the love hormone.” In fact, the hormone plays a huge role in all pair bonding. The hormone is greatly stimulated during sex, birth, and breastfeeding. Oxytocin is the hormone that underlies trust. It is also an antidote to depressive feelings.
  • For all its positivity, however, oxytocin has a dark side. Or, more accurately, it plays a more complex role in human behavior than is commonly thought. As a facilitator of bonding among those who share similar characteristics, the hormone fosters distinctions between in-group and out-group members, and sets in motion favoritism toward in-group members and prejudice against those in out-groups. Ongoing research on the hormone is a potent reminder of the complexity of biological and psychological systems.
  • – Oxytocin increases also when we hear sincere compliments, or statements expressing care and compassion, and in smiling and laughter and gratitude – but is reduced in fight or flight and stress, anxiety
  • – What is Dopamine?   Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them. Dopamine deficiency results in Parkinson’s Disease, and people with low dopamine activity may be more prone to addiction. The presence of a certain kind of dopamine receptor is also associated with sensation-seeking people, more commonly known as “risk takers.”
  • The anticipation of most types of rewards increase the level of dopamine in the brain … signals the value of a given reward to the organism and motivating action required for attainment (e.g. it is about motivation)  It also inhibits Norepinephrine
  • dopamine moves people from boredom/apathy to excitement and engagement
  • – In the brain, norepinephrine increases arousal and alertness, promotes vigilance, enhances formation and retrieval of memory, and focuses attention; it also increases restlessness and anxiety.
  • Serotonin also inhibits release of norepinephrine. These include the regulation of mood, appetite, and sleep. Serotonin also has some cognitive functions, including memory and learning.  And the combination of Serotonin and Dopamine enhances creativity through creating a calm but energised perspective.  Serotonin grows through appreciation and recognition – a feeling that you matter
  • Cortisol is a stress hormone
Track your progress to ensure the efficacy of this strategy.