Rats, Babies and Business: Connecting Islands of Thought and Action

Over the weekend I listened to the most fascinating experiments during an amazing hour of Radiolab called “Words” (you can listen below if you’re interested).


First, there’s the one from Charles Fernyhough, a psychologist at Durham University in England.

Experiment 1

Charles placed rats in an all white rectangle room. Behind one of the walls was a fresh biscuit. He would spin the room from time to time to see how often the rats could find the biscuit.

They only found it about 50% of the time.

Then, he changed one of the floor walls to blue and conducted the same experiment.

Again, the rats only found the biscuit 50% of the time; they could not process concepts like “left” or “right” of the blue wall.


Second, there’s the one from Elizabeth Spelke, a psychologist at Harvard University (she created the baby development lab).

Experiment 2

Elizabeth tried a similar experiment with babies and toddlers, of course without food or other possible litigious parameters.

What was fascinating was that up until the age of six, children also can’t process spatial language concepts like “left” or “right” of the blue wall.

They only succeeded 50% of the time as well. No better than the rats.

Until spatial language ability develops, all words are language islands dotting the grey matter sea with no lines of communication between them.


Now that you’re either a) very interested or b) you’ve passed out because you have no idea where I’m going with this, let’s proceed.

How many times have you heard sales complaining that marketing doesn’t communicate with them, or vice-versa?

Or maybe you’ve heard hiring managers complain incessantly that human resources has no idea what the heck they’re doing.

Or R&D has completely disregarded the CIO’s directive of more focus and less experimentation. We’re on a tight schedule and budget here.

Or the really big bugaboo of us against them — employers just not listening to their employees.

The ability to communicate effectively, or not, is a pretty powerful thing. Too many organizations are unfortunately islands of people and departments on a workscape sea with no lines of communication between them, which means any productive collaboration is static — lifeless flotsam and jetsam.

Businesses today should consider:

  • Transparent and authentic positive communication from leadership and management and allowing employees to reciprocate in kind. Work hard to keep toxicity and incivility out of the workplace.
  • Cross-departmental check-ins. Not meetings for meetings sake, but just brief reviews to ensure marketing, sales, R&D, HR, recruiting, etc. are aware of each others’ agendas so they can align with the organization’s. This can be done in person and virtually.
  • Cross-functional training/mentoring. Create an environment where team members can learn what others do in the organization, even including shadowing and informal and formal mentoring programs.
  • Personal leadership and emotional intelligence. Identify and/or develop programs that help improve your employees be more responsible, self-aware and empathetic. It will pay dividends. Guaranteed.
  • Encouraging the use of social media and other online communication tools internally and externally. Facilitate personal responsibility and self-policing and let your employees learn from others and evangelize the business; let the business breathe.

I’m sure you have many more great ideas yourself as well.

Words lead to thought and action. Making those words benefit the business today and tomorrow is up to you.

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