By Linda Carroll , msnbc.com contributor
We all know that meetings can be dull and boring. A new study shows that they can also make you stupid.
“You may joke about how committee meetings make you feel brain dead, but our findings suggest that they may make you act brain dead as well,” says study co-author Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.
There’s a special social dynamic that occurs in meetings, Montague says, that can not only make us feel stupid, but also make us act that way. All it takes is a colleague who seems smarter than us when he/she does a presentation, says the study’s lead author Kenneth T. Kishida, a research scientist at the institute. That can make us feel stupid — and that can get in the way of how our brains process information.
To look at how meetings might affect our ability to think, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to watch people’s brains as they worked in a group setting, according to the new report published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
At the beginning of the study, 70 college-student volunteers took an IQ test. Interestingly, Kishida says, the group of students turned out to have fairly high IQs, averaging around 126. Next, the students were divided into groups of five, with two randomly selected from each group to be scanned in the MRI.
The study volunteers were then given a second IQ test (two from each group in the MRI during testing), but this time they were given feedback on how they stacked up against the rest of their group each time they answered a question.
Although study volunteers were well matched to others in their groups in terms of initial IQ scores, many had scores that dropped dramatically when they were constantly getting feedback on where they stood compared to the others.
And the brain scans offered some clues as to why. Just being reminded of how others in the group were faring was enough to fire up parts of the brain, such as the amygdala, that are involved in fear, anxiety and emotional response, Kishida said.
“There’s something about being in a group context that interferes with how we express our intelligence,” Kishida says.
The study may show why some “brainstorming” sessions actually turn into brain drains.